My 21 Favorite Los Angeles Lunches (To Share With Out of Towners)
Over the weekend Midtown Lunch turned two years old, and I used the occasion as an excuse to enjoy a big bowl of khao soi at Spicy BBQ in Thai Town- the very first “Midtown Lunch” I had after moving here from NYC. It not only got me super excited to move here, but it made me realize how little I was going to miss about lunching in New York. Now when friends from the east coast visit, I make it my mission to make them realize it too. And for our two year anniversary I figured it was time to put together a list of my 25 favorite lunches to take people from out of town to. (Mostly because I’m lazy, and sick of writing out this info in an email every time a friend visits L.A.)
Since Midtown Lunch doesn’t really cover San Gabriel Valley or the South Bay or the Valley, and people like to keep things close, the list mainly covers the areas between Downtown and Santa Monica. And while most of the lunches are under $10, I did sneak a few essential splurges in there (but not too many, because I’m a cheap bastard.) Plus there are plenty of places I love to eat lunch at that didn’t make the cut, because they’re not jealousy inducing. And that’s what this list is all about…
Thai food wasn’t just my first lunch in Los Angeles, but it’s also the thing that brings me most joy to brag about to friends back in NYC. Everybody knows the Mexican food is better on the west coast, so there’s no real fun in rubbing that in. But people in NYC actually think they have had good Thai food! I know, because I used to be one of them. The best Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, bar none, is Jitlada. But unless you’re lunching with the “Mayor”, dinner with a big group is the way to go. For lunch I much prefer Sapp Coffee Shop. Forget the fact that the broth of their signature dish is spiked with blood, boat noodles is something all Thai food lovers should try once in their life. Pa Ord makes the best version in the city right now, but Sapp’s isn’t far behind. And their jade noodles, topped with duck, pork and crab and peanuts, makes this place a must visit Thai Town lunch spot.
Sapp Coffee Shop, 5183 Hollywood Blvd, 323-665-1035
I could probably eat in Thai Town and Koreatown every single day for lunch and never get bored. (I’d also never run out of places to go.) In two years I’ve learned more about Korean food than in my previous 33. From soups and stews to barbecue and banchan, L.A.’s K-Town makes 32nd Street in Manhattan look like a Disneyland attraction. That being said you can still find decent Korean BBQ, satisfying stews, and good Korean fried chicken in NYC. What I never tried was something as awesome as the jokbal at Jang Choong Dong Wong Jokbal. Not only is it the best version of boiled pig’s feet you’re ever going to have, but it’s only $10 at lunch time! And it’s so much fun to eat (you wrap each slice in a piece of cabbage and top it with salted shrimp and a special sweet and spicy kimchi), and so tasty it will convert even the most skeptical of pig’s feet avoiders.
Jang Choong Dong Wong Jokbal, 425 S Western Avenue (btw. 4+5th), 213-386-3535
When people visit L.A. from New York I don’t really think about taking them for ramen. Sure Daikokuya, Shin Sen Gumi and Yamadaya are great, but are they so much better than Ippudo, Ramen Totto, and Hide Chen that you just have to waste one of your L.A. meals on ramen? I say no. Plus, did you know there’s a Santouka in New Jersey, a short bus ride from Port Authority? But now that Tsujita is open in West L.A., that might change. Maybe it’s not porky enough for you, or the lack of an egg is a deal breaker. But the focus they put into making each bowl of noodles their idea of perfection is the kind of dedication you only see in Japan. And the amazing thing is, the ramen isn’t even the star of the show. It’s the tsukemen, which is worth trying no matter where you’re visiting from.
Tsujita L.A., 2057 Sawtelle Blvd. 310-231-7375
Pizza is another area where we don’t have much bragging rights, but if you’re a pizza lover who wants to see the best L.A. has to offer you’ve pretty much have to go to Mozza2Go. Some locals will argue that there are better pizzas to be had, but in the end if you only have time for one, then it should be the Mario Batali owned, Nancy Silverton run juggernaut on Melrose. And Mozza2Go’s lunch deals make it easy to do a quick and relatively cheap lunchtime pick up on your way to checking out the newest pizza sensation to hit Los Angeles… 800 Degrees. Nobody would argue that 800 Degrees serves one of the best pizzas in the city, but their Chipotle of pizza concept is so brilliant that it might be worth checking out, before it actually becomes the next Chipotle and takes over the world.
Mozza2Go, 6610 Melrose Ave. 323 297 1130
800 Degrees, 10889 Lindbrook Drive. 424-239-5010
Persian food was something I had never had before moving to Los Angeles- even though one of my college roommates was Persian and I vaguely remember him bringing some saag paneer looking stuff back from home, that I now know was probably gormeh sabzi. It’s really unlike any of the other Middle Eastern food I’ve ever tried, and eating at all the different Persian spots in and around Westwood has been a lot of fun. But the best place for lunch has got to be Attari, especially on Fridays when they serve Ab Gooscht, and their courtyard feels like it could be in the middle of Tehran (not that I know what that feels like.) And their sandwiches not only show off the amazing things that Persians can do with tongue and brains, but also kotlet, kuku, and oliveh. But the hidden jem of the place might be their osh, an herby stew topped with yogurt and fried onions.
You’re not done yet, though. You still need to get some sangak, fresh baked from a real Persian bakery. The slightly sour, sesame studded bread is the size of a small surf board, and great versions can be found at both Naan Hut or Kabab Mahaleh.
Attari Sandwich Shop, 1388 Westwood Blvd (Enter on Wilkins), 310-446-4660
Naan Hut, 11551 Santa Monica Blvd. 310-481-9820 or Kabab Mahaleh, 8762 W. Pico Blvd. 310-275-3000
You can’t have a best lunches in L.A. list without including at least one burger, and I thought long and hard about what burger it should be. Obviously if you’re looking for something cheap and fast food’ish, In N Out Burger is a must try for every out of towner, but nobody needs me to tell them that. And if you’re going to splurge there’s Comme Ca, Father’s Office, or Rustic Canyon. But none of those are really Midtown Lunch’ish. So, where should the out of town burger connossiuer go for the best burger in that middle price range? Golden State makes my favorite lunchtime burger right now, but it’s not really the kind of place that I would expect an out of towner to be blown away by. And while Apple Pan is a classic L.A. institution, once you take away the nostalgia and the fun of the place, it’s hardly the best burger in the city. So, as much as it pains me to say it, we’re pretty much left with… Umami. Haters can hate, but for $11 it’s a great burger.
Umami Burger, Multiple Locations.
So… you’re coming to Los Angeles and you want Mexican food. Of course you want Mexican food! But what does that mean? Do you want Oaxacan or Poblano? Seafood or meat? Tacos or burritos? Want to eat from a truck, or in a restaurant? I could go on and on. There are also tons of places that are only open for dinner, or only open on the weekends. And places that are a bit of a hike, but totally worth it. What I’m saying is I could probably make an entire 25 place list of just Mexican places. So, to narrow it down, I’ll just give you my favorite weekday lunch spots to take people from out of town:
If you want Oaxacan food, Guelaguetza in Koreatown has been L.A.’s industry standard for many years. But if mole is what you specifically crave, than the best place to get that right now is a place called Gish Bac in Mid City. One bite of their mole negro or their coloradito will leave you feeling like you didn’t even know what a good mole could be before that day.
Gish Bac, 4163 West Washington Boulevard (nr. Crenshaw), 323-737-5050
Baja style fish and shrimp tacos? Well that’s an easy one. Ricky’s Fish Tacos in Los Feliz is the best you’ll ever have. (And it doesn’t hurt that they’re sold from a table in a parking lot.)
Ricky’s Fish Tacos, 1400 N. Virgil
But you know what’s better than a Baja style shrimp taco? A Jalisco style shrimp taco! Imagine wrapping a special shrimp paste mixture in a tortilla and deep frying the whole thing and you’ve got the taco dorado de camaron from the Mariscos Jalisco Truck. Paired with a plate of ceviche and you’ve got my favorite lunch from a truck in all of Los Angeles.
Mariscos Jalisco, 3040 E Olympic Blvd
Want a taco, but don’t want seafood? Here’s where I would recommend getting al pastor from the Tacos Leo truck (on Washington & La Brea), but sadly they’re only open at night. And if you want authentic Mexico City style carnitas cooked out of a giant drum in a car wash parking lot, you’ll want to hit up Tacos Los Guichos- but they’re only open on the weekends. So, you’ll just have to “settle” for Los Cinco Puntos, this great carnitas market in Boyle Heights. Most people line up and take bags of meat and tortillas home to assemble on their own, but they will serve you a taco to eat right there if you want. And their super thick corn tortillas, which you can see being rolled and cooked fresh to order behind the counter, are an L.A. original. Just don’t go on Wednesdays, because they’re closed.
Los Cinco Puntos, 3300 E Cesar E Chavez Ave. 323-261-4084
But my favorite Mexican place to take out of towners in Los Angeles has got to be Mariscos Chente, probably because it is like nothing they’ve ever had before (and it’s down the street from my house). How could anybody not like their Sinoloan style pescado zarandeado, a whole butterflied snook, grilled to perfection and served with tortillas and a soy/onion mixture. The chef who made this place famous has since moved on to Coni’s Seafood near LAX. And if you want to really go all out with some great shrimp dishes, or a tasty ceviche it might be worth trekking down there. But if you don’t have the time, or just want to try the zarandeado, they’re still serving up a great version at the original location on Centinela in Mar Vista.
Con’i Seafood, 3544 W Imperial Hwy. 310-672-2339 or Mariscos Chente, 532 S Centinela Ave. 310-390-9241
There is no denying that Los Angeles is a great food truck city, not just for the old school loncheros but for the gourmet food trucks as well. And there is nothing quite like walking down the section of Wilshire in front of LACMA during lunchtime. That being said, there’s not much I would recommend going out of your way for (especially if you’re from out of town.) Kogi is of course, the exception. You could argue that this truck is to blame should get the credit for the gourmet food truck explosion, and it’s no accident. Dozens have attempted to imitate their brand of Korean tacos and burritos, but none come close to the original. If Chego or A-Frame or Sunny Spot ever open for lunch, maybe they’ll replace Kogi as the must try Roi Choi meal on this list. But until then, you won’t be disappointed hitting up this (now) classic L.A. food truck.
Kogi BBQ Truck. Follow them on Twitter @kogibbq
With all the amazing ethnic food to be found in Los Angeles it might surprise some to find not one but two South Asian restaurants on this list. And it’s not like I had never had great Indian or Pakistani food before moving to L.A. But there is something about Zam Zam Market and Bawarchi that get me super excited. Culver City actually has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Indian food, and much of it falls into the point-to-what-you-want-in-the-all-vegetarian-steam-table variety. Bawarchi follows that model, but blows away the competition with its incredible variety- not just of dishes but flavors as well. The chef takes enormous pride in what he does (so much so he named the restaurant the word for “Chef”), a fact you’re reminded of each time you visit.
Not into the vegetarian stuff? Then head over to Zam Zam Market, which isn’t so much a market as a pop up halal food provider for Muslims attending prayer services as a nearby mosque. As a result, it’s only open on the weekends and not usually until services are done- making it a bit tougher to track down than your average lunch spot. If you are lucky enough to find it open, you’ll be treated to some of the best biryani and tandoori chicken you’ve ever had in your life.
Zam Zam Market, 11028 Washington Blvd, Culver City 310-841-2504
Bawarchi, 10408 Venice Blvd (at Motor), 310-836-8525
L.A. has seen a sandwich boom in the past few years, with gourmet spots like ink.sack and Fundamental L.A. trying to push the evolution that was kick started by places like Soda Pops and All About the Bread. All the while Bay Cities keeps doing what they do. But in the end, when people come to L.A. from out of town there are really only two sandwiches that are must tries. Langer’s and Philippe’s. Sorry New York, the former makes the best pastrami sandwich in the entire country. It’s actually so good that adding anything besides mustard actually makes the sandwich worse. It’s a fact I’m always happy to prove to skeptical visiting New Yorkers.
The latter is a temple to french dip, that became unparalleled when Cole’s decided to morph into a hipster hangout. You’ll leave wondering why everybody doesn’t smear their sandwiches with blue cheese, and double dip them in gravy.
Langer’s, 704 South Alvarado Street. 213-483-8050
Philippe’s, 1001 North Alameda Street. 213-628-3781
Peruvian food is another thing about Los Angeles that I love from my first go around here, and something I always had trouble finding in NYC. The original Mo Chica, located in a weird food court near USC, is a Los Angeles treasure- elevating Peruvian cuisine to another level while keeping prices down, and the decor casual (did I mention it’s in a food court!?) The chef has since gone on to open Picca, which should definitely be on your dinner list. But as good as Mo Chica is, I still have a soft spot in my heart for Mario’s Peruvian in Hollywood. Naysayers will talk about sub par ceviches, or the big B in the window. But in the end, if you love saltado (the Chinese/Peruvian staple involving french fries, tomatoes and onions stir fried with steak or mixed seafood) covered in super hot green Peruvian aji as much as I do, there is no better place to go.
Mo Chica, 3655 S Grand Ave. 213-747-2141
Mario’s Peruvian, 5786 Melrose Ave. 323-466-4181
People say L.A. is a burger town. A taco town. A doughnut town. A food truck town. But more than anything L.A. is a chicken town. Whether it’s chicken breast sandwiches topped with avocado at some shitty cafe, or rotisserie chicken from some nameless fast food dive, this town loves its chicken. People talk a big game about bacon or pork or even sushi. But chicken is everybody’s favorite. And while this love has given rise to a place like California Chicken Cafe (a place I despise with all my being), it also means that L.A. is filled with delicious versions of grilled and rotisseried chicken. If you want super smokey Peruvian chicken on the grill, then hit up Pollo ala Brasa on Western. For the greatest Lebanese style garlic dip you’ve ever tasted, it’s Zankou. But my personal favorite is Dino’s Chicken & Burgers on Pico. The bright red grilled chicken might have started out as a Greek thing, but with the addition of tortillas and cole slaw and french fries drenched in red chicken juice, it’s become 100% Los Angeles. Just the way I like it.
Dino’s Chicken & Burgers, 2575 W Pico Blvd (nr. Vermont), 213-380-3554
Credits: Obviously I didn’t discover all of these places on my own. A special thanks to Jonathan Gold for Sapp Coffee Shop and Attari, the L.A. Times for the jokbal place, Elina Shatkin from the L.A. Weekly for Kabab Mahaleh, Danny Klainbaum for Mario’s Peruvian, and Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet L.A. for pretty much every single good Mexican restaurant I’ve eaten at, ever.