I can’t believe it’s been five years since the last time I visited Los Angeles! I was fortunate to be included on a recent trip to the Grammy Museum with Outrigger Resorts, who is a sponsor of Mele Mei — both of whom are my social media clients — to kick off the music celebration, unveil the We Are Friends tribute to 1970s Hawaiian music and send local boy Kalani Pe’a off to win his first Grammy.
Once the event was over, I extended my time so I could visit with my chef friend Jay Terauchi, and as usual, we must have eaten at several places each day.
Usually when we eat our way through L.A., we hit up new or trendy places, or established spots that just did something noteworthy, and then try to squeeze miscellaneous fun spots in between. I kid you not, I wear elastic pants when I visit Jay. There’s no way I can tell you about everything we ate, but here’s my top 10 favorites from this trip — in no particular order. Hopefully you get to try them, too.
I actually got to attend the grand opening of Beacon Echo Park, a new hotspot that is putting a trendy twist on an old boathouse. The salmon toast, above, is just one of many tasty items; we loved the crab toast, fried chicken sandwich, wagyu burger and winter salad. They even have a $12 Spam and egg sandwich! But if you’re going to pick one thing, grab a lemonade and this salmon toast. It’s light but filling, and of course full of flavors and textures that work well together.
This spot was where I was blown away at how young the restaurateurs are in Los Angeles. Beacon owner Jason Espiritu is in his mid-30s and has an accomplished resume that people 10 to 20 years older can’t fathom producing. He invited super entrepreneurs Andy Nguyen and Scott Nghiem, who are just 31 and famous for their Afters Ice Cream empire in California. (See the next photo.)
Beacon Echo Park
751 Echo Park Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Afters Ice Cream and their genius concept blew me away. I couldn’t decide if I loved it because of what it was, or because of all the hype behind it. Think of a thin doughnut crust around a super unique ice cream flavor — Vietnamese coffee, strawberry cookie crunch, banana walnut fudge, whatever — and a selection of crunchy toppings similar to what you’ll find at frozen yogurt bars. It’s the combination of all of that plus the fact that ice cream makes everyone happy, that makes this easy-to-eat, fun dessert your new late-night lover. It’s sweet because it’s dessert, but it’s not cloying, and has a custom-made quality that you don’t get in a stuffed malasada.
Afters Ice Cream is famous in California, with 12 locations around the state and a ginormous following on social media. If you haven’t heard of them before, get ready, because they’re expanding and will have more than twice as many spreading through the West by summer. I want you to be blown away by the story behind the young owners, too, so click here while you wait for the next Afters to open near you.
Afters Ice Cream
Open noon to midnight every day
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find Mini Kabob, a tiny, 220-square-foot restaurant with just three tables located in a residential area in Glendale. It’s Los Angeles’ smallest kabob restaurant, and one of the oldest at 28 years. Their food is cravable because it’s as comforting as it is unique; even without the ethnic background, the menu is solid. This combo plate has a full range of flavors, sensations and textures, and the meat is cooked perfectly so it’s moist and hearty.
Patriarch Ovakim Martirosyan, who is originally from Yerevan in Armenia, has more than 50 years of professional cooking experience. He came to work at the restaurant in 1997 for the original owner, put his special kabob plates on the menu, and saved the failing little business. Eight years ago, he took over as owner, and now you can taste his talent, the unique blend of spices and the love that he and his wife Alvard put into it. This kabob plate is legit. The paper-thin flatbread is legit. The hummus and that magical white garlic sauce? Yes, legit. (Even more legit to know the recipes for these were passed down from Ovakim’s grandmother, who lived in Egypt as a refugee after fleeing from Armenia to escape the Armenian genocide.)
If you can’t find this little restaurant or parking in the neighborhood, be watching for their son Armen’s new venture. He has plans to open a larger second location that serves wine and beer, and will feature a traditional Armenian clay oven.
313 1/2 W. Vine St.
Glendale, CA 91204
While we’re talking about Armenian food, have you ever been to an Armenian bakery? Art’s is definitely a destination in Glendale, with its array of beautifully decorated cakes at unrealistically reasonable prices. What you should try, though, are the ponchik, Armenia’s answer to the malasada: light, fluffy doughnuts filled with custard cream, blueberry or the best one, Nutella. We got ours fresh, so the balls themselves were burning hot and filled with molten hazelnut spread.
It’s lighter than a normal doughnut and the freshness can’t be beat. What we have in Liliha Bakery’s coco puffs, Art’s has in Nutella ponchik.
1122 E. Chevy Chase Dr.
Glendale, CA 91205
Hey, we like healthy stuff, too. One surprise was the vegan rainbow cauliflower taco at Trejo’s Cantina in Hollywood. It’s a nice-sized tortilla — not too big, not too small — filled with a generous helping of roasted cauliflower, corn, cashew cream, pickled onion and cilantro. It is so tasty, you forget that there’s no meat in it … in fact, we liked it better than the meatier ones we tried. (The young jackfruit taco isn’t bad, either.)
If nothing else, go to Trejo’s simply for the pop culture cache. Most moviegoers know actor Danny Trejo as a villain or anti-hero in many films, most of all as the Mexican badass Machete from SpyKids and the spinoffs. And unlike other celebrity-endorsed restaurants, this one is affordable and not cheesy.
1556 N. Cahuenga Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Okay, this is a drink, not food, but it still qualifies as one of the best things I put in my mouth on this trip. I love coffee, and the stout-like nitro brew is always a treat. (If you’re not familiar, nitro brew is cold-brew coffee infused with nitrogen gas.) Spireworks in Eagle Rock takes it to another level, though, as theirs is infused with Okinawan raw sugar and sea salt. The resulting salty-sweet, caramel-like foam is über-oishii. Heck, I could just sit around drinking the foam all day. And for you addicts like me, nitro brew supposedly delivers more of a caffeine jolt, so that’s a bonus on top of your bonus for this very special pick-me-up.
If you don’t like drinking coffee on an empty stomach, their food is also very unique, kind of an American-style Turkish diner kabob with a California twist. But on this trip, we just snacked on their twice-cooked potatoes with zaatar.
4945 B Eagle Rock Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90041
This sounds kind of cliche, but I really did love the pizzas at Fabiolus, an authentic Italian restaurant right in Hollywood. Brothers Mauro and Sergio Corba are best known in L.A. for founding Mauro’s Cafe in Fred Segal Melrose, an iconic celebrity destination. They hail from Sardinia in Italy and try to bring the flavors of home to their restaurant.
People often marvel at the pizza dough’s quality and ask if they use a wood-burning oven, but Sergio says he uses a regular one and it’s simply the ingredients and technique that make their pizza so good. In one bite you get fluffiness, crispness and a bit of chewiness all at once. Most if not all of the toppings are imported or made in-house, so there’s an intense rustic quality to the flavors. If you have time, try their ciabatta bar in the area, as well.
6270 W. Sunset Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028
Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio’s ink. was one restaurant I didn’t go to with Jay; Olena Heu found it for our first night in the city and I’m so glad she did! This is kind of a cheat as I’m going to show two of my favorite things there, since I couldn’t decide. Probably the most unique for me was the egg yolk gnocchi, above, which is pillowy-soft and melts away with that flavorful broth and cheese. The little sensation of yolk was very addicting for me, too.
The other was the foie gras shavings, because I had never had it this way before. I think they freeze the foie to make it hard enough to peel off into shavings, but the magic in your mouth happens because of the combination of baby radishes, semi-chunky hazelnut butter, and sea salt. The little crunch, the big crunch, and the rich foie are so beautiful together. The radishes are great for adding heft to each bite, which I recommend.
8360 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90069
There’s pop-ups going on all over Los Angeles, but I was impressed at the turnout for Crescendo, which is found on weekends inside a Poke Logic restaurant in Montebello. The ice cream team is comprised of a group of friends who love music and food (thus the name), and wanted to bring their Southeast Asian roots to life. Ice cream sandwiches using fluffy bread are the snack of choice in Singapore, and Crescendo takes it up a notch by taking exotic tea blends and infusing them with vanilla ice cream and liquid nitrogen. Like Afters, you’ll find whimsical flavors on rotation, but the mainstays are music-themed Pinkolo, Cookie Cajon, Cha Cha Matcha and Baileys Bass.
You’ve probably also seen a version of their Heaven’s Breath, which is liquid nitrogen poured over cereal to make it extra crunchy and smoky. This is a fun dessert, but Crescendo gives you an “artist’s palette” of colorful, flavored condensed milk that you can dip the cereal into. Super fun. Go early to (hopefully) beat the line.
Crescendo Ice Cream
2248 W. Beverly Blvd
Montebello, CA 90640
North Italia is just one of many restaurant concepts in restaurateur Sam Fox’s vast dining portfolio. From what I understand, he has the Midas touch on his restaurants, which are all cute and delicious. He’s not as young as the Afters Ice Cream guys, but still pretty young — 48 years old — especially when you consider his string of success in all that he owns. So if you don’t make it out to North Italia, find a Fox restaurant near you, and chances are you’ll find the same high quality food and service.
At this one, they’re famous for the white truffle garlic bread appetizer, which seems so simple but is so darn delicious. They top thick cubes of toast with house made ricotta, mozzarella, grana padano and herbs, which are great on their own, but we liked it with the Italian meatball appetizer, as well. And who doesn’t love truffle? If you don’t fill up on this, I recommend you get a simple entree, then save room for dessert, because the salted caramel budino was my other favorite thing on the menu. Sounds like a balanced meal, right?
840 South Sepulveda, Suite 110
El Segundo, California 90245
Hopefully it won’t be another five years before I go to Los Angeles again. It was an adventure not just to eat everything, but to meet all of Jay’s foodie friends along the way, too! To see the rest of my trip photos and everything else we ate, click here.
To see today’s video clip on KHON, click here.