Monday, July 18, 2011

Dining in Los Angeles: The Classics

I recently traveled back to Los Angeles, where I lived for 3 1/2 years after graduating college. It was my first time back in years, and it was actually pretty emotional "going home" again, but I was looking forward to visiting my friends and family there, and also tasting some of the comforts of my former home. And since this is a food blog, I will focus my energy on discussing some of the awesome SoCal food I enjoyed during my trip. There were some meals that I absolutely knew I had to squeeze into my visit, some LA classics. There were some other old favorites that I personally loved during my life in LA, but wouldn't necessarily consider traditional LA eats. There were also some new spots I got to try out and thoroughly enjoyed! I can't wait to share them all with you! This week I will be sharing several posts delving into my Los Angeles dining adventures! If you live in the area or plan to visit, please feel free to add these to your "to do" lists! I swear, you will enjoy every bite.

Double-Double Animal Style and Hand-Cut Fries

First up is the Holy Grail of burgers. Do I even have to say it? I mean, when you think of burgers in Southern California, what comes to mind? If you didn't say In-N-Out, then I think there is something seriously wrong with you. Although often compared to New York City's Shake Shack, the two are individually awesome in their own ways. Shake Shack costs more, but it's not really fast food in the traditional sense. According to some research, their burgers feature a mixture of sirloin, chuck, and brisket, all freshly ground and never frozen. It also features soft Martin's potato rolls (which sets it apart from the rest), plum tomatoes, soft green leaf lettuce, and special shack sauce. In-N-Out is more fast food. There are tons of locations (with drive-thrus!). The burgers here are also cooked to order from Harris Ranch beef, with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes on a regular toasted bun (made fresh) with special spread (similar to Thousand Island dressing). These burgers are significantly cheaper, and can be ordered "animal style" which means the patties are grilled with mustard and include chopped caramelized onions, pickles, and extra spread. I'm a big animal style fan. To be completely honest, I can't pick a favorite burger of the two. I seriously love them both in their own special ways. I appreciate the price, speed, and availability of In-N-Out. I love the crazy juiciness of the Shake Shack burger. At both establishments, I order their double cheeseburgers (each featuring two patties and two slices of American cheese), which are called Double-Double (animal style in my case) at In-N-Out and Double Shack Burger at Shake Shack. In-N-Out also features a not-so-secret menu outside of their very limited menu. Shake Shack offers a lot more options on their menus, including lots of frozen custards and concretes. The fries at In-N-Out are hand-cut, but not quite as crispy as the crinkle-cut ones at Shake Shack. In any case, In-N-Out is undoubtedly a must-try if ever on the West Coast. It's a classic, a pinnacle of delicious burger perfection. A visit to California is just not the same without one.

multiple locations

Fresh tortilla chips with spicy and flavorful salsa, the perfect start to our meal

Los Angeles is a serious Mexican food nirvana. Sadly, the East Coast totally loses in this battle. No contest. I knew that in returning to LA I absolutely had to have some real Mexican food. But where to go? A couple tried and true spots included La Serenata de Garibaldi, which was a big favorite for lunch during my time working at the Simpsons. I also really loved meeting friends at El Compadre, sipping on their famous flaming margaritas and gorging myself on enchiladas. This time, I returned to Loteria, which currently has three locations, the famous Farmer's Market (where I had dined here before) at 3rd and Fairfax, Hollywood, and Studio City, which is where I went this time. Unlike other "Mexican" restaurants which give you options like "chicken" or "beef" for your tacos, burritos, etc., Loteria gives you real options. It's not just chicken or beef, but so many authentic flavor combinations within each, including lots of vegetarian, pork, and even seafood options.

I decided that the best way to try as much of the menu as I could in a single visit was to have their taco sampler. All 12 of their tacos (not including their shrimp tacos) are featured in miniature sizes, all on their hand-made corn tortillas. If you've never had a hand-made (not store-bought) corn tortilla, your life has been empty until this experience, I swear. The tortillas are flavorful and rustic, a testament to the authenticity of the food at Loteria. Here are the flavor combinations. Each of these can be ordered as a taco, burrito, tostada, or sope:


  • Nopalitos - Fresh Cactus Salad. Served with Salsa Verde and Queso Fresco.
  • Calabacitas - Zucchini and Roasted Corn Succotash Served with Salsa Verde, Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, and Queso Fresco.
  • ChampiƱones con Epazote - Mushrooms with Epazote Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, Queso Fresco, and Salsa Verde.
  • Papa con Rajas - Potatoes with Roasted Poblano Peppers Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, Queso Fresco, and Salsa Verde.


  • Mole Poblano con Pollo - Chicken in Mole Poblano Served with Sesame Seeds, Finely Chopped Onion, and Queso Fresco.
  • Tinga de Pollo - Chicken, Stewed with Chipotle Peppers and our home-made Chorizo Served with Salsa Roja de Chipotle.
  • Pollo en Pipian Rojo - Chicken in a Spicy Pumpkin-Seed and Peanut Sauce Served with Finely Chopped Onion.


  • Carne deshebrada - Shredded Beef Served with Fresh Guacamole, Salsa Chipotle, and Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.
  • Albondigas en Chipotle - Meatballs in a Tomato and Chipotle Sauce Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.


  • Cochinita Pibil- Pork, Slowly Roasted in Banana Leaf Served with Citrus-Pickled Red Onion and Chile Habanero.
  • Chicharron en Salsa Verde - Pork Rinds in a Spicy Tomatillo Sauce Served With Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro and Queso Fresco.
  • Carnitas en salsa Morita - In a Spicy Chile Morita Sauce Served with slices of Fresh Avocado and Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.

Taco Sampler $16

I legit loved all of the vegetable flavors, considering these are generally unavailable at most Mexican restaurants. I loved everything from the mushrooms, potatoes, succotash, and cactus (which reminds me almost of green beans or bell peppers, not slimy when cooked right). I had a favorite from each of the other categories, and generally a least favorite. My favorite chicken taco was the tinga de pollo which was incredibly flavorful and juicy. I also really enjoyed the pollo en pipian rojo, but thought the mole poblano con pollo was a little dry. For the beef tacos, I loved the carne deshebrada best. It was very juicy and tasty, although the meatball one was also quite good and very unique!

For the pork tacos, my favorite was the carnitas en salsa morita, which was spicy and juicy and well-balanced, definitely a highlight. I was also really surprised by the chicharron en salsa verde, which was made with pork rinds. When I think of pork rinds, I imagine them fried and crunchy, but this was soft and cooked in spicy tomatillos. It was not chewy at all (as animal fat can sometimes be), but rather very tender and quite pleasant! I found the cochinita pibil to be the driest of the bunch, and pretty flat in flavor. We also ordered some rice and black beans on the side, and I can happily say that I inhaled every bit of those beans. They were well-seasoned and a perfect compliment to any of their other dishes. Considering that out of 12 tacos, there were only a couple I was so-so about, I think Loteria's selection is incredible, their flavors spot-on, and their menu authentic, especially considering their restaurants are not housed in huts, but rather very nice spaces (some people think real Mexican food can't be found in a "nice" restaurant, I disagree).

Rice and Black Beans $3.50

Not only is the food great, but the setting really is enjoyable. The Studio City location, for example, has a nice outdoor seating area, as well as skylights inside the restaurant to provide plenty of natural light during the day. The decor is clean and not kitschy as some other Mexican restaurants can be. Service was honestly above and beyond. Our server was incredibly attentive and helpful, as was the busboy. On our way out of the restaurant at the end of our meal, every single staff member we passed cordially smiled and thanked us for coming and wished us a nice day. It can be rare to experience that kind of courtesy, even at some of the best restaurants these days. It really stood out to us. I would happily recommend Loteria to Mexican food-lovers of all kinds. I look forward to my next visit here with bated breath.

Loteria Grill
multiple locations

Zankou Chicken

The final "classic" I will be sharing in this post may be a little outside of the box. It actually dates back to 1962 in Lebanon and came to Los Angeles in 1983. It's none other than Zankou Chicken, the famous rotisserie chicken fast food chain brought to LA by an Armenian family wielding an absolutely addictive garlic sauce that would put them on the map. The original store is on Sunset and Normandie in Hollywood, but the chain has now expanded to include a dozen locations in the Los Angeles area. They are most famous for their garlic sauce, a secret recipe which has been sought after for decades. They also feature other Middle Eastern specialties such as shawarma, tarna, kebabs, falafel, hummus, etc. I love their chicken plates, which include a choice of chicken parts (half chicken, quarter dark, or quarter white), hummus, pita, and pickled beets. I also love their shawarma (beef) and tarna (chicken) sandwiches, which include tahini and hummus, and garlic sauce respectively along with tomatoes and onions, all wrapped in a soft pita.

Shawarma Plate

Zankou Chicken is popular among Armenians and Americans alike, the love of this famous chicken joint is not definitive based on heritage. Everyone loves it!! It was even featured in a Beck song and on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, the garlic episode :) A little known fact, back in 2003 the Zankou Chicken empire was entwined in a tragic murder saga when the patriarch behind the chain, stricken with cancer, killed his mother, sister, and then himself. This event became public knowledge many years after it happened when LA Magazine published a lengthy article describing the events. Please read it here if you're interested! It's long but worth the read. And maybe it will get you craving some garlic sauce to go along with your reading... you know where to find it :)

Zankou Chicken
multiple locations

Pickled Beets


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