The dishes that define Los Angeles cuisine are as diverse as the people who create them. Recipes brought from Mexico, Japan, Jamaica, and beyond have loyal followings in the city, and have shaped the palates of Angelenos over the years.
Fiery jerk sauces, smoky mole, and sweet yuzu flavors are just among a tiny portion of recipes that have served as foundations for meats, vegetables, and even desserts, and in turn created iconic dishes. Much of that fresh produce and meat comes from the city’s farmers’ markets, which highlight California’s place as a haven for seasonality. What’s more, the city’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean allows for incredibly fresh seafood that can be seen in a variety of preparations here including sashimi and ceviche.
All of these options are readily available across the city, from taco trucks on busy intersections such as Mariscos Jalisco, to fine-dining establishments that have earned MICHELIN stars like Orsa & Winston. Quintessential Los Angeles dishes showcase the best flavors and recipes from around the world.
Here are just a few to consider for a taste of essential LA.
Oyster Mushroom Kebabs at Bavel
On a menu full of Middle Eastern meat dishes like slow-roasted lamb neck shawarma and wagyu oxtail tagine, it’s Bavel’s oyster mushroom kebabs that have remained a favorite since the downtown restaurant opened in 2018. Chef Ori Menashe seasons the mushrooms with olive oil, salt, pepper, and sumac (a crimson, citrusy spice made from berries) and grills them over a charcoal fire until they soften. The grill imparts a smoky flavor to the kebabs, which are accompanied by a parsley and avocado purée. Servers slide the kebabs from stainless steel skewers tableside for diners who pack the 170-seat space.
Blood Clam Ceviche at La Cevicheria
La Cevicheria serves Mexican and Guatemalan fare out of a no-frills, family-owned Mid-City restaurant run by chef Carolina Orellana and her husband Julio Orellana. Past the turquoise storefront, diners seated at half a dozen tables eat bowls of seafood and regulars always come back for La Cevicheria’s concha negra ceviche, or blood clam ceviche. Served in a large cocktail glass, it includes diced tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, squid, octopus, and bloody clams—which are named after the red juices of iron and hemoglobin that drip out of their shells—among other ingredients. These clams taste like beef and their juices are similar in consistency to squid ink. In 2010, the late food critic Jonathan Gold named the dish his favorite on the menu. Orellana flies the clams in fresh from Mexico and does not open them until they’re ordered, ensuring optimal freshness. The bowl of zesty, pungent ceviche comes with saltine crackers and limes.
Jerk Chicken at (abeautifullife) Jamaican Kitchen
Caribbean cuisine is the focus at (abeautifullife) Jamaican Kitchen, a restaurant helmed by chef Aja Dawson in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Her grilled jerk chicken is marinated for three days with a secret family recipe that includes scallions, scotch bonnet peppers, and other ingredients that result in an earthy, sweet, and spicy blend of flavors. It’s served with sauteed cabbage, rice and peas, and sweet fried plantain. The menu offers other classic Jamaican dishes with a focus on comfort food such as the oxtail macaroni and cheese, and the jerk chicken pizza, but the jerk chicken plate is not to be missed. Caribbean cocktails like the rum punch and sorrel sangria go down well with the food and are served in the restaurant’s lounge-like setting filled with the sounds of dancehall reggae from a live DJ.
Omakase Dinner at Q Sushi
For an intimate sushi experience, head to Sushi Q, located on a busy street in downtown Los Angeles. Diners here grab a seat at the ten-seat bar, where chef Hiroyuki Naruke meticulously slices bluefin and uni for the more than dozen courses of sashimi and sushi that are part of the $300 omakase dinner. Standout dishes include an amberjack sashimi with onions and soy sauce, as well as octopus slices with pickled ginger. There are two seatings—at 6 pm and 8 pm—at the restaurant, which is ideal for a special occasion.
Vegetarian combo at Merkato Ethiopian
For filling vegetarian dishes, look no further than Merkato in Little Ethiopia. The market and restaurant is a colorful space with umbrellas hanging from the ceiling and shelves lined with spices and incense for sale. The popular vegetarian combo includes servings of rotating spicy lentils and green, leafy options such as collard greens that can be sopped up with injera, a sour spongy bread made with round grain flour from Ethiopia. Owner Aki Tadesse has been running the restaurant with her husband for nearly 30 years ago, and it remains a neighborhood fixture.
No. 19 Special at Langer’s Delicatessen
Late writer Nora Ephron once described Langer’s No. 19 special as “the finest hot pastrami sandwich in the world.” It includes tender, hand-sliced pastrami, coleslaw, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese wedged between warm, crunchy rye bread. The result is a sandwich that’s smoky, tangy, crispy, and soft all at once. Langer’s has sold more than seven million pounds of pastrami since Al Langer opened the deli in 1947. What makes the meat so special is its preparation: Langer’s sources its meat from a deli in Burbank; the cured beef is then steamed for nearly three hours at Langer’s, ensuring the tenderness needed to slice it by hand. Much of Langer’s interior remains the same as it did when it opened in Westlake: The vinyl brown booths and padded black bar stools still seat both residents and tourists who travel to get a taste of the famed sandwich. Following Langer’s death in 2007, his son Norm Langer has been leading the family business.
Kibbeh at Carousel Restaurant
At Carousel, it’s all about the kibbeh. The Armenian restaurant offers a number of takes on the popular Middle Eastern dish, which typically consists of bulgur wheat, a type of meat, and spices. At Carousel, the lentil kibbeh are seasoned with cumin and lemon; the kibbeh maklieh are shaped like eggs and filled with beef and pine nuts; and the batata kibbeh features potatoes and sautéed onions. The Tcholakian family opened the restaurant’s first location in a strip mall in Hollywood in 1984, followed by a larger outpost in Glendale. At the latter, Friday and Saturday nights are festive events with residents sharing small plates and enjoying live music alongside belly dancing.
Taco de camaron from Mariscos Jalisco
At this East L.A. taco truck, people line up for the taco de camaron, a deep fried corn tortilla that’s filled with fried shrimp, housemade red salsa, and creamy avocado slices. The crisp taco shell has a tempura-like crunch that melds into the shrimp and avocado when you take a bite. Raul Ortega and his team have been making food from the Boyle Heights truck for 21 years. Grab a seat along the ledge where the truck is parked or nab a spot inside the building across from where the truck is located.
Pho from Little Sister
Dig into a soothing, warm bowl of pho at Little Sister. There are two kinds, a poached chicken and a beef option that includes meatballs, short rib, tendon, and oxtail. Both are served with rice noodles and an assortment of fresh herbs including Thai basil, cilantro, and mint. Grab a seat on one of the plush leather booths set amid a stylish, industrial interior with large glass windows looking onto the street. Little Sister’s success propelled chef Tin Vuong to open three other locations of his restaurant in addition to the original Downtown LA establishment.
Steak at ABSteak by Chef Akira Back
For a hands-on steakhouse experience, head to MICHELIN-starred ABSteak by Chef Akira Back. The high-end Korean spot has a dry-aging room to store premium cuts of meat such as Australian wagyu ribeye, prime boneless short ribs, and pork belly that diners cook over tabletop grills. An assortment of side dishes like warm cheesy egg souffle with sesame seed oil and a seafood scallion pancake are served alongside the tender, dry-aged meats. The 30-day aged New York striploin comes covered in camembert and is beloved for the combination of grilled meat with the earthy nuttiness of the cheese. The restaurant is located on the ground floor of the Beverly Center Mall.
Egg salad sandwich at Konbi
Konbi’s open-air kitchen serves a variety of seasonal salads, pastries, and sandwiches that prompted Bon Appetit to name it the best new restaurant in America in 2019. It’s the egg salad sandwich, though, that has captured the imagination of diners—and many spots in social media feeds—since the restaurant’s opening. It comes with sliced hard-boiled eggs, a touch of spicy dijon mustard, rice wine vinegar, and scallions, all layered between two pillowy pieces of Japanese milk bread. Konbi chefs and co-owners Nick Montgomery and Akira Akuto both worked at famed chef David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants in NYC before opening Konbi in Echo Park in 2018. The name of the restaurant pays tribute to Japan’s 24-hour convenience stores, called konbinis. The tiny daytime cafe has ten lunch seat counters and a walk-up window for to-go orders.
Kristin Braswell is a journalist and founder of CrushGlobal Travel, a company that customizes travel guides and authentic experiences around the world.