Traveling gives you some perspective, especially when you deeply invest yourself in one city's food scene. But I sometimes wonder if the excitement you experience while exploring a new destination has a way of coloring what you eat. Every blister on a pizza crust seems heightened, eggs gush with golden yolks that seem to glow, the chiles are a bit more vibrant and every bite is consumed as though it might be your last, because you may never return.
I took a trip to Los Angeles over the holiday and experienced this food-driven euphoria, scouring taquerías, food trucks and restaurants recommended by friends. Here are a few of my favorites. Check them out on your next trip west.
Gjelina Welcome to Gjelina, a restaurant that's so hip and fashionable the waiters wear newsboy caps and openly flirt with your date, an annoyance you'll put up with at least twice because of the pizza pictured above, and maybe a third time for the desserts that follow.
The crust loosely resembled the Neapolitan style, but it had a crackery quality that complemented the pliable crust. It was so light it would float without toppings like fennel sausage and a tomato confit there to hold it down, and was blackened in portions but still an absolute pleasure to eat.
Taquerias El Atacor By now you should know about the tacos dorados served at The Loon. El Acator uses tortillas pressed significantly thinner, and they crunch like a crackling potato chip when you take a bite. Inside the shell, you'll find a smooth potato purée laced with plenty of cumin. They're served on a bed of lettuce and tomato and doused with green salsa, crema and cheese, and you can buy them 10 at a time for just over eight bucks. Vegetarians rejoice: This is one hell of a taco.
Leo's Taco Truck A quick Internet search offers that there are many Leo's Tacos throughout L.A., but my taco sleuth took me to the one that inhabits a truck parked near a gas station on Eagle Rock Boulevard. Leo's tacos were served on double-stacked tortillas and heaped so generously with meat they ate with the heft of a hamburger. They were juicy and substantial. They were messy and runny. And they didn't come with enough napkins.
Note the sauce that's been applied with enthusiasm: It's not the opaque green salsa you'll find at taquerías around Dallas. The woman who handed my my tacos called it guacamole, but the sauce could also be described as avocado squirt bottle. It's very thin.
Umami Burger I had to eat at Umami Burger, a little because I've heard so much about the place and a lot because the apartment where I stayed practically bathed in the restaurant's exhaust fans. The smell of browning meat filled the streets, and it was also one of the few restaurants open on Christmas Eve.
Umami Burger doesn't serve the best burger I've ever had, but this "manly burger" definitely provided a lifelong top five burger experience. The meat was inwardly juicy, staying put instead of puddling on your plate, the bun was pillowy and the mess of cheese sauce and bacon that topped the spectacle was completely over the top.
Guisados If you order tacos ever, you're probably familiar with the mixture of chiles and onions known as chiles torreados that complement your Styrofoam plate in most taquerías. Imagine the mixture comprised of several types of peppers and perhaps no onions at all. Imagine them heaped into a tortilla and topped with a ladle of pure habanero puree. And then imagine them garnished with a few thin strands of red onion, as if it somehow mattered at all at this point.
I knew exactly what was about to happen before I took a bite but I did it anyway, and then a took a second bite just to be sure that my initial hunch was correct. This taco is fucking spicy -- so stupid spicy it can be only be enjoyed by a small, elite group of chile fanatics who have burned out their capsaicin receptors like lifelong cokeheads blow out their pleasure receptors. I was not happy I tried Guisados' chiles torreados tacos.
But the cochinita pibil taco was delicious.
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Chego I know I'm not the best photographer, but this one is not my fault. There are no fewer than 15 components heaped in this paper bowl resulting in what looks like a mess, but is actually serious food.
You've likely heard of Roy Choi because of his Kogi BBG Taco Truck, which is known for its Korean barbecue tacos and its insanely long lines. I don't like long lines, especially when my stomach is percolating with chiles torreados, so I opted for Chego, Choi's first brick-and-mortar restaurant, instead. For $30 I got a solid meal consisting of that chubby pork bowl pictured above, a kung pow noodle bowl that swam in too much sauce, and a chocolate bar laced in srirachi that reminded me of a Nestle Crunch built with better chocolate, and peanuts -- all with a subtle kick. I'd go back for the the chubby pork bowl and the chocolate in a second.
There are loads more food pictures from my trip, but these are a few of the highlights. Way to pack it in before those New Year's belt tightening, gym sculpting, low-fat dieting resolutions, right?
Not that it's any use for a food critic to make those.