Thursday, June 30, 2011

What should pasty Minnesotans do in LA? (Part 2: From the horse's mouth)

The instant I posted "What should pasty Minnesotans do in LA?" (part one) my friend M emailed me a 1900 word missive, much too long to post in the comments.

I intended to put it up immediately, but it's taken me two days to code the damn thing. That's how many bar, restaurant, museum + misc recs she had for you. M is, among other things, a professional LIVER OF LIFE.

Anyhoo, here it is:

As a former pasty Minnesotan myself....

From the "culture" standpoint, theater here will likely be a disappointment to you. Skip it. LACMA would ordinarily be something of a disappointment to you compared to the excellent MIA, but the Tim Burton exhibit is reputedly excellent. The Broad wing's collection can't compete with the Walker, but it's a good space, the Barbara Kruger elevator is fun, and there's a great view of the Hollywood sign and surrounding mountains on a clear day from the landing on the top floor. Those three things and the new Stark bar make a trip to LACMA well worth it (if you like cars, it's easy to swing by the Peterson Automotive Museum while you're there). MOCA is currently showing one of the world's first formal exhibitions of street art, "Art in the Streets," and it's gotten excellent reviews from people who've gone.

If you're downtown, it's worth taking a moment to ogle Disney Hall- whether or not you like Frank Gehry, it's a pretty spectacular anchor to the street. If you have time, the symphony as directed by Dudamel is very good, though you probably REALLY want to try to score cheap seat tix to something at the Hollywood Bowl... it's a lovely way to spend a summer evening. Note that only officially Bowl-sponsored shows (which is almost all of them) allow you the full range of self-brought food and booze options. The Greek Theatre, in Griffith Park, is a smaller, similarly pleasant amphitheater experience, but they have fewer shows than the Bowl and it's not as easy to grab a bunch of cheap seats. It's worth looking to see if the Bowl has a fireworks night while you're in town, they're always great. I assume that your wedding plans mean you won't be free on a weekend, but it's also worth looking up the Cinespia schedule- cool old movies projected in a graveyard, picnics encouraged.

From The Museum of Jurassic Technology 
(Photo by Tony Perrottet courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine)

Both Getty Centers are worth a visit- note that the Getty Villa may require a reservation, and is solely focused on Greco-Roman antiquities. The Getty Center is some of the most spectacular architecture, perched above an amazing view, around. The permanent collection isn't spectacular, but their special exhibits are always well-curated and informative. Note that neither museum charges admission, but they DO charge a hefty parking fee, and public transportation/ walking options to the museums are limited. Still, with a full car, it's worth the trip. If you're into quirky abstrusities, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a must-do, but they can have some wonky opening hours. On the east side of things, the Huntington (museum and gardens) and Norton Simon Museum out in Pasadena are both very nice and worth visiting- the Norton Simon has the better collection, but the Huntington is incredibly pleasant and not like anything in the Twin Cities. [Editor's Note: Their CACTUS GARDEN is truly amazing.] The Huntington serves a well-priced afternoon tea, but reservations book up well in advance.

If you're in the Pasadena area, stop in for a cocktail at 1886 at the Raymond. Excellent craft cocktails in a cute converted cottage.

The 1886's Honeymoon Cocktail
(Photo by acuna-hansen via Caroline on Crack)

As for food- agreed re: Animal, but their sister restaurant, Son of a Gun, can be easier to get in to... SOAG saves half their space for walk-ins at a long communal table. Arrive at opening, and you'll be seated right away (if there's a bunch of you and it's a friday or saturday, you may want to arrive early to ensure the space). SOAG is focused on seafood and cocktails rather than Animal's meat and wine, but it's equally good. Definitely have the shrimp toast, the fried chicken sandwich, and the deconstructed chocolate cake.

Also on the good-seafood-and-cocktails tip, The Hungry Cat is one of my favorites, and it's across the street from L.A.'s best (not most historic, but most pleasant) movie theater, the Arclight. Huge stadium screens, pre-assigned seats, no commercials. In that same part of Hollywood, there's a large Sunday farmers' market, which is a fun place to stroll around and snack on various local specialty items as well as all the free fruit samples. Local heros Valerie Confections have a stand selling their delicious homemade jams as well as various pastries and (usually) some of their famous chocolates stashed away in the shade.

If you like sushi, you need to get some while you're here. Depending on your budget and sense of adventure, I'd recommend one of the Ventura Blvd Katsu-yas (NOT any of the branded Katsuyas) or Sushi Zo, which was 96% as good as the 2-star Michelin sushi I had in Tokyo and about half the price. There are lots of good izakayas, etc., as well.

I also highly recommend the small plates and wine concept that's well-executed at Lou on Vine, Bar Covell, The Lazy Ox, Corkbar, and Palate (in Glendale). One of the best deals in town, if your timing is flexible and your party is small, is the prix fixe served at the amaro bar at Mario Batali's LA outpost Osteria Mozza. For $42 (formerly $35), you get a glass of wine, an appetizer, a plate of pasta, and dessert. It usually ends up being a 40-60% savings over ordering a la carte. Of course, if you just want a pizza, you can pop next door to Pizzeria Mozza, which is delicious.

Second Yuca's, but if you want more substantial Mexican food, take a trip up to La Cabanita in Montrose. The first mole that made me understand why people like it as an actual thing that one would crave, rather than just as an interesting food concept, and chiles rellenos of many varieties, all to die for. I particularly liked the one with the shrimp in the poblano cream sauce. I liked it so much, I almost didn't want to let my friends taste it.

Thai food in L.A. is excellent... one of the most famous of the Thai Town restaurants is Jitlada, but there are others that will be equally exciting- Ruen Pair is a good backup. However, Jitlada has gotten used to the attention from Chowhound devotees and their staff is very good at guiding people out of their comfort zones without going overboard.

 Jitlada's Jungle Curry (Photo by Jo Stougaard)

Indian food is by and large not that exciting here compared to what you can get in the upper midwest, but if you want to make a bit of a schlep, you can head to the San Gabriel Valley for delicious Chinese food of the variety it's hard to find outside the west coast, particularly Shanghainese soup dumplings. There are delicious hole in the walls where the staff are very friendly but speak no English, but it's easiest to join the crowds at Din Tai Fung.

Korean food is also plentiful and delicious.

Downtown L.A., though quite sketchy in places, has enjoyed a real renaissance thanks to art galleries and good bars. The best is still The Varnish in the back of Cole's, though the excellent tequila- and -mezcal- focused Las Perlas across the street can give it a run for its money. The Edison is an incredible space, and makes an interesting counterpoint to Villains, another bar that can make you feel like you're in a bizarre indie movie. Drago Centro is another good option, as they have a special perma-happy-hour menu in their spacious bar area and patio with a number of ridiculously well-priced bar snacks and a rotating list of four $5 classic cocktails to offset the cost of their more expensive marquee creations. Although I haven't yet been to either of them, I've been hearing good things about Aburiya Toranoko (from the owners of the Lazy Ox) and Spice Table, both in Little Tokyo.

The Varnish's Old Fashioned

Of course, coming from MN, one of the things you'll most want to do is enjoy the landscape, which means hiking or beaching. For the beach, skip Santa Monica and head up to Malibu... Zuma and El Matador. Parking can be tricky, but the scenery is much more spectacular. While you're in the area, you can head into the Santa Monicas for a gorgeous hike- if you time it right, you can see the sun setting over the gathering evening mist. You can also head east to the San Gabriels, where if you get to a high enough altitude, the high summer temps at ground level are mitigated. If you're sticking in the center of the city, Griffith Park has a number of pleasant trails that can offer lovely vistas of the city. Unless you're in it for the people-watching, I'd avoid Runyon Canyon, which is like going to a gym filled with poseurs and dog poop, and stick with the less-populated trails on the eastern and northern sides of the part. I like the Hogsback trail up to Mount Hollywood, above the Observatory, myself, but it can be very hot on a sunny summer day, so you're well-advised to go on the dawn or dusk end if you're sun/heat -sensitive.

If you're sticking with the ESB stomping grounds, Sunset Junction features hilariously quintessential east side people watching at famous-Chicago-coffee watering hole Intelligentsia, along with great leather goods at Dean and delicious gelato just down the block at Pazzo. If you like comic books, Secret Headquarters is possibly the most civilized comics shop in the universe, and is located next to an excellent tea and spice specialty shop. For a delicious locally-produced lunch or dinner, stop into Forage, where they don't serve booze, but everything is high-technique farm-to-table deliciousness.

In the OTHER part of Silverlake, near the reservoir, you'll find LAMill, which has very fancy coffee drinks and tasty food- it's also a quite a scene, but their blanco y negro, a kind of affogato-cum-granita, is insanely good and worth a stop on its own. Their tea drinks are also quite lovely. There are a number of cute shop-y shops in this area as well, like Yolk.

Over in Los Feliz, Skylight Books is still a thriving indie bookstore divided into adjacent storefronts, and nearby Big Bar at the Alcove serves quite good craft cocktails that you can bring out to a very pleasant patio. There's also a bit of a burgeoning restaurant row with Covell,  the famous-but-controversial Umami Burger (people generally feel it's either the best burger in town or not worth talking about), and the new "authentic Italian" pizza place Mother Dough.

In Atwater, just across the 5, you can step back to the 1940's with a stop in at the Tam O'Shanter, a faux-tudor cottage with a cozy British pub feel and a delicious cut meat sandwich station. The full restaurant is more than you probably want to pay for the kitsch experience, but the sandwiches in the bar area are affordable, delish, and a fun vibe. Across the street, the Griffin is a great place to stop during non-peak hours for a quiet glass of brown booze, of which they have a solid selection and surprisingly reasonable (for L.A.) prices. Of course, if you just want a quintessential dive bar that's fun, not scuzzy, you can head to Footsie's, on the edge of Highland Park.

Also in Atwater are Sweets for the Soul, possibly the best brownies in L.A., Proof, a bakery that serves excellent coffee but is better-lauded for its excellent French pastries, and Canele, which has one of the best brunches in town (another great brunch option is Little Dom's in Los Feliz, or Malo in Silverlake, for a Mexican twist).

L.A. is a burger town... check out the LA Weekly's recent "30 burgers in 30 days" feature, which they're now repeating with ice cream.

I could go on and on...

Photo at top of SHARKPIG (who is, in fact, from Wyoming) by Lou Mora


  1. THIS. is amazing. bookmarking immediately for future visitors. could not agree more, especially the part about going to forage, if only because I intern there :) make sure to get the ricotta cheesecake. nom. oh and there is great indian food over on the west side at samosa house and samosa house east.

  2. WOW! A++++, would read again! and ummm yeah, RUN, don't walk, to "art in the streets"...the re-creation of a fucked up 80's city is MINDBLOWING. and go to the getty center, if only for the views.

  3. I love this list because it's practically my life as lived in LA, or certainly my favorite parts of it. But I feel we need to ask the addressee: where are you staying for the wedding and will you have a car? We might need to fill in with some kicka** restaurant suggestions on the west side if this is a beach wedding and you won't have a car, just for the sake of timing.

    And although, yes, it's true the walking and public transportation options for getting to the Getty Center are limited, it can be done. I've done both! Only out of necessity. I say if the choice is take the bus/walk or don't go, you should definitely choose the former. It's amazing. See the Revolutionary Cuba exhibit (with photographs starting with Walker Evans)!

    Also do try to get to Art in the Streets. Exceptionally well curated and fun!

  4. has anyone mentioned necromance yet? go for the funeral flags, stay for the freeze-dried mice in the sweetest leetle outfits.

  5. I'm going to print this little doozey out and tote it around with me when I visit the west. Forget smart phones... this post will look so nice and dog eared all folded up in my pocket. Then I can check off my to-dos and have dones with a lil golf pencil while I sip on brown booze.

    Thank you.

  6. Holy Shit. This is incredible. I have this bookmarked and am ordering new stretchy pants from lululemon bc my ass is going to get SO much bigger after I try all of these amazing restaurants. I am from LA and didn't know about most of these places. Well done!

  7. as a pasty minneapolitan whose bestie lives in LA: THANK YOU.

  8. Wow, now I have to take a trip to LA to see/do all these things. What a comprehensive list!

  9. fabulous, just fucking fabulous. thank you.

  10. Hi! This is Wannabe in LA again -
    I just wanted to thank M so much for this incredible cultural and culinary tour of the LA area!

  11. Oh! And thank ESB for posting my letter. You are awesome!

  12. I'm a displaced Ohioan currently living in Death Valley National Park with plans to visit L.A. at least twice while I'm only a 4-hour drive away. This list fulfills everything I ever wanted to know to do when I visit. I've been before and have done some of this. I have friends there. But this is just such a great list. I've already written it all down and am planning my next trip out there!

  13. Excellent part 2! My only gripe is with La Cabanita which although tasty is not very authentic and considering you're in a city with more than 50% Latinos I'd suggest El Portal in Pasadena, La Luz del Dia in Olvera Street or Yxta in Downtown. YUM YUM!