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Quintessential LA?

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I have a good friend coming to LA with his wife for a very quick visit. I get to take them out to dinner just one night. While there is no shortage of restaurants I love, I have a list a mile long - I was curious how fellow chowhounds would answer this question (and give me some ideas in the process ) :

If you could bring out of town guests to only one restaurant, and you wanted to give them a great feel/experience of LA, where would you bring them?

I don't necessarily mean the best food -- though it needs to be decent. Nor is price important -- cheap or expensive is fine. I can't make up my mind. I don't necessarily want to bring them to a personal favorite like Campanile or Luques, for although the food and service at such a restaurant are superior, I am not sure they typify 'LA." Would it be an LA institution like Musso's, El Cholo, Taylor's, El Coyote, etc? Or a place like Lawry's, Phillipe's or Empress Pavilion, something they are not likely to experience anywhere else? Or rather a place that just has an 'LA feel,' for lack of a better term? Obviously, this will change from person to person, depending on your view of our city. As I was trying to decide, I thought it might make for good Los Angeles Chowhound fodder.

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  1. I like to take people to the Bel Air Hotel to eat on the terrace because the setting is so unbelievably beautiful, and so LA. But I guess you don't get Mexican food in a lot of other places so El Cholo is a good choice.

    1. LA is so diverse that it is impossible to name one restaurant that is quintessential. That's what makes LA great -- there is an enormous amount of variety, and you can have a completely different culinary experience, depending on the restaurant. That's also what makes LA problematic -- there's no one central place that represents the community as a whole. LA is a balkanized city to a large extent, so whatever restaurant you choose will be representative only of a faction of the LA community.

      I would suggest a trendy restaurant where celebrities go on a regular basis; to me, that's quintessential LA, since LA is really about the entertainment industry. But others, of course, will disagree.

      1. Talk about overloading the data banks....I do think you are better off taking your friends to one of your favorites. That way you can do a much better job of insuring that they have a wonderful meal. Los Angeles is so diverse in terms of food/culture that you will never be able to give them a one meal tutorial. I think if it is just for food I would blow the budget at Chinois. You can be sure that they will remember an all out meal there for years to come. Just remember to tell us where you end up going and what you ate.

        1. Oooooh, good question. Depending on where my out of towners are from, I like to go places that are uniquely LA-y, yet cater to their culinary whims. Granted, some of these spots are not exactly the epicenter of culinary nirvana in LA, but I think the ambience makes up for it. Plus, as hosts, it's not all about us. (Or is it?)

          If it's someone who likes panoramic vistas, I'd take them to Windows, Yamashiro or The Lobster for a drink. For old school Cali beach charm, and assuming you didn't have too stiff a cocktail at said panoramic watering holes, I'd hit Neptune's Net, Reel Inn or another Malibu area "dive"...especially in the late afternoon/early evening the drive is gorgeous and leisurely.

          Empress Pavillion, coupled with a Dodgers game and dog and/or shopping (stop at Phillipe's later if you're a complete glutton for punishment), can't be beat for low budget thrills. However, I'd take the precaution of making sure it's not too exotic...I once took an out of town guest to EP and he was so not into it.

          Many of my friends are charmed by Musso's, but just as many curmudgeons "don't get it."

          For Mexican/Latin food I'd forego El Cholo - if I want a greasy Mexican joint I'll stick to El Conquistador - and head to Border Grill. I've hit The Lobster for cocktails at sunset, Border Grill for dinner and the Promenade for walk + ice cream after dinner and my guests loved it.

          Let us know what you decide!

          1. It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish.
            If you want your out of town guess to experience the LA that they've see and read about,the answer is Spago.
            Dine at a celebrity chef's restaurant, rub elbows with entertainment execs, see stars and be served over priced, over hyped cuisine by waiter/actors
            I find that when I show out of town guess an LA that differs from what they've come to except, they seem unsatisfied by the experience.
            If you insist on showing your guess that LA is more than Hollywood, take them to the original EL Cholo.
            What could be more LA than Americans eating Mexican food in a Korean Town.

            1. This question about "quintessential LA" is similar to the "visiting New Yorker" post below. In fact, it's perfect for illustrating something you can only get in LA.

              For something on the high end, I would also recommend Spago Beverly Hills or Chinois on Main. Not so much for the food but more so for the icon behind the two places. In my opinion, Spago could probably survive as a tourist hotspot. The fact that it serves pretty darned good food doesn't hurt any. Do lunch in the garden for that laid back Californian feel.

              Aside from Spago and Chinois, I would pretty much stay away from all other fine dining establishments in LA. Granted, I'm a fan of Patina, but honestly, better French food can be had elsewhere. That cal-french label is a moot point and something that you can experience at Spago or Chinois.

              LA is without peer (in the continental US) when it comes to Asian food though. New York City, for all its trend-setting, has yet to hit upon Chinese ma-la hot pot and Taiwanese cuisine. The best Cantonese restaurants in NYC (including Pings) would buckle against the seasoned heavy-weights (and even the welter-weights for that matter) in LA. Having said that, I would recommend going to Rowland Heights for current trends (trends meaning evolution into the authentic and not trends meaning chinoisserie) in Cantonese and Taiwanese food. The demographics in Monterey Park and San Gabriel have shifted from Cantonese and Taiwanese to more Vietnamese and mainland Chinese. Having said that, those would be the places to go if you're looking for Vietnamese and regional Chinese cuisine. The exception would be "Yong He Tou Jiang" in San Gabriel (on New and Valley). That dingy hole in the wall is still a family favorite. And though the managers have opened 2 sister branches (one in Rowland Heights and the other just down the street), they have yet to achieve the soulful goodness of the original.

              For dim sum, you must try Hong Kong Palace in Rowland Heights. Not only do they have stellar dim sum, but the lunch special there (an entirely different concept than that soup/salad choice of entree lunch special that one typically thinks of) that is out of this world. You can get some 50 or so dishes such as delicate deep fried been curd stuffed with aromatic fish paste, the best pan fried flounder on both coasts, and a sensuous platter of thinly sliced beef tendon and jellyfish (a heavenly combination that makes you wonder why we don't see it more often) for $3.95-$5.95.

              For Cantonese seafood, Guangzhou Palace (on Nogales between Colima and the 60 Freeway) is unbeatable. The seafood menu a show stopper. Tanks of live seafood line the walls in the back. Must haves include fresh steamed live shrimp at something like $4/lb. My goodness, you have not had shrimp until you've tried these guys. I have yet to see this variety of shrimp available in NYC (which has just started to carry live prawns at $16/lb). The texture is a cross between shrimp and crawfish and the flesh is so sweet, you swear that the kitchen is boiling them in sugar. But the sweetness is oh so pure. Lobster (and dungeness crab) can be had at $7/lb for the Maine variety, and a little more for the spiny variety and it can be prepared in 3 different ways--with the well known ginger with scallions, with the inevitable XO, and my personal favorite, with gao tang (a slightly smoky soup stock) that caresses ever bit of perfectly sauteed lobster meat. Live scallops and baby abalone can be had at a small fortune, but again, they represent something that is better, and cheaper here in LA. There are also these large albino crabs that look like dungeness crabs, but the meat is slightly more delicate and perhaps even sweeter. I could go on and on, after being there a dozen times, I have yet to exhaust the menu and you get the point.

              Finally, there is Chinese ma-la hot pot. The idea is similar to shabu-shabu but the ingredients that go into this boiling pot of broth are completely different. The broth itself is also entirely different. "Ma-la" in Chinese means "numbingly-hot". The broth is an aromatic beef broth spiked with enough chili powder to make it an ominous red color. For those not yet into food S&M, you get a choice of mild/medium/hot. Be warned though, I love spicy food and have a pretty high threshold for pain, but medium is plenty hot (think pouring sweat 10 minutes into the meal). What most people do, is order the Ying-Yang pot which is a pot divided in half—-one side with the intense ma-la broth and the other side with the clear, non-spicy, traditional broth. This affords one the luxury of switching off to something more tame when your vision begins to blur. Now the ingredients. There is a huge list of ingredients that go into your traditional Chinese hot pot. Certain things such as thinly sliced sirloin, tofu, napa cabbage (which comes with the broth) are bare essentials. Other must haves include: fish cake, fish paste, shrimp dumplings, cellophane noodles (added at the end), shrimp, fish, fried tofu, goose intestines (crunchy and entirely amazing), pork blood...the list goes on and on. Certain things go better in the ma-la side and certain things can go in both. The tofu (which should be placed in early on so it has plenty of time to pick up the rich flavor), beef, and fish cake should be placed on the ma-la side. Others can go on either side. My favorite restaurant for this ritual is also in Rowland Heights. It’s visible from the 60 freeway and in the same plaza as Sam Woo’s. I don’t know the name of the place but it’s the red building near the Best Western. They do both teppan and ma-la hot pot there. Stick to the latter.

              3 Replies
              1. re: FredYC

                Yowzers, Fred, you make those Chinese restraurants sound so attractive, I feel like jumping a redeye right now.


                1. re: FredYC

                  Ooops. Forgot to mention that Yong He Tou Jiang in San Gabriel serves Taiwanese food: soy milk--both sweet and salty (the salty version topped with bits of scallions, pork soong, vegetable perserves, and a touch of sesame oil), fried cruellers (the best in town), stinky tofu (for the adventerous and strong willed), fried chicken roll (shrimp paste with minced onions, wrapped in bean sheets and fried), oyster pancakes, awesome turnip shortcakes, etc.

                  1. re: FredYC

                    I lived in Peking/Beijing for 3 months in 1982, and ate a lot of soy milk, and fried cullers/you tiao. Are the other dishes typically Taiwanese? I've heard that Fujian/Fuchow cuisine also has oyster pancakes. This is a sincere question. I don't know that much about typical Taiwanese food as opposed to food on the mainland, other than certain fruits are supposed to be amazing (bell fruit, red dragon fruit, etc).

                2. I like to take people to a restaurant by the water. I think it is great to have the sound of ocean waves in the background when I eat. There are a number of choices, but you may want to try Gladstones for the LA feel you are searching for.

                  1. Here are two choices to add to the maelstrom.
                    1. La Serenata de Garibaldi in East LA. They have secure parking in the back. And in the evening, they have mariachis who come in and play at tables for tips (many pickup bands in the area near Soto and 1st). Call the restaurant to see if this is still going on. And the food is great, a little pricier than it used to be. They make their own tamarind and Mexican horchata (rice) drinks. And on occasion serve a quince paste with cheese dessert.
                    2. I admit it. I take out of towners to Chez Jay, and then recommend the sand dabs. When I was growing up, abalone and sand dabs were hard to find outside California. They may still be hard to find.

                    Someone else might be able to help, but getting a real Brown Derby style Cobb salad or a Caesar made tableside is something. What would help here, though, would be knowing where these friends are from: being from Jakarta and being from Fargo changes things bit. Also, it would help knowing their degree of culinary sophistication, how adventurous they want to be, and all that. Oh, the Chinese Islamic on Garvey (not Tung Lai Shun) is always a hit for me with out-of-towners.

                    (By the way for guests who have a restricted diet, like keeping kosher or vegetarians, or hallal food, try vegetable delight in northridge or happy valley(family?) on Atlantic in Alhambra just south of the 10. They can taste things that are very unusual and still not violate their principles)