The best strip-mall food in Los AngelesThey say that every time a car honks, Los Angeles gets another strip mall. But unlike the parking at said locations, it's not all sh#@ — some of SoCal's tastiest food is found nestled between liquor shops and all-night washing machines. So grab a load of laundry and convince your Tinder match that it's actually not pathetic to have a date at a strip-mall restaurant, then head to...
I do so wish this didn't live up to its hype; that I could do a drive-by roll-eyes at the lines extending into the strip mall's (packed) parking lot. And I do. Because those KCRW-loving hipsters are only eating there because they heard about it in Love, not because they appreciate the broth that's been "boiled for 16 hours for richness and taste." There are few places in the world I'd say this about, and will probably retract it here at some point, but the Tonkotsu (pork-belly) and vegetable ramen are worth the wait.
The eternal question: is it sinuses, allergies, or a cold? The solution: Spicy City. Whether your nasal cavities are impacted with pollen or swine flu, this Szechuan food will drain your cranial sewers. Take your pick: mushroom dish, fried chicken, toothpick lamb — all reside under a mountain of green and red peppers. Learn from my mistakes: cold noodles do not neutralize chili's heat.
To continue on the above theme, this Thai restaurant is equally don't-accidentally-rub-your-eyes territory. Aware of the finicky appetites and allergies of Angelenos, Jitlada takes the unique approach of having diners choose their protein: chicken, beef, pork, veggies, tofu, shrimp, squid, duck, crispy pork or fish. Then, you select the dish the protein will mingle in, from Pad Thai to Southern Curry to Spicy Mint. And though, full disclosure, I haven't tried it, if you want to impress a date with your insider info, order from Jitlada's secret menu; only available via call-ahead ordering, the Jazz Burger is a hearty slab of beef with 10 Thai chilies. May god have mercy on your tongue. (That's re: the date, not the burger.)
Lomo Saltado (Flickr/LWYang)
Mario's Peruvian & Seafood
As a vegetarian, I exist in a constant state of hunger. Except after eating half a plate of Mario's vegetarian lomo saltado--French fries, red onions, tomatoes, and Amarillo chili sautéed in soy sauce, and served with a side of rice. If it sounds like a South American take on poutine, you need to not skip over the imbedded photos. Lomo saltado is a signature Chifa dish, the culinary style that combines Chinese and Peruvian cooking (e.g., the potato is a native of Peru). And relax: the vegetarian option isn't even listed on the menu. Mario's lomo saltado comes with the traditional ribeye steak.
Baroo is named after a bowl used by Buddhist monks, which is fitting as you'll need to practice Zen calmness as you try to find a parking spot in this strip mall. Or wait for your order. In 2016, Bon Appetite named Baroo's kimchi fried rice its best dish of 2016. That's best dish in America. While the kimchi rice probably isn't going anywhere, the other Baroo offerings change often, based on whatever fermented ingredients chef Kwang Uh pulls from the pickling and fermentation jars that line the restaurant.
The closest we'll probably ever get to a vegetarian Waffle House. Doomie's Home Cookin' serves up classic southern dishes (ya'll getting high cholesterol) without classic southern vittles. Though it's a bit pricey, Doomie's fried chicken is the closest I've found to the original, right down to boiling oil spurting out and burning your tongue on first crunch. But, yes, crunch. Doomie's has somehow pulled off what I miss most about dead birds: their sweet delicious skin.
Soondubu jjigae (Flickr/Alpha)
Beverly Soon Tofu
Due to some miscommunication and misunderstanding of Korean, I slurped down the soondubu jjigae, a tofu stew that I believed was vegetarian. (This was before I knew that Korean food has some deep-seated animosity towards any main dish that doesn't include slaughtered mammal or fish). Anyone in the same pot can at least take some solace in knowing that while others enjoy the Anthony Bourdain-approved stew, you can enjoy the unlimited banchans (sides) and free barley tea.
Perhaps a future entry will be entirely devoted to L.A.'s best fried chickpeas, in which case I would place Pita Bar & Grill at the top of the list. But as I've parked myself into a strip mall corner on this one, I'm nominating the nearly-as-good Falafel Arax. And if tahini is your most important falafel factor (you're wrong, it's the ball's crunchiness), Arax beats Pita Bar. Tahini needs to balance at the precipice of tangy, and Arax's sesame condiment performs its tightrope walk with impressive dexterity. Hint: get it on the side so you can take some home.
SK Donuts (Flickr/Robyn Lee)
With a donut shop on every corner, battling for a parking space for a strip mall donut/Chinese food shop seems silly. I'd lived in L.A. for 15 years and had passed SK hundreds of times before a significant other, in a moment of drunken inspiration, entered this establishment. In so doing, she destroyed everything I thought I knew about strip mall fried dough. I never thought I'd say it about the sugared clouds that are Krispy Kremes, but SK's glazed donuts are better.
Simply Pho You
...almost didn't make the cut because of its name. No one wants to be stuck with a pun for their entire life — a good pun, delivered at the precise moment, can be brilliant. The second time gets a courtesy laugh, the third an eye-roll, the fourth a tired sigh. Yet Simply Pho You transcends its barely-clever name with its palatably-clever broths. Friends and family and enemies have raved about the brisket and rare steak phos, and I've raved about the rare-to-find vegetarian pho. Also recommended: the crispy tofu vermicelli.
For over fifteen years, Josh Herman has supported L.A.'s march towards being one, giant, strip mall.