East, South, West or North? That’s a question I frequently ask myself. Being an independent writer and entrepreneur gives me freedom of movement for lunch most weekdays. I can work from anywhere on my laptop between meals. Living in NELA makes it convenient to reach culinary hotbeds like the San Gabriel Valley, Koreatown and Glendale. Waking up each morning, it’s often just a matter of picking a direction and cross-referencing my bookmarks or checking Instagram for inspiration. In L.A. these days, it’s hard to make a wrong turn as a diner. I still feel a strong pull to explore, eat, and learn.
Lunch possibilities are unlimited. 18+ years since beginning my professional food writing career, I’m more excited than ever to eat here. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1999, this was already one of America’s best eating cities. The current landscape is infinitely more interesting. None of this should be a surprise. Most neighborhoods in the city are at the height of their culinary powers. I could make the same point about pretty much any place in the U.S., but let’s stick to L.A.
Restaurants that I used to revere would now be middle of the pack, at best. I’d drive 90 minutes round trip to eat Xi’an style hand-pulled noodles from a restaurant in Rosemead that had lines out the door. Now, competition is so fierce that at least five comparable (and probably better) experiences are available within a 5-mile radius, minus crowds or media coverage. Even Culver City has hand-pulled noodles now, which would have been unthinkable. The Baja style fish taco spot that garnered regular pilgrimage from food bloggers in the aughts certainly wouldn’t warrant the freeway miles in 2023. These are all testaments to L.A.’s food cultures, which have grown exponentially in terms of depth and breadth.
Noah Galuten is a food writer and chef I respect who recently released “The Don’t Panic Pantry Cookbook.” In 2008, he documented meals from 102 different cuisines in as many days on his “Man Bites World” website. In some cases, it was a struggle for him to find a single representative meal from a particular country in a restaurant. His mission would be easier to accomplish in 2023. L.A. has fewer token examples of different cuisines at this point, with more varied restaurants, pop-ups and street stands and increased regional specificity. Previously unlikely options now include a Ukrainian restaurant, Mom, Please, in Playa Vista; and a North-East African restaurant, Aunt Yvette’s Kitchen, in Eagle Rock.
Thankfully, we’re past the point when people and publications are fixated on dining at restaurants in particular pockets of the city north of the 10 freeway or south of the 101 freeway. In the past 5 years, underappreciated neighborhoods like Glassell Park, Lincoln Heights, and West Adams have developed even more vibrant food scenes that now demand attention, draw diners from across L.A., and nourish people in their communities.
When I first started covering L.A. restaurants in 2005, it felt achievable to hit every restaurant on my to-try list. Now it’s grown impossible for one food writer to keep pace with restaurant developments, let alone an entire writing staff. That’s both a positive and negative, since I am now forced to concede that I will never try every restaurant or dish that crosses my consciousness, and that’s just in L.A.
Plenty of compelling restaurants and food vendors will also fall through the cracks, avoiding much needed media coverage that will help sustain and grow their business. Of course, mainstream publications no longer have a stranglehold on influencing readers/viewers with their food coverage. TikTokers, and to a lesser extent Instagrammers, are equally or more likely to move the meter for food businesses in many cases.
I often learn about food I like and find interesting through research or word of mouth, or simply driving by a restaurant or stand that looks promising. Other food writers I trust fill in some gaps on platforms like Eater LA and The Los Angeles Times, but I’m just as likely to find a hot food lead on Instagram. A new wave of people have stepped up and focused efforts on specific areas, populating my feed (when their posts slip past the algorithm) and posting on TikTok. Accounts like San Fernando Valley Eats, SGV Eats (on Facebook) and Best of LA Food are just as likely to turn me on exciting options that may not be flashy, but still serve great food. My wife, who’s just as passionate about food as me, calls paths to discovery like these “rabbit holes,” and I readily jump down them.
Of course, talking to enough people about food, scrolling through enough stories and social media feeds, and driving around town is only bound to build curiosity and hunger. Some days, it would be easier just to stay in my neighborhood and eat lunch at home or at a restaurant I already know I like. Not possible. I feel energized by connecting more dots, which only feeds my compulsion to explore. It’s a deliciously endless cycle.