I hear this cliché from out-of-towners way too often: “LA is full of artificial, shallow social climbers.” Really? So is Manhattan, so is Buckhead, so is South Beach. You came here and went to Geisha House, Pink Taco, and the Beverly Center and you think you’re qualified to speak on who Angelinos are or what LA is about? Sit down……
LA is a diverse city full of all kinds of people. Immigrants from all over the world come to LA to build new lives for themselves in America and get a piece of the American Dream. Communities with roots all over the globe have become established here. Domestic migrants from the South, the Midwest, and the Northeast came here to find industrial jobs in the 1930s and defense industry jobs in the 40s and 50s. Los Angeles County is home to the busiest port facilities in the U.S. Those people eat somewhere, and it’s not the same places the “Real” Housewives of Beverly Hills or the vapid blondes from The Hills eat. Here is a list of, in my opinion, the top 25 places to eat real LA food and see real LA people in the Greater Los Angeles area.
Philippe the Original
Philippe’s is an old school sandwich stand on the northern end of downtown, within walking distance of Union Station, Chinatown, and the LA Men’s Central Jail and Central Courthouse. Known for its famous French Dipped sandwiches, Philippe’s serves up coffee for 9 cents and some pretty damn good pies, along with a great cross-section of the LA characters.
Roscoe’s House of Chicken n’ Waffles
I almost hesitate to put Roscoe’s on the list. I will, however, but with this caveat. NOT THE GOWER LOCATION. That’s for tourists and the Hollywood crowd. The “realness” of Roscoe’s cannot be found at that location. Granted, they still make great fried chicken and the awesomest waffle ever made. But if you want to get an authentic Los Angeles Roscoe’s experience, you gotta go to one of the other ones. My personal favorite is the Long Beach location, at 730 E Broadway in Long Beach. If you’re near the airport, you might be happy to know that Roscoe’s has now opened a sixth location at La Brea and Manchester in Inglewood. Roscoe’s is a STAPLE for black Angelinos and its popularity has spread to Angelinos of all races, colors and creeds. And you won’t find better chicken and waffles anywhere, I promise.
MCDONALDS?!??!?! DID HE SAY MCDONALDS?!?! This isn’t just any McDonald’s though, folks. This is the oldest continually operating McDonald’s in the world, opened by Ray Kroc himself. You’d think it would get some tourist traffic, right? WRONG. Tourists don’t know where Downey is. Downey is a middle to working-class, primarily Chicano, suburb in Eastern LA County that is, honestly, unremarkable aside for this McDonald’s. And the giant Downey Studios complex where tons of movies you love are shot on soundstages – the facility used to be an aircraft factory in the heyday of LA’s aviation industry.
In N Out
Did he really list another fast food place? Yes I did. In-N-Out is a SoCal original, and, for my money, the best damn fast food burger chain in the country. And this is its first location, right here in unspectacular Baldwin Park, another primarily Chicano suburb east of Downtown LA in the San Gabriel Valley along I-10. Getcha some!
In a city known for its taco trucks, taco carts, taco shops, and just tacos in general, King Taco is probably the only taco chain worth talking about. King Taco serves up a good, authentic taco and will usually only be found in a good, authentic part of the Ciudad. I’d recommend trying the location on Soto and Cesar Chavez Avenue, in Boyle Heights, in the heart of Chicano Los Angeles.
Located across the street from landmark MacArthur Park on one of the busiest intersections in the city, Langer’s Deli is an LA landmark, having operated here since 1947. The neighborhood around Langer’s has changed significantly, but Langer’s continues to be known as one of the best pastrami sandwiches in the city. And the people-watching opportunities to be had on the corner of 7th and Alvarado are unrivaled. You won’t see a lot of Hollywood types down there.
Hawkins House of Burgers
That’s right, I said Watts. I’d argue no neighborhood in LA has as colorful a history as this little pocket of Southeast Los Angeles. It was in Watts where America’s largest civil unrest of the 60’s took place. It was also in Watts where Crip and Blood gangs called a truce in the aftermath of the 1992 riots. In a neighborhood known for a history of poverty, unrest and gang warfare, two monuments to the creativity and spirit of man are worth coming to Watts for: the iconic Towers of Simon Rodia, and the hamburgers at Hawkins House of Burgers. Hawkins builds burgers that, unlike the towers, cannot stand up on their own; greasy, sloppy disasters that will inevitably end up getting all over the place. Hawkins also makes some of the best chili cheese fries in the city. While this community treasure has gained a lot of popularity with Yelpers and hipsters in recent years, it’s far enough from Silver Lake and the Westside to be too overcrowded with the newcomers, and chances are that the people you meet at Hawkins will also be Watts originals.
Sakura Japanese Restaurant
Los Angele is full of great sushi restaurants and popular sushi restaurants. A few places can actually be both at the same time and still keep an authentic neighborhood feel and a true local customer base. Sakura is one of those places. Located in the working class Mar Vista/Del Rey pocket of the otherwise affluent Westside, Sakura serves up GREAT sushi in an unassuming atmosphere with friendly service to crowds of laid back Westsiders who are bypassing the trendy scenes of Abbot Kinney and Downtown Culver City and looking for a good meal.
Woody’s Barbecue is another cornerstone eatery of LA’s black community. A mainstay on the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson (arguably the geographic epicenter of black Los Angeles) for decades, Woody’s has recently expanded operations to downtown Inglewood. While “best barbecue in LA” is certainly a title that is up for grabs and subject to neighborhood and family loyalties, Woody’s is ALWAYS part of the debate.
Phillips and Woody’s are probably the 1 and 1A of top barbecue spots in Los Angeles west of the 110 freeway. Phillips serves up delicious barbecue from three locations around Southwestern Los Angeles and Inglewood. If you’re a fan of really heavily sauced barbecue, Phillips is probably your best bet, while Woody’s is less sauce and more smoke. Either place you go, you’ll meat real LA people and you’ll get a real LA meal brought to you by the sons and daughters of the men and women who left the Jim Crow South to assist the US war effort in the 1940’s.
Fisherman’s Outlet is almost completely unknown to the Hollywood crowd, but a hit amongst cops, truck drivers and the blue-collar crowd around the southern end of downtown LA. Located near skid row in the warehouse district, most locals who have made the trek agree that this place has the best fish in LA. Nothing fancy, nothing ostentatious at all about it, just good fish at a good price in a part of town where people earn their living the hard way.
Tito’s Tacos makes the best “fake” tacos in Los Angeles. Another Westside mainstay, Tito’s serves up crunchy shell tacos and pretty decent burritos right next to a freeway over pass on the border between Culver City and the Mar Vista section of LA. While there is always a line at Tito’s, their ordering process is very streamlined and you’ll often get your tacos in a relatively short amount of time. Tito’s has also given LA one of its best-known local commercial jingles: “the only thing better than a Tito’s taco, is TWO!”
In a city known for its mobile eateries, ranging from the warehouse-district roach coaches and taco trucks to the popular gourmet trucks like the Shrimp Pimp and Nom Nom, Kogi is the king of the food trucks. Kogi, serving up Korean-Mexican food, or Korean food served Mexican style (BBQ shortrib burrito, anyone?), is actually a mini-fleet of four trucks that operate five days a week, making up to three stops a day all over Los Angeles and Orange counties. Kogi is a hit with Angelinos of all stripes: actors, producers and screenwriters, construction workers, college students, surfers, hipsters, stoners and gang members. And while the novelty and trendiness certainly hasn’t hurt Kogi’s popularity, Kogi serves up some of the best tasting food you will ever put in your mouth. Go to their website or follow their twitter, find them, enjoy the wait in line, and enjoy the food.
Kings Hawaiian Local Place Bakery and Café
This little spot, adjacent to the large King’s Hawaiian bread factory/industrial bakery, is a local gem for the lunch break crowd. When I worked in nearby Torrance, I got a teriyaki chicken and Kailua pork mix plate from here at least once a week. Cops from the Torrance PD, LA County Sheriff’s Office, LAPD and California Highway Patrol are always here, along with EMT’s and firefighters, so you know it’s good. They also serve up amazing baked goods, including the layered “Paradise” cake. Yummmmmmmmm…….
Oki’s Dog is the poor man’s Pink’s, and I mean that in the best possible way. Instead of standing in line with tourists and Hollywood elites to order hot dogs named for actors, you wait in line with people waiting for Comedy Union to open or who didn’t want to wait for a table at Roscoe’s and order hot dog creations that have no business in your stomach. The Oki Dog, itself, is a double chili dog wit pastrami wrapped in a tortilla. This is the kind of food you have to look forward to.
Lucy’s Drive In
Lucy’s Drive In serves up Mexican and American classics 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to the people of Mid-City and the Pico-Union and never fails to satisfy. Their extensive drive-thru menu includes numbered meals up into the 80’s, everything from a classic American breakfast or a cheeseburger to a carne asada burrito or an enchilada. Lucy’s is the BEST place to eat when you’ve been out drinking around the Hollywood Blvd crowd and you decide you need something real in your stomach to soak up those overpriced drinks but you don’t want to wait for a table at Mel’s with all the overdressed drunk girls who came up from San Diego for the weekend. The locations are usually a bit sketchy at night but….well if you’re afraid of sketchy neighborhoods you wouldn’t really be paying attention to this list, anyway.
M&M’s Soul Food
This is another legendary black establishment in Los Angeles, a tradition for black Angelinos. M&M’s soul food, however, has not reached the same level of fame among celebrities and tourists as has Roscoe’s, probably due to the fact that most M&M’s are in neighborhoods that celebs and tourists don’t go. They serve a great bowl of grits and a damn good fried pork chop, and no snobby bullshit or waiting hours for a table. Just good food, quickly, for not a lot of money, around people who aren’t trying to do anything more than eat a good meal quickly for not a lot of money.
Johnnie’s Pastrami is another local classic, first opening its doors (at the Culver City location) in 1952. Johnnie’s serves up pastrami sandwiches, French dip, burgers, fries and pickles to a pretty sizeable cross-section of Angelinos from its two locations, and keeps a 50’s roadside diner kind of feel. It’s sort of like Johnny Rockets with better food and servers who aren’t in high school.
The Serving Spoon
The Serving Spoon might serve up one of the best breakfasts in the Greater LA area, which is good, because that’s what the Serving Spoon does. Serving Spoon keeps odd hours, but the general rule is that it is not open for dinner, because they really don’t do dinner. But if you want the best grits, biscuits, and cheese eggs in town, stop by this little storefront joint and get you some.
Dinah’s Family Restaurant
Dinah’s is that place your dad always wants to go and read his newspaper and eat his coffee. Interestingly enough, they’re also the place with some of the best fried chicken and most awesome daily specials in town. Established in 1959, the restaurant offers original pricing once a year in an event that draws crowds of local residents numbering in the thousands, complete with a vintage car show and live DJ spinning oldies. Dinah’s is a classic diner. While the food is, aside from the chicken, unremarkable, it’s good, the service is friendly and the environment is unassuming. It’s like everything Denny’s could be if they had good food and didn’t suck.
It’s not really a trip into the heart of the REAL LA without hitting the CPT, straight up. This is the home of gangster rap, once – and perhaps still – the name most synonymous with American ghettos and all the attached stigmas and stereotypes. But Compton is much more than that. Compton is a center of industry and logistics, a proud, working-class city that was plunged into post-industrial crisis and has worked very hard to escape the ghosts of its impoverished, violent recent past. Bludso’s Barbecue has been around throughout all of that. Widely considered the best barbecue spot in Greater LA, Bludso’s serves up Texas-style ‘cue that has gained the attention of local food writers and bloggers in recent years. Despite its recent fame both in print and online, Bludso’s location in Compton ensures that the place is not going to become the next trendy hangout for wannabe starlets and struggling screenwriters.
Grand Central Market
Grand Central Market got its start as an agricultural market during the First World War, and while you can still buy fresh food and bok choy here, it’s really more of a giant food court nearly 100 years later. All sorts of cuisine are available for purchase and consumption here, and all of it is good – although none of it is great. It’s a great opportunity to grab a quick bite while exploring old Downtown LA and surround yourself with the people who make this city work every day.
Mitsuwa Marketplace is a large grocery catering almost exclusively to the Japanese population of West Los Angeles that has carved out a niche in the Sawtelle neighborhood for generations. And while the grocery store is in itself something to behold, what gets Mitsuwa on this list is the food court. The food court offers sushi, teriyaki, udon, yakisoba…..and Ramen. And not that cheap, tacky crap that Americans think is Ramen, but REAL Japanese Ramen noodle soup. This is where Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants who know their cuisine come to get a quick Japanese meal and do their personal grocery shopping, not some contrived American-friendly sushi and Kobe steak spot for Hollywood producers and pretentious tourists.
Isaac’s Café serves up the best carne asada in Los Angeles. Yeah, I said it. You would be hard pressed to find a better-marinated piece of carne asada in a city known for great Mexican food. This place is also perhaps the most salt-of-the-earth place you’ll ever find. Located in the “heart of the Harbor” Wilmington district, across the street from the Longshoremen’s Union hall, Isaac’s is a local legend that, despite serving up some of the best burritos in town for generations, still remains relatively unknown outside of the Harbor community. I almost feel wrong for giving up my secret, but I’m a man of the people. Isaac’s serves a burrito that is to die for and features no bullshit. Tortilla. Avocado. Tomato. Onion. Lots and lots of tender, tasty, marinated carne asada. No sour cream. No guacamole. Isaac owns the place, his kids work the register, and his wife and mom make the food in the back. The place is always full of REAL blue-collar Angelinos, especially the Longshoremen who man the docks at the busiest container port facilities in the United States. If you buy anything made in China (and you did today) it probably came into the US through the Ports of Los Angeles or Long Beach, and was probably taken off the ship and put on a truck by a longshoreman. And that longshoreman just might have had a belly full of Isaac’s.
A real LA burger stand
I tried and tried to pick just ONE classic LA burger stand, but I can’t. There’s too many and they’re all great. But you have not experienced LA until you’ve eaten at at least one. You could go the easy route and choose Fatburger or Tommy’s – both chains got their start as old-school burger stands – but please don’t. Find a place like Omega Burger, Fabulous Burger, Tam’s Burgers, etc. that has bulletproof glass and may or may not have indoor seating. These places are great. They serve up awesome burgers, great fries, and often serve up burritos, tacos, fried chicken, and other goodies as well. These are the backbone of the real LA food culture – the original fast food burgers. But, thank God, they haven’t gone the way of the major fast food chains and still understand that in LA, where you can’t get anywhere very fast anyway, we want some good food to sit in traffic with.
I hope you’ll give our fair city a shake and try out some real LA food with real LA people. If you eat at some of the places on this list and meet some of the people you’ll meet if you do, and you still don’t like us, well then you’re just a bad person and should stay in flyover country. We really don’t care, it’s 72 degrees and sunny. Peace.
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