The last time I was in Los Angeles was almost thirty-three years ago, which was well before my formative eating years. Back then, there was no appreciation for barbecue, Neapolitan-style pizza, pasta made from scratch, smoked meats, and so forth.
So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to my recent trip to Los Angeles. Knowing all about the famed food scene in town, I carefully did research of what hot food spots I should target. My primary resource was Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s comprehensive and fantastic list of the 101 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles. I also caught the recent AskMen.com piece naming the country’s ten best sandwiches, including two from Los Angeles. Given the desire to “carb load” on the night before a marathon, I planned to hit up a top notch Italian restaurant. The final guideline? After much thought, I did not want to go to Spago or another expensive prix fixe spot, figuring that there were plenty of other outstanding, more affordable spots.
And what did I find? Two observations: 1) There is plenty of amazing food in Los Angeles, from casual to high end places, and 2) some Philadelphia restaurants are just as good as those LA restaurants though there are just many more options in the City of Angels.
- Friday Dinner: Pizzeria Mozza
Pizzeria Mozza comes from renowned chefs Mario Batali, Joseph Bastianich and Nancy Silverton, and it’s considered by many to be the best pizza in town (in combination with next-door Osteria Mozza and Chi’Spacca, it is also one of the best restaurant experiences). So it was an easy decision to be the first stop for dinner.
The pizza can best be described as a blend of the traditional wood-fired, Neapolitan pie and California style of using the base as a vessel for the mixture of toppings. There are over twenty different pizza options of unique combinations. I chose the Gorgonzola dolce, fingerling potatoes, radicchio and rosemary pizza. The ingredients created a mix of contrasting flavors such as the bitterness of the radicchio and the sweet blue cheese flavor from the Gorgonzola dolce. Meanwhile, the crust was spectacular. It was impossibly thin and easy to chew through. While the edge crust looked thick, it was anything but dense. Oh, and the budino for dessert? It was a fantastic mix of caramel and sea salt flavor.
For as good as Pizzeria Mozza was, Pizzeria Vetri is right up there with it. Vetri only has about eight pie options and doesn’t feature nearly as many toppings per pie, but what it does is excellent. The pies are beautiful, with nice blistering on the surface. Vetri’s Renato, with mozzarella, rosemary, olive oil and sea salt, is simple in composition but amazing in taste. There’s plenty of cheese, and the olive oil and sea salt add complimentary flavors. Similarly to Mozza, Vetri’s crust is exceptionally soft and chewy. And for dessert, while Pizzeria Mozza’s budino is probably considered the best of the LA versions, the Barbuzzo budino, with its layers, is still the gold standard.
- Saturday Dinner: Bestia
Bestia is a relative newcomer on the LA food scene but it is already considered one of the best restaurants in town. Though located in a warehouse-like space in a desolate area of the city’s Arts District, this high end Italian restaurant is packed and has an incredibly lively atmosphere. The menu features smaller antipasti dishes going along with more sizable pasta, pizza and meat dishes.
Each dish is innovative, and the pasta is phenomenal. A kale salad includes caper-anchovy vinaigrette, endive, arugula, pecorino toscano and breadcrumbs. The Tagliatelle alla Zafferano is hand cut, long, flat pasta with sausage ragu, cherry tomatoes and arugula. Meanwhile the Agnolotti alla Vaccinara is comprised of small, dark, ravioli-like pasta with braised oxtail, burro fuso, grana padano, pine nuts and currants.
The space, location and menu were reminiscent of another Vetri establishment, Osteria. Though the large space opened up on North Broad where no quality restaurants were previously found, Osteria has always been and still is a hot ticket, even a few years later. Chef Vetri’s house-made pastas are the big draw, though the other selections, include the pizza (which was the primary basis for Pizzeria Vetri), are also outstanding.
- Tuesday Lunch: Langer’s Deli
The top spot in the AskMen list of the country’s best sandwiches is occupied by Langer’s Deli, and specifically, its No. 19 of pastrami, Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing on rye. Naturally, I was gonna try it for myself. Back in August, I made it a similar priority to sample Schwartz’s fantastic smoked meat sandwich in Montreal.
At about $15, the No. 19 is at the New York deli price point for sandwiches, rather than the typical Philly hoagie price of $6 to $8. On the other hand, you certainly don’t get cheated on the portion. The baked rye bread is sizable, and there’s plenty of meat and cole slaw. It’s not so thick, however, that you dislocate your jaw in trying to bite it. The pastrami was cut into relatively thicker strips and tasted incredibly moist and tender. I’m not usually a huge fan of cole slaw, but the Langer’s cole slaw went well with the meat and dressing. Even the bread was not your typical rye, and it was fresh with plenty of flavor.
I cannot definitively claim that Philly has pastrami sandwiches that are as good. Hershel’s East Side and Famous Fourth Street make some mean New York deli-style sandwiches, but no one is going to travel from out of town for those spots in particular. In terms of hoagies and hot sandwiches, Philly can match Langer’s. Look no further than the number five spot on the AskMen list: the roast pork at John’s Roast Pork. It’s almost certainly my favorite sandwich in town. While it doesn’t have the national notoriety of cheesesteaks from the well-known spots, the roast pork at John’s has drawn food show coverage in recent years. The meat is high quality and has been cooked and boned on site and then seasoned and roasted daily. The roast pork is simply delicious, and the Carangi Bakery roll has a little more substantial texture that holds the juices quite well. It’s certainly worth a visit if you’re a native or from out of town.
- Other Meals
Other meal experiences included Animal, which is a fantastic restaurant specializing in pig-centric dishes, and Genwa, which is probably the best Korean barbecue spot in Los Angeles. Alas, there are no similar corresponding spots in Philadelphia. With regard to Animal, Cochon comes to mind, but its menu is too limited to compare. The Fat Ham, with its pig-focused menu, may also be close, though I have yet to try it to compare. Sadly, the Korean barbecue scene in Philadelphia, even in Chinatown, is lacking. So LA still has that going for it. Otherwise, though Los Angeles has far more good eating options, Philly holds its own pretty well against LA.