99 Essential Restaurants 2014

South L.A.

Bludso’s

photo by Anne Fishbein

There’s now a version of Bludso’s in Hollywood, which serves good enough food to warrant a spot of its own on this list. Sadly, space constraints force us to choose one Bludso’s, and the consensus is that even the charms of the new location on La Brea (a stylish room, flat-screen TVs, cocktails) wouldn’t stop us from making a trip to Compton for the original. Basically, it can’t be beat. Kevin Bludso’s Long Beach Boulevard shop is barely a shop at all — it’s more of a vestibule from which you order the fourth-generation pitmaster’s brisket, ribs, chicken and smoky, smoky pork. Greens, baked beans and mac and cheese are all commendable foils for the tang and smoke of the barbecue. You can hover a while longer in the vestibule to chow down, or take your meal home with you, though the smell might be too much to resist. Bludso’s has supplied many a sticky barbecue stain to the car upholstery of food lovers who can’t wait to dive into that Styrofoam box.

-- Besha Rodell

La Casita Mexicana

photo by Anne Fishbein

Part of the fun of eating at La Casita Mexicana is seeing what chefs Jaime Martín del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu come up with. These clever guys constantly work on new ideas, from experimental moles (blackberry, white chocolate) to innovative desserts (recently a voluptuous rice pudding folded with whipped cream and cajeta). But you really go here to eat classic Mexican food, rooted in the cooking of their mothers and grandmothers in the state of Jalisco. You shouldn’t miss their chiles en nogada: poblano chiles stuffed with meat, nuts, candied cactus and dried fruit, topped with a creamy nut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. It sets the standard for this dish here and rivals what you get in Puebla, where chiles en nogada originated. And L.A. offers no more beautiful place to eat such food. The bright colors and traditional accents will make you dream of romantic Old Mexico, if such a place ever existed. The restaurant opens into a shop packed with artesanías, candies and jars of the chefs’ own mole poblano. Look also for its café de olla — spiced ground coffee — and salts flavored with either chipotle or morita chiles.

-- Barbara Hansen

Colonia Taco Lounge

photo by Anne Fishbein

At Colonia Taco Lounge, Ricardo Diaz of Guisados fame brings together two factions that have long been destined to share an intimate relationship: very good tacos and very good beer. Located on a somewhat desolate stretch of Valley Boulevard in La Puente, Colonia is brightly designed and feels almost upscale once you’re inside. Order from the blackboard menu on the wall, then sit and wait for your tacos to arrive. The guisados, or stewed meats, are just as warming and hearty as you might imagine if you’ve ever worshipped at the temple of Diaz’s landmark restaurants, but there are a few completely original surprises here. The cauliflower taco takes the award for best vegetarian taco in town, with fried cauliflower florets that pop like shrimp. Then there’s the actual shrimp taco: Served on an outstanding warm flour tortilla from Mexicali, the shrimp, sautéed in aji, burst with freshness. What sets this taco apart is the base of creamy, coconut rice smeared between the tortilla and the shrimp. The rice is so comforting, so sweet, so full of flavor, it makes for a taco that engages you both emotionally and physically. That alone is worth the drive to La Puente.

-- Besha Rodell

Hawkins House of Burgers

photo by Garrett Snyder

The owner of Hawkins House of Burgers, Cynthia Hawkins, knows a newbie when she sees one. “Your first time here?” she asks a couple of women, huddled facing the menu on the wall of this tiny burger shack. The women nod, and Hawkins says, “How did you hear about us? Food Network?” Turns out it was the Travel Channel, but it could have been accolades from any number of sources that brought new faces into the heart of Watts, right up the street from Watts Towers, for a behemoth burger. Masochists will go for the Whipper, a creation that falls squarely into the Frankenstein school of burger-making, with two patties, layers of pastrami and a hot link sliced in half. It’s a ridiculous thing, delicious in its hulking deformity, but the Fat Bacon Cheeseburger might be the more perfect beast. There’s something so old-school and perfect about the hand-formed patties, the melty American cheese, the lettuce and pickles and tomato and onion. Burgers take about 15 minutes to cook (“You shoulda called in your order,” Hawkins advises), and those familiar with the routine wait in their cars on the street outside till Hawkins steps out the door and hollers the order number to the surrounding neighborhood.

-- Besha Rodell

R&R Soul Food

photo by Danny Liao

There are plenty of shinier soul-food spots in town, but we much prefer R&R Soul Food’s lived-in storefront with the neon “chitterlings” sign in the window of a slightly sad Carson strip mall. Unlike many such places, the food here is made to order, which makes all the difference with fried catfish, served piping hot and as crisp as can be on the outside, flakingly tender on the inside. The fried chicken is good, the smothered chicken is great, and the drive to Carson would be worth it for the sweet, moist corn muffins alone (the leftover muffins make a great breakfast the next day). Beyond the regular sides, like fantastic collards and a decidedly home-style mac and cheese, there’s succotash made with fresh okra and big hunks of tomato — nothing like the industrial stuff with uniformly diced frozen veggies that you might have been served elsewhere. If you’re dining in, you may have to endure very loud drama over baby-daddy lie detector tests blaring from the two huge televisions, but it’s worth it in every way for food that’s as comforting as it is inexpensive.

-- Besha Rodell

Ramen Iroha

photo by Amy Scattergood

Of all the many excellent reasons to head to Gardena, the South Bay city with an extremely high percentage of Japanese-American residents, the best may be inside a tiny food court in the Marukai market on Artesia Boulevard. Because after you fill your shopping cart with uni and baumkuchen, you’ll need to stow your purchases and order a bowl of ramen from Ramen Iroha, the tiny stand just inside the market’s front doors. When the popular, Tokyo-based chain opened this outpost in 2012, it was viewed as a temporary spot, a precursor to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. We’re unreasonably grateful that it’s still there, selling cash-only bowls of three types of ramen: a white chicken version; a spicy red version; and the outstanding black shoyu ramen, the inky broth covering terrific, chewy noodles, which has won repeat awards at the Tokyo Ramen Show. Sure, they could open a fancy shop, but this little stand, with tables both inside and out in an enclosed patio close to your car, is more fun than any high-altar ramen-ya bar. Now if only they’d install a ticket machine next to the shopping carts.

-- Amy Scattergood

Surati Farsan Mart

photo by Danny Liao

If you’re vegetarian — even if you’re not — you’ll love the food at Surati Farsan Mart in Artesia’s Little India. This is a Gujarati restaurant, specializing in dishes from India’s Western coast. The miles-long menu offers anything from a complete meal on a thali to veggie burgers and dosas (there’s even a chocolate dosa). Try the silky yellow rolls called khandvi, topped with mustard seeds, cilantro and coconut, or khasta kachori, which smothers crisp, bean-filled shells with layers of fine noodles, yogurt and sweet and spicy sauces. Snack on saladlike bhel puri, a mix of crunchy rice puffs, beans, potato and onion with cilantro and spicy sweet seasoning. Or bite into a soft idli, a rice-and-lentil cake, which comes with sambhar, a lentil-and-vegetable soup that is especially good here. After you’ve eaten, head to the counters filled with sweets and snacks so tempting that  you’re sure to leave loaded with  bags and boxes. No problem if you’ve never seen such goodies before. The friendly staff is really nice about handing out free samples.

-- Barbara Hansen