Downtown | 99 Essential Restaurants 2015

Downtown

Alma

photo by Anne Fishbein

Dining at Alma is like taking part in some sort of performance art — it could be a funky downtown gallery exhibit titled “Young Chef, An Evolution.” The restaurant, owned by chef Ari Taymor and manager Ashleigh Parsons, is about as home-grown as a place can be: It evolved from a bare space, which the pair threw open only weeks after renting it, to what Bon Appetit has dubbed the best new restaurant in America. That accolade plus Taymor’s ambition turned it quickly into one of the city’s most expensive tasting-menu restaurants, though the space still feels like a modern design student’s modest loft. The meal begins with a flurry of snacks, such as uni with burrata on tiny house-made English muffins, and moves on through a series of plates that are inextricably tied to nature, the seasons and California. You might get a shallow bowl of tiny dumplings made from nasturtium leaves, filled with sweet crab meat and swimming in a savory broth, or a crumble of sweet and salty duck liver with a semifreddo texture, served over coffee granola with tiny carrots, like some sort of extraterrestrial mash-up of dessert and breakfast and dinner. If you’re looking for a tasting menu with a side of pampering, go to Mélisse. If you’re looking to experience the next wave of inventive cooking as it evolves, Alma is probably your jam.— Besha Rodell

Bäco Mercat

photo by Anne Fishbein

Among the myriad emotional comforts our city has to offer, one of the most crucial to us is the knowledge that you can drop in to Bäco Mercat on any given day (at midday or dinnertime), plonk yourself at the bar and partake in the bright, soulful cooking of Josef Centeno. Centeno has basically laid claim to this couple of historic blocks, with Bar Amá around the corner, Orsa & Winston next door to that, and now Ledlow (né Pete’s) taking up the space beside Bäco. But Bäco Mercat stands resplendent as Centeno’s original vision for what downtown needed: a place that reinvented the sandwich (or is it a taco? A wrap?) in the form of a bäco, a flatbread/pita arrangement that smooshes soft bread with tangy sauce with meaty meat, whether it be beef tongue schnitzel or oxtail hash. The rest of the menu darts all over the globe, and reveals more about Centeno’s point of view than it adheres to any particular trend or style. Hamachi crudo with Abkhazian chile spice is tangy, fresh and pert; vegetable dishes such as sugar snap pea and pear salad with grapefruit and burrata remain utterly original in the face of an onslaught of derivative vegetable arrangements elsewhere. Be it a smoky romesco on a veggie-driven flat bread or a whole roasted chicken with saffron honey, something at Bäco Mercat will get you, and get you good. How comforting.— Besha Rodell

Bar Amá

photo by Anne Fishbein

There’s something intensely personal about Josef Centeno’s Bar Amá, a restaurant that seems to take the many disparate threads of the chef’s life and tie them up in a joyous bow. The Tex-Mex food of his childhood, the old/new charm of downtown L.A. where Centeno has made his life, the bright, wild cooking he’s become known for, all come together in this room. A long menu incorporates the sloppy glory of Frito pie, queso dip and other Tex-Mex classics but also has space for inventive veggie dishes such as broccolini with chile, walnut oil, anchovy and cotija cheese. You can get a mound of fajitas, a bubbling vat of cheesy enchiladas, or slow-cooked salmon with jicama, parsley, yogurt and pine nut. You can stop by for a well-crafted mezcal cocktail and stay to indulge in “super nacho hour.” That Bar Amá has become a favorite hangout for other chefs (must have something to do with the mezcal flights and queso dip, a match made in chef heaven) makes perfect sense.— Besha Rodell

photo by Anne Fishbein

Bestia

Bestia remains one of L.A.’s few true perennial hot spots. Two years in, the restaurant is still thrilling trend seekers and serious food nerds alike. The winning formula, concocted by restaurateur Bill Chait and chefs Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis, consists of an industrial-chic space in the bottom of a loft building on the edge of the Arts District, aggressively cheffy Italian cooking and stellar drinks both at the bar and on the wine list. This is a profoundly fun place to eat, the energy in the room matching the gleeful combinations on the plate, such as grilled beef tongue with marinated lentils and pickled Jerusalem artichokes, or the perennial favorite of chicken gizzards with roasted beets and Belgian endive. There are big chunks of meat for mains, or whole roasted fish. Or you can come in and get a simple pasta or pizza. If you can get in, that is — even on a Tuesday night the bar is four deep by 6:30, and reservations are a practical impossibility. It’s not hard to see why.— Besha Rodell

Grand Central Market

photo by Anne Fishbein

You will hear grumblings from all kinds of people about the gentrification of Grand Central Market, the juice bars and the expensive coffee, the hipsters and their sustainable meat. But precisely what we love about the market and its renewal is how much it feels like all of Los Angeles: the artisanal wood-fired pizza but also the sloppy chow mein, the hipsters but also the construction workers. We love it for the newcomers — particularly Wexler’s Deli and its amazing lox and pastrami, Valerie and its traditional lunch counter, Sticky Rice and its double-sided street-food stall, DTLA Cheese and its awesome cheese selection — but we also love it for its old-school vendors and grocers. We’ve been known to start with a few oysters from the new Oyster Gourmet, then move on to a heaping pile of carnitas from Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. People said the overhaul could make Grand Central the Ferry Building of L.A. but we say, screw the Ferry Building. Grand Central has more heart, more grit, more choice, and we’d take it over San Francisco’s gleaming hall of fanciness any day. —Besha Rodell

Marugame Monzo

photo by Anne Fishbein

The dominant noodle infatuation in America is undoubtedly ramen, but Marugame Monzo in Little Tokyo makes a convincing case for us to allow udon into our noodle-obsessed hearts. It begins with the mesmerizing show of the udon masters making the noodles in the glassed-in kitchen, rolling and smacking and cutting them in batches, and ends with a bowl of the chewy, springy udon in front of you, ready to be slurped. You can go with the crowds and get them bathed in uni cream, or go gluttonous and try the exceedingly rich carbonara version, but we prefer the cold udon served in an intense dashi with grated daikon, chopped scallion, piles of wispy bonito and a poached Jidori egg. At night, the scene turns from noodle bar to sleek izakaya, with plenty of small plates and skewers to complement your drinking, but the udon is still, always and forevermore the star of the show. Consider us obsessed. —Besha Rodell

Philippe the Original

photo by Anne Fishbein

Philippe the Original is mainly billed as the birthplace of the French dip sandwich, and there’s no doubt that’s quite an achievement (though if you ask the folks over at Cole’s, they’ll claim the honor for themselves). But what we find so endearing about Philippe’s, so wonderful, so … essential, is the sensation of wandering, through some kind of time warp, into L.A. circa 1910. Philippe’s opened in 1908 and has added some modern amenities in its 107 years: There are a few neon signs behind the counter along with the wooden ones, and late last year they even started accepting credit cards. But the experience of standing in line, ordering your sandwich and having the meat carved in front of you (go for lamb, double-dipped), then finding a place in the massive dining room, is unchanged. Early in the morning this is a great place to find a kind of club for old-timers and municipal workers, and the breakfast is unbelievably cheap. The whole place oozes a down-and-dirty charm, the true vintage soul of Los Angeles.— Besha Rodell

Q

photo by Danny Liao

The manner in which Hiroyuki Naruke arrived in Los Angeles is a tale unto itself, coaxed as he was by three downtown lawyers who saw the opportunity to entice the revered sushi master into a minimalist, comforting restaurant space steps away from their office building. The real story, however, is what the chef of Q has done since, introducing diners to an intricate style of Edo-era omakase dining, which prizes the delicate curing of halibut wrapped in kelp, briny translucent shrimp from Toyama Bay swaddled in nori or a gentle brush of miso over a pat of uni. Each meal ends with a simple square of tamago presented on a ceramic plate. Humble in appearance, the sweet egg omelette bursts with the deep oceanic flavors of scallop and shrimp it’s made with — at Q, nothing is quite as humble as it appears. —Garrett Snyder

Sushi Gen

photo by Garrett Snyder

There are many reasons to stand outside Sushi Gen and wait your turn for a table or a spot at the sushi bar. In a city full of sushi — rarefied sushi, expensive sushi, crappy sushi — Sushi Gen bridges the gap between quality and affordability. And it’s a pretty cool experience, to boot. Request a seat at the sushi bar and marvel as the line of sushi chefs dole out some of the highest-quality, lowest-cost raw fish in America. Rumor has it that it’s the buying power and longevity that affords them this miracle, a long-standing relationship with purveyors that gives Sushi Gen first choice of the fish coming into L.A. The lunch specials and dinner plates (not available at the sushi bar) deliver the best bang for your buck, but we prefer to sit and talk to the chefs, seek out the best of the day and order à la carte. It’s no wonder half the chefs in town name Sushi Gen as a favorite hangout, a place where you can revel in L.A.’s sushi wealth without needing to have a ton of wealth yourself.— Besha Rodell

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