Los Angeles: Eateries you won't find in the guidebooks

By Frank Liew

Frank Liew eats his way around the the famous — and infamous — dining spots of Los Angeles.

Beneath the glossy exterior of LA lies a melting-pot of culturally-diverse foodie experiences. Photo / Discover Los Angeles
Beneath the glossy exterior of LA lies a melting-pot of culturally-diverse foodie experiences. Photo / Discover Los Angeles

Los Angeles' foodscape is about as complex as its infamous melting-pot immigrant population. Angelenos old and new argue incessantly over who's the best at what, with everyone vowing loyalty to a certain taco truck, cafeteria, diner, or burger stand.

Some of the more successful eateries have stayed in business for decades thanks to their return customer base.

From tacos to sandwiches to sushi, here is a selection of some favourite alternative local eateries selected by born and bred Angelenos, many of which you may not find in your guide book.

Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe
812 N Evergreen Ave

If Mexican food reigns supreme in LA, then El Tepeyac must be the king of cafes. An astonishing 70 years old, it is one of LA's "originals", and is still operated by its original owners, the Rojas family. Now run by 78-year-old fast-talking, smooth operator Manny, you'll find him on busy days, when lines form outside the cafe, standing at the door and cracking jokes with customers and the pretty girls in line.

A word of warning - the food is hearty, and the portions are nothing short of gigantic. Their offerings include a one-foot-long, 5lb burrito, which almost brings a tear to your eye when you see it for the first time. Be wary of Manny though, he might sneak up on you and offer you a tequila shot ... even during breakfast time.

Suggested order: Anything from their signature Hollenbeck burrito line.
Price: Around US$12

Cnr Alvarado & Montana, Vons carpark, 10pm onwards most nights

Food trucks are a quintessential part of Los Angeles. They first appeared outside various factories and blue-collar workplaces, touting cheap and cheery lunches to the masses. A few years ago the humble lunch/taco truck became a more popular culture phenomenon with Roy Choi and his Kogi trucks - but there's nothing like the original taco truck. TacoZone, owned and operated by the Rodriguez family, parks at the Vons carpark between Silverlake and Echo Park after 10pm on most nights. Due to its proximity to nightspots it is a popular go-to place after gigs and events for those seeking some of the best taco-truck tacos in town. It garnered so much of a following that in 2008, when an accidental fire burned down the trailer, the community rallied and raised enough money for the Rodriguez family to build another one.

Suggested order: 2 x beef tacos, and 2 x muletas, self-service salsa & toppings.
Price: $3-$5

The House of Breakfast
3728 W Olympic Blvd

Located in a Koreatown stripmall, it is a true local LA breakfast secret and one of those places where the owner remembers all his regulars' first names. Founded by Japanese short-order cook Mitsuo Yamamoto who came out of the WWII internment camps in California, the eatery is now operated by the second generation of Yamamotos. Famous for buttermilk pancakes, rumoured to be the best in town, the cafe is always full. Its menu takes inspiration from the founder's Japanese roots (fried rice, teriyaki chicken) its Latino chefs (home-made salsas and hot sauces), and open-grill American diner setting (sausage patties, grilled sandwiches, eggs, hash browns). At $5.50 for the breakfast special, it's a cheap eat for some of the best pancakes you might ever have. A must try.

Suggested order: The Breakfast Special - three buttermilk pancakes, bacon strips, spicy sausage patty, one egg. Ask for Jose's signature salsa.
Price: $5.50

Apple Pan
10801 W Pico Blvd

This 60-year-old burger diner boasts a world-famous hickory seasoning sauce credited to a family recipe from 1905, which is rumoured to have then been stolen by the founders of popular retro-style dining chain Johnny Rockets for their signature burger. The Apple Pan has a classic 50s diner layout that hasn't changed since the day it opened its doors. Drinks are still served in paper cones inside metal holders, and the register looks like something out of Back To The Future. A tip: their pies are to die for, so make sure you leave room for some.

Suggested order: Hickory Burger, side of french fries well-done, root beer, and banana pie.
Price: $15

1001 N Alameda St

Phillipe's infamous French Dipped sandwich is the stuff of urban lore. It's a bread roll dipped into gravy/jus, and filled with roast meat and cheese. They charge the same price for a cup of coffee as they did when they opened in 1908 - a princely 9 cents per cup.

Suggested order: Lamb sandwich, double dipped, with Swiss cheese. Ice tea or lemonade. Potato salad on the side. Don't forget to use Phillipe's special spicy mustard as a dipping sauce for your sandwich.
Price: $12-$15

Sushi Nozawa
11288 Ventura Blvd, Ste C, Studio City

The first rule here is "no cellphones". The second rule is to "trust me". If you disobey the first, you may be asked to leave. If you disobey the second and then complain about it, you may be forcibly thrown out. Welcome to the den of Nozawa-san, otherwise known as the "Sushi Nazi."

It's not arrogance that allows Nozawa to exercise his infamous right to eject someone from his restaurant. It's simply because he doesn't care for who you are; a rarity in the celebrity-laden town of Hollywood where most are willing to bend over backwards twice-over in the hope of enticing movie stars, TV personalities, and the industry elite to dine at their establishments.

Nozawa trained in fish selection and sushi preparation in Tokyo, when he was 18. Now 66, he says he still has much to learn about the craft.

In a town where "going out for sushi" seems to be more of a cultural norm than in Japan where enjoying sushi can still be a very formal or ritualistic process, Nozawa's purist approach to this centuries-old task has irked the likes of people who associate the cuisine with teriyaki chicken and California rolls. Rumours abound of his legendary throw-outs that have allegedly led to physical altercations and vocal, expletive-driven temper tantrums. When we asked him who he'd ejected recently, he shrugged; an honest answer. He simply doesn't know, nor care. He just doesn't like rude or unappreciative people in his restaurant.

If this philosophy does not sound like a sound business strategy to you, then you are sadly mistaken. The effect is a mysterious aura around Nozawa and his little sushi restaurant, where reservations are hard to get and return customers of all levels of celebrity tout their admiration of his establishment, giving him tributes to show their appreciation.

If you want the full experience, simply sit at the small counter in front of Nozawa, and after a quick round of awkward "konnichiwas", he begins serving, without so much as a word. What's on the menu? Whatever he's got on his mind. Is it going to be good? Refer to rule #2 in the first paragraph. He will either continue until you ask him to stop, or you can tell the waiter your budget and he will stop once he reaches the bottom of your wallet. Every so often, he'll give you instructions on how to eat your dish and what condiments (if any) are to be used. After the first bite, you'll see why he's so protective over his craft - the pieces of fish melt in your mouth.

Customers range from regular folk to Hollywood's film elite and there is no shortage of celebrity sightings. They are not only afforded the same privileges as you are, but are forced to huddle with the masses if they wish to sample Nozawa's daily sushi creations. Just make sure you say "thanks" if you want to come back.

Suggested order: Whatever you're given.
Price: $100-$120 (but it's worth it).

* Frank Liew's flights to LA were courtesy of Air New Zealand. He travels the globe regularly, seeking adventures and products for top-level fashion/lifestyle retailer Qubic Store at 160 Broadway, Newmarket, Auckland. Follow him on Twitter @frankliew

- Herald on Sunday

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