Many cities throughout the USA have an exciting selection of ethnic restaurants, enough to keep adventurous eaters happily occupied for months, if not years. But few cities can compete with LA's selection of compact ethnic neighborhoods. In addition to great dining, these neighborhoods — from
Thai Town to Little Tokyo — offer a quick destination getaway in the midst of Los Angeles, complete with colorful gift shops, bars, bakeries and food markets — all reflecting the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood.
You'll know you're in Koreatown when you see a bewildering array of store signs in Korean, along with the occasional head scratcher in English, such as "Elephant Snacks" or "Tomato Wedding Dress." Dining in Koreatown is always an adventure – a favorite spot of mine is the somewhat elegant Chosun Galbee. Koreans are a lot like mainstream Americans in their love of barbecued beef, which is commonly served grilled right at the table. A delicious way to prepare a bite is to take a fresh green lettuce leaf and use it almost like a tortilla, as a wrapping for beef dressed with a dollop of salty soy bean paste. Most meals start with a dozen or so small plates called banchan that come complimentary with the meal, such as kim chee, tiny whole fish or pickled seaweed. Koreatown is also packed with malls selling Korean goods, Korean bakeries and Korean-centric supermarkets that are a sensual and aroma-filled world unto themselves, with such goods on display as giant clams and red bean pancakes shaped like fish. After dinner, consider dipping into one of Koreatown's nightclubs, for a spirited evening of karaoke, fueled by OB beer or soju, a fiery spirit distilled from rice.
Thai Town's Thailand Plaza is a good place to begin, with its numerous restaurants and shops. Two particularly fine restaurants in Thai Town are Darabar Secret
Thai Cuisine, which serves a fried omelet with mussels, and Crispy Pork Gang, where crispy pork is the star ingredient in many of the dishes. I always order green papaya salad, a dish composed of shredded green papaya, dried shrimp, green beans, tomatoes and peanuts in a spicy dressing. Don't order it extra spicy – a mistake I made, that resulted in a dish that was inedible for this westerner. After a meal, it's always a pleasure to drop into one of the stores selling Thai baked goods and food stuffs imported from Thailand – it's a way to keep the Thai vibe going once you return home.
East LA and
To immerse themselves in Mexican culture and cooking, travelers can best make tracks for East LA or Boyle Heights. For tamales, the place to be is Tamales Liliana's. As tasty as their beef, pork and chicken tamales are, save room for one of the dessert pineapple tamales. While traveling around LA, keep a lookout for food trucks like Crazy Tacos, Mariscos Jalisco and Guerrilla Taco, serving some of the tastiest Mexican food in the city.
I recommend taking an excursion with Melting Pot Tours. The tour I took delivered an authentic taste of Mexican culture that not only included stops in the best birria and tamale restaurants in Boyle Heights, but also let us slip into a tortilla-making facility, and brought us behind the scenes ofHome Girl Bakeries, an enterprise that is designed to turn around the lives of gang bangers.
While many ethnic neighborhoods have a color-outside-the-lines atmosphere, Little Tokyo has a well-ordered corporate sheen, partly due to its downtown location. One of the most famous restaurants, and the oldest sushi bar in LA, is Kula Sushi. Here you dine kaiten zushi-style, by snagging dishes off of a conveyor belt motoring past your seat. A favorite is the Tiger Roll, crafted with organic rice, seaweed, crab meat, shrimp, avocado and jalapeño, in a sweet unagi sauce. After the hunger pangs have been allayed, consider dropping into Little Tokyo's Japanese American National Museum, which chronicles the Japanese experience in Los Angeles. Then dip into Fugetsu-Do, a food shop that has been in operation since 1903, and which lays claim to inventing the fortune cookie; insisting it was a Chinese businessman who was inspired by Fugetsu-Do to mass produce the product.
As the famous lines of the movie Chinatown put it, "Forget it Jake; it's Chinatown." It's difficult for LA's Chinatown to compete with
San Francisco's Chinatown on steroids. LA's is also surrounded by more vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, like Thai Town and even Little Tokyo. Even so, there are places to go for authentic Chinese meals that are very affordable. For Hong-Kong-style dim sum, dip into Ocean Seafood. It can get noisy, being surrounded by diners summoning waiters pushing dim sum trolleys, but it will be a compelling experience for dim sum newbies. Weekends can get especially crowded.
Little Ethiopia is a compact neighborhood located between Olympic and Pico on Fairfax. Here visitors will find a few blocks worth of shops and restaurants serving traditional
Ethiopian cuisine. An Ethiopian meal is typically eaten using pieces of sourdough flatbread as a spoon to scoop up such fare as spicy stews and a variety of vegetable side dishes. Expect to taste traces of turmeric, cumin, chili pepper and clove. Vegetarians can make tracks for Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine. Ethiopians are passionate coffee drinkers; consider stopping into Messob, where a fresh cup utilizing green coffee beans is roasted, ground and brewed right at your table. For the ultimate LA Ethiopian experience, time your visit to coincide with the annual street fair and cultural festival that takes place each September.
Little Armenia is considered to be part of East Hollywood and butts up against Thai Town. Fans of Lebanese and
Iranian cuisine will love the cooking of Armenians. In fact, many of the restaurants are hyphenated: Russian-Armenian, Lebanese-Armenian, etc. Traditional dishes include kabobs, stuffed grape leaves, flatbreads and hummus, accompanied by a creamy garlic sauce. Carousel Restaurant is renowned for its Lebanese-Armenian food – newbies can begin with a selection from a menu of 60 mezzes, small portion dishes that give diners a chance to sample the ultimate variety of Armenian cooking.