by Chad Eschman
Ann Kwon is no stranger to LA’s restaurant scene. She’s lived in Los Angeles all of her life, watching the neighborhoods shift and grow. For the past several years she’s managed Biergarten, the acclaimed Koreatown gastropub known for its craft beer, fusion pub food, and warm atmosphere—a concept that couldn’t be more LA.
She told me how her brother came up with the idea when he was in Germany. “He loved the beers,” she said, “but he also really liked the whole beer garden scene—like the communal seating, where you just sit and socialize with people.” So they brought that idea to Los Angeles, and earlier this year they celebrated the seven-year anniversary of their relaxed craft beer pub.
It’s this laid-back and dressed-down vibe that consistently permeates LA’s dining rooms. There’s a focus on straightforward dishes that highlight the golden state’s fresh ingredients and their distinct flavors. Some say that the city is in its heyday, while others insist that the best is yet to come. There’s one thing that everyone seems to agree on, though: Los Angeles keeps it simple.
According to Joel Stein at Los Angeles Magazine, that simplicity sometimes swings a little too far. “For a city that closes at 10 p.m.,” he says, “we eat as if we have a permanent hangover.” This is probably why, he admits, we boast great burgers, quality Asian food, and reliable breakfast joints. This is also, however, why there’s so much room to grow.
It’s no secret that LA is a city of reinventing oneself. Yes, the future of LA dining may be paved with basics like rock-solid ramen and no-nonsense tacos, but what comes next? How will the city’s culinary personality evolve? The key just might lie in a heavy arsenal of local ingredients, paired with a humming diversity of influences.
California is a powerhouse of produce, ranches, dairies, and coastal catches. The vast landscape and brimming oceanside are fueled with unending days of sunshine, giving the state a great advantage: a steady influx of high quality fodder for new dishes. SoCal chefs taste the difference, and they take full advantage of it.
“The produce is much better in LA,” claims Eddie Huang. He’s half of the brotherly duo that built up Baohaus in New York, and a few years back he set up the west coast edition in LA’s Chinatown. In an interview with LA Weekly, he went on to explain how it affects their cooking: “Even just making our chili oils and our hot sauces, they’re brighter and more vibrant than they are in New York.” This may be part of why menus here lean towards simplicity—the ingredients speak for themselves.
However, before you write off LA as the center of stripped-down standards, there’s more to consider. As the Washington Post put it, “Ask the pros what makes Los Angeles so delicious, and ‘diversity’ tops everyone’s list.” The wide range of cultures represented in LA kitchens has given birth to just as many mash-ups, from clam chowder fries to Armenian dumpling nachos.
It’s part of what makes places like Biergarten unique. Their menu is laden with crossover dishes like German fried rice and kimchi pancakes. “We want to introduce people to new things,” Kwon explained. “The menus in LA keep changing, and there are trends, so we try to offer that here as well.” And while Biergarten’s influences may be largely German and Korean, they also have items like kalbi tacos on home-made tortillas. At the end of the day, said Kwon, one of the biggest influences on their menu “is just LA.”
Los Angeles is changing and growing, there’s no doubt. Downtown is multiplying. Silicon Beach is brimming with bright startups. And in terms of its restaurants, Ori Menashe of Bestia may have put it best: “Since there's a lot of focus on LA chefs right now, each one has to bring their game higher and higher.” It’s a challenge, but one that local restauranteurs are embracing to move steadily in one direction: up. The greatest challenge of all may be the one faced by city’s diners: deciding where to eat tonight.