I contributed a dozen articles to the LA Weekly’s jam-packed “Best of Los Angeles” issue. Deeming any one thing the “best” in such a huge city as Los Angeles is problematic, but I can certainly recommend some favorites: Cultural foods (Cafe Bolívar’s arepas, Good Girl Dinette’s potpie, Mo-Chica’s peruvian cuisine, Rivera’s tamales, Kokekkoko’s yakitori), unique shopping (Ted Gibson’s framing shop, Eagle Rock Plaza for Filipino goods), killer music (Subsuelo night at Eastside Luv Bar), fun museums (the LA Times Globe Lobby museum, Grammy Museum, Heritage Square) and classical dance (adult ballet classes at The Colburn School). No wonder we love Los Angeles so much.
Best Arepas: Bolívar Cafe & Gallery
Bolívar Cafe & Gallery — named for Venezuelan hero Simón Bolívar, who liberated much of South America from Spain in the 18th century — might seem like a typical neighborhood café, serving up coffee, sandwiches, free Wi-Fi and a cozy vibe. But one item makes the restaurant distinct: the Venezuelan arepas. The arepas — cornmeal patties split lengthwise and filled, sandwichlike — are so popular that Bolívar recently invested in a custom-made machine that can turn out eight at once. Arepas dominate the streets of Caracas, but they’re difficult to find here in Los Angeles. (Don’t confuse them with the Colombian arepa, more flat, thick and dense than the fluffy, moist Venezuelan kind found at Bolívar, or other Latin American cornmeal counterparts such as Salvadorian pupusas and Mexican gorditas.) At Bolívar, try an arepa with black beans and cheese, ham and cheese, tuna and avocado, or chicken salad with avocado. Or the roasted pepper, duck bacon and mozzarella variety. Shredded beef cooked in tomato broth is another possibility, and owner Jose Carvajal says more are planned. Bolívar serves its arepas with a cilantro sauce so delicious that customers beg for the recipe. 1741 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 581-2344, cafebolivar.com. —Daina Beth Solomon
See also: LA Weekly article, Cafe Bolivar’s 10th Anniversary, With Arepas
Best Potpie: Good Girl Dinette
Chef Diep Tran describes her Good Girl Dinette as “American diner meets Vietnamese comfort food,” and her potpie perfectly illustrates this fusion. The pie is a twist on Vietnamese chicken curry, a stewlike dish that’s commonly served with rice, noodles or a crusty chunk of baguette. Tran grew up eating the meal with her family — they run the Pho 79 chain of Vietnamese noodle shops in L.A. Tran’s version becomes a potpie with the addition of a flaky buttermilk biscuit crust. (Unlike traditional potpies, it’s just a top, not a base.) The filling is flavored with Madras curry powder, lemongrass and coconut milk, and features either chicken or vegetables (such as zucchini or kohlrabi) along with carrots and potatoes. To achieve the crisp crust and hot filling, each potpie is made to order, taking 30 minutes. Call ahead to request the potpie and it can be ready just minutes after you arrive. Nothing else could make a classic comfort food more comforting. 110 N. Avenue 56, Highland Park. (323) 257-8980,goodgirldinette.com. —Daina Beth Solomon
Best Peruvian Food: Mo-Chica
Mo-Chica, a hip, vibrant restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, which serves some of L.A.’s best Peruvian cuisine, began life as a small counter in Mercado la Paloma, a warehouse-turned-marketplace near USC. The menu — traditional dishes with modern touches and quality ingredients — garnered critical acclaim for chef Ricardo Zarate, a Lima native. Zarate went on to open Picca in West L.A., which focuses on Japanese-inspired Peruvian cuisine (think tiny tapas and raw fish). Now, Zarate has opened a bigger, snazzier Mo-Chica to replace the old restaurant, complete with a full bar, open kitchen, graffiti mural and communal tables. The expanded menu emphasizes what Zarate describes as Peruvian comfort food. In addition to staples such as aji de gallina, seco de cordero and ceviche, you’ll find less familiar items, including paiche (an Amazonian fish), sangrecita (blood sausage made in-house), papa rellena (potato stuffed with eggplant stew) and even alpaca, which is served in a burger or with noodles. 514 W. Seventh St., dwntwn. (213) 622-3744, mo-chica.com. —Daina Beth Solomon
Best Tamales: Rivera
At Rivera, you can dial a phone number listed on the menu to hear chef John Sedlar describe some of the dishes. “Most people think of tamales as the embodiment of Mexican cuisine’s earthiness,” he says in the recording, before launching into an explanation of “Clams Tamalli.” The dish is supposed to “join together earth and sea” with its corn masa and chopped clam meat. The tamale is steamed in large clam shells, then served with a French-style butter sauce flavored with green chiles. The other Rivera tamale — a thin rectangle of masa with braised pork short rib inside and mushrooms on top, served on a banana leaf — also could challenge the notion of earthy Mexican food. The masa is fluffy, moist and buttery, almost like a pancake. Rivera serves three different menus, one for each room. If you don’t see the tamales on your menu, and you’ve become a tamale fan by now, do not panic! You can, and should, order them anyway. Visit Sedlar’s other restaurant, Playa, for the tamale with filet mignon, wild mushrooms and chipotle béarnaise, or a Thai-inspired version with shrimp, lemongrass and chiles. These are not your abuela‘s tamales. 1050 S. Flower St., #102, dwntwn. (213) 749-1460,riverarestaurant.com. —Daina Beth Solomon
Best Yakitori: Kokekokko
“We do not serve sushi,” a server says on your first visit to the downtown Japanese restaurant Kokekokko. In fact, there is no fish on the menu. Only chicken. Breast, thigh and wings. Gizzard, heart and skin. Meatballs and quail eggs. All served on skewers that have been grilled over charcoal in traditional yakitori style. (Side dishes include chicken dumplings, gizzard-skin stew and roasted duck — the only non-chicken poultry item.) The grill, rather than being tucked into the kitchen, is at the center of the restaurant, surrounded on three sides by counter seating. Take a spot there to watch chef Tomohiro Sakata at his craft: He cooks each stick lightly, without heavy sauces or seasonings. From time to time smoke billows up around the grill and wafts into the restaurant. (Regulars bring paper fans to push away the haze and relieve the heat.) Kokekokko is Japanese for “cock-a-doodle-doo,” and the boisterous, cheery atmosphere (toned down only by smooth-jazz background music) reflects the name’s playfulness. The restaurant requires each guest order at least five skewers, which is not such a bad idea. 203 S. Central Ave., Little Tokyo. (213) 687-0690. —Daina Beth Solomon
SHOPPING & SERVICES
Best Framing Shop: Ted Gibson’s
See also: Blog post “Revisiting Ted Gibson’s Framing Shop: 1946 to Today” and LA Times article, “Moving day for a landmark framing store.”
Best Taste of the Philippines: Eagle Rock Plaza
The Eagle Rock Plaza façade is unremarkable. Street-level stores — Chuck E. Cheese, Macy’s and Target — suggest your predictable American mall. But much of the hidden lower level is devoted to goods and services from the Philippines. Locals call it “Manila Mall” after the Philippines’ capital city and consider it an anchor of L.A. Filipino culture. (Although Historic Filipinotown is in Echo Park, northeast L.A. now is home to a concentration of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans.) You’ll first notice the primary colors of Jollibee, a Filipino fast-food chain selling Chickenjoy, Jolly Spaghetti and Yumburgers. Goldilocks Restaurant and Bakeshop, another Filipino export, may catch your eye with cakes, cookies and breads, including brightly colored treats made from ube, a purple yam. Seafood City, an American grocery chain specializing in Filipino foods and ingredients, offers aisles of snacks and sweets, pancit noodles, the ever popular ube and an impressive fish selection. Browse the Fil-Am Mart and kiosks for the latest CDs and DVDs from Manila, “I’m So Filipino” T-shirts and knickknacks ranging from folk art to karaoke machines.2700 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. (323) 256-2147, shopeaglerock.com. —Daina Beth Solomon
See also: Occidental Weekly article, Exploring the Philippines in Occidental’s Backyard
Best Eastside Club Night: Subsuelo
As if she were performing in a funky corner of Granada, Spain, a dancer called La Tigresa does staccato stamps and quick spins accompanied by guitar, cajón (a box-shaped, Afro-Peruvian percussion instrument), and a trio of DJs. The music is flamenco with an electronic twist and touches of hip-hop, funk and cumbia, while revelers sip sangria and beer. But this is not Granada — it’s Subsuelo, a free event held the third Wednesday of each month at Eastside Luv Wine Bar & Queso in Boyle Heights. DJ Canyon Cody, who studied flamenco as a Fulbright scholar in Granada, runs the show, whose name roughly translates to “underground.” Ten artists join forces to blend styles and talents, and they pack 100 or so into the narrow venue to dance into the night. Eastside Luv’s blood-red brocade wallpaper, twinkly chandeliers and colorful paintings create a vibrant, unique setting. The bar, which doubles as La Tigresa’s stage, serves only wine and beer, but the crowd seems to care more about the music than the booze. 1835 E. First St., Boyle Heights. (323) 262-7442, subsuelo.org. —Daina Beth Solomon
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Best Mini Museum: the L.A. Times building’s Globe Lobby
Step inside the magnificent Globe Lobby in the Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A. and travel back to 1935, the era of art deco. That year, artist Hugh Ballin painted 10-foot-high murals in the lobby, illustrating the significance of industry and media in the country’s preeminent cities. (Ballin’s murals, considered some of the city’s finest of the era, also adorn the Griffith Observatory.) Complementing the murals, the Times outfitted the entrance with a rotating globe, 5½ feet in diameter, surrounded at its base by bronze bas-reliefs representing industry, religion, science and art. For a look further into the past, note the bronze eagle stationed in the marbled elevator bank. The mascot topped earlier Times headquarters, and survived a 1910 bombing. Until recently, access to the lobby was limited. Now you can drop in weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. After admiring the art deco splendor, check out a linotype printing machine (used from 1893 to 1974) and displays that chronicle the newspaper’s history since its first front page in 1881. 202 W. First St., dwntwn. (213) 237-5757, latimes.com/about/mediagroup/latimes/tour/ . —Daina Beth Solomon
Best New Museum: Grammy Museum
The Grammy Museum opened in 2008 — the 50th anniversary of the Grammy Awards — at L.A. Live downtown. It packs more than two dozen exhibits into 30,000 square feet spread over four floors, celebrating music ranging from rock to country, R&B to classical, Latin to jazz. You’ll find artifacts encased in glass (Woody Guthrie’s handwritten “This Land Is Your Land” lyrics, Michael Jackson’s 16-pound Swarovski crystal jacket) and interactive displays, most equipped with speakers or headphones. Tap thetimbales like Tito Puente. Listen to an 18th century–style Beyoncé recording. Mix your own version of a pop hit. Watch footage from Grammy Awards ceremonies dating back decades. Step into the “Scream Booth” (part of “Golden Gods: The History of Heavy Metal” exhibition, running through February) to yell like Ozzy Osbourne. Or learn music-making techniques from industry stars and insiders at events at the museum’s 200-seat theater. 800 W. Olympic Blvd., dwntwn. (213) 765-6800,grammymuseum.org. —Daina Beth Solomon
Best Outdoor History Museum: Heritage Square
Los Angeles — the city hopelessly out of touch with its past. Or is it? Heritage Square reminds visitors that our history as a fledgling city isn’t forgotten. The museum isn’t a collection of glass-encased artifacts but a cluster of Victorian-era buildings: eight homes plus a church, carriage barn and train station. (A drugstore is on the way.) The structures, once slated for demolition, have been restored inside and out. The Hale House, from 1887, is especially eye-catching with its ornate exterior in mint green and dark rose. Across the grassy yard, the 1893 Octagon House (one of only a handful in this style in California, and fewer than 500 in the country) wows visitors with its practicality — windows on all sides enhance natural light and air circulation. A tour guide dressed in period costume may point out the 19th-century washing machine, explaining that it would have taken days to complete the family’s laundry. At the Palms Train Depot, learn about local railroad history and browse the gift shop for art deco–inspired jewelry, parlor games or a reticule kit. 3800 Homer St., Highland Park. (323) 225-2700, heritagesquare.org. —Daina Beth Solomon
Read at laweekly.com.
See also: Occidental Weekly article, The Victorian Los Angeles.
Best Adult Ballet Classes: The Colburn School
The ballet world isn’t all Black Swan, although the film boosted the popularity of this classical dance style. Adults are flocking to classes, some to brush up on technique, others to stretch their toes for the first time. At the Colburn School downtown, beginning and intermediate classes for adults (along with music and dance programs for youth) draw a dedicated following — musicians, writers, lawyers, engineers, architects, TV producers and others. Dreams of dancing “Swan Lake” with the Bolshoi? Not quite. Students hope to master grand jetés and pirouettes in a supportive and enjoyable environment, and perhaps perform in Colburn’s annual recital. Learn a technique that’s close to King Louis XIV’s style from the 1600s. Most important, join a dance-loving community that lines up at the barre week after week — with live piano accompaniment to boot. 200 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn. (213) 621-2200, colburnschool.edu. —Daina Beth Solomon
All photos by Daina Beth Solomon, except Cafe Bolivar photo by Star Foreman and Mo-chica photo by Anne Fishbein.