When I was little I wanted to move to Southern California. I wanted to be an actress for a while and I pictured myself living in a shoebox apartment and going on auditions. It seemed like a rough life, but I was game.
Then my interests shifted toward food and I wanted to visit the area even more. I actively follow L.A.’s food scene and I read bloggers who are based in Southern California. They make the food sound fresh, delicious, but most importantly, innovative. I spent years reading about it, and last week, I decided to go check it out in person.
In short, I fell in love. I guess it shows because everyone keeps asking me on Instagram, “When are you moving?” Soon, I hope! It might take me a while to set up camp in L.A. or San Diego, but just knowing that they’re there is reassuring.
My last night in San Diego, I told my cab driver that I was sad to be leaving the next day. He said, “Discovery is the first step,” which is so true. Every place I’ve moved, I’ve always checked it out first. Sometimes to attain what you really want, you have to wade in footsteps at a time (although, truth be told, I’d love to just jump into the proverbial ocean).
So…I did a crazy thing on this trip. I didn’t rent a car. I heard horror stories about SoCal traffic and I decided to avoid it. For the most part, this was easy to do. Maybe it’s not easy if you hate buses and trains, but I’ve spent years on both. If you are strategic and plan a little beforehand, you can DEFINITELY do SoCal without a car. I’d recommend booking trains between cities on Amtrak, and then checking out bus routes and/or using Lyft once you’re there.
Below I’ve described the food I found in L.A., San Diego, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica. It’s not an exhaustive list; I didn’t want your eyes to glaze over after reading it so I left some places out. For more on my trip and the food I discovered, check out my Instagram. For the highlights, read on.
Grand Central Market
My first night in L.A., I went to Grand Central Market for dinner. I was in heaven. The market, which is located in downtown L.A., is home to almost every kind of food you can think of, and then some. I ordered spicy pollo tacos and then stopped by McConnell’s Ice Cream for dessert. They were both delicious, but next time, I want to try the vegan ramen.
Sqirl was a dream come true. I’ve been wanting to try it for years after reading about Chef Jessica Koslow’s creations. I got their signature bowl, sorrel pesto rice with poached egg and preserved lemon, and I also got the burnt toast with ricotta and peach jam. I was going to leave but then I spotted a lemon poppyseed cake with labneh on their pastry counter. Sold.
The Punchbowl is the kind of L.A. place that you might not find unless you’re wandering around aimlessly. Tucked away on a side street of L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood, it’s always brimming with locals, and for good reason. Their shakes and juices are delicious. I’d highly recommend the Cinnamon Blossom Shake with cinnamon, orange blossom water, banana, cashew milk, dates, and vanilla. It’s so refreshing.
A dream of mine before visiting L.A. was going to Nancy Silverton’s pizza restaurant, Pizzeria Mozza. “You’re going to Mozza?!” my cab driver said as he dropped me off. “You lucky angel!” Mozza is the kind of place that only exists in dreams. Fresh, wood-fired pizzas made with local ingredients, delicious, crunchy fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta…what more do you need in life?
I read about Kismet right before coming out to L.A. They describe themselves as a California/Middle Eastern food hybrid, and I’d say that’s spot on. I ordered the Persian cucumber salad with melon and za’atar and a side of fresh baked bread with seeds. The cucumbers were crunchy and fresh, like they’d been picked from a neighbor’s garden, and the bread was crusty, golden brown, and fragrant. After I finished eating, my server gave me some L.A. food recs including Gjusta (more on that later).
Ask someone from L.A. where you should go to dinner when you’re visiting and the answer almost always is Sugarfish. A girl I met this past spring recommended it, a friend of mine who lives in L.A. recommended it, and my Lyft driver recommended it. Listen to them because they know what’s up. Sugarfish has an a la carte menu and something called “Trust Me” and “Trust Me Lite,” which are essentially prix fixe menus. I got the Trust Me Lite and I wished I’d gotten the bigger size. The fish is so good and fresh, I could have eaten at least four rolls by myself.
San Diego Food
“You came to the best restaurant in San Diego,” the hostess said when I got to Cafe Gratitude. It may have been a *slight* exaggeration but she’s not far off. Cafe Gratitude is a vegan person’s dream. Everything on the menu is plant-based. I ordered the vegan almond butter cup shake with coconut cashew ice cream, cacao nibs, and vegan bacon, and the vegan enchiladas. I may or may not have cried as I inhaled both dishes alone on the patio.
My friend from college who used to live in San Diego sent me to Puesto and I’ll be eternally grateful. These tacos are out. of. control. The tortillas are soft, warm, and flavorful, and the fillings are vibrant and fresh. I’d also recommend ordering a margarita with dinner. They’re strong, as they should be, and they add to the ambiance of the meal.
Busy Bee’s Bagel
Busy Bee’s is a La Jolla staple. The cashier knew customers’ orders by heart. I got a poppyseed bagel and scallion cream cheese, one of my favorite bagel combos. I wondered how it would stack up with New York bagels I’ve tasted. It came pretty close, which is a testimony to how good this place is. If you want the full experience, take the bagel and a cup of coffee to nearby Windansea Beach and eat breakfast while you look out at the ocean.
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
My surf teacher told me that Bird Rock Coffee Roasters was the best coffee joint in town and after tasting their cinnamon honey latte, I could tell he wasn’t lying. Bird Rock is a micro roaster named for the town it’s in, located just south of La Jolla. They keep the windows open so fresh ocean air is always breezing in. I could have spent hours there.
Bahia Don Bravo
Bahia Don Bravo is right down the street from Bird Rock Coffee, so after you get your coffee fix, you should hit them up for lunch. Their fish tacos are among the best I’ve ever tasted and come with sour cream, shredded cheese, and fresh salsa. It’s the perfect meal to revive you after surfing or a day at the beach.
The Promiscuous Fork
I had my most serendipitous travel experience at the Promiscuous Fork. Located in La Jolla a few blocks away from Windansea Beach, it’s a mostly neighborhood joint with a few stray tourists (like me). I ended up meeting an old woman and her daughter who invited me to eat with them and scolded me for not wearing sunscreen (I did). The old woman let me eat one of her hamburger sliders, which was slightly better than this blackened salmon bowl with coconut rice (even though both were delicious).
The Baked Bear
This ice cream sandwich from The Baked Bear was one of the highlights of my San Diego eating experience. O.m.g. The way it works is, you walk in, choose what kind of cookies you want, an ice cream flavor, and then toppings. I went with a chocolate chip cookie, mint chocolate chip, rainbow sprinkles combo. I held back tears after my first bite.
La Clochette Du Coin
La Clochette Du Coin is a hidden gem. It’s tucked away in a strip mall in La Jolla and if you’re not looking for it, you might not find it. Luckily, I was. Their pain au chocolat is among the best I’ve ever tasted and their coffee is on point. The cappuccinos and cortados come with a little square of dark chocolate, which I appreciated.
Mike’s Taco Club
If you’re looking for a place to grab tacos that isn’t too far from the beach, Mike’s Taco Club is the place to go. Located footsteps away from the Ocean Beach pier, it’s kind of a hole-in-the-wall joint, which adds to its charm. Fish specials are written on a chalkboard. I went with the snapper and I was not disappointed. The fresh avocado on top wasn’t too bad, either.
Wailua Shave Ice
A Hawaiian import, Wailua Shave Ice was one of my favorite discoveries on this trip. I was looking for a straw hat but I found Wailua first. It has a booth in OB Roasters, a hip Ocean Beach coffee spot. I wanted to try everything on the menu but I ended up going with the dragonfruit pineapple combo. It came with honey and fresh bananas. My only regret was not ordering two.
El Pescador Fish Market
I almost start crying when I think about this sandwich. El Pescador is a fish market in La Jolla that has some of the best food in town. I ordered the local yellowtail, which came on a toasted roll with avocado, lettuce, and tomato. It was simple and no frills, but it may have been one of the most delicious things I ate during the whole trip. I’ve never tasted such fresh and flavorful seafood, even when I was living on the East Coast.
Venice Beach Food
My server at Kismet told me to go to Gjusta. “It’s the best food I’ve ever eaten,” he said. I showed up late on Friday night after I got to Venice, which turns out to be a great time because earlier in the day is super crowded. I ordered a falafel sandwich and caramelized banana cake. Both were amazing. The falafel was crispy and spicy, and the bread it came on was smoky and perfectly toasted from the grill. The banana cake stole the show, though. Picture bananas foster in cake form, but even better because it’s Gjusta. That’s this cake.
The Butcher’s Daughter
The Butcher’s Daughter is a very California spot. I say this from limited experience but also from what I observed. Everyone eating there is beautiful and looks like they down ten wheatgrass shots in the morning before working out. Still, I loved it. I ordered the avocado toast because I couldn’t *not* order it, and then the next day I went to their walk-up window for a coconut almond butter smoothie. The smoothie came with a straw that I immediately fell in love with.
Gjelina is so beautiful and their food is so delicious, it almost hurts. I got there early on Sunday morning and asked for a seat on the patio, which feels like being on a zen retreat. These lemon ricotta pancakes will take you to another world. They’re light and fluffy and come with crème fraîche and fresh blueberry compote. I ate them very slowly because I didn’t want the experience to end.
TOMS (as in the TOMS of shoe fame) has its flagship store in Venice, and as it turns out, they also have a coffee shop. I’d recommend going as much for the experience as the coffee. The patio is very L.A. and the coffee drinks are delicious. I got a vanilla coriander latte and I sipped it slowly while eavesdropping on TOMS employees and laughing at their characterization of shoe names. “Color: Oxblood,” one said. “Because we’ve all seen that.”
Santa Monica Food
I’ve wanted to come to Huckleberry for years, ever since I bought Zoe Nathan’s cookbook with recipes from the restaurant. I was a little overwhelmed showing up on a Saturday because it was during the lunch rush and options seemed endless. I ended up going with the stone fruit Kouign Amann tart which was incredible. I never thought to add fruit to the top of a Kouign Amann but as it turns out, it’s a great idea. It adds another flavor to the pastry, which is already sweet, caramely, and delicious on its own.
I met up with my cousin for dinner the last night in L.A. because she was in town for a work trip. She let me choose the place and I’m so happy that I picked Erven. The restaurant is like being in a dream. Servers are friendly, the interiors are whimsical, and the food is next level. Most of the food is plant-based but there are some exceptions. We ordered a few plates to share, including the savory doughnut holes with sauerkraut and smoky applesauce, tuna tartare, and charred avocados that I want to marry. The dessert stole the show: Vegan chocolate cake with peanut butter sorbet, toasted marshmallow, and caramelized banana. I wish I could eat it again right now.
So yeah. Those are my recommendations for eating in Southern California. I didn’t get to all the places on my very extensive eating list during the trip, but I managed to hit up most of them, which feels like an accomplishment. My favorite thing about Southern California food, paradoxically, is the tradition mixed with the inventiveness. There are taco joints that have been around for years that will serve you amazing food on styrofoam plates, and upscale eateries that recently opened that are putting a spin on classic California dishes. What all the restaurants seem to have in common though is a commitment to fresh ingredients. California restaurants make the most of their location and it shows up in their food.
I really miss L.A. and San Diego, especially after writing this post. I’m sure I’ll be back soon though. Until then, I’ll leave you with this song and a follow up, both of which remind me of my trip. Also, here’s a playlist that I put together while I was traveling. It includes some of the songs I heard out west.