In the ’70s film “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen famously orders “alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast” while on a trip to Los Angeles. He may have tried to smear Southern California as a benighted land of bland health food, but we locals knew better. If you grew up in L.A. or Orange County, your taste memories more likely involve licking meat juice, doughnut sugar or salsa off your fingers.
Cars and strip malls shaped our landscape, so we knew that great eats often camouflaged themselves in a nondescript storefront, street cart or drive-through. The following classics imprinted on our SoCal palates long before swanky food trucks and secret supper clubs came along.
You can still find these treats, so if you’re new to the area or planning a trip, put them on your must-try list. Don’t worry, you’ll burn off your excesses at the beach.
1. Animal-style burger at In-N-Out Burger
You growl “animal-style” when ordering a burger or fries at a branch of In-N-Out, the beloved L.A.-native chain. This code, one among dozens of secret menu options, gives you grilled onions and extra In-N-Out Spread, plus a mustard dose on the burger patty. The Spread is NOT Thousand Island dressing, dude. And the satisfaction of being an In-N-Out insider is the best sauce of all.
2. Fish tacos
These handfuls of taco bliss migrated north from Mexico’s Baja California, becoming a surfer’s standby along the way. In one mouthful, they deliver the holy trinity of creamy (sauce), crunchy (shredded cabbage) and fried (white-fleshed fish like halibut or cod). They taste even better when you can smell salt air, but there’s no shame in hitting an inland chain like Rubio’s or Wahoo’s to get a fix.
3. Langer’s pastrami sandwich
This iconic deli takes the slow, high road, most memorably with its Original #19 sandwich. After steaming for several hours, perfectly marbled pastrami gets hand-sliced and piled with Russian dressing, cole slaw and Swiss cheese on double-baked rye. Langer’s will turn 70 years old next year, which is 210 in L.A. years.
4. Lonchero tacos
Humble, boxy, grimy-white angels of the street food scene, the original taco trucks serve delicious Mexican dishes for less than a five-spot. Long before Korean barbecued pork got cozy with tortillas, loncheros would find a place to park and turn out regional specialties, from fried seafood tacos to goat soup. Look to Jonathan Gold, the “belly of Los Angeles,” for tips on the best. Then be prepared to debate with any fellow street-food fiend.
5. Pink’s chili dogs
Standing in line in front of the original Pink’s location after midnight is a Hollywood rite of passage. First-timers come for the chili dogs, but it’s more fun to order franks named after celebs national (Martha Stewart) and local (always in our hearts, Huell Howser!). I’d hazard a guess that even those who grew up eating New Jersey’s “ripper” or Italian hot dogs would pledge their allegiance to Pink’s.
6. Roscoe’s chicken and waffles
Go now and go often, because this spring, the parent company for Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles filed for bankruptcy. Rapper Snoop Dogg pledged to help the Long Beach soul-food spot, but who knows if he’ll follow through? Some say that the namesake combo makes a good hangover cure. I’m no doctor, but I do trust the musicians who have trooped through here since the 1970s.
7. Wolfgang Puck pizza
Maybe you swanned into Spago Beverly Hills for Puck’s smoked-salmon-and-caviar pizza. Maybe you put up with the visual assault of the colorful tiles at one of Puck’s casual cafes, in order to get your mitts on a prosciutto-and-goat-cheese slice. Either way, you knew these pies before they hit grocery-store freezers.
8. Hot Dog on a Stick
Only a conehead could love these staff uniforms: tall hats slashed with bright red, yellow, blue and white stripes and matching striped shirts. The forbearing “Hotdoggers” smilingly dole out corndogs and fresh lemonade that have fueled generations of mall-walkers.
9. Boysenberry punch at Knott’s Berry Farm
Waiting in line for the Timber Mountain Log Ride gets a lot more bearable when you’re staining your mouth purple with boysenberry punch. This theme park sprang from the Knott’s family farm, where they developed a signature fruit by crossing raspberry, blackberry and loganberry. These days you can get a boysenberry latte but really, why would you? Stick with punch and pie.
10. Tio Pepe churros at Disneyland
The ultimate theme-park goodness. The rapid-fire turnover at the carts near major rides means that the churros are always warm enough to melt the cinnamon-sugar along their ridges, forcing you to toss them between your fingers before taking that first crispy bite. A couple of decades back, tourists would walk right by the stands, perhaps not recognizing the magic word “churros.” Unimaginable—but more for us!
11. Randy’s Donuts
You can’t miss the landmark building: It’s got an enormous doughnut perched on the roof, an example of L.A.’s midcentury programmatic architecture meant to attract passing cars. No false advertising here; the traditional crullers, raised doughnuts and long johns are super-fresh and oozing with icing or glaze.
12. French dip sandwich
Doesn’t matter whether you side with L.A.’s Cole’s or Philippe’s in the Great Debate over which restaurant perfected the French dip. What counts is the gusto with which you soak your thin-sliced-beef sandwich in jus and hot mustard.
13. Balboa bars
Arrested Development fans will quickly get the in-joke when hunting down these chocolate-dipped ice cream bars on Balboa Island in Orange County. Two competing sources, Dad’s and Sugar ’N’ Spice, have been running for more than 40 years. Each also sells frozen bananas (like the Bluth family in the TV show) but the ice cream bars have that special local edge.
14. Chinese food along Valley Boulevard
Chinese cooking boomed in the San Gabriel Valley ’burbs back in the 1980s and 90s, when Monterey Park morphed into the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” Dim sum carts rumbled, Valley Boulevard sprouted dozens upon dozens of restaurants, and many of us got hooked on Szechuan spices or Cantonese seafood.
15. Date shakes
Before concert promoters and flower-crown-pixies latched onto the Coachella Valley, it was best known as the “Date Capital of the World.” Miles of date palms still stretch across the desert, and all around Palm Springs and Indio you can find earthy-sweet milk shakes blended with dates. You can also track down date shakes closer to the coast: Ask for one at the cliff-top Shake Shack in Crystal Cove State Park.
16. Pie at Jongewaard’s Bake-N-Broil
This Long Beach restaurant’s name may give equal billing to sweet and savory but really, it’s all about that bake. Especially the fruit pies, with their glistening strawberries, peaches, Olalliberries—whatever’s in season—heaped up so generously that the first touch of your fork threatens to topple the slice.
17. Mexican hot chocolate
These days, the whole country’s familiar with chocolate spiced with cinnamon and a bit of chile. But for those of us who grew up swimming in the frigid Pacific, nothing’s more warming and comforting.
18. Ruby’s burgers on a pier
Whenever you’re at Oceanside, Balboa or Huntington Beach, you’re inexorably drawn to the 1940s-style diners at the ends of the piers. Sacrifice a few fries to the seagulls as you get to grips with a burger and shake. Good luck getting the catchphrase “shooby dooby down to Ruby’s” out of your head.
19. Zankou Chicken
How did rotisserie chicken with pungent garlic sauce end up with a shout-out in Beck’s sexy-funk song “Debra”? By being irresistibly, seductively delicious, that’s how. Dangerously good, in fact, since Zankou’s success ignited a blood feud within the founding family.
20. Dodger Dogs
Customer complaints gave birth to the Dodger Dog, a 10-inch frank that was originally advertised as a foot-long hot dog when it debuted at L.A.’s Dodger Stadium in 1962. People balked at being shorted two inches, so the hot dogs got a hasty rebranding. Grilled instead of steamed, Dodger Dogs are now a ballpark must; even Richard Pink, co-owner of Pink’s, eats them while watching a game.
Other local treats you grew up loving? Evangelize in the comments!
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