The Best Dishes We Ate This Year in LA
From Armenian desserts to Roman pinsas, Brazilian cuisine, and more.
While 2021 didn’t exactly live up to what we envisioned on December 31, 2020, we’re at least grateful that we got to take a break from our home kitchens in the form of takeout, delivery, and—since the state’s reopening in June—in-person dining. Even as our local restaurant industry was subject to countless shutdowns and pivots, they still managed to captivate our taste buds with innovative new dishes. Whether presented in a multi-course tasting menu or a styrofoam container, we can honestly say that some of our best memories this year centered around food. And even though so much remains up in the air (including the new Omicron variant), we can still make New Year’s resolutions around what to eat and cross off those bucket list food experiences. If you’re looking for some dining inspiration as you head into the new year, bookmark this list of the best dishes we ate from new LA restaurants (and pop-ups) in 2021:
The dish: Szechuan hot chicken sando at Daybird
If I could plan my last meal on this earth, I’d request Daybird’s sensational hot chicken sando, which—in my humble opinion—is currently the best in LA. Top Chef winner Mei Lin’s Silver Lake eatery engineers every element to perfection: the outrageously crispy fried chicken thigh, the soft-as-a-bao potato roll, and the pickled slaw, which adds a hint of acidity to balance it all out. While the sandwich tips its hat to the ubiquitous Nashville hot chicken trend, it’s more of an homage to Lin’s Chinese-American heritage; each glorious piece of meat is enveloped in mouthwatering Szechuan spices, ranging in heat level from none at all to extreme. Dunk it in hot honey or Lin’s addictive Daybird sauce—and you’ve got a meal that’s worthy of being your last.
How to order: Walk up or order pickup online.
- Tiffany Tse, Thrillist contributor
The dish: Beef rendang at Cobi’s
My Yogyakarta-born mom taught me how to cook this labor-intensive Indonesian stew, which makes me relish Cobi’s delicious take on the dish all the more. This new Santa Monica restaurant, which first operated as a pop-up during the pandemic, instantly transported me back to my mom’s kitchen with its rendang’s bold, complex flavor and depth. Lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, dried chili, shallots, ginger, garlic, and more are ground into an aromatic spice paste, then slow-cooked with Wagyu brisket and coconut cream for six hours until the meat’s fork-tender and caramelized. Here, the beef is shredded (versus the fall-apart chunks you might find elsewhere) and served with gulai and sambal balado. Trust me, it was all I could do not to lick the bowl clean!
How to order: Book reservations via Resy, pickup via Toast, and delivery via Doordash.
The dish: Phở Thìn Hà Nội at Tóp Tép
This pop-up specializing in Northern Vietnamese fare makes the best bowl of phở I’ve slurped down all year. A tantalizing medley of beef bones, oxtail, charred ginger and onions, shallots, cinnamon, and star anise simmered for 16 hours, the broth hosts a slew of scallions (a noticeable distinction from Southern-style phở, which calls for tons of bean sprouts and herbs), along with rice noodles and a single scrumptious egg yolk. But the secret lies in how the beef is stir-fried with garlic over high heat before it’s ladled into the soup, which adds rich, robust flavor to this ultimate comfort food dish.
How to order: Follow @toptep.popup on Instagram to find out about their next pop-up.
The dish: Chengdu zajiang noodle at Mian
No longer do I have to trek to the SGV for perfectly balanced zajiang noodles! At Mian’s new outpost in West Adams, their Sichuan variation on this beloved Chinese dish takes center stage. In order to achieve the ideal amount of noodle chew and density, the owners studied recipes from multiple factories in Chengdu, adjusting them according to LA’s humidity. The noodles are served with a fried egg, ground pork, soybean sauce, and baby bok choy—but it’s the house-made red chili oil, with its signature spicy, numbing sensation, that brings it all together.
How to order: Walk in.
The dish: Hainan chicken rice at Maxwell Chicken Rice
When you name your restaurant after a Singaporean food hawker center that’s legendary for having the best Hainanese chicken rice, you’ve got a lot to live up to. Thankfully, this spot nails it with a simple yet beautifully executed dish. One of my favorite bites all year: a shred of Maxwell’s succulent chicken and a morsel of fragrant rice drizzled with soy sauce, sambal, and ginger-scallion, punctuated with a sip of bone broth. Formerly operating as a pop-up in Chinatown, Maxwell is putting down roots in Northridge—meaning many visits to the Valley in my near future.
How to order: Walk up or order takeout online.
The dish: McDuffuletta at Happy Mediums Deli
Bonnie Hernandez and chef Shea Montanez started a pop-up on Echo Park’s McDuff Street during the pandemic. Their signature sandwich riffs on the famed muffuletta from New Orleans’ Central Grocery. Each heaping McDuffeletta comes in a cake box and combines house-made porchetta di testa, mortadella, and punchy giardiniera with salami, provolone, arugula, and mustardy mayo on seeded house-made focaccia. The couple now lives in Redlands, where they may open a brick and mortar. Expect more LA pop-ups in the meantime.
How to order: Follow Happy Mediums Deli on Instagram to find out about their next pop-up.
- Joshua Lurie, Thrillist contributor
The dish: Lucenachon at Kuya Lord
La Cañada Flintridge
Filipino cuisine takes pork seriously, and Lord Maynard Llera displays true commitment at the La Cañada Flintridge pop-up he runs out of his home. Lucenachon, named for the capital of his home province of Quezon, plays on lechon. His ten-day process, from seasoning to air-drying, stuffing, and roasting, yields luscious pork belly rolled with lemongrass, red onions, garlic, and scallions. He cranks up heat to finish so the skin achieves a chicharron-like crunch. Other menu items rotate, so come often to try all of Llera’s porcine creations. While the pop-up was launched as a means of survival during the pandemic, it’s also acting as research and development as he works towards his goal of an eventual brick and mortar.
How to order: Place orders via Instagram DM and pickup in La Cañada Flintridge.
The dish: Nazook at Rose + Rye
Kristine Jingozian and sister Rose became a pandemic hit for their dazzling Armenian-inspired cakes and pastries, including flaky, spiral-shaped nazook—a subtype of gata that is rolled as opposed to being Frisbee-shaped. As Kristine says, “Nazook is the chocolate chip cookie of Armenian baking. It’s the ultimate comfort food.” While her grandma’s nazook was more biscuit-like, Rose + Rye’s version resembles a puff pastry. Their flavors are also original, including classic crushed walnut co-starring atypical brandied dates, chocolate hazelnut, and black sesame matcha. A brick and mortar is planned for 2022.
How to order: via their website.
The dish: Fish & Chips Box at Little Fish
2021 was the year pop-ups went legit, and few are more legit than Little Fish. When they started in late 2020, they were three hip kids frying fish for pickup in their yard and handing out Coors Banquets. A year later they’ve got a booth at Smorgasburg, a Tuesday residency at Crudo e Nudo in Santa Monica, and their trajectory is only upwards. There’s no hype involved, either—their success is firmly based on spectacular fried fish. The batter is thick and crispy and beautifully salty, and their work with vegetables leans into acid and brine, just what you want with a thick slab of local rockfish.
How to order: Make a Tuesday reservation at Crudo e Nudo via Resy, visit Smorgasburg on Sunday, and follow them on Instagram for more pop-ups.
- Ben Mesirow, Thrillist contributor
The dish: Margherita Pinsa at Oste
Detroit pizza may be the hottest style on the block, but my favorite new pizza was its polar opposite—and may not even be pizza at all. The “pinsa” at Roman-style Oste is made with soy and rice and whole wheat, which leaves the crust thin and crisp with big air bubbles and an earthiness that stands in stark contrast to the Motor City’s thick cheese crust. All the toppings at Oste are good, but the Margherita is outstanding, thanks to sharply acidic marinara and fresh mozzarella.
How to order: Walk in.
The dish: Fried Rice Stuffed Quail at Estrano Chef’s Counter
I went to the excellent Cambodian sandwich shop Gamboge on a drizzly evening for an Estrano pop-up, hoping for some funky pasta. There was a fun ruckus outside, but chef Diego Argoti whisked me into a seat at his chef’s counter, a bonkers journey through his imagination with a thumping soundtrack. There was French onion soup in a dumpling, jumbo pappardelle stuffed with Khmer pork, and the piece de resistance, a whole quail filled with Spam fried rice. It’s crispy, spicy, and primal, not ortolan but not so far off either. My photographs are all weird and out of focus, but the blur reflects the sensory experience.
How to order: Follow Estrano on Instagram to find out about their next pop-up.
The dish: Carnitas Taco Confit Style at Flaco
There isn’t much to innovate in the world of carnitas—it’s pretty hard to improve on pork braised in pork fat. But Flaco’s Steve Livigni went and did the damn thing, starting with legit Michoacan-style carnitas, cooked for hours in real copper cazos, and then topping it with fat cloves of confit garlic and tucking it into Kernel Of Truth blue corn tortillas. The carnitas are tender, rich, and salty like the one that got away, and that garlic confit wakes you right up.
How to order: Order online for pickup, delivery, and shipping.
The dish: Onigiri at Morihiro
Look, you’re not going to Morihiro for onigiri. Chef Morihiro Onodera’s Atwater Village restaurant is a sushi bar, with a spectacular selection of nigiri and standout umami. But no one is more precise with rice than Mori-san—his dedication to finding the perfect variety is legendary—and so it should come as no surprise that his onigiri are magnificent. They’re hefty and polished, perfectly formed so they stick together in hand but fall gently to pieces in your mouth.
How to book: via Tock.
The dish: Dadinhos de tapioca at Caboco
Let the record show that I am not typically a fan of tapioca—I ask for no boba in my boba teas and have always had a consistency issue with the cassava-extracted starch. However, all of that changed when I popped one of Caboco’s dadinhos de tapioca in my mouth—a crunchy cube that bursts with gooey cheese and pairs perfectly with the sweet chili sauce that’s served on the side. The menu describes them as tapioca fries, which, as a french fry enthusiast, I was both intrigued and perplexed by, but it’s an apt way of describing just how addictive these crispy squares are. Native to Brazil, cassava is a popular ingredient at this bright and open eatery that bills itself as LA’s first modern Brazilian restaurant; try it in chibé, a shareable plate of roasted mushrooms, yucca couscous, Brazilian nuts, and jambú, or in the tapioca and coco pudding with cachaca caramel for dessert. Let the record also show that the dadinhos are best washed down with one of their caipirinha cocktails that are spiked with Brazil’s signature cachaça spirit.
How to order: Walk-ins accepted or book reservations via OpenTable.
- Danielle Dorsey, Thrillist LA Editor
The dish: Spicy P sandwich at Ggiata
This pop-up quickly evolved into a brick-and-mortar thanks to East Coast deli-style sandwiches and a commitment to community that demonstrates itself in delicious collaborations with some of LA’s best emerging chefs. The Spicy P sandwich takes two crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside chicken cutlets and drenches them in a spicy vodka sauce with fresh mozzarella, grated romano, basil pesto, and fresh basil on a charred seeded baguette for a bite that hits every note of crunchy, tender, tangy, herbaceous, and cheesy, with the bread adding the perfect amount of chew to bring it all together. But don’t sleep on their featured items, which is usually where their limited time collaborations appear, or on whatever rotating dessert is available that day.
How to order: Walk in or order pickup and delivery online.
The dish: Birria tacos at Todo Bien
LA has experienced a birria boom in recent years, with new taqueros across the county offering their takes on this Jalisco-born staple that stews beef, goat, or lamb in an adobo rub with chiles, spices, vinegar, and herbs and cooks it in an earthen pit. Todo Bien takes a slightly different approach that’s inspired by Tijuana and LA’s street taco scenes, but still results in the same delicate and flavorful beef dripping with a thick consomme broth. The meat is placed between two fresh corn tortillas and topped with a simple dressing of onions, cilantro, and lime, with pickled veggies served on the side. Take it up a notch with a quesa taco, which griddles the corn tortilla with crispy cheese before adding the same ingredients, and don’t forget to tack on an order of consomme for dipping.
How to order: Walk in or order pickup online.
The dish: Fish tacos at Playita Mariscos
The team behind the lauded Guisados took over stalwart mariscos stand, El Siete Mares, in late March: a no-frills, open-air taco shack on Sunset Blvd. They gave the space and the menu a significant glow up by using high-quality ingredients and even pressing handmade tortillas onsite. Translating to “little beach” in Spanish, Playita specializes in ceviches, aguachiles, campechana (ceviche served in a cocktail glass with veggies, tomato juice, and Tapatio), and seafood tacos. One of my most repeated lunch orders in 2021 was their beer-battered fish tacos, served with fresh pico de gallo, spicy salsa, and shredded cabbage atop homemade flour or corn tortillas (your choice) with wedges of lime strewn alongside. Playita lived up to its name for me: providing a little oasis with their always-reliable, all-outdoor setup during a time when COVID rules fluctuated wildly. With the sound of cars roaring by on Sunset Blvd, you can always enjoy these freshly made fish tacos, which give nearby Ricky’s a run for the money. Pro tip: Hit up El Ruso’s truck across the street for a meat-centric taco or burrito while you wait for your order at Playita, then eat both at the same time! (Playita actually encourages this kind of cross-pollination). It’s a true Silver Lake bang-bang.
How to order: In person only.
-Kelly Dobkin, Editorial Director, Thrillist Cities
The dish: Campanelle at Bacetti
One of the more exciting openings on the Eastside this year (for me especially, given its one-block proximity to my home) came toward the end: Bacetti is the Italian food sibling to beloved natural wine bar, Tilda. Having just moved to LA and Echo Park one year ago, it was absolutely clutch to have Tilda so close by throughout the darker parts of the pandemic. Now with Bacetti (translation: little kisses), a vibey trattoria inspired by 1920s Rome just next door, it certainly makes me never want to move. The Italian menu from chef Joel Stovall (previously of Orsa & Winston) offers takes on canonical Roman pastas like cacio e pepe and bucatini all’ Amatriciana. But my favorite dish on the menu is the campanelle: a flower-shaped pasta tossed with cremini, chanterelle, and maitake mushrooms, and ricotta salata. For me, it’s the richness of the ricotta-tinged sauce melding with the earthiness of the roasted mushrooms and the expertly made pasta that exudes warm and comforting vibes, perfect for a cozy winter meal. Take my advice: get here.
How to order: Reservations via Resy.