LA’s Modern Love Affair with Iberian Cuisine, and Why it Makes Perfect Sense

Led by our newfound love of conservas, Spanish and Portuguese food is so hot right now.

Bar Moruno
Photo courtesy of Bar Moruno

At the beginning of the pandemic we hoarded cans, filling grocery carts and cabinets and holes in the woods with beans and tuna. Now, after two years and change of pandemic life, we are using our cans not for subsistence, but for celebration—you can hardly walk through a wine bar or new restaurant without hearing the signature scrape of aluminum, the pop and peel of can after can of gourmet Spanish-style conservas. Tinned fish have taken over the city.

If you ask chef Sandra Cordero, owner of Gasolina Cafe in Woodland Hills, it’s about damn time. She is from Galicia on the Northwestern tip of Spain, one of the regions with a credible claim to the Spanish conserva throne, and she’s been waiting eagerly for Angelenos to discover the magic she’s known her entire life. “You’ve been missing out,” she says, adding that “it’s a trend right now, but I think it’s here to stay.”

Gasolina now carries around 20 varieties of conservas, from tuna belly to octopus, cockles to scorpion fish pate, and customers are digging in at all hours of the day. There are even people regularly ordering conservas during the breakfast rush, a thrill for Cordero. “I get so excited when someone orders them at 10 am,” she says.

During the early days of the pandemic, conservas became a luxurious light lunch, or an aperitivo hour treat with a nice baguette and a little spritz, a glimmering moment of relaxation in a high-anxiety time. And they also became something of a lifeline for local wine bars and shops, many of whom pivoted into offering pantry items and snacks. Conservas worked for shops for many of the same reasons they worked for our doomsday prepper selves—they’re fun, festive, and low-maintenance, designed to take up little space and to be extremely shelf-stable, with pretty good margins for the shop to boot.

In digging into these conservas, Angelenos seem to have reawakened our love for food from the Iberian Peninsula at large.

Food trends are cyclical, surging and receding in waves of prominence. Between our penchant for tapas-style eating and the city’s newfound love of conservas, LA was ripe for a broader reemergence of Spanish and Portuguese food—and reemerge it has. There have been a bevy of recent openings that are pushing tapas, pintxos, paella, and more back to the forefront of our culinary landscape.

To Brendan Collins, chef and partner at Santa Monica’s new Spanish restaurant Dono, California is a natural fit for Spanish cuisine. He and restaurateur Michael Greco partnered on the opening, even taking a mad journey from Madrid, through Rioja, and up to the legendary food capital of San Sebastián-Donostia, from whence their restaurant Dono gets its name.

They loved the food and the drinks, of course, but for Collins, “it’s as much about the social interaction, sharing great food, having a goblet of gin and tonic… friends, great music, and enjoying life.” That ethos, of cuisine as an integrated piece of celebratory living, is a shared virtue between LA and Spain.

Collins also felt a lot of cultural overlap between Barcelona and LA. He says the City of Prodigies, “has a fantastic modern cuisine that isn’t held back by traditionalism. It is a vibrant city with amazing energy and architecture—it is very reminiscent of Los Angeles.”

The Iberian peninsula and California are a natural pair in terms of climate, culture, and more, so it only makes sense that our cuisines are converging once again. Celebrate the renewal of our simpatico sentiments at these outstanding Spanish and Portuguese restaurants around town:

San Laurel
Photo courtesy of San Laurel | Conrad Los Angeles

Downtown
$$$$ The universally beloved chef, restaurateur, and philanthropist José Andrés is often credited with popularizing tapas in the US in the first place, so it’s perfectly fitting that he is getting in on their resurgence in LA. Chef Andrés is bringing several new restaurants to life in the Conrad hotel downtown, the first and finest of which is called San Laurel. The restaurant is located on a terrace of the hotel overlooking Disney Hall just across the street, a fittingly dramatic view for Andrés’ characteristically forward-looking and elegant Spanish cuisine. At San Laurel that is filtered through the lens of California produce, so there’s Tomato Tartare, cured Striped Bass Crudo with white escabeche, Grilled Romaine with Manchego foam as a main course, and a burnt Basque-style cheesecake for dessert.
How to book: Reservations available through their website.

Dono
Photo by Wonho Frank Lee, courtesy of Dono

Santa Monica
$$$
Chef Brendan Collins’ crazy research road trip to Spain paid off—Dono is a wonderland of Spanish cuisine spiked with local California perspective. Start with cured Ibérico pork and of course a tin of conservas, grab a classic Croqueta with Bacalao and a few of their farmers market-influenced vegetable tapas, and finish with the African-Portuguese Piri Piri Chicken. There is also paella, of course, both traditional seafood and a California vegetable version with epazote whipped cream. And do not skip out on a Gin and Tonic or a big glass of decked-out sangria.
How to book: Reservations available through Resy.

Otoño
Otoño

Highland Park
$$$
Chef Teresa Montaño was born in New Mexico and has been in LA for a long time, but she has made her name cooking lovely, soulful, modern Spanish food. Otoño has been a Highland Park essential since it opened in 2018, serving Montaño’s take on Spanish food seen through an LA lens. That means an immaculate Pan con Tomate and perfect Croquetas but also huitlacoche puree under the vegetable skewers, shiso and XO sauce with the Scallop Tartare, and dashi in the Paella Negra. They also have some of the best gin and tonics around, a large selection of Spanish Vermut, and you can get your Txakolina served in a traditional, fun as hell Porrón.
How to book: Reservations available through Resy.

Gasolina Cafe
Photo by Walid Hoshman, courtesy of Gasolina Cafe

Woodland Hills
$$
Whether you need a morning jolt, a mid-day pickup, or an evening boost, Gasolina Cafe is ready to fuel you. Chef Sandra Cordero’s Spanish spot opened on Ventura Blvd in 2015, and has steadily added layers ever since. They do coffee, sweets, eggs, and toast during the day, and then around 4 pm they start popping bottles of excellent Spanish wines and tins of the best conservas, to go with a tapas menu of charcuterie, salads, and more traditional Spanish small plates. It’s a perfect casual spot, the kind you may find yourself wandering into over and over again, becoming a regular without really realizing it. Especially if you happen to run into one of their special Paella Nights.
How to book: Reservations available through Tock, pickup orders through Toast.

Caldo Verde
Photo courtesy of Caldo Verde

Downtown
$$
The newest restaurant from star local chef Suzanne Goin and restaurateur Caroline Styne is connected to the Downtown LA Proper Hotel, with scenic Cara Cara serving similarly inspired bites and cocktails on the glittering rooftop. Caldo Verde has all of the usual pieces for a hotel restaurant—sleek interior, lovely patio, convenient location, artful design—but the menu of Portuguese-influenced plates is new for the category. Yes, there are simple salads and seafood on the menu, but the Avocado Toast has Piri Piri, the Chopped Salad has chorizo, and the Proper Lunch special comes with Gazpacho. For dinner, things get taken up a notch with Piri Piri Chicken and a seafood-stacked Caldo Verde stew for two, plus Iberian-inspired drinks like Carajillo and a Spanish Sour, with port wines and sherry that pair perfectly with dessert.
How to book: Reservations available through OpenTable.

Dos Besos
@dosbesospasadena

Pasadena
$$
For a long time, Old Town Pasadena was a food wasteland, as bland and tourist-focused as any mall in town. But the scene has improved over the years, and it got a huge boost when husband and wife team Alejandro Llobet Domenech and Kit Romano converted their Paella catering operation into the brick-and-mortar Spanish restaurant Dos Besos. The menu skews traditional, with more than a dozen essential tapas, a few salads, and a handful of larger format proteins. The paellas are clearly the heart of things, and they are excellent—packed with seafood or vegetables, and always crusted with the all-important socarrat, the toasty rice on the bottom of the pan.
How to book: Walk in, or call 626-696-3741.

Cobras & Matadors
@cobrasandmatadors

Fairfax
$$
Perhaps the most important piece of a tapas dinner is the energy in the room, the way the crowd buzzes as bottles pop and plate after plate lands at your table. There are few places with energy as good right now as Cobras & Matadors, which reopened this Spring near The Grove after a years-long hiatus. The space is tiny but it hums with conversation, and the menu is short but perfect, mostly Spanish with some French and Californian touches, which makes it an ideal spot to duck in for a few plates and a bottle of wine. It’s BYOB, so the pairings are up to you.
How to book: Walk in, or call 323-272-4924.

Bar Moruno
Photo courtesy of Bar Moruno

Silver Lake
$$
Another landmark Spanish-influenced restaurant that had a mighty run cut too short was reborn this year—Bar Moruno. Chef Chris Feldmeier brought his wood fire-focused Spanish and North African restaurant back with a few new twists, including a killer bar program and plenty of tinned fish. Knock back a Salmon Martini or a Hopped Grapefruit tonic with some Cockles in Brine, then move through Tortilla Española, some of their wide selection of vegetables punched up with Moroccan and Tunisian spices, and on into large-format, wood-fired proteins. Then stop by Rapido, their adjacent market, for conservas and canned cocktails to take home.
How to book: Reservations available through Resy.

Natas Pastries
Natas Pastries, LA's Portuguese Bakery & Cafe

Sherman Oaks
$$
Just because there are trendy new restaurants serving Iberian cuisine doesn’t mean we should ignore the classics. Chef/owner Fatima Marques’ Portuguese bistro on Ventura Blvd has been going strong for 17 years, leveling up over time from a bakery that specialized in the iconic Portuguese egg custard tart Pastel de Nata into a full-service restaurant with an expansive all-day menu of Portuguese tapas. At lunch there are sandwiches and paninis with Piri-Piri Chicken or the Portuguese sausage Chouriço, and for dinner they do traditional tapas and also large plates like Feijoada and several preparations of the salted cod Bacalhau. And lest you forgot, the tarts that made them famous remain fantastic.
How to book: Walk in, call 818-788-8050 for pickup or order delivery from third-party apps on their website.

Casa Córdoba
Casa Córdoba

Montrose
$$
The small foothill town of Montrose doesn’t get a lot of attention for its food scene, but Honolulu Avenue has a bustling strip of successful restaurants, including the nine year-old Casa Córdoba, a Spanish-style spot with a lively patio and an expansive menu of Spanish classics. There are charcuterie boards and tapas of both meat and seafood, several paellas, and two versions of the Catalan noodle dish Fideuá. The vibe is fun and casual and totally unpretentious, which may be thanks in part to the giant pitchers of Sangria on almost every table.
How to book: Reservations available through OpenTable.

La Española Meats, Inc.
La Española Meats, Inc.

Harbor City
$
If you’re looking to bring some of the best Spanish food home with you, Harbor City mainstay La Española is your best bet. They make fantastic Spanish sausages in house, and they also import excellent ham, cheese, spices, and conservas and sell them in-store. Their selection is fantastic, and it’s easy to build an entire meal out of their charcuterie, olives, and conservas, but they also make perfect simple sandwiches with jamon serrano, mackerel fillets, or chorizo, and on Saturdays they serve some of the best paella around.
How to book: Walk in, or order ahead for sandwiches or paella online.

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Ben Mesirow is an Echo Park native who writes TV, fiction, food, and sports. At one time or another, his writing has appeared in The LA Times, Litro, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Los Angeles Magazine, and scratched into dozens of desks at Walter Reed Middle School.