The Old-School Reasons to Love Los Angeles Restaurants

LOS ANGELES — It was Friday evening in Cypress Park, and King Taco glowed with neon. Inside, youngsters in sweatshirts and glossy puffer coats tipped cups of salsa on beef-tongue tacos. Cooks hustled, calling out orders in Spanish.

Angelenos don’t often know the place I reside if I rattle off the cross streets, however add only one element — that the primary location of King Taco is shut by — and plenty of of them can drop a pin on a map. A couple of have jogged my memory that Raul Martinez Sr., who began the California chain in 1974, drove one of many metropolis’s first meals vans, altering the course of culinary historical past in Los Angeles with little greater than an outdated ice cream van and a stack of tortillas.

The first King Taco is a cramped, vaguely peach-colored constructing on the finish of a residential avenue. The home windows are coated up with posters of chimichangas and champurrado. The grout is stained. It’s nothing fancy. But like many aged eating places in Los Angeles, it’s a landmark within the metropolis’s consciousness.

As a brand new critic on the town, I knew I had to begin by paying respects to elders like this one — the steakhouses and the taco stands, the diners and the burger joints which have endured and collectively outlined town, as new contenders have come and gone.

The restaurant enterprise is punishing, and Los Angeles is usually misunderstood by outsiders as a metropolis with out historical past. These locations defy the stereotypes, and draw diners of all ages and backgrounds.

I appealed to Angelenos for his or her favorites then set out to study extra. Slowly, I labored my means by a map of 30 or so eating places, linked by a squiggly, grease-smeared line that traced a historical past, stretching again in some instances greater than a century.

On the sting of Chinatown, I kicked round sawdust inside Philippe the Original while waiting for a couple of French-dips — the sandwiches stuffed with thinly carved beef and lamb, the soft rolls drenched with salty brown pan-roasting juices.

Philippe’s was founded in 1908 and moved to its current location in the 1950s. The menu reflects the grizzled tastes of another era: I pulled the meat and elastic tendon from pickled pig’s feet, and marveled at hard-boiled pickled eggs, still tender, dyed purple with beet juice, smeared with nose-tingling hot mustard.

Locals and tourists stood in the sunshine, picking the taquitos up with their fingers, talking between bites.

Ms. Lee, 65, buys the fresh, soft, wobbly tofu now, but still gets up early a few times a week to shop for produce. (She tried vegetable delivery, briefly, in 1987, but missed picking out the cabbage and spring onion herself.) The tofu is ghostly pale and delicate, but the soondubu comes out hot, bubbling vigorously and viciously, stained red with a chile paste that Ms. Lee makes herself.

While new restaurants in Los Angeles struggle to train and retain staff, the cooks at Beverly Soon Tofu have worked with Ms. Lee for decades, fermenting kimchi and frying kelp. “They speak broken Korean to me, I speak broken Spanish to them,” Ms. Lee said. “And this is how we work together.”

The tortillas are hot and flexible, the meat crisp at the edges, pleasingly greasy and deeply seasoned. The salsas are one-note, but sing with power.

Though the tables were all full, a few people scooted down, pushing their bags and coats to the side, making room, gesturing for me to sit. To join them. To eat by their side. They might as well have said it out loud: Welcome to Los Angeles.

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