101 Best Restaurants List: It’s a herculean effort to compile

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Bill Addison reveals his selections of the best restaurants in Los Angeles which include 22 new entries. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

It’s that time of year… for LA Times restaurant critic Bill Addison to scour the city in search of fresh finds and new insight into old favorites. He compiles his findings into the yearly list of 101 Best Restaurants in LA. The 2021 list landed this week, and Addison joins us to break down just what this mammoth task entails.

Bill Addison: It's herculean and it feels more herculean each year. What it involves is not just running around to eat at a whole lot of restaurants to give readers an idea of what is wonderful in terms of dining in Los Angeles, but a bigger picture of what culinary Los Angeles is. And I think that's one reason why this project has legs and has gone on for so many years. It's an ever-unfolding living portrait, and it changes from year to year. It's just a good time to give diners and readers a fresh perspective on what it means and what it tastes like to eat in Los Angeles.

KCRW: Last year, in addition to the list of the restaurants, there were also profiles of various people.

Including you, yes. And in part it was because it was such a time of crisis. This year, it's interesting, because you can't say it's back to business as usual. But people want to be in restaurants. And in some cases, it feels like the before times, where if you want to go to a fancy restaurant, a special occasion restaurant, or the big name restaurants where everyone wants to be, you have to book a month or two in advance. It's been a wild shift in my jangled brain to return to this. It did feel appropriate to return to a straight list of restaurants. 

In previous years, when Jonathan Gold was doing it, it was ranked. The first one that Patricia [Escárcega] and I did was ranked. Last year we didn't rank it. These are not ranked either. It just doesn't feel like the time to be doing this. But I did want some other voices as part of the project. So some of my favorite colleagues and writers kindly contributed. Carolina Miranda, one of our fantastic art critics, wrote an essay on a designer whose cart may change the way street vendors sell tamales. Donovan X. Ramsey wrote a piece on Martin Draluck and his tasting menu based off the dishes we know about of two enslaved chefs, Hercules and James Hemmings. And Esther Tseng wrote a piece about an organization that supports restaurant workers, particularly in the city's Indigenous communities.

Let's talk about some of the newcomer restaurants, because there are quite a few.

There are 22, yes. We're in a golden age of sushi, which is odd to say during an ongoing pandemic, but it is where we are, and it's of course one of the fundamental aspects of dining in Los Angeles at this point. So there are three new sushi bars on [the list]. Shin Sushi in Encino, Morihiro, the new restaurant from Morihiro Onodera, and Sushi Kaneyoshi, a hidden 10-seat sushi bar serving omakase in Little Tokyo. A definite find if you can get a reservation for it. Another hard one.

What about some new Latino places that are on the list?

Los Dorados I've fallen in love with. It's a food truck that specializes in flautas. There's one that I love stuffed with lamb and served with an almost, like, mole over top that's fantastic. Macheen at Milpa Grille is serving some of the city's brainiest tacos and amazingly delicious breakfast burritos. I did a big breakfast burrito hunt this year, and it was in part inspired by how transcendent I felt the breakfast burrito was at Macheen. And Mi Ranchito Veracruz has fantastic tamales. It's tamale season in Los Angeles, so if you are craving those, it's in North Hollywood, and very much worth the trek. Also Gish Bac, a Oaxacan restaurant that's been a gem that's around for a while, and they have excellent tlayudas and also fantastic barbacoa.

And what about the higher end of the new list?

It was fun to go visit Knife Pleat in Costa Mesa, [run by] Tony Esnault and his wife Yassmin Sarmadi. You might remember them from Spring downtown and Church and State. And they have a really glamorous French restaurant that makes you remember why meticulous French food had a heyday in this country for so long. And even though the pluralism of Southern California and Los Angeles is what makes this place so special, it's also fun sometimes to revisit fancy high end gastronomic temples. I'm also going to shout out Ammatoli, which was a big surprise to me. I didn't really know about that restaurant until I was realizing I need to dig in a little more in the Long Beach area. It's Dima Habibeh’s restaurant, and it combines her Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritages on the menu. The Mansaf, which is the Lamb feast over rice and bread and yogurt sauce is fantastic. 

What about the burgers?

There is a place called For The Win that I really fell in love with this year, which is in the Smashburger category. The meat is smashed so hard on the griddle that it's almost lacey and threaded with onions, and the cheese is running down. It's on a Martin's Potato Roll and there's a splash of 1000 Island sauce. It's the Smashburger that makes me happiest.

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