Everyone has lists of restaurants to try. So I'm going to do something a little different. Following are some particular dishes that I think are outstanding.
Pad Woon Sen at Sunshine Restaurant:
I've been eating at Sunshine for at least 21 years. It's one of my favorite Thai noodle houses in Los Angeles, both for nostalgia/familiarity's sake, but also because it's just damn good. They roast the rice powder for their larb gai themselves rather than using the packaged stuff, and take real pride in their food. Sunshine has passed on, but his great-niece, Amy Thonglai, her husband, the chef, along with other members of the three-generation-run hole-in-the-wall keep the place running efficiently. Even the members of the staff who aren't family feel like they are. I get a big smile and sometimes even a hug every time I walk in. It's also one of the few restaurants in town that serves that sweet Thai kanom/dessert of sweetened and salty coconut milk with tapioca, taro, and jackfruit.
There are innumerable fabulous Thai restaurants in Los Angeles. But none of them serve pad woon sen as delicious as Sunshine does. When out with friends, I always see woon sen noodles overlooked for pad see ew, which is made with a thick noodle made of rice, not mung bean flour, as the pad wood sen noodles are. I'm not sure what it is that they do at Sunshine--but the bean thread noodles never clump together as they often do elsewhere. There's always a perfect sear to the noodles, which is tough to do with something that's had to rehydrate in water. I asked Amy once how their woon sen is so good, and she began waxing on about how she decided to change suppliers of something-or-other tomato-y that goes in the sauce. I haven't found any English-language recipes that even include anything tomato-y for the sauce, so for now, it remains a mystery.
Mandilli Di Seta (The pesto pasta) at Factory Kitchen:
Jonathan Gold loves this dish too. It's no wonder. It's the first picture on the restaurant's website, and they do it insanely well. The pasta is like eating a silk handkerchief made of carbohydrates. I likened it to certain favorite sex acts the first time I tried it, so you know eating it is a pleasurable experience. The mouthfeel of the pasta is so silken it almost doesn't make sense. The pesto is a typical Genovese/Ligurian one, and is so smooth, it doesn't even remotely resemble the dark green mass-produced jarred or even refrigerated sauce at your local Trader Joe's.
Having never been to that part of Italy, I can't compare, but I've had the dish elsewhere in California (Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa serves a similarly idyllic one), and have been told by Italians from Liguria of its authenticity. Regardless, it's one of the best pasta dishes in the city.
Pork Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung
(ROC Kitchen's Xiao long Bao come in 2nd)
Everyone who knows me gets that I seem to be into the cool food trends before they gain mass appeal. I attribute it to my love of travel, but things like rooibos, boba, rum, organ oil, fancy gin, kanom kroc, and yes--xiao long bao, I've loved for years before they became popular.
Every self-respecting food-lover in Los Angeles was making the trek to Monterey Park long before the Glendale, Irvine, or Century City locations were open, and every one of them knows that while every dish on the menu is great, it's the juicy pork dumplings that are the epitome of the perfect bite. Tons of places all over the San Gabriel Valley and beyond now serve the bao, but no single restaurant (except ROC Kitchen, which in my opinion is a close 2nd) actually makes as delicately thin a skin that still stays together. Or as well-balanced a filling. Many of the restaurants in the area use too much sugar IMHO, and DTF's Taiwanese take on the Shanghainese dumpling has taken it from wonderful to perfection.
The "Philly Cheesesteak" at Jose Andres's The Bazaar.
Every restaurant has its heyday, and it's likely the The Bazaar's was over by 2013 or so (some might even say 2010 or so, but the rest of us might be hangers on). But that doesn't mean that the two bites it takes to eat the "philly cheesesteak" has stopped being some of the best two bites ever. The restaurant fascinated me for a few years after it opened, because it was the most "LA" place I'd ever been, and I've lived in LA for 32 or my 36 years on the planet. It's almost a caricature of Los Angeles in and of itself, from the overpriced trinkets on the North side of the restaurant to the over-dressed clientele, to the fact that there's a menu of--get this-- artisanal WATERS. It's a ridiculous display from the mandrill that greets you at the hostess stand to the molecular gastronomic frozen caipirinha frozen tableside with liquid nitrogen.
But none of that even matters when the food is delicious, and the two mouthfuls it takes to scarf Jose Andrés' tribute to the Philadelphia classic might be the two best on its menu. The dish is basically a Fiscalini cheddar espuma and onion jam stuffed inside a pita "airbread", topped with wagyu A4 strip loin. If that doesn't intrigue you, just know that every publication from the LA Times, LA Weekly, Eater, even KCET, have written about the dish. It's $13 (up from $10, then $11), but I swear one of these days I'm just going to go there and order ten of them, with nothing else but their passionfruit cocktail.
Bean-Balaya at Bayou Grille
There's jambalaya. There's red beans and rice. You won't find any food magazines raving about either for most Los Angeles Creole or Cajun restaurants. And yet, although I've extolled the virtues of Bayou's chicken wings for years (I think they make some of the city's best), when I think of the restaurant, it's their bean-balaya that I order every single time I'm there. A mix of their creamy red beans and their flavorful jambalaya, the dish has the best of both worlds. It's got chicken, sausage, rice, beans, and all the flavor to go along with it. Order the dish at lunch, because by dinnertime the rice of the jambalaya will have been sitting for longer and can sometimes be a little drier. And it's the most filling $5 you'll spend that's not in the form of a burrito from a food truck.
Chapin Ceviche from La Cevicheria
Although Jonathan Gold and other food writers will tell you to get the bloody clams, since I'm the one who first took Jonathan Gold here, I feel I can actually argue for the Chapin ceviche with authority.
There were meager but loving reviews on Yelp when I first stopped in La Cevicheria nearly ten years ago (now there are over 700). This (relative) hole-in-the-wall is run by husband and wife team Carolina and Julio, two of the warmest and most welcoming proprietors you'll ever meet, and frequented mostly for lunch by those who work and lives in the area. And while all the ceviche is fresh and fantastic, from those beloved bloody clams to the Peruvian (and the caribbean mariscada is my second favorite dish on the menu), Carolina and Julio are Guatemalan immigrants, so the Chapin, a name that in Guatemala means "Guatemalan" is really the thing to get here (with the fresh limeade, tres leches cake, and Carolina's epic house-made habanero hot sauce). The Chapin comes with fish, shrimp, octopus, and imitation crab, and has mint, worcestershire sauce, and some other wizardry in it. I order it without the imitation crab. Served with tostadas, it's one of the healthiest, most magically great dishes in Mid-City. Make sure you say hello to the owners and tell them with love that Sarita sent you.
Veggie Sope at Tacos Chabelitas
It took my best friend Erin taking me to Tacos Chabelitas for me to notice the lovingly muraled, 24-hour eatery on Western. I'm sure there's more to write here, but just order yourself a veggie sope to start and you'll be off the the races. Also, you can get as many as you want, any time you want, 'cause they're cheap and it's open 24 hours! You're welcome. ;)
Mom and pop shop (though it's actually mom and daughter) Harriet's as been around longer than most millennials. Regulars will tell you to go for the praline, but to me, that's gilding the lily. This is the thick, rich stuff that you want, not the delicate French stuff that's popular all over central Asia and the San Gabriel Valley. Pick up a whole cheesecake and you'll giggle at the weight of it. It tastes even better than it looks. And don't even think of trying to get a slice the week or two before Thanksgiving and Christmas. That's when they do a huge bulk business, because everyone for miles places orders for the holidays. So put your order in in advance. Cash only. Goes well after Phillip's next door, if you have the stomach room.