I lived in, and loved, Los Angeles for about nine years, so I can get away with saying this: Very little is more Los Angeles than a strip mall. These asphalt-dominated bastions of cheapness and parking sum up so much about what I love and hate about the city. They’re ugly and kitschy, yet they leave room for weird, unexpected, often wonderful surprises, hidden right under your nose.
It’s no secret that the city’s strip malls have long been strongholds for splendid, affordable, traditional ethnic restaurants, including some of my very favorites: Jitlada (Thai), Carousel (Armenian), Polka (Polish) and Yuca’s (Mexican). But now they’re home to edgy, ultracreative establishments, a new generation of dining inspired by an eclectic range of traditions.
Perhaps it’s a backlash against all the overworked hipsterism: the gourmet pickles, charred radicchio, blackened steel and repurposed wood (thanks, Brooklyn and Silver Lake). Perhaps it’s the low rents, which allow chefs to experiment without all the pressure. And perhaps it’s nostalgia for a lost time, and a building typology that has been pronounced dead and anti-urban, and is actively being replaced by glossy, generic, mixed-use mid-rises with underground parking. Whatever the reason, strip malls offer an escape through their sheer cheesiness, ugliness, unhealthy food, surface parking and drop ceilings.
They are now filled with hot new restaurants that are worth the drive. (Yes, you probably have to drive to get to them.) Like so much in Los Angeles, you need to know where to look.
So I took a grand tour, scouting in my appropriately beat-up Hyundai Sonata, which has been scoffed at, at the Chateau Marmont, but feels at home in a shopping plaza offering Thai massage, liquor, videos (yes videos) and adult products. It’s exactly these settings that make the trip so much fun. The strip mall is a step back into a fluorescent-lit world that is quickly disappearing, in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
My first stop was Chego, one of the newest offerings from the restaurateur and food-truck king Roy Choi (of Kogi, A-Frame, Pot and others). It is tucked in the strange and wonderful Chinatown, in Far East Plaza, a double-level strip mall that contains law offices and dozens of kitschy Asian shops (how many pieces of panda paraphernalia would you like? A calendar? A 3-D lenticular print?). The mall still maintains its gloriously 1970s and ’80s orange and yellow tile floors and walls, curved kiosks and fiberglass drop ceilings. You can either sit inside the restaurants on metal stools or lounge in the common area on communal picnic tables covered in floral vinyl tablecloths.
Chego is not a destination for health food. But if you’re in the mood for beer-battered “ooey gooey fries,” covered in melted Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses and topped with chiles, get moving. I tried some of my friends’ food, getting a taste of Tiny’s Prime Rib Rice Plate (diced prime rib served over white rice), the Chubby Belly Pork Belly Bowl (with pork belly, kochujang-lacquered kurobuta rice and fried egg) and the Beefy T Bowl (diced prime rib over hot chili fried rice). All were hearty, fatty and satisfying, although a little too salty. Be sure to close out with the tres leches cake and the sriracha candy bar. Or try Scoops ice cream, a few doors down, especially if you want specialty flavors like brown bread, ricotta apple pie and goat cheese lavender.
A strip mall empire of sorts is being built by the chefs and restaurateurs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook (Animal, Son of a Gun and Jon and Vinny’s) and the French chef Ludo Lefebvre (Ludo Bird and Ludobites pop-ups). In order to get into one of their newest collaborations, the super-popular Petit Trois, I had to go really late. On Highland Avenue at the south end of Hollywood, it is one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles; its younger brother next door, Trois Mec, is perhaps the hardest place to get into in the city (more on that later). Both are in a squat complex with drive-up parking, white cinder-block walls and the fake Spanish tiles that are so common in these parts.
If you’re in the mood for ridiculously rich French food, Petit Trois is ideal. You enter a narrow room and sit at one of the counters on either side. I was happy to take a place on the side with the open kitchen, getting a view of the chefs in action and talking to them while they worked. (A big advantage of strip mall restaurants is their intimacy, along with kitchens that are often open.) I soaked in the extraordinary smells and the loud music until the bread came, piping hot. Topped with creamy salted butter, it was possibly the best bread I’ve ever had (and I was born in France).
Then came the courses, each more decadent than the last. I recommend the French onion soup, which was a vessel for extraordinary Gruyère. Then I devoured the famed Big Mec, a double cheeseburger you can barely pick up, covered in caramelized onions, garlic aioli, American cheese and a red-wine sauce infused, it seemed, with more than a little foie gras. My stomach was painfully full the rest of the night, and I had strange dreams after eating so late. But I was just getting started.
My next stop came two days later, for brunch, at another collaboration between Mr. Dotolo, Mr. Shook and Mr. Lefebvre: Trois Familia, which advertises its food as “French Mexican,” in a strip mall near Sunset Junction in Silver Lake. Make sure to get there early to put your name in. If you can clear the waiting hurdle (maybe go to Baskin-Robbins next door while you wait?), you’ll land in a great place. Especially if you’re missing funky ’70s graphics (à la “The Electric Company” and “Mellow Yellow”), bookshelves full of ’70s and ’80s records, Abba and Bon Jovi playing on the loudspeakers, and salmon and blue pastel colors. The restaurant replaced a neighborhood staple, Alegria, a pioneer in fine strip mall dining.
Two pieces of advice:
1) Order the churro French toast, topped with vanilla ice cream, which perfectly combines the warm, sweet gooeyness of churros with the cinnamon elegance of French toast. They’re perfectly light, but still over the top.
2) Order more than you think you should. Portions aren’t huge, but they pack a wallop, from the poached egg with edible flowers and grits with crispy “crackle” to the grits with mushrooms and crème fraîche to the breakfast burritos, Frenchified with jambon de Paris and a touch of truffle salt. By the way, the clientele here is almost uniformly attractive. You wonder if that waiting list is rigged.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is Baroo, in a no man’s land on the outer edges of Hollywood, in a strip mall that contains, among other things, a 7-Eleven, ABC Nails, Flor’s Hair Studio and La Pupusa Loca. The sign for Baroo is left mysteriously, and somehow appropriately, blank over a large glass storefront wall. Inside, the décor is perfectly minimal, with white walls, downlighting, a neon “open” sign and communal seating that feels charmingly laid back. Grab your drinks from the fridge and have a seat. The chef, Kwang Uh, worked in kitchens in Asia and in Europe before settling on a spot that he still says is temporary. He and his sous chef work the cash register, serve the food and take orders. This seems a recipe for burnout, but it feels as if you’re eating at their home, and it’s perfect.
The food is extraordinary, a mix of exotic and familiar ingredients, forming utterly new tastes, textures and colors. Noorook, for instance, a dish of fermented grains, contains Job’s tears (still not sure what they are), kamut, farro, roasted koji beet crème, concentrated kombu dashi, toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds, macadamia nuts, finger lime and rose onion pickle. What any of these things have to do with one another is anyone’s guess. But the result is startlingly delicious, hitting your brain’s receptors like a jackpot.
And so it goes down the whole menu, including desserts of butter citrus bursts with cacao and shortbread, the highest of haute cuisine in the most down-to-earth way. Go here soon. Before it closes. But be warned, Mr. Uh is a bit touchy about large groups. He wants everyone to have a turn.
It’s tough to follow up on Baroo, but Papilles was up to the task. In a strip mall on the edge of Beachwood Canyon, near the entry ramp to the 101 freeway and next to Wacky Wok, which serves “New York-style Chinese cuisine,” the super-cozy, no-frills establishment makes you feel immediately at home. The walls are lined with wine bottles, plywood shelves, dark wood, large photographs and worn-in bench seats.
The owner and chef, Santos Uy, cooks right in front of you. And the comfort French food is superb, from the ultracreamy mashed potatoes to the velvety cauliflower velouté and perfectly cooked steak. I obliterated my plate, and proceeded to come back another time with my parents.
I know, I know, what’s with all the Dotolo-Shook-Lefebvre restaurants? But it’s impossible to mention strip mall dining in Los Angeles without trying the king of them all, Trois Mec. As I mentioned, it is right next to Petit Trois, and the only clue that you’ve reached your destination is a glowing yellow sign, edged with flashing white light bulbs, for Raffallo’s Pizza & Italian Foods. Raffallo’s no longer exists, and a paper flyer that says “NO MORE PIZZA” is posted out front to help the confused.
The minimally designed, elegant space, which seats only a few diners at a time, has the most inventive food I’ve had in a city that’s becoming known for it. It’s risky combining this wild range of ingredients unless you really know what you’re doing. Some examples on a recent night: White chocolate potato soufflé with caramelized eel. Veal, cauliflower porridge, cinnamon, dates. Carrot tartar, citrus, puffed quinoa, cumin.
You get the idea. Altogether a spectacular, adventurous meal for the adventurous strip mall diner. And the perfect ending to a trip to a world that’s quickly changing, as similar establishments pop up all the time. Fine dining doesn’t need to be in fine settings anymore. In fact, it’s more fun if it’s not.