From Michelin-starred restaurants to holes-in-the-wall serving authentic cuisines from around the world, Southern California boasts the country’s most dynamic and diverse food scene. The fine dining restaurants are easy to identify. But trying to find the hidden gems tucked away in mini-malls stretched out on the long boulevards of Los Angeles and Orange County takes perseverance, patience, and experimentation. And sometimes just blind luck.
Off Menu, a new video series launched by Los Angeles Times food columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson, aims to both celebrate and demystify Southern California’s culinary culture. As Peterson explains during the most recent California Now Podcast, he found inspiration in what he called “the most exciting” eating city in the country, as well as the pioneering work of Jonathan Gold, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic and L.A. icon.
“He was really the first restaurant critic to highlight the underappreciated, unsung restaurants, the Salvadoran and Guatemalan restaurants and the Laotian places and things that maybe aren’t on people’s radars. He put those cuisines into people’s minds,” says Peterson. Peterson continues Gold’s tradition by showcasing the rich range of cuisines that locals and out-of-towners can savor—if they know where to go. Looking for something new and different? Here’s a sampling of Peterson’s dining recommendations from Off Menu.
Little Saigon in Orange County
The mini-malls of Little Saigon, an area of Garden Grove and Westminster, offer what Peterson describes as “an incredible Vietnamese food scene. Just some of the best in the country, bar none. Possibly in the world, other than Vietnam.” In Off Menu’s Little Saigon episode, chef Shawn Pham guides Peterson to Bien Hen, which specializes in “Vietnamese drinking food,” including a fried catfish that’s “tender, flaky, and juicy.”
Peterson also travels to a “fantastic restaurant” named Banh Cuon Luu Luyen, which originally operated out of a family home. “They were preparing these rolls that are filled with pork and herbs, or rice sheets that almost look like a ravioli. But inside would be ground pork or ground shrimp…They saved enough money that they could open a restaurant. It’s a wonderful story and it’s also just incredible food. Very inexpensive, very fresh, and very delicious.”
Glendale’s Little Armenia
Southern California has the largest Armenian population outside of Europe and the city of Glendale is considered the hub of the community. Peterson touts Glendale’s Mini Kabob, a restaurant operated by two generations of the Martirosyan family. As the name suggests, the restaurant is tiny and known for its delectable grilled meats; Peterson recommends both the “wonderfully seasoned” chicken kabobs, as well as the beef kabobs.
“They’ve got such a fantastic, family dynamic as they’re making food in the kitchen every day in this, I think, three-table restaurant,” he says. “The food is incredible.”
South Asian Dining in Artesia’s Little India
For South Asian and Indian food, Peterson recommends a stretch of about 10 blocks in Artesia, a town on the border of Orange and Los Angeles counties. He heads down to Little India with Nakul and Arjun Mahendro, as well as their father Pawan; the family runs Badmaash, a pair of acclaimed Indian restaurants in Los Angeles.
The Mahendros take Peterson to a spot called Julio’s Pizza for a surprising chicken tikka pizza and Podi Dosa, a favorite of Pawan’s for its dosas. Then there’s Surati Farsan Mart, where the specialties include jalebi—what Peterson calls “a tangled mess of deep-fried flour covered in a sugary syrup.” Describing their Artesia adventures, Peterson says, “We go crazy with the Indian food. We get these dosas that are the size of aircraft carriers. If you have ever seen a dosa, you know. It’s that thin, crepe-like thing that’s sometimes stuffed with potatoes.”