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Los Angeles is Home to the Best Burrito in America

Los Angeles is Home to the Best Burrito in America


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When you think about it, the burrito might be the world’s most perfect food. All the food groups are covered with nearly endless combinations of ingredients, and best of all, the whole dish is handheld and doesn’t even require, well—a dish.

For our second-annual ranking of the best ones found in America, we looked at burritos from all across the country and applied several strict criteria: Are all the ingredients fresh? Is there a good selection of meats and add-ons? Can you customize your order, right down to the amount of crema squeezed on top? Is it renowned by critics and locals alike in its city? We didn’t set out to rank the places to buy a burrito; we ranked the burritos themselves, but we know that you don’t buy a burrito in a void. So when you drive by this place does your mouth immediately start to water, forcing you to impulsively pull over and, before you know it, you’re diving face-first into the burrito of your dreams?

Those are the burritos we went looking for, and after compiling an extensive list, sent a survey to journalists and food writers across the country, as well as renowned chefs that are a part of our Culinary Council. Chefs who participated in the survey and will allow their names to be used include Jonathan Waxman (a native Californian with extensive burrito experience) and Cesare Casella (who brings an Italian-rustic viewpoint to the subject). Although there could only be one winner, we found plenty of delectable specimens being made across America, including in Los Angeles.

Raved about by famished travelers and locals alike, the chile relleno burrito at La Azteca Tortilleria is a thing of beauty and a destination unto itself. They offer other options like carnitas and carne asada, but the cheese-stuffed, perfectly fried chile relleno that makes up the bulk of this burrito is what sets it apart, elevating the humble poblano to heights of Tex-Mex greatness (while you’re at it, you might as well have them add some carne asada to it as well). It’s everything you look for in Tex-Mex cuisine all in one perfect bite, and it’s nothing short of the best burrito in America.

The culinary masterpiece is not only the best in the country, it’s the uncontested best in L.A., as not another example from The City of Angels was named on out list. Angelinos also get bragging rights over their NoCal neighbors in San Francisco, as their La Taqueria’s carnitas burrito fell just short of gold and took the #2 spot instead.


The Search for The Best Burrito in America is Over

Not all burritos are created equal—just ask Nate Silver.򠯯ore the statistician accurately predicted the last two presidential elections, the self-described 𠇋urritophile” attempted to find਌hicago’s best burrito𠅋ut Silver quit before਌ompleting his quest.

Then, Silver brought back the Burrito Bracketꃪrly this year, setting his  sights on a far bigger goal: crowning a national burrito champion.

On his website,ਏiveThirtyEight, silver evaluated ꁧ,391 burrito-selling establishments with the help ofਏood experts, and selected 64 of the nation’s top਋urritos to compete in the search for  America’s best .

Since then, j ournalist  Anna Maria Barry-Jester  (the Bracket’s taster and official burrito correspondent)  has traveled more than 20,000 miles around the United States and eaten 84 burritos in two rounds. Tough life.

So, who took the title of America’s Best Burrito? None other than  La Taqueria in San Francisco ‘ s Mission District.

We appreciate theਏiveThirtyEight team’s determination to declare the best burrito in America, but we have to ask: Why do  they cut burritos lengthwise? It’s monstrous.

Plus, it kind of looks like…well, we’ll let BuzzFeedFood editor Rachel Sanders say what we’re all thinking.

Here’s a video of the FiveThirtyEight ਋urrito correspondent describing the “juicy but not messy” ingredients found within the La Taqueria burrito. “It’s a technical masterpiece,” saysꂺrry-Jester .

Head toਏiveThirtyEight to see videos of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place burritos, which can be found at: Delicious Mexican Eatery in El Paso, TX Al & Bea’s in Los Angeles, CA Taqueria Tlaxcalli in Bronx, NY.


Taco Maria (3)

At his Costa Mesa restaurant, Carlos Salgado’s cooking is intellectual, syncretic and modernist, bound up in personal history, heritage and years of fine-dining training. You can see these disparate forces at work on the Taco Maria lunch menu, when you can try Salgado’s cooking a la carte recently there was aguachile made with Hokkaido scallops wood-fired pork cheek glazed in dark sugar and ancho-almond mole draped over Jidori chicken. Salgado’s culinary vision is most fully expressed at dinner, when the restaurant switches to a taco-centric, four-course tasting-menu format.

3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444, tacomaria.com

Carlos Salgado on his journey to becoming a chef and embracing his heritage, taken from a talk he gave at Mesamérica L.A.


II. Region: North Pacific Coast


Aguachile made with the freshest shrimp in L.A.

Target states: Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima

Styles and traditions: This is one of the handful of regions that puts L.A. miles ahead of everyone else. We have strong representation here with our local Mexican seafood restaurants sourcing products fresher than you can get at the Water Grill, Trois Mec, or Providence. The beach cuisines of Nayarit and Sinaloa are all over South Central L.A. serving aguachiles (raw shrimp cooked in lime and chili), shrimp ceviche, callo de hacha (pen-shell clams), and cooked shrimp dishes like camarones a la diabla and camarones culichis (jalapeno cream sauce). Pescado zarandeado with imported snook and sea bream is plentiful, and there are Sinaloan fondas serving chilorio (spicy pork stew), white menudo, and enchiladas del suelo.

From Jalisco there’s goat birria, tortas ahogadas (sandwich rolled in fiery salsa), shrimp tacos, tacos de canasta, tacos dorados (fried shell tacos), and flautas, tacos de fritanga, and there are even places to get Colima-style fish ceviche and pescado a la talla (whole barbecued fish). From Escuinapa Sinaloa, we’ve got shrimp tamales, tixithuil (shrimp mole), and it’s as easy finding pirate DVDs at a tianguis (open air market) to come across pen-shell clams, which are among the best seafood products in Mexico.


Spicy tortas ahogada at Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara

Where to get it: The Cosio’s family recipes and superior seafood products make Coni’Seafood (3544 W Imperial Hwy, 310-672-2339) a top Nayarit-style seafood restaurant for pristine aguachiles verdes, shrimp ceviches,਌ooked dishes like camarones a la diabla, and pescado zarandeado from the grill.ਏrom the nearby state of Sinaloa, Mariscos El Cristalazo (1665 N Hacienda Blvd, 626-918-086) delivers the very specific cuisine of Escuinapa like shrimp tamales and tixtihuil. The world-famous Mariscos Jalisco (3040 E Olympic Blvd,򠌣-528-6701) truck serves amazing shrimp tacos and ceviches from owner Raul Ortega’s home town of San Juan de Los Lagos. Huntington Park’s Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara (6042 Santa Fe Ave, 323-587-3115) serves the best tortas ahogadas in L.A., and also showcases a full menu of Jaliscan beef barbacoa tacos, carne en su jugo, and pig-foot tostadas.


The Search For America’s Best Burrito Starts in California

We were nearly eight hours into the Burrito Selection Committee meeting, and it was raining buckets outside as the afternoon submitted to dark, menacing clouds. All day we had been casting votes for our favorite burrito joints in America. Now we were gathered around a tiny television screen screwed into the wall, watching an Excel spreadsheet translate the final round of those votes into rankings.

The list of America&rsquos 64 best burritos was complete, but we still faced the task of seeding the top four in the California region. This was a big decision. California burritos are so good that the top four seeds in the state would arguably be the top four in the nation.

After eight hours and 12 rounds of voting, the committee still had enough fight left in it to haggle over the choice. At least half of the six members felt that San Francisco&rsquos La Taqueria was the favorite to win and therefore deserved the top ranking. But Yelp rankings and perennial placement on top 10 lists in the local and national press made nearby El Farolito the favorite among some of the data-reverent members.

Should historic consensus or the Burrito Selection Committee reign supreme? Which restaurant would be the top seed for America&rsquos Best Burrito?

Clockwise from top left: David Chang, Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Nate Silver, Gustavo Arellano.

In March, the Burrito Selection Committee&rsquos six burrito fanatics and experts gathered in a conference room above the golf practice stalls at New York City&rsquos Chelsea Piers. Our goal was essentially to do the impossible: identify, in a single day, the top 64 burritos in America. Once selected, the establishments that sell these burritos would be placed in an NCAA-tournament-style bracket of four regions, with 16 restaurants in each region.

I am FiveThirtyEight&rsquos burrito correspondent. My job, if you can call it a job, is to visit all 64 restaurants, eat a burrito at each one, rate the burritos and decide which will advance to the next round of competition. Round 2 will yield 16 burritos, from which (after more eating) I will choose the final four.

The third, and final, round will produce America&rsquos Best Burrito.

But first we had to make the list of the top 64 burrito-selling establishments (BSEs). The members of the Burrito Selection Committee brought impeccable credentials and unique vantage points. Each of the Burrito Bracket&rsquos four regions (California, West, South and Northeast) had its own representative:

  • Gustavo Arellano is El Californiano. He wrote the book on Mexican food in the U.S., &ldquoTaco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.&rdquo He is an editor at OC Weekly and has a syndicated column called &ldquoAsk A Mexican.&rdquo The New York Times called him &ldquoperhaps the greatest (and only) living scholar of Mexican-American fast food.&rdquo
  • Jeffrey Pilcher, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, is The Academic. He wrote a book on the history of Mexican food and its movement around the world. He&rsquos eaten Mexican food in just about every country where you can find it, but conducted intense local food research while completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Southwest. He is representing the West.
  • Bill Addison, The Food Critic, represents the South. He once ate 100 burritos (and 300 tacos) in 10 weeks to find the best taqueria in the Bay Area. He&rsquos also worked at top publications around the country: The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Magazine and, most recently, Eater, in addition to serving as a board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
  • Representing the Northeast is The Chef, David Chang, founder and owner of Momofuku Restaurant Group and winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef Award. Chang has made a big name in food by bringing slow fast food to the masses, and he&rsquos a closet burrito obsessive.
  • Then there&rsquos Nate Silver, El Padrino and FiveThirtyEight&rsquos editor in chief. Back in 2007, just before FiveThirtyEight was born, Nate created a Burrito Bracket to assess the taquerias in his neighborhood in Chicago. Then FiveThirtyEight took off and the Burrito Bracket lay dormant for six years. Now it&rsquos back, but it&rsquos gone national.
  • And finally there&rsquos me, The Decider. I&rsquove spent most of the last decade living and working abroad as a visual journalist, training myself in the art of street and popular food in the process. I fall more into the &ldquofanatic&rdquo than &ldquoexpert&rdquo category I&rsquom not a food critic (I&rsquom most often a health reporter, and generally write about food more from the perspective of obesity), but I have put in my time when it comes to eating burritos. I have a degree in Latin American Studies and work at Univision, and have spent years reporting on Hispanics in the United States.

We had agreed on a painstaking process of decision-making. We divided the country into four regions based on Mexican-American population, the number of taquerias in the Yellow Pages and searches for burritos on Google.Then we gathered Yelp data on 67,391 burrito-selling establishments across the United States. Nate &mdash I mean, El Padrino &mdash borrowed a statistic from baseball to create a score for each restaurant. Just as Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) measures a player against one who might replace him, Value Over Replacement Burrito (VORB) accounts for quality and quantity of Yelp reviews, while adjusting for location (factoring in the extent to which different geographical areas use Yelp, as well as how different locations rank chain Mexican restaurants). More on that in Nate&rsquos Burrito Bracket manifesto.

A spreadsheet with scores for all of the BSEs was distributed to the committee. Each regional representative studied the VORB rankings and worked his sources to create a cheat sheet of recommended restaurants for inclusion in the bracket. 1 Everyone took a slightly different approach: Chang called chef friends all over the Northeast while Arellano tapped into his mental Rolodex, since he&rsquos visited an inordinate number of BSEs in California. Addison culled through personal experiences, spoke to other food critics and cross-referenced against trusted sources. Pilcher looked at the notes from writing his book and spoke to food historians across the West. El Padrino and I scoured the data and other online sources, and I spoke to dozens of food-lovers around the country.

We were left with hundreds of potential BSEs, and a single day to create a list of 64. (Note: We didn&rsquot want to bias our voting that day at Chelsea Piers, so we ate tacos instead of burritos for lunch. It verges on cruel and unusual punishment to talk about burritos for eight hours straight and not be allowed to eat them.) I&rsquoll roll out the list in four articles, starting with this one on the most competitive region of all: California.

Originally, it seemed bold to make California its own region in the Burrito Bracket. One state out of 50 getting a quarter of the spots? But a closer look at the data revealed that a fairer division might have been Northern California, Southern California and the rest of the country split in two. California has 26,911 BSEs on Yelp, by far the most of any region (for comparison, there are 15,753 in the entire Northeast, the region with the second-highest count). California also displays an overwhelming advantage in VORB scores, approximately double the strength of the Northeast and West, and about four times that of the South.

While California&rsquos burrito obsession is obvious, whether it can lay claim to the dish is a more of a mystery.

The difficulty of finding the burrito&rsquos geographical birthplace is partly a result of the shifting winds of history in the sands of the Sonoran desert. Burritos were almost definitely born in modern-day Mexico&rsquos state of Sonora, but first identified by the written word as a food item in California in the late 19th century, according to Jeffrey Pilcher, The Academic. California was part of the Spanish crown&rsquos claim for over a century, and then belonged to Mexico when the Republic declared independence in 1821. Even after the United States annexed the Golden State in 1848 (the same year that gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains &mdash coincidence?), its cuisine has always been most directly tied to the borderlands.

Corn tortillas were eaten by indigenous communities throughout what is now Mexico and the American Southwest long before the arrival of Europeans. The invaders deemed corn peasant food, preferring wheat-flour tortillas, which have remained the more popular mode of food conveyance along Mexico&rsquos northern border, while corn reigns supreme farther south. Flour tortillas were key to the genesis of the burrito they can carry a larger quantity of goods, keep longer and are more portable than corn tortillas. The colonial ties to wheat flour also have unfairly called into question the &ldquoauthenticity&rdquo of burritos as Mexican fare.

Defining what is Mexican when it comes to food requires nuance and historical perspective. Burritos are rooted in Mexican food, and California has promulgated them since their creation.

El Padrino speaks

California is the region where the members of the BSC have the most personal experience. Between our first-hand knowledge and the robust Yelp data, we came to the California vote with excitement, trepidation, and a lot of opinions.

Gustavo Arellano, California&rsquos regional expert, preempted the vote with an animated overview of his favorite California burritos. A food writer himself, his cheat sheet for the meeting came with hilarious and mouthwatering descriptions: &ldquoa forearm of gluttony,&rdquo &ldquosometimes, a bean and cheese with red sauce is the only thing you need in this world,&rdquo and &ldquolike the Mission burrito except without pretension.&rdquo

An important disclaimer before we go forward: There were many restaurants in California that didn&rsquot make the bracket but would have been strong contenders for a top seed in other regions. We&rsquore only human, and California&rsquos burritos are divine.

For the top seed, several BSC members voiced support for La Taqueria in San Francisco&rsquos Mission District. It&rsquos a classic Mission-style burrito (defined by its massive girth, hefty portions and tin foil encasement) and it&rsquos prepared to perfection. But just a block down on Mission Street, El Farolito also has the die-hard support of the masses &mdash at 20.7, its VORB is the highest in the country. These restaurants had much in common, and yet were worlds apart if you asked the BSC. It was clear to us that they would occupy the top two seeds nationally, but in which order?

Nate was silent, fingertips pressed together in concentration and giving us a look we could all now interpret it was time for one of El Padrino&rsquos &ldquoI speak for the data&rdquo speeches. I was in his camp this time, leaning towards El Farolito for No. 1, but the regional experts clearly outnumbered us. Nate held court, invoking top 10 lists, burrito bloggers and the incredibly high VORB of El Farolito. Nate&rsquos debate skills were on full display, and after glances around the room, a final, unanimous vote was taken. El Farolito would be ranked No. 1.

Seeds three and four are not Mission-style burritos, and were selected quickly and easily in the first round of voting. Lolita&rsquos Taco Shop in San Diego is said to have descended from the family that invented the California-style burrito (meat, cheese and potato in the form of french fries). Manuel&rsquos Original El Tepeyac is a Los Angeles institution, serving up &ldquoHollenbeck burritos,&rdquo massive and smothered in green chili, since 1955. We&rsquod made it past the first round, but in many ways the worst was yet to come.

The unseeded 12 burritos were incredibly difficult choices. Arellano pointed us to many restaurants we&rsquod never heard of, and we all had personal favorites. Online sources and reviews are populated by burrito zealots it&rsquos hard to know what to believe. But the underlying problem is that the options are essentially endless, and so good. It took a long time to sift through the noise, and to find a geographical distribution we felt comfortable with. The selections fell into one of three categories: classics, diversity picks and those with Yelp and expert support.

First, let&rsquos talk about diversity. There&rsquos a lot of burrito variety in California: Mission burritos, classics like bean and cheese, California-style burritos, breakfast burritos, seafood burritos. While we&rsquore searching for the most delicious burritos, we also recognize that if Mission-style Burrito A is clearly better than Mission-style Burrito B, then including both A and B will turn up a clear winner, A, while including more variety of style has the potential for an upset. The BSC decided it was important to include some geographic diversity, to represent the various styles and contributions to burrito culture of the Golden State. This created a difficult situation in the Bay Area, where Mission&ndashstyle burritos are almost ubiquitous.

Two restaurants that were favored early, Guerrilla Tacos and Lupe&rsquos (both in Los Angeles), were both cut after long debate. David Chang swears Guerrilla Tacos is doing something that will change the way we think about Mexican food. But it&rsquos known for tacos, and we could find no evidence of the quality of the burritos. Despite strong sixth senses that they would be marvelous, we just had too many restaurants from LA.

In an effort to bring in diversity of style and geography, we came to some unexpected choices: Chando&rsquos Tacos in Sacramento, Rosa Maria&rsquos garbage burrito in the Inland Empire, Spencer Makenzie&rsquos (a fish restaurant that also serves tacos and burritos) in Ventura and Dos Chinos in Costa Mesa, an Asian-Latino fusion superstar. None would have made it on VORB score alone, but expert knowledge and an offer of something very different won each establishment a place in the bracket.

Then there were the other must-have classics that didn&rsquot make the top seeds: Athenian III has been named best breakfast burrito by OC Weekly. Al & Bea&rsquos is a Los Angeles classic and, according to Arellano, also a personal favorite of Jonathan Gold, a food critic for the Los Angeles Times and the first of his profession to ever win the Pulitzer Prize. La Azteca Tortilleria, also in Los Angeles, is a regular at the top of burrito lists with its legendary chile relleno burritos.

Finally, there were five restaurants with high VORB scores that either received the support of the BSC or had enough historic clout to be included: El Chato Taco Truck in Los Angeles, Lucha Libre in San Diego, El Zarape in San Diego, Taqueria Cancun in San Francisco and HRD Coffee Shop in San Francisco.

With nearly 27,000 burrito-selling establishments in California, each with its own ardent followers, we knew we were going to upset some folks. After the meeting, I asked Arellano if he was afraid of the inevitable pushback from his constituents, the burrito-loving masses of Southern California. He told me he was proud of our selection.

&ldquoI think as a reflection of burrito culture in California, it&rsquos a fabulous list. We have everything from the obvious ones: San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, to places that deserve a little more respect, like Inland Empire, Ventura, Sacramento,&rdquo he said. &ldquoMy all-time favorite burrito, El Castillito in San Francisco &mdash it didn&rsquot make the list. At some point, I had to put aside my feelings and look at the hard truth. There&rsquos a difference in my mind between my favorite burrito and the best burrito. My favorite burrito is El Castillito, but I think the most perfect burrito in the United States is La Taqueria. For what it is, it is magnificent.&rdquo

This won&rsquot be the last time you hear mention of El Castillito.

California Region

El Farolito (No. 1 seed)
2779 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
VORB score: 20.7

La Taqueria (No. 2 seed)
2889 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
VORB score: 14.2

Lolita&rsquos Taco Shop (No. 3 seed)
7305 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92111
VORB score: 14.5

Manuel&rsquos Original El Tepeyac Cafe (No. 4 seed)
812 N Evergreen Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90033
VORB score: 13.0

Al & Bea&rsquos Mexican Food
2025 E 1st St.
Los Angeles, CA 90033
VORB score: 10.7

Athenian III
8511 La Palma Ave.
Buena Park, CA 90620
VORB score: 4.5

La Azteca Tortilleria
4538 E Cesar E. Chavez Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90022
VORB score: 9.4

Chando&rsquos Tacos
863 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95816
VORB score: 9.1

El Chato Taco Truck
5300 W Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019
VORB score: 15.3

Dos Chinos
Food truck, no fixed location
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
VORB score: 6.0

HRD Coffee Shop
521 3rd St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
VORB score: 15.4

Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop
1810 W Washington St.
San Diego, CA 92110
VORB score: 14.8

Rosa Maria&rsquos Drive-In
4202 N Sierra Way
San Bernardino, CA 92407
VORB score: 9.7

Taqueria Cancún
2288 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
VORB score: 14.0

El Zarape
4642 Park Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92116
VORB score: 15.1


10 Best Breakfast Burritos in Los Angeles

There's something very satisfying about a warm, hearty meal to start your day off right, especially if you ended your evening on a particularly boozy note. In Los Angeles, that can often mean one thing: breakfast burritos.

Breakfast burritos are a divisive topic. Some folks can't even agree on the essential ingredients for a breakfast burrito — egg, tortilla, maybe breakfast meat, maybe potato, maybe cheese — let alone where to find the finest version. Luckily, Angelenos are spoiled for choice, so a decent breakfast burrito of some kind is never far away.

But what about the great breakfast burritos? The one you see when your eyelids close for the night the one your mouth waters for when you wake up. Here are 10 of the best — from Atwater Village to Reseda — that will make you a true believer in the greasy, eggy, deliciously mystical ways of breakfast burritos.

Modern Eats Breakfast Burrito Credit: Clay Larsen

There is perhaps no sloppier breakfast burrito than at El Tapatio, the small Glendale taqueria that serves a chorizo-and-egg concoction all day long. It's a cheesy, slightly wet, greasy sort of thing, perfect for soaking up last night's booze. The chorizo is salty but won't knock you over with spice most of the flavor here comes from some griddled char and lots of melty, Velveeta-esque cheese. It's not overwhelmingly goopy and it doesn't taste like plastic, but the orange dairy-like cheddar product that El Tapatio uses certainly makes its presence felt. Taste deeper and you'll find perfect beans, a toss of rice instead of undercooked potatoes and warm, satisfying eggs, all wrapped in a tortilla that's seen some time on the grill as well. 1266 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale 818-549-4167.

Chorizo and egg from Taqueria El Tapatio Credit: Farley Elliott

This Silver Lake coffee spot trends a bit upscale, but the greasy morning-after food you're looking for doesn't suffer much as a result. Yes, the tortilla is one of those colorful tomato-infused wraps, and yes, there are starchy red potatoes. But the eggs are plenty fluffy and there are nice flecks of bacon mixed in well. The addition of sharp cheddar helps to cut through all of that density while adding a little bit of fat, especially when the weak pico de gallo on the side just isn't getting the job done. Hefty eaters could level up to the $12 steak eggs burrito, which swaps the pork for six ounces of sirloin. Now that's a breakfast plate wrapped in a tortilla if ever there was one. 2590 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles 323-665-1008.

Sausage Breakfast Burrito from Athenian Grill Credit: Farley Elliott

For generations, the Greeks have known how to run a diner — and put together one hell of a breakfast. It's certainly true for the Athenian Grill in Reseda, which sports a $2 budget breakfast that comes with eggs AND pancakes. For the breakfast burrito, things get a little fancier: a layer of slightly crispy hash browns, two hard-fried scrambled eggs and the requisite shredded cheddar. After that, it's up to you to toss in sausage, bacon, ham, avocado or all of the above, but there's really no need to go extravagant. The snappy, grilled breakfast sausage is already a winner, so why ruin this delicate burrito balance with too much meat or creamy avocado? Like we said: The Greeks know what they're doing. 7042 Reseda Blvd., Reseda 818-345-8445.

Lucky Boy Credit: Farley Elliott

Any conversation about breakfast burritos in the greater L.A. area is incomplete without at least a passing mention of Lucky Boy Drive-In, the Pasadena burger shop that's been pumping out enormous burritos for years. Yes, there are a lot — A LOT — of soft potato bites hiding inside that overstuffed tortilla, but there's a lot of everything going on at Lucky Boy. A lot of softly scrambled eggs, a lot of salty, chewy bacon, a whole lot of cheddar cheese and, on the weekends, a lot of people in line by the time you show up. 640 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena 626-793-0120.

Breakfast Burrito at Frank's Credit: Farley Elliott

Frank's on Fairfax is a local haunt, the place that folks from the neighborhood flock to when they want a solid plate of eggs or a passable carne asada burrito, and don't feel like getting in their cars. The prices are just right, too, considering the upscale neighbors (Sheddy's notwithstanding) that operate nearby. As it so happens, lots of locals tend to order the breakfast burrito, which comes tucked with crispy hash brown shreds, pico de gallo, salty cheese and your choice of meat fried right into the egg scramble. It's not a pretty sight when it reaches your table, but that's exactly what you'd expect here. Be warned, though: They're closed on Sundays. 363 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles 323-655-5277.

Snug Harbor Credit: Farley Elliott

At Snug Harbor, the quaint, breakfast-heavy spot on Wilshire in Santa Monica, it's all about looks. Gorgeous people regularly walk in, angelic children in tow, asking for the puffed quinoa. But the Sunrise Burrito is a thing of beauty, with softly scrambled eggs, freshly sliced avocado, just enough cheddar cheese to bind it all together, and bits of steak that have been cooked to order. Snug Harbor also will toss any of the scrambles on the menu into a tortilla and call it a breakfast burrito — but when the Sunrise exists, there's no need to look further. 2323 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica 310-828-2991.

Huckleberry Credit: Farley Elliott

It almost makes you mad, how good everything is at Huckleberry. Zoe Nathan's pastry selection is among the best in Los Angeles. Coming in at just over $14, the weekend breakfast burrito is no slouch, either. The pride of the whole concoction is the Niman Ranch bacon, served wide and deep, with a sweet and smoky taste to every bite. The lightly fried potatoes are also a standout, with enough crusty edges to help offset the possible mushiness of all that egg, cheese and guacamole. Thankfully, it's a well-balanced burrito, with sour cream and a mild salsa verde on the side for those looking to splash around with their condiments. 1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica 310-451-2311.

The Farm of Beverly Hills Credit: Farley Elliott

At the Farm of Beverly Hills, instead of greasy, over-potatoed gut bombs, the Beverly Hills set has access to oven-roasted tomatoes, applewood-smoked bacon, aged cheddar cheese and perfectly golden nuggets of tender egg. Forget the age-old “Eat the rich!” mantra, let's just take their breakfast burritos and call it a day. 439 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills 310-273-5578.

Lucy's Drive In Credit: Farley Elliott

Ah, Lucy's — the platonic ideal of what a breakfast burrito should be. Every aspect of the reasonably sized, $5 morning meal is perfectly reasoned. The eggs are fried well, with just enough softness at the yolk to let you in on all that flavor. The bacon is thin but substantial, and mixed around inside so as not to leave any individual bite without a taste of the pork. The hash browns are served as a thinly fried slip, crispy at the exterior and soft inside. Toss in some shredded cheese to bind it all together, plus a few cups of their thin salsa roja, and you've got a simple meal that just feels like what a perfect breakfast burrito should be. 1373 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles 323-938-4337.

Tacos Villa Corona Credit: Farley Elliott

It's hard to argue with success — or with Anthony Bourdain, who managed to grab one of Villa Corona's justly lauded potato-and-chorizo breakfast burritos on a swing through the city not long ago. But it doesn't take a cheflebrity to understand the allure of this breakfast behemoth: The potatoes are griddled and softened but still have a bit of structure to them. The chorizo is served in roughly chopped bites, each with a perfect snap of seasoning, and the slight excess of cheese makes for a stringy, fatty, satisfying swallow. Even the addition of sautéed spinach can't slow down this breakfast burrito, where the egg, cheese, potato and meat all come together on a small tabletop out front to create the perfect morning solution. 3185 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles 323-661-3458.


The Best Outdoor Dining in Los Angeles

International readers might be surprised to hear that Los Angeles is not an outdoor dining city. The usual arguments are pervasive: traffic noise, smog, too many homeless people, no privacy, etc. But if there is one thing the pandemic forced the City of Angels to reckon with (in a very good way), it was dining outside.

When California shut down indoor dining, the state’s restaurant scene had to act fast. Practically overnight, restaurant workers could be seen setting up sidewalk seating, installing temporary barriers, rolling out heat lamps (yes, LA gets cold at night), and creating a comfortable environment where diners could feel safe from Covid while enjoying their meals.

The current buzz around the city is that outdoor dining has not only been successful in keeping transmission rates low, but it has also pushed LA’s finicky eaters to come to a realisation – dining outside can be, and is, really exceptional.

Almost every great restaurant in Los Angeles had to pivot to some version of outdoor eating. Some, with the proper space and money, have built large-scale eating areas, while others have figured out how to utilise sidewalks, parking spaces, and other creative solutions.

These are some of LA’s best outdoor eating establishments – not all came about because of the pandemic – but hopefully all will continue giving diners the pleasure of eating outside for a long time to come.

Mozzaplex

Photo credit Michael Krikorian

Nancy Silverton’s trio of restaurants, Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza, and chi SPACCA dominate a block of LA and are known for their Italian food supremacy. But their pandemic pivot makes them even more formidable as they’ve turned the rear of the building into a two-level piazza for dining under the stars.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele

Photo courtesy of L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele

The Naples transplant is known for its majestic and authentic Neapolitan pizzas, but it’s owner Francesco Zimone’s eye for design that makes this pizzeria truly stand out. The courtyard at da Michele is a tree-lined oasis with exposed brick and hanging lights that make hungry diners forget about the pandemic and dream of the Amalfi Coast.

Connie and Ted’s

The seafood haven Connie and Ted’s took things to a whole new level for their pandemic response. Practically overnight, the fishmongers at C+T built a massive pavilion that complemented their architecturally beautiful structure while giving fish fiends a safe and relaxing outdoor eating environment. The best lobster roll in LA is still yours for the taking.

Gracias Madre

The best vegan Mexican restaurant in LA (only vegan Mexican restaurant?), Gracias Madre was well-positioned to meet the pandemic head on. Their outdoor dining area seats dozens of health-conscious Angelenos and is the perfect escape for privacy-minded celebs and lovers of interior design. The menu by executive chef Mario Alberto is chock full of plant-based gems, like their gluten free chicharron tacos with oyster mushrooms or their wet burrito with jackfruit carnitas.

Sant’olina

Photo credit Wonho Frank Lee

The newest outdoor escape in LA is set atop the iconic Beverly Hilton hotel. Sant’olina is a salacious mix of Mediterranean favourites that includes zucchini keftedes, cauliflower tabbouleh, chickpea matbucha, and so much more. The real treat, however, is the 360° views from the hotel’s rooftop. Not only can you spy over the Beverly Hills shopping elite, but you also get front row views of the Hollywood Hills and, on clear days, the bright blue Pacific Ocean.

Nobu Malibu

The internationally acclaimed Nobu has many iterations of its famous sushi around the globe, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one with a better setting. Nobu Malibu sits right on the silky white sands of Carbon Beach and is the perfect locale for any special occasion. If you’re looking for superb sunsets, socially-distanced outdoor dining, and great sushi, this is your spot.

Great White

After going a full year without a social scene in the city, Great White has become the ideal elixir for mingling singles looking for safe and sexy outdoor dining. The restaurant is now a Venice hotspot that serves leopard-spotted pizzas, crispy chicken sandwiches, and seared wagyu steaks. Their outdoor perch is also great for a post-beach brew or just gawking at the weird and wonderful that Venice denizens have to offer.

Mastro’s Ocean Club Malibu

Do you like miraculously marbled meats? How about A-list celebrity sightings? Or maybe you’d like to bask in the world’s greatest sunsets? All of this can be yours at Mastro’s Ocean Club on the beaches of Malibu. This renowned steakhouse is home to LA’s well-heeled crowd (a dress code ensures it) and provides meat and seafood-loving locals with romantic views alongside the most savoury meals.

Angelini Osteria

Photo courtesy of Angelini Restaurant Group

Many consider this quaint and charming restaurant to be the best Italian spot in the city. It’s hard to argue against it once you’ve slurped up chef Gino Angelini’s decadent pasta dishes. Helping it maintain its stellar reputation, the restaurant has fully adopted an outdoor dining mentally which gives its loyal customers a safe and tasty way to eat outside.

THEBlvd Privé

Photo credit Beverly Wilshire, A Four Seasons Hotel

The Beverly Wilshire, A Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills has taken outdoor dining to another level. Made famous by its starring role in Pretty Woman, the hotel has always maintained a well-earned reputation for high-end cuisine. The current special outside the hotel is the reimagined valet area, which has become a private hideaway of fine-dining under hanging lights and high-end heat lamps. Between lush hedges, diners at THEBlvd Privé can expect locally sourced branzino, ruby red Snake River Farm steaks, and an endless wine and creative cocktail list.

Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura

Photo credit Pablo Enriquez

Massimo Bottura’s first foray into LA opened a month before the pandemic caused the city’s dining scene to come crashing down. But the meticulously designed space, featuring Italian marble mosaic floors, red marble tables, and wicker dining chairs, was partially constructed to accommodate a plethora of outdoor dining. Fans of Bottura and executive chef Mattia Agazzi can still gawk at Rodeo Drive socialites while eating the world’s best tortellini with Parmigiano Reggiano cream.


The 20 best Mexican restaurants in America

It’s not easy to narrow down the best Mexican restaurants in America, so lucky are we to be saturated with the cooking of our South-of-the-Border neighbor in all its wonderful regional variety. But as any good mole- or taco-hound knows, some restaurants rise to the head of the pack, from the new-school, innovative cooking headed up by Rick Bayless at his Mexican restaurants in Chicago to the best burritos in San Francisco’s Mission District to out-of-the-way joints in the West and Southwest sure to inspire your next road trip to the best Mexican restaurants in L.A., including the killer Oaxacan cooking at Guelaguetza. Below, the best Mexican restaurants in America—ranked.

Cosme, New York City

This is the stateside debut of Enrique Olvera, the megawatt Mexico City talent behind Pujol, regularly ranked one of the 20 best restaurants. Here you’ll find elegant high-gear small plates—pristine, pricey and market-fresh. Olvera’s single-corn tortillas pop up frequently, from a complimentary starter of crackly blue-corn tortillas with chile-kicked pumpkin-seed butter to dense, crispy tostadas dabbed with bone-marrow salsa and creamy tongues of uni. Don’t miss the face-melting, savory-sweet, Instagrammed-to-death husk meringue ($14), with its fine, ash-dusted hull giving way to a velvety, supercharged corn mousse.

Empellón Cocina, New York City

Some chefs are like gastronomic Margaret Meads, quick studies in replicating the food of cultures far from their own. Alex Stupak, a notorious tinkerer, is much more original. Everything here is designed for sharing, and a table cluttered with his most impressionistic fare feels Mexican only in the most cosmopolitan sense. Miniature roasted carrots, in one boisterous small plate, arrive sprouting from an earthenware bowl that’s been artfully streaked with cool yogurt and sweet-spicy mole. Another beautiful abstraction features black mole splattered like a Rorschach blot around seared calamari curls, an explosion of super-savory elements with fried potato nuggets and drips of chorizo mayo. Plus the bar has one of the most comprehensive selections of mescal in New York.

Cala, San Francisco

Shutterstock Chef Gabriela Cámara, of famed Mexico City restaurant Contramar, brought her brand of refined seafood-focused Mexican to an airy Hayes Valley space in September. Already, Cala is garnering buzz for dishes like the trout tostada with chipotle, avocado and fried leeks (the California counterpoint to Contramar’s beloved tuna tostada) the ling cod salpicon and a dish of cactus and eggplant cooked inside a corn husk. The salpicon and corn-and-eggplant dish are served with house-made corn tortillas for DIY taco-ing. Cocktails like the Horchata Colada (spiked with rum) and the Martini Oaxaqueño (an unusual concoction containing mescal, citrus and olives) play with Latin American bar staples. There’s brunch on Sundays and, for weekday lunch, Tacos Cala (located in the alley near the restaurant’s back entrance), offers tortillas stuffed with several stewed fillings of the day for takeout or a quick bite.

Guelaguetza, Los Angeles

The guelaguetza is an Oaxacan dance its use as the name of this restaurant serves as a reminder that the food served here differs from classic Mexican. The speciality is meat (chicken, beef or pork) served with richly fragrant and spicy sauces called moles, which use fresh-ground herbs and chocolate to create a depth of flavor. Try the seafood stew or a tlayuda, a strange pizza-like corn-cake, with a fresh juice.

La Casita Mexicana, Los Angeles

Thanks to chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, South LA neighborhood Bell has become a dining destination. The Jalisco natives opened their upscale La Casita Mexicana in 1999 and have since become TV personalities, famously defeating Bobby Flay in a chile relleno “Throwdown.” Try the duo’s meat-filled version, chile en nogada—roasted Poblano packed with ground beef, dried fruits, walnuts and candied cactus, topped with pecan cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. It looks like an homage to the Mexican flag. House-made corn tortillas are similarly patriotic with red (guajillo chile), green (cactus paddle) and white (corn), the perfect accompaniment to a plate of Tres Moles that features three types of mole: traditional poblano and two types of pipián, a creamy pumpkin-seed based sauce. Start the meal with chia seed-laced lemonade and end with a stop at the adjacent tiendita to pick up South of the Border pantry items.

Topolobampo, Chicago

Shutterstock Topolobampo (“Topolo” for short) is the most sophisticated and upscale of Rick Bayless’ restaurants, and the one most frequented by President Obama and his family. As with all of Bayless’s restaurants, the products used here are local and seasonal. So whether you’re eating fresh oysters or ceviche or one of the beautiful moles, you know you’re eating the best the season has to offer. An ever-changing menu means it’s hard to predict exactly what will be on offer day to day—but because Bayless is involved, it never really feels like a gamble.

Fonda San Miguel, Austin

In a town of great Mexican brunches, the stuff Mexican brunch dreams are made of is served in this sprawling hacienda-style restaurant in North Loop, which celebrated 40 years in 2015. Those who show up midday on Sundays are treated to a changing weekly spread that would take any mama days to make. The menu mines the cuisines of Oaxaca, Puebla Yucatan and Veracruz, ranging from chicken in mole sauce to fish cooked Veracruz-style, with capers, onions and olive. Dinner in the dining rooms, each brimming with folk art, is worthy of a special occasion, thanks to the elegant surroundings and a selection of winning South of the Border cocktails.

Mary and Tito’s, Albuquerque

Almost everything in New Mexico cooking is blessed by the addition of roasted chilies, and the question is always “red or green?” At Mary and Tito’s, red is usually the answer: the restaurant’s slow-burning chile sauce features on signature dishes like carne adovada (at its best stuffed into a crispy-fried sopapilla), chiles rellenos or enchiladas, and has earned quite the cult following. This humble Near North Valley restaurant celebrated half a century of pleasing chile fiends in 2013, and was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award in 2010.

Barrio Cafe, Phoenix

Shutterstock At this humble little spot in the heart of mural-bedecked Calle 16, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (a four-time James Beard Award nominee) serves Southern Mexican specialties to legions of adoring Phoenicians. The food of states like Oaxaca, Yucatan and Puebla makes a strong showing at Barrio Cafe, in house favorites like Yucatan’s cochinita pibil (marinated in crushed achiote seed and sour orange and cooked in a banana leaf), and chiles en nogada, a colorful dish from Puebla featuring stuffed chilies in a cream sauce.

Nopalito, San Francisco

An offshoot of the acclaimed NoPa restaurant, Nopalito offers authentic from-scratch Mexican cooking made with local, sustainable and organic ingredients. This is the antithesis of slapped-together street food. Carnitas is slow-cooked and braised in orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon and beer Mole Coloradito con Pollo is made with toasted chiles, almonds, Ibarra chocolate, dried plums and a huge array of spices. Don’t miss any version of tangy, tender nopales (cactus leaves), frequently on the menu in the form of tamales or in dishes such as Queso Flameado con Chorizo y Nopales (flamed Oaxacan and jack cheese with grilled cactus and chorizo).

La Chaparrita, Chicago

Chicago’s best all-around taqueria specializes in tacos de fritangas, or fried meaty things cooked on a wide metal stovetop called a charola. You seriously can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, from the extra beefy suadero to the intricately spiced longaniza sausage. But the showstopper—and perhaps the best taco in Chicago—is the tripa. Order it crispy, and these little hunks from the cow’s intestine (not, as you would assume, the stomach) arrive as golden-hued and glistening crunchy nuggets.

La Taqueria, San Francisco

Shutterstock The Mission burrito, as iconic to San Francisco as fog and cable cars, is the star at La Taqueria, a stalwart of the Mission District for more than 40 years. While some quibble over the exclusion of rice, no one argues over the tastiness of their behemoth foil-wrapped burrito bombs, filled with beans, cheese, salsa and meats ranging from carne and pollo asada to carnitas, chorizo and lengua. Located in the heart of the Mission District, the tidy no-frills spot also features tacos, quesadillas and a full selection of aguas frescas. Whatever your preference, start off with a basket of chips and the super-fresh guacamole.

Casa Enrique, New York City

The owners of Bar Henry branched out to Queens with this 40-seat Mexican eatery, specializing in the regional cuisine of Cintalapa, Chiapas. Brothers Cosme and Luis Aguilar, the chef and GM respectively, pay homage to their late mother with traditional plates, including some based on her recipes, such as chicken mole and cochinito chiapaneco (guajillo-marinated baby pork ribs). The white-painted spot features a garden and works from Queens artists.

Mariscos German, San Diego

One type of Mexican food that shouldn’t be overlooked is the Ensenada-style fish taco, a hotly contested category in close-to-the-border San Diego. The debate about who does it best will never stop raging, but for many seafood lovers the answer lies at Chula Vista taco truck-turned-hole-in-the-wall Mariscos German (658 Hollister St, San Diego), where the fish is breaded to an ideal golden brown crunchiness, then topped with chopped cabbage and creamy sauce. The menu features a other kinds of seafood, like shrimp and marlin, available as tacos, burritos, cocktails or tostadas. One impressive favorite is the tostada loca, a mix of marinated seafood accompanied by crispy tortillas.

Frutiland La Casa del Sabor, Arroyo Grande, CA

Shutterstock This casual roadside spot near San Luis Obispo specializes in tortas, supersized Mexican submarine sandwiches that frequently inspire lines at lunchtime. Two hungry people may be hard-pressed to finish the Cubana, a pile-up that includes breaded chicken and beef, pork cooked four different ways, two kinds of cheese, and more. Less gut-busting, but equally popular, are Frutiland’s fish tacos, served on blue corn tortillas with shredded cabbage and the welcome addition of fruit salsa. An extensive menu of aguas frescas (fruit juices mixed with sugar and water) puts the “fruit” in Frutiland.

El Sarape, Boston

This beloved restaurant in the Braintree neighborhood is generally regarded as the best Mexican food in Boston. Hearty dishes, including enchiladas in salsa verde and a house specialty of chicken or beef stewed with potatoes in a smoky chile ancho salsa, are some of the favorites on the from-scratch menu. There’s sangria to wash it down, and desserts like plantains topped with cajeta (a goat’s-milk caramel) are worth saving room for. A friendly staff and festive, inviting atmosphere, with traditional wooden chairs and colorful South of the Border tchotchkes have kept Bostonites coming back for nearly 30 years.

Las Cuatro Milpas, San Diego

This third-generation Mexican breakfast and lunch joint is a Barrio Logan classic famous for the kind of food your abuela might make, like carnitas, house-made tortillas, fried rolled tacos (a.k.a. flautas) and incredible salsa. At lunchtime, fanatical devotees line up to order at the counter and grab packages of tortillas to go. Seating is no-frills, prices are low and the place is cash only. Official closing time is 3pm, but get there earlier since favorite dishes sometimes run out before then.

L&J Cafe, El Paso, TX

Shutterstock For classic, stick-to-your-ribs Tex-Mex in a hole-in-the-wall setting that hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1927, El Pasoans know to head to L&J. The menu is borderlands comfort food: hearty soups (including everyone’s favorite hangover cure, menudo, or tripe soup, on weekends), burritos, fajitas and more—as well as Mexican breakfast. A saloon-style bar covered in historic photographs takes up most of the space, with a smaller dining room holding a dozen or so tables.

El Charro Cafe, Tuscon

El Charro opened in 1922 and now has three locations around Tucson, all open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Beloved dishes include steak tampiqueña, served with an arsenal of accouterments anything with carne seca, a flavorful semi-dried meat plus burros, chimichangas and other dishes from Sonora state in Northern Mexico and the Arizona-Mex cannon. Portions are hulking, margaritas are strong and the surroundings always unpretentious and homey.

La Super-Rica Taqueria, Santa Barbara

Despite all the French cooking, Julia Child was at heart a down-home kind of girl—so her taco preferences seem like something to be trusted. The legendary cook’s favorites came from this cheery little turquoise-and-white shack on Milpas Street, and she’s not its only well-known fan: word of the place’s most famous regulars (Katy Perry can be spotted here) is partly what inspires lines around the block at lunch and dinnertime. That and the cooking: Corn tortillas are freshly griddled in-house and roasted green chilies top many of the best dishes. The menu is sprawling, but highlights include the Super-Rica especial taco, made with marinated pork, roasted pasilla chilies and melted cheese, and the tamales, whose fillings change regularly.


10 Best Moles in Los Angeles

Let's count the reasons we love mole. It's rich and intense. Warm and comforting. Spicy, yet sweet and often savory. A seamless blend of 20 to 40 (or more) ingredients that have been toasted, roasted, ground, blended and cooked. Radiant and colorful. A mix of Old World spices with New World chiles and chocolate. Mole, more than a mere sauce for chicken or enchiladas, is considered Mexico's national dish — and it has traveled to L.A. restaurants with traditional recipes largely intact.

We're not just talking about Oaxaca's mole negro, the “King of Moles” made with chocolate, about six kinds of chiles, nuts, garlic, onions and hoja santa. Nor the poblano from Puebla, popular for its own unique blend of chiles, plus a touch of chocolate. We also mean Oaxaca's colored moles — the rojo and coloradito (both red, but with different levels of spice and complexity), verde (mild, with fresh herbs and green tomatoes), amarillo (seasoned with cumin and often served as a soup), manchamanteles (chicken broth and fruit-infused, literally meaning tablecloth stainer), and the smoky chichilo. And any thick sauce with a base of chiles and spices, such as the seed-based pipian, or the fanciful pistachio, tamarind and tequila varieties, among others, that have appeared in L.A. just in the past few years. Turn the page for 10 of our favorite spots.

mole samples at Monte Alban Credit: D. Solomon

At Monte Alban in a West L.A. strip mall, you'll find four of Oaxaca's seven traditional moles — negro, coloradito, amarillo and verde — in dishes beyond the typical mole over chicken breast. Why not eat pork or salmon instead? Or a massive burrito drowned in negro? Also note the empanadas, tamales and enchiladas — all cooked in a distinctly Oaxacan style, and all smeared with mole. Monte Alban also serves its amarillo as a broth for beef stew, as well as chicken with estofado, a tomato-based mole that's more watery than its counterparts. After your meal, visit the Oaxacan market next door to browse the variety of fresh and dried chiles that just appeared in your mole. 11927 Santa Monica Blvd. L.A. (310) 444-7736.

mole amarillo at El Sazón Oaxaqueño Credit: D. Solomon

El Sazón Oaxaqueño is one of the Westside's Oaxacan institutions, offering virtually the same menu and cooking methods since Jonathan Gold praised its “slightly sweetened and vaguely hot” negro and the “extravagantly hot” coloradito in his Counter Intelligence book a decade ago. But on your next visit, consider the amarillo. This mole is more soup than sauce, served in a deep bowl. Use your spoon to sip the thick, slightly oily broth, as hot steam hits your face. Stir up the chicken, potatoes, chayote and green beans. Then dip in a corn tortilla to cool the hot temperature and spices on your tongue. 12131 Washington Pl. L.A. (310) 391-4721.

mole negro at Tlapazola Credit: D. Solomon

Many of the spots on this list are tucked into gritty strip malls, including West L.A.'s Tlapazola. Still, Tlapazola is upscale and elegant in both style and menu. Its mole negro comes with poached chicken, bright green cilantro rice and black beans. Tlapazola takes pride in making such a rich sauce without any lard. The green pipian, made with pumpkin seeds and herbs, is served over grilled salmon and accompanied by a spinach quesadilla. As at many restaurants, Tlapazola's mole-making is a two-day process, at least, and the owner rents a mill at a tortilla factory near downtown to grind the spices and chiles. To drink, don't miss Tlapazola's excellent tequila and mezcal cocktails — especially the Tlapazola. A key ingredient? Syrup of mole negro, of course. 11676 Gateway Blvd., L.A. (310) 477-1577.

Turn the page for picks 7 through 5…

Guelaguetza's tamale with mole negro Credit: Guzzle and Nosh

Think mole in L.A., and your mind probably jumps to the mole negro at Guelaguetza. The Koreatown restaurant is king of L.A.'s Oaxacan restaurants in size and reputation. Its famous negro — made with about 26 ingredients and adapted from a generations-old family recipe — is served with chicken, stuffed in tamales or splashed atop enchiladas. Your other options include typical Oaxacan varieties of rojo, coloradito, verde, amarillo and estofado. Choose a drink from the well-stocked mezcal bar for the perfect compliment. Want Guelaguetza to go? Purchase jars of rojo, coloradito and negro at the restaurant or from a site called appropriately, ilovemole.com. 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown (213) 427-0608.

mole negro at Gish Bac Credit: D. Solomon

Most Mexican restaurants only make a couple of moles, if any, since the preparation is so time-intensive. That's the case at Gish Bac, a bright, cozy restaurant just off the 10 Freeway at Crenshaw Boulevard, where the negro and coloradito each take about two to three days to cook. Not to worry: The negro, made with more than 30 ingredients including dried fruits, star anise, cinnamon and tortillas, is so complex and flavorful it could make you forget other kinds even exist. But you'll want to try Gish Bac's coloradito, too. “The mole negro is more sweet, then spicy, while the coloradito is the other way — you taste spicy first, then sweet,” says co-owner David Ramos Padilla. The restaurant serves both over chicken breast, along with rice, beans and tortillas. Also save room, or bring friends, to try the goat and lamb barbacoa, another specialty. 4163 W. Washington Blvd., L.A. (323) 737-5050.

A peanut mole sample and the “Zacatecas-style” mole poblano at Tamales Liliana's Credit: D. Solomon

You may know Tamales Lilianas for its namesake dish (on our 10 Best Tamales list), but don't dismiss the rest of the menu. Especially not the mole de cacahuete, or peanut mole, a rare find in L.A. The orange-colored sauce, which blankets shredded chicken, is native to Zacatecas. Unlike some moles with visible grains of what used to be seeds and spices, this mole is creamy. And mellow, too — ideal for spice-phobes. Tamales Liliana also serves poblano, described as “Zacatecas-style” on the menu in a nod to regional pride. 4619 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., East L.A. (323) 780-0989 and 3448 E. First St., Boyle Heights (323) 780-0839.

Keep reading for number 4 on …[

Mole poblano at La Casita Mexicana Credit: Barbara Hansen

You can't miss the moles at La Casita Mexicana in Bell. Red and green pipian as well as poblano are the first items to hit your table, topping a basket of warm tortilla chips. You may even forget to open the menu. But you should — try one of the “three moles” options (with the three sauces spooned over flautas, enchiladas, chicken or pork) to continue delving into and comparing flavors. Or, in the morning, taste the mole on the terrific chilaquiles. Jalisco-born chefs Jaime Martín del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu adapted the acclaimed poblano recipe from their grandmothers'. Its 40-plus ingredients include chocolate, cacao, plantains, bread, fruits, seeds, nuts and guajillo, ancho and mulato chiles. It's a mole so delicious that customers want to take it home. Luckily, a bottled version is available next door at Casita's La Tiendita shop. 4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell (323) 773-1898.

mole poblano at Juan's Restaurante Credit: Anne Fishbein

Is it any surprise that Rocio Camacho of Rocio's Mole de los Dioses once worked at Juan's in the San Gabriel Valley? Her portrait even hangs in Juan's dining room, like a patron saint. The restaurant's 13 moles go beyond the common pipian, poblano and negro. (That negro, by the way, is “rich and intense with hints of nuts and fruit and with an edge of bitter chocolate … like the oil slick of the gods,” wrote our critic Besha Rodell in a recent review.) You'll also find the huitlacoche-infused mole de los dioses, warm and fruity manchamanteles, and all-white velo de novia, as well as moles flavored with coffee, tamarind and tropical fruit. Chef Juan Mondragon says his menu was inspired by his grandmother's recipes from Guerrero, Mexico, with pre-Hispanic influences. Most unusual is the cactus mole — chef Juan Mondragon is a booster of cactus as a health food. Note the green tortillas. 4291 Maine Ave. Baldwin Park (626) 337-8686.

almond mole at Moles la Tia Credit: Anne Fishbein

Moles la Tía, where chef Rocio Camacho first brought her inventive sauces, wins the variety contest with 16 types of moles. So we were disappointed to hear that poblano is most popular! It would be a mistake to order poblano when you could try mango, hibiscus flower, pistachio or velo de novia, also called blanco for its all-white ingredients — chocolate to chiles to coconut. Your best bet is to order “Cuatro y Cuatro” — fish, shrimp, chicken and poultry with four moles of your choice served on the side. Unless the duck breast with tamarind mole or frog legs with herb mole seems too unusual to pass up. 4619 E. Cesar Chavez Blvd., East L.A. (323) 263-7842.

And for our top pick…[

mole de los dioses at Rocio's Credit: D. Solomon

Rocio Camacho, a third-generation Oaxacan, has swept through several L.A. Mexican eateries with her love for multiflavored, multihued moles. She recently found a final destination at Rocio's Mole de los Dioses (“mole of the gods”), with a cozy location in Bell and a bigger branch in Sun Valley. Camacho once said that she intended her moles to evoke the true tastes of Mexico, not just the flavors of Oaxaca. So in addition to the Oaxacan negro, verde and manchamanteles moles, you'll also find moles infused with huitlacoche, tequila and coffee flavors. Moles la Tía, Juan's Restaurante and La Huasteca, where Camacho helped to create menus, serve them, too. But at Rocio's, the chef is in the kitchen, and who knows what she'll invent next. In the recent In Their Own Words II book about Latino cuisine in L.A., Camacho says she has 40 more recipes up her sleeves. 6242 Maywood Ave., Bell, (323) 588-5536 and 8255 Sunland Blvd., Sunland (818) 252-6415.

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What Makes Ugly Drum Pastrami So Damn Good?

If you’re looking for the best pastrami in L.A., don’t go to a deli or a mid-century roadside stand. Instead, head to a parking lot in the Alameda Produce Market on a Sunday morning. As you enter the gates of weekly pop-up food circus Smorgasburg L.A., hang a hard right and look for the line at the Ugly Drum stall. At the front of that line, a man standing over a steaming slab of meat with a giant knife in his hand will look up to take your order. If you are a regular customer (or friendly enough) he will hand you a nugget of pastrami while he slices your order. You bite into this glistening morsel and boom! Smoked. Meat. Nirvana.

Fatty and salty, sweet and peppery, smoky and just plain meaty—there’s so much going on in your mouth that you can’t quite process it. The sinful melt of the fat, the spicy kick of the rub, and the beefy taste of the meat smother your taste buds in a bear hug. A pile of meat on a slice of bread with a dab of mustard—how could anything so simple taste so good?

The man with the knife is named Erik Black, and his Ugly Drum pastrami is both a total accident and the result of years of practice and innovation.

After studying fine art in college and working in a few galleries, Erik Black decided to go into cooking instead. He came up in the high-end kitchens of Los Angeles, working at Campanile, Mozza, and Spice Table. On his days off, Black would sit at Langer’s deli, happily eating pastrami and watching them carve slices by hand. After a trip to experience the legendary barbecue joints of Texas (what he calls his “barbecue death march”), Black got serious about the process of smoking meat. Black calls Ugly Drum a “happy accident” (the name comes from the smoker Black originally used). He started the pop up in 2013 as a Texas BBQ operation focused on sausages and hot dogs, selling some homemade pastrami as an afterthought. While the hot dogs did not initially take off, people began showing up in search of his unique pastrami. His stall eventually became a staple of Smorgasburg, where the people line up every Sunday from opening to close.

Black is an affable guy in his mid-40s, slim with black glasses and a baseball cap from a local meat company—he looks as if he could be Moby’s highly carnivorous younger brother. During the week, he works at Bludso’s Bar & ‘Cue. Ugly Drum is his Sundays-only side gig that allows him to indulge in his passion. Black makes all of his pastrami himself, using the Bludso’s smokers during off hours to smoke several hundred pounds of meat per week. Other than Smorgasburg, Ugly Drum pastrami shows up around L.A. in the Reuben bagel at the food truck Yeasty Boys, the breakfast burrito at Cofax Coffee and the pastrami burger at Golden State. But to appreciate the unadulterated original, you have to wait in line at the parking lot.

Black is a passionate craftsman and he’s kind enough to give me a master class in pastrami. “Making pastrami is an art and a science,” he said. “It’s part alchemy.” He’s generous in sharing his recipes and techniques but he points out that experience in making pastrami is far more important than any recipes.

“I get into the pursuit of perfection because every time you do it you learn something,” Black says. “But sometimes it’s a lot less of what I do and [more of] creating the right conditions for something to happen.”

On a basic level, pastrami is just a smoked corned beef. But the details, the techniques and the quality and cut of the meat have a huge impact on the end result.

The dirty little secret of the modern pastrami world is that very little of it is made in-house at your favorite deli. There are a handful of factories in America that crank out most of the pastrami that you’ve likely ever eaten. Most delis get a big hunk of pastrami made from the naval cut of the cow and they boil the hell out of it to tenderize it.

What Black does is different—a reimagining of what pastrami should be. He uses the fattier brisket cut of the cow, wet brines it in spices for days to cure it and then slow smokes it over hard wood. It’s a hybrid of pastrami and barbecue and it has taken him a lot of trial and error to get it just right.

I wanted to try out Black’s techniques at home, but rather than copy the Ugly Drum recipe, I decided to season the meat with a Chinese-inspired blend of spices and aromatics. Instead of the more traditional dill and coriander, my version contains shiitake mushrooms, ginger, anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. I used similar flavors (along with Chinese mustard and five spice powder) for the rub and smoked the brisket over pecan wood for ten hours. When I remove it from my smoker, the bark is black and savory and the smell is incredible.

The following Sunday, as I wait in the usual line at Ugly Drum, clutching my vacuum-sealed pastrami under one arm like a meaty football, I feel like an apprentice nervously waiting for an audience with the master craftsman. I trade Black some of my pastrami for his. Trying them side-by-side, there is a textural difference. Ugly Drum’s version is closer to a corned beef whereas my effort leans more toward brisket While the Ugly Drum pastrami is sublime, my first try—shockingly—is not too far behind. Black e-mails me his feedback that night: “Fantastic job on the pastrami! Really a great showing. I did pick up on the sweet spice notes of cinnamon and five spice.” Coming from the master, it’s high praise.