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Los Angeles offers maze of culture, freeways ... and foodways
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Los Angeles is more than a city of freeways. It's a also a city of marvelous and diverse foodways.
"The real story of Los Angeles food is in the waves of immigrants who came through," says Russ Parsons, food editor of the Los Angeles Times. "So talking about the food really depends on when you're talking about, how recent, and how specific you want to get."
Immigration to California is nothing new -- it began with the Spaniards nearly a century before the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848. (And you thought tortillas were just part of a modern food trend.)
After the Spaniards came other settlers, including multitudes of Midwesterners fleeing the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, armies of Asians, crowds of Caribbean islanders and a host of other Hispanics.
The second-most populated city in the United States, Los Angeles is bordered by the defining influences of the Pacific to the west, the Mojave Desert to the east, Mexico to the south and the nation's most bountiful farming region to the north.
But when it comes to the food they enjoy, the more than 3.5 million Los Angelenos are in no way bounded by those influences.
"In New York, it's all about restaurants -- prepared food. Nobody cooks because nobody has a kitchen, or if they do, they've converted it into a shoe closet," jokes Parsons.
"But in Los Angeles," he explains, "people actually cook and kitchens are at the center of the house, so ingredients are the center of it."
California is, in fact, "almost literally a factory that pumps out food," explains the editor. The state produces 90 percent of the country's peaches, plums and nectarines in a 300-mile stretch of fertile fields that lie between Bakersfield and Fresno.
Hollywood history at the farmer's market
And where there are farmers, there are wonderful farmer's markets.
The Los Angeles Farmer's Market, at 6333 West Third St., has become more of a tourist attraction than a working farmer's market, according to Parsons. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth a visit.
Located next to CBS Studios, the market is really a mini-mall chock-full of food stalls that serve an array of ethnic foods ranging from Middle Eastern and Cajun specialties to French crepes and traditional American apple pie.
The market also boasts several full-service restaurants, including Du-par's and the Kokomo Cafe.
An institution since 1938, Du-par's prides itself on "fluffy and delightful" omelets with real American cheese and honest-to-goodness vinyl booths.
L.A. Weekly's restaurant reviewer Janet Duckworth gives Du-par's high marks for quality breakfast entrees and atmosphere -- not to mention the chance to see director-actor Quentin Tarantino. Then there's the opportunity to order your pancakes topped with ice cream.
Actor James Dean is said to have eaten at Du-par's before he took that final spin in his Porsche. And the restaurant also had a featured role in Brian DePalma's 1984 film "Body Double," starring Melanie Griffith.
But Democratic National Convention delegates had better come early. The Farmer's Market gets more than 40,000 visitors a day in summer, making it a veritable convention of gastronomic goodies.
Home to wood-fired pizza
Southern California's fine dining scene has suffered from the combined effects of a 1980s recession, earthquakes and riots, but it's beginning to rise again, says Parsons.
"There are some projects underway," he adds, such as Patina, which recently reopened after a two-month renovation.
The French bistro style Patina was rated L.A.'s No. 1 restaurant by Zagat's and nabbed a "Top Tables" award from Gourmet magazine last year. Chef Joachim Splichal is praised for his creative flair. But be prepared to pay -- dinner for two at Patina can run about $250.
Perhaps first among L.A.'s celebrity chefs, though, is Wolfgang Puck, founder of Spago on Sunset Boulevard and inventor of the now-ubiquitous California wood-fired pizza.
A native of Austria, the roguish Puck came to the United States in 1973, making a splash at L.A.'s Ma Maison. He opened Spago in 1982, followed by spin-off restaurants Postrio and Granita, and a handful of Wolfgang Puck Pizza Cafes. His most recent cookbook is 1991's "Adventures in the Kitchen" (Random House).
For Italian cuisine, restaurants worth a visit include Campanile and Valentino, says Parsons.
The legendary Chasen's closed its doors in 1995, but you can still order the "chili of the stars" for home delivery at legendary www.chasenschili.com.
For distinctive California taste, though, Parsons insists there's nothing like a good bite of sushi.
"Fifteen years ago, people were making jokes about sushi being bait, and now, in parts of L.A. -- not in Japanese neighborhoods at all, especially on the West side -- it seems like there's a little sushi bar in almost every mini-mall," Parsons says.
Other tasty imports are carnitas, soft tacos and pad phai, or Thai noodles.
"They're really popular," Parsons says of the noodles. "Thai food in Southern California is like Chinese food in New York -- everybody gets it take-out."
How milkshakes helped launch a burger empire
It's not that Californians have abandoned standard American fare, however. After all, the first McDonald's hamburger restaurant opened in the Los Angeles area. A mixer salesman named Ray Kroc heard the location was running eight of his Multimixers at once. Kroc visited the restaurant in 1954, thought fast-food was a good idea, and convinced brothers Dick and Mac McDonald to let him help open locations around the United States. (The second McDonald's opened in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955, and the rest, as they say, is history.)
So, what food would expatriate Los Angelenos miss most?
"That's a tough one," says Parsons, "because most people in L.A. are expatriates from somewhere else." Some families have been there for generations, but they are vastly out-numbered by newcomers.
"If I moved away, I would definitely miss the Mexican food," adds Parsons. "Every region has its own Mexican food, and they're very chauvinistic -- they believe their food is the real Mexican food."
Remember those carnitas? They are soft tacos stuffed with chunks of pork that have been cooked with milk, according to Parsons. "It's a combination of boiled and deep-fried," he explains. "So the perfect chunk is crispy on the outside and soft inside."
Other tacos can feature shaved grilled steak, brains, tongue and chicken.
"L.A. is a great, great city with lots of character," says Parsons. "But it reveals itself very slowly. To give up the best of itself ... you have to be here for awhile, and settle into it. You have to earn it."
Cooking Californian? Think Spago
Los Angeles Times Magazine: Special Dining Out Issue
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