One of LA’s largest and most ambiguously defined regions, South LA or South Central LA has historically been the site of many iconic events. In the 1920s, jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith gave career-defining performances here. Fast forward to February 2022 and the 56th Super Bowl is being hosted at a stadium in Inglewood. But in this guide, we’ll be highlighting the restaurants and dishes, like stewed oxtails and birria de res, that have made this part of town famous. Whether you’re looking for a brunch place in Crenshaw, lunch options in Watts, or dinner spots in Bell Gardens (we know, it’s technically Southeast LA), this guide is the perfect place to start.
Harold & Belles Restaurant
LA’s favorite Creole restaurant went under the knife in 2020, but now it’s back and looking better than ever. Most of the big leather booths inside are still filled with regulars who seem like they’ve been coming here for massive portions of crawfish etouffee since it first opened. This 50-year-old South LA staple feels like a small slice of New Orleans, so expect incredible gumbo, jambalaya, and beignets. If you visit Harold & Belle’s on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll probably catch a live jazz band jamming for diners in the restaurant’s bar and lounge area. It’s exciting, but it can also get pretty crowded, so we recommend you call ahead to book a reservation.
There are plenty of parking lots in LA where you can pick up a solid order of tacos, but few run as smoothly as Tire Shop Taqueria. The operation at this cash-only taco spot in South Park involves multiple tents divided into stations for making hand-pressed corn tortillas, grilling carne asada, chopping chorizo, and scooping toppings. Just standing in line can be a mesmerizing experience, but actually eating the tacos here is even more incredible. Tire Shop Taqueria makes some of the best carne asada tacos we’ve ever had—they’ve got a perfect balance of smoky flavor from the charred edges and richness from the marinade. Aside from the beef, the chorizo is our other favorite option here. It’s very spicy, nicely grilled, and tastes like it’s just been rolled down a hill of red peppers.
Located in another tire shop parking lot in South Central, Tacos Los Guichos is a tiny truck that serves the kind of crispy and slightly sweet al pastor that keeps us up at night. This place is open all day starting at 8:30am, but if your schedule allows it, head over after the sun goes down. That’s when the al pastor comes fresh off the vertical spit outside the truck and causes us even more insomnia than the daytime version.
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Owned and operated by Nashville hot chicken royalty Kim Prince, Hotville Chicken opened its doors in late 2019 and immediately became one of the best places to eat hot chicken in LA. And don’t get us wrong, the chicken is fantastic and absolutely what you should come here for, but if you leave without getting one of the hot fish sandwiches, you need to turn around and go back. Crispy on the outside, the white fish itself basically melts in your mouth, but also acts as an ideal agent (along with the excellent slaw) to cut through whatever heat level you choose.
Delicious At The Dunbar
Among the fast food and taco trucks lining Central Avenue is a historic landmark: The Dunbar Hotel. Starting in the 1920s, this swanky spot hosted jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and more of the people who helped establish South LA as a cultural hub for the Black community. The building got a major facelift in 2018, and one of its most impressive upgrades was this fantastic Southern restaurant on the bottom floor. It’s got a long menu full of top-notch soul food and Mexican entrees–think short ribs and oxtails served alongside fish tacos and shrimp fajitas–available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Hawkins House of Burgers has been a neighborhood institution in Watts since 1939. And over 80 years later, the menu still involves a mix of classic hamburgers chargrilled to perfection, piled high with bacon, or stuffed with pastrami. Whether you order a simple cheeseburger or “The Leaning Tower Of Watts″ stacked with three patties, hot links, and chili, you’ll leave as a much happier and greasier version of yourself. Recently, Hawkins has come under attack by CalTrans, which is attempting to tear down part of their building which they claim is “encroaching on state land.” Hawkins is currently in the process of fighting the case and purchasing the land that CalTrans is after. They have a Gofundme page up to help raise money for the legal fees and land acquisition.
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Open since 1956, the original 27th Street Bakery on Central Avenue has become a household name thanks to its sweet potato pies. To make each personal pan pie, they fly in sweet potatoes from Louisiana and use a secret family recipe that’s been passed down over three generations. While most people come here to try these rich desserts, 27th Street Bakery also makes a bunch of other options like red velvet cake, peach cobbler, and mini pecan pies by the dozen. If you want to skip the line, order ahead through their website.
photo credit: Talia Mayden
Ackee Bamboo Jamaican Cuisine
For years, this fantastic Jamaican restaurant in Leimert Park has been one of our go-to spots for jerk chicken and beef patties. And truthfully, we haven’t tried one thing at Ackee that we didn’t love. But our favorite dish is the brown stew chicken, which is like a meaty pile of brown gravy and sweet bell peppers. The portions here are massive, so if you’re flying solo, just go for the small–every order comes with plantains, steamed vegetables, festival bread, and a huge helping of rice and peas. Keep this place in mind when you’re looking for somewhere to pick up food before a picnic at Leimert Park Plaza around the corner.
photo credit: Krystal Thompson
Dulan's Soul Food Kitchen
A revered soul food spot with two locations in Inglewood (and one in Crenshaw), Dulan’s is an LA institution. Nothing can compare to the pure, uninhibited joy that comes from digging into their plates of pork chops, fried chicken, and incredible mac and cheese. There’s truly no wrong way to order here, though our go-to is the chicken, which tastes like it’s been marinated for days and then gets fried until it’s golden brown. At the moment, the restaurant is just operating from its takeout window on Manchester Avenue, but don’t worry, the soul food here tastes just as good in the passenger seat of your Camry.
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Walking into this classic diner on Centinela is like walking into the center of the neighborhood– families, big groups of friends, and solo diners who have been coming every week for 35 years, all clamoring to get The Serving Spoon’s Southern breakfast into their lives. No matter what day of the week you come here, expect lines out the door, but on the other side of that 45-minute wait are tremendous plates of fried catfish, chicken drumettes, and our favorite waffles in town. If you can snag a seat at the counter, do it and be treated to an endless conversation with the waitstaff.
South LA’s food scene is arguably the oldest in the city, but it was Post and Beam that got a new generation of diners hooked on updated versions of traditional soul food dishes. The gastropub/pizzeria/Southern food emporium in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is fantastic, and the ideal spot to eat your weight in jerk catfish on a Sunday afternoon or grab a quick cocktail before a Kenny Chesney concert at the nearby Forum. Post and Beam has an idyllic patio next to an herb garden that would be perfect for an outdoor birthday dinner. Plus, there’s no shortage of warm comfort food like shrimp and grits, pecan pie, and homemade cornbread topped with whipped honey butter.
After closing for over a year, this low-key pasta bar has a new home in West Adams, complete with a sunny patio, pasta art that hangs from the ceiling, and a grove of olive trees. The beet spaghetti and almond pesto gnocchi here are some of the best plates of pasta we’ve ever eaten, but we recommend just ordering one of everything on the daily rotating menu. Expect options like chicken liver crostino, sweet corn carbonara, and multiple glasses of wine.
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If you’re looking for all the charm and hospitality of a casual dinner in the South, but don’t particularly feel like leaving the Pacific time zone, head to Alta Adams. Their versions of Southern classics are great–specifically, the black-eyed pea fritters and the shrimp and grits–and the staff is very friendly and attentive. So book a table on one of the best backyard patios in LA and make sure to try a few of their signature cocktails. They’re that perfect mix of sweet and refreshing, not to mention strong enough to make you forget about that white hair you found this morning.
Inside Mercado La Paloma, a former factory turned Downtown community gathering space and food hall, sits Holbox–a family-run food stall that serves super inventive seafood that’ll have you questioning all the other seafood you’ve ever eaten. Think ceviche tostadas, chile rellenos stuffed with yellowtail, and raw oysters by the dozen. That said, don’t you dare leave without getting an order of the scallop tacos–each one comes with four perfectly-seared scallops wrapped in a thick house-made corn tortilla before getting topped with fennel, caramelized onions, and spicy chile sauce. Enjoy it all on the market’s large outdoor patio.
Another one of our favorite restaurants inside Mercado La Paloma is Chichen Itza, a tiny vendor specializing in traditional Yucatan cuisine. Start with the sikil-pac (a tomato and pumpkin seed-based dip) and end with their signature dish, the cochinita pibil: marinated pork cooked and served in a giant banana leaf and topped with pickled onions.
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The neon sign affixed to the building shouts “PASTRAMI” in big, glowing letters, so, yeah… that’s what you’re going to order at Johnny’s, the longstanding late-night spot reimagined and reopened under new ownership in 2020. That house-smoked pastrami is slightly peppery, sliced super-thick, and served simply on marble rye from Tartine Bakery with a dab of deli mustard. This is a big, bold showcase for the deeply smoked brisket, the bite of the bark, and the semi-rendered fat cap (we always prefer our pastrami a little fatty), with an emphasis on big. This is a whole meal unto itself, so if you’re looking to try a few different things here, we’d recommend ordering a half sandwich.
Simply Wholesome is one of the most crowded spots in View Park-Windsor Hills. It’s a health food grocery store with a restaurant inside and a huge patio outside, where you can enjoy their smoothies, burgers, and vegetarian tacos. Those smoothies are the reason we’re here most often–they come out quickly and are packed with fresh fruit, ice cream, and coconut, but if you’re having a full meal, the turkey burgers are your best bet. Both because they’re good, and because they come with Simply Wholesome’s killer French fries–they’re somewhere between a thin fry and a steak fry, not to mention perfectly golden and crisp.
photo credit: Jakob Layman
This West Adams neighborhood hangout has one of our favorite breakfast burritos in LA. It involves slow-cooked heirloom beans, habanero-roasted tomatoes, and escabeche pickles. But if you want some health instead, order Highly Likely’s Saltie sandwich. It’s filled with a delicious mix of pickled eggs and raw, roasted, and pickled vegetables. If you’re not a sandwich person, there’s always the Japanese breakfast bowl or halloumi salad tooo. This West Adams cafe is generally pretty crowded, but you should be able to find a seat between someone having coffee with their laptop and a family enjoying a post-soccer game brunch.
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The first thing you notice walking into this family-run Belizean restaurant is that it’s a party. Whether you’re here for a quick lunch, a family dinner, or a karaoke event, expect Little Belize to be crowded, festive, and always a great time. As far as the food goes, start with the panades (fried masa stuffed with fish hash) and garnaches (crispy tortillas topped with fried beans, tomatoes, and onions), and end with either chicken or oxtail stew. Both are immensely savory, but it’s the fried plantains on the side that you’ll be talking about–and eating–on the way home.
Coni’Seafood isn’t just one of the best restaurants in Inglewood, it’s one of the most essential dining experiences in all of Los Angeles. The Mexican seafood spot on the southern tip of the neighborhood is definitely a bit more expensive than other restaurants in the area, but that’s the price you pay for some of the most delicious seafood in the city. You can’t go wrong with any of the ceviches or aguachiles, but the marlin tacos and whole snook need to hit the table or you can’t actually tell your friends you came here.
Banadir Somali is a family-run restaurant and community institution just south of downtown Inglewood. The bare-bones space feels like you’re in the basement of a neighborhood rec center, and everybody inside treats it as such. Big groups gather around large tables, eating massive platters of tremendous Somali food. Goat is the house specialty here, and it’s so packed with flavor it’ll ruin most other versions you’ve ever had. If you arrive around 11am, you’ll be able to order from both their breakfast and lunch menu, which is ideal, because the shakshuka, ful (bean stew), and crepe-like anjero bread are all just as good as the goat.
Run by celebrity chefs Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, La Casita Mexicana’s Jalisco-style menu has turned this neighborhood restaurant into a true LA dining destination. There’s rich, chocolatey mole, Azteca cheese fondue, and steak served over grilled cactus, but the dish that you must order is the chile en nogada. This giant green chile comes stuffed with beef, spices, dried fruits, walnuts, candied cactus, pecan cream sauce, and topped with pomegranate seeds. It’s sweet, savory, profoundly herbaceous, and a dish we would happily eat as an appetizer, entree, or dessert.
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photo credit: Jakob Layman
Rocio's Mexican Kitchen
Rocio’s isn’t big and you’re going to drive past it the first time you go, but once you reach its Bell Gardens location, you’ll be treated to some of the best mole in Southern California. Chef and owner Rocio Camacho is nicknamed “Goddess of Mole,” and whether you order her rich, chocolatey Oaxaqueño or creamy, botanical-forward rosa santa prisca, it’s not difficult to understand why. You get to choose a protein for each mole and we recommend either the chile relleno or the sweet and mild mahi mahi.
Originally a backyard pop-up, Ray’s BBQ in Huntington Park serves Texas-style smoked meats that rival ones made in the Lone Star state. After ditching his bank job in 2015, owner Rene “Ray” Ramirez flew to Texas to learn from the best, including at places like Franklin Barbecue in Austin. What results is a spectacular medley of barbecue favorites, like pulled pork made to order and an extra-fatty brisket that’s encrusted in black pepper and tastes as if it was given a big ol’ smooch by a pillar of smoke. The sides are great too, especially the thick, tangy mac and cheese, plus there’s a small side patio where you’ll see both regulars on their lunch breaks and others subtly undoing a button on their pants.
Jim Dandy’s is a tiny counter-service spot on Vermont Avenue where the only thing standing between you and transcendent fried poultry bliss is a thick layer of bulletproof glass. We like to think that this bold security measure is the only way Jim Dandy’s kitchen staff can protect its sacred piles of golden-brown fried chicken–you won’t find a better version anywhere else in LA. Be sure to order your chicken “spicy” with a side of corn fritters—each one of these deep-fried dough balls tastes like a bite-sized funnel cake covered in just enough powdered sugar to keep you awake for the drive back home. It’s shockingly good comfort food that you should keep in mind the next time you’re feeling sad or just craving something greasy.