Spain’s national dish is one of those perfect foods that has everything going for it, but it starts with the rice, which should be soft on top and have a crispy crust on the bottom called socarrat. There are also both vegetable and meat components to the dish, with protein options including everything from chicken to shellfish and grilled squid. It’s also arguably one of the world’s most beautiful dishes that looks amazing center-table before everyone eagerly digs in with a spoon.
Spanish culture has left a noticeable mark on LA’s identity, with many of the city’s street names and architectural styles originating back to its time under Spain’s rule. But unlike noticeable colonial remnants, you won’t find a historically Spanish neighborhood here or too many good options for a night of tapas. That’s why we’ve made it easier for you by compiling a guide to the best paella in LA (plus an honorable mention in Santa Barbara).
It sometimes feels like any small plate on a Happy Hour menu these days gets called a tapa. But eating at Highland Park’s Otoño deserves a special gold star for their great Spanish food and a whole menu section dedicated to really good gin tonics. Once you’ve sampled the tasty pan con tomate or the excellent white anchovy plate with a side of anchovy butter that has us questioning our lifelong loyalty to regular butter, you’ll hopefully have some room left for the kitchen’s smaller-than-usual paella. This isn’t the table-sized showstopper you’ll find at other restaurants and it’s probably just enough food to feed two to three people (especially if you’re looking for just a nibble.) The paella de mariscos comes with a flavorful sofrito that moistens the rice and forms a nice crust on the bottom. Its seafood toppings include the classic prawns and mussels and some surrounding dollops of aioli that bring a nice pop of garlic flavor to every spoonful.
Driving down San Vicente in Beverly Grove can be a stressful experience. But if you manage to find your way around without circumnavigating the Beverly Center 30 times, you might notice this place sandwiched between a credit union and a sushi restaurant. La Paella has one of the largest tapas menus we’ve come across and includes popular favorites like silky tortilla española and Madrid specialties like callos a la madrileña - a rich, savory tripe, sausage, and garbanzo bean stew that warms you up for another glass of vino tinto. They also serve eight different paellas that vary both in toppings and flavors. Try the valenciana mixta, aka the OG paella, for soft saffron-tinted rice, fresh clams, mussels, shrimp, and some tender chicken and pork. Or go for the marinera that nixes the chicken and pork for calamari and king prawns. It’s equally delicious, nicely cooked, and great for groups looking to add more seafood to their lives.
First and foremost, we appreciate how Spain Restaurant’s name leaves zero room for questions. In fact, everything about this Echo Park spot is right to the point and exactly what we expect, which, frankly, we love. This place offers warm comfort foods like tortilla española, croquettes, and ham-filled bocadillos; there’s always soccer playing on the TV, and you’ll also find one very attractive cold-cuts section with all the jamon serrano you could ever want. Their paella mixta comes extra fluffy and well-seasoned from its saffron and bright lemon, but the rice could use some more crispiness around the edges. On the other hand, we’re very happy with how much seafood and chicken they cook into the dish, which is exactly what we look for from a lunchtime paella break.
According to the lavish lifestyles we see on our Instagram discover page, paella dinners call for a sunset moment in Ibiza with some deep-house blaring in the background. But if jet-setting to a Spanish island isn’t quite in your budget, you can have a better experience in Redondo Beach. Or at least that’s how we feel about Gabi James, which serves contemporary Spanish food with a little bit of French and North African influence thrown in. Start with a plate of jamon serrano and their homemade merguez sausage that packs a spicy kick and comes with a Tunisian mechouia salad made from roasted tomatoes and peppers. From there, the seafood paella for the table comes with generous amounts of calamari, shrimp, and Spanish chorizo, which brings a nice smokiness to the rice dish. This paella’s texture is a bit on the moist side, especially after it receives a big drizzle of squid ink aioli on top, which adds some much-needed citrus along with the lemon you spritz on top.
This new-ish West Hollywood restaurant has one of the best patios in town, making it the kind of place where you and your friends can sip on cocktails while you do some top-quality people watching. You can’t go wrong with the savory eggplant hummus and delicious chicken croquettes for starters before making your way to two different paella dishes. The first is the spicy paella bites, which are essentially a Spanish play on crispy rice sushi. The fried seafood rice squares have that ideally satisfying crunch while also tasting just like saffron and stock-infused paella. The fatty big eye tuna adds some needed freshness and texture contrast to everything, which then gets topped off with a spicy aioli. And then there’s the traditional bomba rice that comes out dark orange from the saffron and tomato-heavy sofrito, which helps form the crispy edges we like to nibble on before the staff takes the pan away. We don’t necessarily mind that the paella’s seafood and chorizo don’t get mixed in (they sit on top with some veggies instead), but it wouldn’t hurt to have the sofrito mingle with the shellfish to make it all feel more cohesive.
At first glance, Gasolina Cafe has a certain ‘Americana’ feel to it with its rustic decor and retro gas station memorabilia. If you’ve never seen the menu, you’d maybe guess they sold pancakes or perhaps some great barbecue ribs for lunch, but this diner actually has a very Spanish menu. While we like their coffee and breakfast options, we tend to wander in during lunch hours for some salty snacks like Spanish smoked mussels served with charred bread or Gallego-style grilled octopus with spicy chorizo and a very creamy pomme puree. Their Mar & Tierra paella comes in a beautiful dark amber color from its tomato-rich sofrito and has a great crunch to it. The chorizo’s paprika flavor also really shines through and plays well with the rice’s piquillo peppers, briny green olives, and meaty shellfish. Overall, this paella ticks all our boxes and definitely comes to mind every time we’re feeling an arroz party in a casual setting.
A.O.C.’s recent expansion with a second location in Brentwood has solidified itself as a place that everyone should keep in their back pocket. The small plates restaurant is perfect for friends’ birthdays, first dates, or any occasion where sharing food can help keep the conversation flowing. There’s also a lot to sample with various French, Italian, and Spanish items on the menu, plus a great wine list that’s worth exploring if you’re dinner guest talks about their dog’s Instagram for 30 minutes. Both locations serve a popular arroz negro that is dyed pitch black from its squid ink, and we love this ingredient’s natural tartness that infuses the rice and thickens in the oven to create just the right amount of crunch. The dish’s calamari is tender, never too chewy, and comes with a large dollop of saffron aioli on top, bringing the spice’s aromatics and some extra creaminess to everything as well.
Before you remind us that Santa Barbara isn’t LA, we should mention that SB is probably the most “Spanish” place in southern California. It’s home to the annual Fiesta festival, the Royal Spanish Presidio, and Loquita, a must-try Spanish restaurant where tapas are made from locally sourced produce and take style pointers from the now-closed El Bulli. The downtown SB spot also knows a thing or two about great sangria, Basque ciders, and some saffron-infused gin tonics that make us feel very fancy as we toss back $3 sous vide olives. Their paellas include a combination of traditional ingredients like prawns and shellfish, plus some not-so-traditional items like tempura squash blossoms or avocado. The mariscos paella is our favorite, with grilled squid, mussels, littleneck clams, and some huge prawns mixing with the rice. We also love the sofrito that has a hint of spice from aji amarillo peppers, as well as the squid ink aioli that adds just the right amount of acidity to the rice.