The Meals That Got Us Through 2020 guide image


The Meals That Got Us Through 2020

It wasn’t easy, but we made it through the worst year ever. And these meals helped - a lot.

Take a deep breath - and now exhale very slowly. We did it. We’ve reached the end of 2020. While this hardly feels like a reason to celebrate, it’s certainly worth taking a moment to reflect on the positives, and acknowledge all the things that have helped us get through these unprecedented 12 months. Here at The Infatuation LA, that’s mostly come in the form of food. In a year that brought the restaurant industry to a grinding halt, we were consistently blown away by the sheer ingenuity and creativity that unfolded in restaurants across the city. From fine-dining establishments to pop-ups, convenience store counters to secret sandwich spots - and just about everything in between - these are the most memorable meals we ate this year, the food that helped us see, however dim, the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Best Things We Ate This Year

Amboy Quality Meats

Fine! I’ll admit it. Fries have gotten me through the pandemic. And I haven’t been picky - shoestring, crinkle-cut, sweet potato, steak frites, etc. - they’ll all do. But the cream of the crop is found at Chinatown’s Amboy. When I interviewed chef and owner Alvin Cailan, he shared that his current fry, a glorious, golden version that has brought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion, was actually not his first choice at all: Cailan had to pivot when his initial fry supplier folded at the beginning of the pandemic. There’s a metaphor there about resilience and perseverance, but now I’m too busy thinking about his fries. -Staff Writer Kat Hong

It’s hard to put into words how uniquely special of a place Baja Subs is, but once you set foot inside this tiny convenience store in Northridge, you’ll start to understand. Yes, you can come to this strip mall spot for a pack of cigarettes, a Diet Coke, and a turkey sandwich from behind the counter, but that’d be missing the point entirely. At Baja Subs, it’s all about the secret menu on the wall, filled with my favorite Sri Lankan food in the city - including an exceptional biryani rice, Sri Lankan noodles, and kottu roti. -Editorial Lead Brant Cox

When I first ate at Bar Restaurant in January, I thought that meal was going to be one of the most surprising things about 2020. Turns out that prediction was wrong, but I was right about the food. A meal at this French-ish restaurant in Silver Lake was (and still is) weird and absolutely wonderful. A complete list of my favorites would be a copy/paste of their entire menu, but two dishes stand out above the rest: Their moules frites, served with Ore Ida-style curly fries and a dijon emulsion, and the frisee salad served over a crispy hash brown and showered in Everton cheese, cured egg yolk, and bonito flakes. This place has operated as an indoor dining room, a fully outdoor restaurant in their parking lot, and a takeout-only enterprise, but the incredible quality of their food has remained consistent through the highs and lows of their first year in operation. -Staff Writer Brett Keating

Remember when famous chefs from other cities used to open restaurants on an almost weekly basis in the Arts District? 2020 sure had something to say about that. However, one massive exception is Damian. Owned and operated by Chef Enrique Olvera (Pujol, Cosme), Damian would have been the biggest LA restaurant opening in any year, but the fact they pulled it off in the middle of a pandemic makes it all the more remarkable. I’ll admit, I was slightly nervous about the idea of sitting on a fancy patio for a few hours - they weren’t doing takeout or delivery until December, when they opened Ditroit out back - but from the moment I walked into Damian, I felt at ease. The back patio was incredibly spacious, the staff had sanitary protocols down to a science, and oh my god the food. From tartare tostadas to shrimp tlayuda to albacore carnitas, there were simply no weak spots on Damian’s menu - and I’m including cocktails in that statement, too (I’m still thinking about my kimchi martini). - BC

No one knows why, but my pandemic food of choice has been pie. Perhaps it was because quarantine’s peak coincided with stone fruit season, resulting in an Instagram feed populated with mouth-watering peaches, nectarines, and pluots? Or maybe my third eye opened and I realized that a whole pie could last me three-to-four days. Who knows? Either way, I became extremely well-versed in LA’s pie scene in a short amount of time, and have come to the conclusion that the city’s best is… one that can’t even be bought anymore. Smh. The pie in question was created for the Pies for Justice benefit bake sale, and was donated by Few For All, an Italian pop-up specializing in homemade pastas and sauces. Packed with glorious, just-ripe peaches and topped with a mind-blowing medley of roasted almonds, oats, and lavender, there isn’t a day that goes by where this pie doesn’t cross my mind - and where I don’t bombard Few For All’s inbox, begging them to sell it again. - KH

Since taking this job almost six years ago, I’ve had hundreds of memorable meals, but every once in a while, a restaurant truly stops me in my tracks. That’s what Forn Al Hara did to me. Located in Little Arabia in Anaheim, this Lebanese bakery was recommended to me while I was doing research in February for my Best Restaurants In Anaheim guide, and while I wish I could recall my first bite of their manaeesh (Levantine flatbread), I can’t, because I blacked out. There’s over 30 different kinds, ranging from chicken chipotle to cheese and eggs, and the fact of the matter is they’re all excellent. But if I had to name a top three, it’d be the sujuk (cured beef sausage) with cheese, lahem bel ajeen (ground beef with veggies and tomatoes), and sweet and spicy muhamara (hot pepper spread made with pomegranate molasses). - BC

I care so deeply about Found Oyster that I sometimes wonder if I should even be allowed to write about it. This is a tiny spot that’s part-Parisian wine bar, part-New England clam shack, with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling and an ice chest full of oysters fresh from the GM’s family farm on Cape Cod Bay. I remember every single meal I’ve eaten here, from my first visit last winter (steamers frites and a lobster roll), to my birthday lunch just before COVID hit (a dizzying amount of raw, fried, and broiled oysters, and a Caesar salad served on top of pork schnitzel). But raw bars that cram 15 people in like anchovies are not built for pandemics. Remarkably, Found survived by running as a seafood mart, wine shop, and fried chicken shack for six months. And in November, they built a brand new patio in the loading zone in front of their restaurant - which they plan to reopen as soon as the city allows it. I went back for opening weekend, and it turns out, their oysters are just as good outside. Things almost felt normal for those two hours I was back at my favorite restaurant. - BK

What I love about Gamboge, the casual Cambodian cafe that opened over the summer in Lincoln Heights, is how smooth and comfortable of an experience it is. You order at a table out front, wait for your food to arrive (which always comes in to-go boxes), and then you choose between eating on their fantastic patio (when that was still a thing), the nearby LA State Historic Park, or back in your car (a premiere 2020 dining destination). That said, what I love most about Gamboge is the tremendous food. The num pang (a close cousin to the banh mi) is one of my [favorite new sandwiches of the year] and if you skip over the Khmer chicken salad because it’s, well, a salad, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. Throw in some grilled corn or braised tomatoes and sardines on the side, and I can’t think of a better lunch in town. - BC

The San Gabriel Valley is perhaps the most restaurant-rich region of Los Angeles, and my top pick there is a low-key spot: Golden Leaf Restaurant. This Taiwanese place is in a San Gabriel strip mall, and serves my favorite soup in the city, their beef noodle soup with vermicelli. But this year, I also developed an unhealthy obsession with the pork chow mein here, which involves salty, heavily spiced pork served over tender, handmade noodles and a heaping portion of bean sprouts. They were takeout-only all year, and the food is expertly packaged for travel time in the car - it holds up very well on the drive home. - BK

Don’t think a sandwich can change your life? You obviously haven’t been to Jeff’s Table in Highland Park. Hidden behind a liquor store on Figueroa, this place makes other sandwich artists look like kids in Ms. Pearsall’s first-grade painting class. The Picassos here include the Jeff’s Special, a Reuben with house-brined pastrami, sauerkraut, spicy Russian dressing, and both melted cheese and a massive Piave cheese crisp, and the Hot KimCheezy, a pork shoulder ham sandwich with house kimchi, salted plum mustard, aioli, chili oil, and a frankly startling portion of melted cheese. This year f*cking sucked, but slightly less so due to the amount of melted cheese Jeff’s Table puts on their sandwiches (and into my life). - BK

I love going crazy on comfort food, so about the only good thing I can say about 2020 is that it gave me plenty of excuses to do just that. And then throw in a pastrami-topped cheeseburger, too. That’s part of the reason I love Johnny’s so much. Taking over an iconic all-night stand that closed in 2015 after a near 60-year run, this West Adams spot - not to be confused that other old-school pastrami stand in Culver City - didn’t change the menu so much as update it, so you get exactly what the massive neon sign out front promises: Burgers, dogs, and, of course, pastrami. The latter is smoked in-house, slightly peppery, sliced super-thick, and served simply, on marble rye with a dab of deli mustard. The former is supersized as The Johnny Burger, complete with caramelized onions, thousand island dressing, Swiss cheese and, yep, more of that pastrami. Throw in a knish with gravy and some matzo ball soup, and I got all the sustenance I needed to survive any year. Even this one. -LA Editor James Montgomery

Started by Lord Maynard Llera, a former sous chef at Bestia, this Filipino pop-up is run entirely out of his house in La Canada-Flintridge, and the only way you can order is via their Instagram. If that seems like a lot of work for one takeout meal, you’re not wrong, but let me say this - Kuya Lord is hands-down the best meal I ate in 2020. There’s no set menu or schedule, but you can generally expect things like pancit chami (a specialty from the chef’s hometown of Lucerna, Philippines), lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly), and Filipino BBQ chicken that’s ruined all other versions for me. More than just great tasting food though, Kuya Lord gave me an enduring hope that, even in the darkest moments of the pandemic, we were going to get through this. And that sentiment still stands. - BC

In September, much of the West Coast experienced a double-whammy of existential crises: The pandemic and catastrophic wildfires. And on one of those deeply disconcerting mornings, when I’d walk outside and my car would be gray from the ash raining down from the sky, I’d drive straight to La Azteca for a chile relleno burrito. This Mexican takeout spot in East LA is the grandmaster of tortillerias, and they make my favorite burrito in town. It’s a comforting, dachshund-sized wonder, filled with deep-fried poblano chilies, three kinds of cheese, and a healthy portion of pinto beans and carnitas. And it’s all wrapped up in one of their remarkably tasty flour tortillas, made with enough salty rendered pork fat that I’d happily eat them on their own. It’s almost enough to make me forget about any of the numerous terrible things about 2020. Or at least give me the energy to finally wash the ashes off my car. - BK

I spent just about all of 2020 thinking about fleeing America, and in early October, I finally went for it - but only made it as far as Carpinteria, a beachside town about 75 miles north of LA. Why did I stop there? Because I read Brant’s review of Little Dom’s Seafood and got hungry. Turns out, I made the right choice. If you’ve ever been to Little Dom’s in Los Feliz, you know their rice balls and meatballs are the stuff of legend, and both made the trip up the coast to LDS, but that’s just the beginning. From raw bar standouts like ridgeback shrimp and uni (both fresh from the waters of Santa Barbara) to the smoked fish rillettes and rich squid ink mafaldine with spicy uni butter, this was a Meal with a capital M - delicious enough to forget the hellscape we inhabit, if only for a couple hours. - JM

Los Dorados

I stumbled onto Los Dorados LA while doing research for our Best New Tacos guide over the summer, and it only took one bite for me to realize how special this place is. Popping up on the weekends in Highland Park and the Arts District, Los Dorados LA is a tiny truck that only serves one thing - tacos dorados (flautas), but it’s the best version I’ve ever eaten. Crispy, deep-fried rolled tacos doused in house-made salsa roja, guacamole, and cotija cheese; there’s nothing subtle about these flautas, and that’s exactly why I’m so addicted to them. And let me tell you something - sitting on a curb in Highland Park, eating flautas with my bare hands, and not giving two sh*ts about how much sauce was getting on my shirt is a highlight of 2020 for me. - BC

If you’ve never been to Jame Enoteca, the strip-mall spot in El Segundo, all you need to know is that it’s so good, even the kale salad is incredible. (OK, the pasta’s pretty f*cking great, too). So when the couple behind Jame opened Ospi in Venice, I had high expectations. My meal there exceeded all of them. Like Jame, the menu features plenty of pasta - my favorites were the tiny, pillowy malloreddus with a rich beef-cheek ragu and a truly fantastic cannelloni stuffed with tender lamb - but there’s a lot more, too. Whether it’s thick slices of toasted fettunta topped with chilled lobster, the Hapa Pizza with roasted pineapple and spicy ground pepperoni (co-owner Melissa Saka’s tribute to the pies she grew up eating at Long Beach’s Domenico’s), or some great cannoli with citrus marmalade, the food here is both forward-thinking and a bit nostalgic, making this a meal you’ll be thinking about for a long time. - JM

In the early days of quarantine, I started hearing about Perilla, a new Korean pop-up from chef Jihee Kim. She used to work at Orsa + Winston and now operates Perilla from a Koreatown kitchen, serving beautiful banchan that pops right off the Instagram page. The thing is, as nice as these dishes look on a screen, that’s no comparison to their actual depth and complexity of flavor. The menu changes seasonally based on what’s at the farmers’ market, but my favorites are on there pretty consistently: The gimbap, a beautiful roll involving pickled daikon, avocado, and mushroom chive, and the spicy bulgogi and yuba, thinly sliced beef and tofu skins marinated in tremendous, sweet gochujang. I always add on a few of the seasonal muchim and the rotating fish gui, so I have multiple meals’ worth of this next-level comfort food. - BK

When I first visited Tamales Elena back in July, it was the first new restaurant I had eaten at since the pandemic started. Needless to say, it was an out-of-body experience - but mostly because of the excellent food I ate there. Located in Bell Gardens, Tamales Elena Y Antojitos’ menu highlights dishes from chef Maria Elena Lorenzo’s home state of Guerrero, Mexico, making it the first Afro-Mexican restaurant in the city and home to one of the most exciting meals I ate all year. Pozole is the specialty here, but it’s the pescadillas that remain the star of the show for me. Thin, crispy, and filled with perfectly stewed fish, this is easily a top-ten taco in LA, and one of the countless reasons everyone needs to be driving to Bell Gardens right now. - BC

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