Eating Your Way Through LA’s Ethnic Neighbourhoods

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With more culturally exotic diversity than a Star Wars film, Los Angeles is one big sizzling wok full of incredible international flavours.

Los Angeles is now the second-largest urban population centre in the United States. Its global pull is such that more than half of its residents were not born in the city and about 39 per cent come from outside of the US altogether.

People from more than 140 countries, speaking 220 languages, call LA home and it has the largest communities of Mexicans, Iranians, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Koreans outside of their home countries.

As a result, it’s one of the world’s great multicultural melting pots. And it means that every minority community has carved out a small piece of territory in this megalopolis, branding it their own “Little Somewhere”.

Here’s where to start.

Little Mexico

Given that Los Angeles is, in many respects, practically an outer suburb of Mexico City, you’d expect Mexican influences everywhere. And indeed, that is true. Although there is no official “Little Mexico”, to those in the know the Mexican heartland is in East LA. Visit the neighbourhoods of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Lincoln Heights if you are in the market for street tacos, handmade tortillas, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, elote (corn on the cob with mayo, cheese and chili powder) or a seriously potent margarita. In West Hollywood, don’t miss Gracias Madre, one of the hottest restaurants in the city, where the food is 100 per cent vegan.

Chinatown

Skip the Chinatown in Downtown LA and instead hit the freeway about 30 minutes east to Monterey Park. Here, 1000-seat restaurants churn out delicious dim sums and crispy roast duck, day and night. Plus after a gluttonous eating fest you can indulge in a soothing foot massage, to be had at any one of the countless local massage joints. You may just as well be in Hong Kong or Beijing.

Koreatown

The largest Korean population in the USA resides in Los Angeles and Koreatown (between Western and Vermont Avenues), where you’ll find barbecue, dumplings and fried street foods. Koreatown is most decidedly a 24-hour kind of place. Revellers can order a spectacularly good spiced tofu soup at midnight and, of course, visit karaoke nightclubs to get their fill of the latest K-pop tunes. The city’s Korean community has also taken to the food-truck concept with relish. Join the queue at Kogi, a food truck that apparently invented the fusion of Korean and Mexican cuisine – think tofu tacos or kimchi quesadillas. 

See also: The Insider's Guide to Los Angeles

The rest of Asia

There is such a massive Japanese influence in Los Angeles that having a “Japantown” would be a touch passé. So instead there is Little Tokyo, near Downtown, where you can find sushi trains and some of the best sashimi this side of the Pacific. It competes with “Little Osaka” (also known as “Sawtelle Japantown”) in West LA, and in both areas there is no shortage of manga comics, bonsai nurseries, Harajuku-style clothing boutiques and noodles that come in every shape and size.

The rest of Asia has laid its claim to parts of Los Angeles too. In trendy Echo Park and Silver Lake you will find Historic Filipinotown, where home-style restaurants – serving slow-cooked pork knuckles just like in Manila – are nestled alongside coffee emporiums. While in Long Beach sits Cambodia Town (also known as Little Phnom Penh) and further south, in Westminster, lies Little Saigon.

The only officially designated Thai neighbourhood in the USA, Thai Town, can be found in East Hollywood. Locals flock to the Palms Thai Restaurant, which has become legendary for its phonebook-sized menu that mixes favourite dishes with things you’ve never tried before: frog with green peppercorn, spicy chicken feet salad, raw Thai sausage, and aged hen soup. But the real highlight is the nightly show, where an Asian Elvis impersonator will serenade you with Thai-accented versions of the King’s greatest hits.

Little subcontinent

In Culver City, not too far from Venice Beach, is a conglomeration of Indian restaurants, eateries and stores. But this is just a smaller outpost of LA’s real Little India, located about an hour’s drive south in Artesia. The suburb is brimming with gold shops, saris, sitars, vegetarian restaurants and tandoori ovens, as though you’ve arrived in central Mumbai. There are also two small Pakistani enclaves – one in Westwood and one in Lawndale – that vie for the title of “Little Lahore”.

But it is the city’s Bangladeshi community that has established the newest ethnic ’hood in Los Angeles – Little Bangladesh, a 10-block area around Alexandria Avenue, that was officially designated by the City of Los Angeles in 2010. Try Biriyani Kabob House, named for its signature mixed-rice dish.

The other “little” neighbourhoods

Little Ethiopia, another officially recognised ethnic enclave on South Fairfax Avenue between Pico and Wilshire, is the place to go for injera (Ethiopa’s national dish of sour, spongy flat bread).

Down the road on Westwood Boulevard you’ll find “Little Persia” (also known as Tehrangeles), the epicentre for LA’s sizeable Iranian community. Head here for your fix of spiced meats on the grill, hummus (served 50 different ways) and pistachio ice-cream.

Then there is Little Armenia in Glendale, home to the largest Armenian population outside of Yerevan. Shop signs are almost exclusively written in Armenian script, backgammon boards are out in full swing, and strong coffee served with hunks of baklava complete every meal.

You can’t miss the bagels and borscht belt on Fairfax Avenue between Melrose Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, where kosher supermarkets and delis offer Eastern European Jewish classics. The most famous of which is probably Milky Way, which in addition to serving truly fabulous cheese blintzes, happens to be run by Steven Spielberg’s mum. Family-owned restaurant Ta-eem serves some of the tastiest falafel in town, while Israeli export Itzik Hagadol Grill is the place to go for kebabs.

And if you just so happen to be a religious Mexican Jew, don’t worry, this incredible city has got you covered. At Mexikosher, Chef Katsuji Tanabe cooks up seriously tasty, kosher, Mexican food. If anywhere sums up the wonderful diversity of Los Angeles better, I’m yet to find it.

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