No More Salad Days: LA Embraced Big, Indulgent Comfort Foods in 2022
Maybe you haven’t heard, but carbs are back in Los Angeles. Not only carbs: Sugar is back, fat is back, frying is back, meat is back. Wings are the new kale and the trendiest grain bowl is loaded baked potato pasta. Hot new restaurants serve pan pizza and cake. Whatever detoxing celebrities are selling, Los Angeles is no longer buying. The founder of Goop backed a billionaire mall developer for mayor, and he lost.
Across the country, the dining scene is tilting precipitously toward indulgence, but this shift is especially dramatic in a city whose avocado toast-fueled wellness cuisine took over the late twenty-teens. The last time Los Angeles restaurants were so nakedly hedonistic was the ramen and offal boom of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Those trends were part of a broader fascination with rough-and-tumble tattooed chefs and the foods they liked to cook and eat. This new wave of decadence is less about celebrating the offcuts and the bros who sear them, and instead about pleasing your own palate. Second-generation immigrant chefs celebrating all their childhood foods, both from their parents’ traditions and Pizza Hut’s, which my colleague Jaya Saxena dubbed “chaos cooking,” is this shift’s most exciting thread. But it’s part of a broader renaissance of comfort food.
The next wave of Los Angeles restaurants is unlikely to fuel an avocado or farro shortage. You’re going to Mother Wolf for the city’s most silken cacio e pepe. You’re hitting Kuya Lord for a tray of lechon kawali, pancit chami, and garlic rice. You’re picking up a ham and cheese croissant at Konbi, waltzing into Dear Jane’s for fish sticks topped with caviar, or to Camphor for a duck-and-beef burger stacked so decadently you feel the need to eat it with a knife and fork. And forget a turmeric latte; you’re getting the turmeric-hued yellow wings at Pijja Palace.
Eastside? There’s a line for deli sandwiches and doughnuts from Bub and Grandma’s. Westside? Another line, this one for sloppy, cheesy smashed burgers from Heavy Handed. In Echo Park, Quarter Sheets slings pineapple on pizza and the city’s most sublime cakes, including an homage to the childhood favorite gateau de dirt. In the Arts District, Yangban Society serves a congee pot pie, a biscuit smothered in curry gravy, and a bone-in tonkatsu all in one meal. Even the tofu — which is wonderful — comes out battered and fried.
I’m not saying there’s no more juice to be had in Los Angeles, or nary a grain bowl to be found. Every fancy grocery store will sell you a $10 juice — it’s good business. People are still opening “healthy” new restaurants here, too. In Venice, Den Mother’s vegan izakaya serves “healing plant-based” dishes, and Mother Tongue will put you in ketosis on top of a fancy gym. But the boom in plant-based openings skews heavily toward mozzarella sticks, Reubens, and burgers and fries.
This pendulum swing is, at face value, a result of being in a pandemic. But COVID-19 was more an accelerant for an already smoldering fire than an initial spark. The city’s bagel boom was well underway in 2019. And the last major dish to break out of Los Angeles and spread across the country wasn’t avocado toast. It was cheesy, meaty, deliciously messy birria de res. You can find that in New York now, too.
The main thing the pandemic did — and is still doing — is shredding old norms, making room for new tastes and trends to flourish. It’s temporarily leveled the playing field between restaurants and pop-ups run by home cooks and chefs recently laid off from those restaurants, allowing new kinds of cooking to take root. Angelenos wanted delicious, comforting food they could carry home. Pizza and sandwiches were major winners: By July 2020, LA’s Instagram-driven pop-up scene was incubating future full-fledged operations like Side Pie and Bridgetown Roti, and it’s still going strong. Pastry chefs, freed to cook on their own terms, connected with customers directly through Instagram and changed the dessert scene in the city in the process.
The pandemic also undermined the seductive promises of 2010s wellness eating. Arguably, this cuisine of whole grains and vegetables and excuses not to consume adequate calories by drinking juice arose in the face of the ongoing crisis of chronic diseases in American life, which health authorities and media commonly (and unhelpfully) linked to poor individual choices in diet. Social media turned this individualistic view of health into a performance, at its worst an ugly one — a grain bowl Instagrammed to show off how good your choices are. But the arrival of a fast-moving infectious disease didn’t spur a massive trend in, say, ginger-wheatgrass immunity shots. COVID-19 was sudden and scary. The placebo comforts of wellness offered weak medicine compared to the emotional succor of pizza.
The comfort foods taking over Los Angeles right now are all dishes associated with affordable, everyday pleasure, whether mom’s baked potato or a fast-food burger. None of these dishes are aspirational to, say, a Calabasas or Pacific Palisades lifestyle in the way wellness dishes were. It’s possible that part of the swerve toward comfort food is a result of the pandemic’s class upheavals, whether it was the early anger at celebrities’ luxurious “quarantine” photos, or the worker revolts in the restaurant industry. In Los Angeles, these two dynamics supercharged each other when a number of former employees of Sqirl, the standard-bearer of the Los Angeles grain bowl and toast approach to eating, came forward to allege poor working conditions, as well as claims that the restaurant’s white chef improperly failed to credit recipes created by employees of color, reporting which coincided with the spread of viral photos of mold on a jam bucket inside the restaurant.
It’s still unclear, even at the end of 2022, if the pandemic-era critiques about gentrification ever sank in. The line that once wrapped around the corner for avocado toast at Sqirl moved exactly one block down Virgil Avenue for Courage Bagels. I’ve spent $200 for a dinner that featured extremely fancy chicken wings. A change in tastes can only accomplish so much. But a shift away from performed virtue, one tied up in elitism, is refreshing. Cooks cooking to please themselves has always brought out the best in American food, and Los Angeles’s comfort foods — its burritos, its noodles, its barbecue chicken pizzas and drive-thru burgers — are the real heart of the city’s cuisine. Long may indulgence reign.