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When I got an email inviting me to fill in for a last-minute cancellation for a Wolvesmouth dinner, I don’t even remember what my reaction was, other than pure shock and excitement. Although I know some people have been trying longer, I’ve been attempting to get in on one of these underground, renegade dinners for a year, and I was starting to think it would never happen. The sparknotes version is this: incredibly talented, yet technically non-professional chef Craig Thornton hosts invite-only dinners for about 20 guests out of his downtown LA loft. The only way to get in is to get on the email list, RSVP when they announce a dinner, and hope to sweet baby Jesus they email you back. This also happened to coincide with my best friend Katherine coming to visit LA, so the timing couldn’t have been better!

The nine courses are essentially experimental, never been done before, and look like avant garde pieces of art that you’re not even entirely sure you are supposed to eat because they are so beautiful and intricate. Everything was delicious, although some dishes were more memorable than others. Regardless, the evening is an experience unto itself, and definitely something every Angeleno should try once in their lives. 

ribeye cap with plantain, broccoli tempura, mint aioli, pineapple

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crab, cauliflower, turnip, cabbage, cider, apple, brussels - to me, this was the most beautiful dish. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to eat it, I just wanted to take photos. 

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skate, candied lemon gelee, romaine aioli, mascarpone, onion jus profiteroles, snap pea 

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rabbit, hooks cheddar poblano puree, sopapilla, squash, zucchini - this dish was absolutely a highlight for me. a sweet, cinnamon-sugar covered sopapilla paired surprisingly well with a rabbit croquette. 

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pork belly, piquillo, squid ink aioli, potato, almond, parsley, squid ink - I would have to name this as one of my favorite dishes of the night as well. I’m not a fan of pork belly generally, but the squid ink complemented the texture and flavor of the pork perfectly.

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squash, rosemary, kale, cocoa coffee, hen of the woods - yes, you read that right. coffee grounds. I wish I could explain how or why this tasted so good. 

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quail, deviled egg puree, pickled green tomato, beet, candied peanut

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crepe, cajota, buttermilk vanilla panna cotta, poached pear 

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black sesame steam cake, lime curd, olive oil lime parfait, green tea, persimmon, almond 

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Here are some more personal culinary memories and highlights from 2013. 

Me and Brandon went to Pizzeria Mozza in February for our 6-month anniversary (almost a year and a half now…crazy). This is a place that absolutely lives up to the hype. The pizzas are unbelievable—super authentic, crust for days, and housemade meaty toppings (although the one pictured below was a scrumptious white pizza). A bit on the pricey side, but a perfect place to celebrate a special occasion. And I basically wanted to lick the caramel budino pudding cup clean. 

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Speaking of sweet treats, this year I developed an obsession for the guava cheese pastries from Porto’s in Glendale. Not exactly in my neighborhood, but whenever I’m up in the area, I have to grab a dozen of this little beauties. Just look at them all nestled in their box. 

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This summer, my friends from Amsterdam (actual Dutch people) came to visit LA, and of course I had to take them somewhere really impressive. Mo-chica, a fantastic Peruvian place downtown, was very close to their hotel downtown, so that’s what we decided on. They loved everything, and Nikki even decided that Peruvian is her new favorite cuisine! To top it all off, Mo-chica is now a client of mine at my new job…how lucky am I?

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Lomo Saltado

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Yellowtail Tiradito

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Me and Nikki and Matthijs <3

Obviously my various birthday celebrations were food-focused, the first being  a lovely happy hour at A.O.C. which I’ve been wanting to try since it moved to it’s new location. As one of the original small plates spots in California, it’s a lovely wine bar with an beautiful ambience—you feel like you’re in Italy. It’s on the pricey side, but you can sit at the bar and do happy hour—fantastic cocktails, Spanish fried chicken, BACON WRAPPED DATES, etc. Much more affordable and just as great of an experience. 

My friends also let me indulge my fancy food desires in Vegas at STK over my birthday weekend. It was insanely dark so the photos aren’t great, but I tried!

This year, I also explored some meat-laden potato-y concoctions, including carne asada fries and tots, and pastrami fries. 

Carne Asada fries from Taco Love

Pastrami fries from The Hat in Pasadena

Carne Asada Tater Tots from Bull Taco in San Diego

And last but not least, 2013 was the year of chicken and waffles. I tried close to 15 places to narrow it down to the 9 best for LA Weekly (You can see the link here #shamelessplug: http://www.laweekly.com/squidink/2013/11/11/9-great-chicken-and-waffle-joints-in-los-angeles). It was an adventure, and no I’m not sick of them. Put a plate of Roscoe’s in front of me right now and I’ll scarf em down.

Later, 2013. It’s been real. 

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In the time of an overwhelming number of lists, roundups, and reflections on 2013, I have no choice but to compile my own (and use it as an excuse to post a lot of the delicious photos/foodstuffs I consumed over the last year). Part 1 is more of an overall trend report for the year, and part 2 will be more personal memories and experiences. Without further adieu, let’s hop to it. 

2013: Year of the Donut

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Donut Friend, which opened in Highland Park this year, offered a donut-lover’s answer to the DIY fro-yo shop, complete with pre-suggested rock ‘n roll inspired combinations such as the Jets to Basil (pictured above), a traditional donut filled with goat cheese, strawberry jam, and fresh basil, topped with a sugar glaze and balsamic reduction. Sounds weird, but it was outrageously tasty. 

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(See also: Year of Bacon) Nickel Diner, while not new, was new to me this year, and became a beloved downtown breakfast destination. This maple bacon donut is seriously absurd, more of a “try it once just to say you did and then never again because you actually might die” kind of a thing. 

2013: Year of the Ramen

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Santouka Ramen - West LA/Culver City

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Daikokuya - Little Tokyo

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Tsujita LA Annex - Sawtelle

Why yes, these do all look startlingly similar! I will say that I am no ramen expert, these are literally the  only three that I have tried in LA. They have the reputation for being among the best in the city. I have loved them all, finding the key difference to be that Daikokuya’s noodles are much more thin, like the ones you would find in an instant cup o’ noodles (albeit, far more tasty), while Tsujita has thicker noodles and broth, which I enjoyed. 

2013: Year of Roy Choi

I don’t count myself among Roy Choi’s legions of fans, but I do have mad respect for the self-made Korean culinary tycoon who is taking over LA with his various establishments. It started with the Kogi truck, which essentially offers up Korean-inspired Mexican food, something I’ve never quite gotten into, but it’s cult following is admirable. In addition to A-Frame, Sunny Spot, and various other spots around LA, this year, the beloved Chego moved from its home in Palms to Chinatown. Chego’s indulgent rice bowls and ooey gooey cheesy fries are definitely worthy of the attention they receive. 

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2013: Year of Sqirl

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Earlier this year Sqirl (yes, I’m sure I spelled that right) started as a cramped coffee shop with some small-batch goods in a random little area near Los Feliz/Silver Lake/who knows, where Jessica Koslow was basically cranking out some killer jams. Coffee makers G&B had a pop-up there for a while, which brought the obsession with the almond milk cappuccino. G&B then went on to open up their own shop on Larchmont, Go Get Em Tiger. Now, the shop has expanded (if only slightly) and has a menu full of healthy, gourmet breakfast and lunch dishes, like the Kokuho brown rice bowl with preserved meyer lemon, lacto fermented hot sauce (whatever that means), black radish, feta, and a fried egg on top. It’s so good that the LA Weekly restaurant critic gave it four stars, which is almost unheard of for such a low-key establishment. You go, Sqirl!

2013: Year of the Sandwich

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I’m always on the hunt for a tasty sandwich. I wouldn’t say a Philly cheesesteak is something I regularly crave, but Boo’s, which opened it’s second location this year in Koreatown, I had to try it. I mean, look at. Definitely did not disappoint.

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Fat Sal’s isn’t an entirely new phenomenon to LA, but this UCLA-area staple was clearly unknown to me since I try to avoid that area like the plague. But when I moved to Hollywood this year and found out there was a location to me, I had to get my hands on one of those gluttonous sandwiches. I give you, the Fat Texas BBQ, featuring BBQ pastrami brisket, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, bacon, grilled onions, melted cheddar and mozzarella, fries, mayo, and honey bbq, all on a garlic hero. I’m so serious right now. 

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Langer’s is not new either, but if you haven’t tried it, which I suspect many Angelenos have not (the same way New Yorkers have never been to the Statue of Liberty or something…yes, I did just liken this sandwich to a cultural landmark), then just go. Yes, it’s a $17 sandwich, but don’t question it. Just eat it. 

2013: Year of the Pasta

I am definitely not complaining that homemade pasta restaurants are popping up all over town, although I do wish that people would stop being so stingy and offer up a decent portion size. 

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Factory Kitchen is a lovely warehouse-y space that opened in the Arts District of downtown a few months ago. I was able to go during its first week of operation to cover the opening for LA Weeky (shameless plug: http://blogs.laweekly.com/squidink/2013/11/factory_kitchen_italian_pasta.php) The Paccheri (above) featured gragnano pasta with pork sausage, onion, and spicy tomato, passata, and the Mandilli de Seta (below) was a plate of billowy handkerchief pasta with almond basil pesto. *Cue motion of kissing my fingers and then spreading them out like an Italian chef*

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I know I’ve mentioned it before, but Maccheroni Republic is worth mentioning again. The most overlooked, underrated pasta in LA, for the most reasonable prices. I’m obsessed. 

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Tonight, I’m going to perhaps the hottest new pasta restaurant of the year, Bucato in Culver City, where they don’t technically allow photography of your food…rude. So, if I can sneak in a quick pic, I’ll add it to this list as well.

**Update: I was able to snap some quick shots at Bucato. A strong contender for best new LA restaurant this year. We ordered so much food I was actually in physical pain for a while after this meal because I just wanted to try everything. The pastas are all impeccably made in house, including the Cacio e Pepe, Tagliatelle with ragu bolognese, and I don’t even remember which other one we got it was all a blur. 

2013: Year of the BBQ

I will say I only enjoyed one example of this, but LA had its BBQ moment this year, with new places opening constantly it seemed. Bludso’s sort of ushered in this movement, and while it is good, I am confident that there is plenty more delish BBQ I haven’t tried yet. 

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San Diego is having somewhat of a restaurant renaissance. Although there are comfort foods that I crave when I’m home—Board and Brew chicken club, Pannikin breakfast bagel, Souplantation—I have never thought of my hometown as a “food city.” But recently, lots of interesting restaurants have been sprouting up in my hood. My momma took me out to a new place called Cucina Enoteca, just down the street from my house, that took over the Chevy’s where the majority of my childhood memories took place. The space is large, yet somehow managed to be completely full—eclectically decorated, with incredible attention to detail, and a nod to the neighborhood horse-racing culture. We had to poach a table in the communal area for a while, but it made for great people-watching and cocktail sipping. 

We started with my personal favorite dish of the evening—the polenta board with pork cheek, served just like that. On a board, creamy polenta spread out and the stew-like pork cheek ladled on top. 

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Next came the prosciutto and burrata plate, which was gorgeous. Among everything else we ordered it sort of got lost in the shuffle, but you really can’t go wrong with some beautiful heirlooms and milky burrata. 

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For our main course, we ordered a duck dish that I would never expect my mother to order, but she loves it. Tender, rich, and simple. 

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After these three dishes, we decided to go from entree back to appetizer, and per the recommendation of our server, we ordered the octopus with mushrooms. Perfectly cooked (which is tricky) with a little char on the tentacle, and the mushrooms complemented the flavor and texture perfectly. 

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And after all that, we were finally (almost) full. Some lovely gentlemen sitting next to us offered us a taste of their apple compote-filled donut holes with dark chocolate sauce, and being the well-mannered ladies we are, graciously shoved them in our pie holes accepted, which allowed us to sample one of the other desserts that caught our eye, a caramel budino pudding with roasted peanuts on top. 

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Thank you for a delicious meal, momma! Can’t wait to try more San Diego treats with you. 

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In true Okey style, we like to extend our birthdays over at least a month-long period. This year, mine ran from a pre-celebratory dinner and concert on September 13th, until October 21st, with a few days (and a Vegas trip) sprinkled in between. The celebrations culminated last night in a dinner of epic delicious-ness, at a restaurant I’ve been dying to go to since it opened about a year ago. Nestled on an unsuspecting side street in the Art’s District of Downtown LA, Bestia is a trendy Italian restaurant of sorts—I say this because it is not what you think of when you think of traditional Italian, but rather boasts an interesting cocktail program, an impressively extensive menu, and lacks the red and white checkered tablecloth/dripping wax candle ambience of a trattoria in Naples. 

To put it bluntly, Bestia is out of my price range. When my birthday rolled around, however, I knew this decadent meal would make a perfect gift. I made a reservation three weeks in advance, and the only time I could get on a Monday night was 9:30pm…seriously? You know a restaurant is doing something right if they’re filling the house every night even a year after they’ve opened. Anyway, on to the food. 

The menu is surprisingly long, and therefore overwhelming (I’m not talking Cheesecake Factory long, but definitely a lot to take in). As if I’m not indecisive enough, I wanted to order almost everything, and asking for our server’s recommendations only made my choice more difficult. I decided to start off with a grilled octopus and calamari dish with mushrooms, arugula, and balsamic. Of course, everything was cooked perfectly. The flavor and texture of the mushrooms balanced the octopus so nicely. P.S. We ate most of the meal in silence because I was just so focused on the food. 

Our second appetizer was bone marrow with gnocchetti (not pictured, not photogenic). I had no idea what to expect, as I had never eaten bone marrow before. It literally comes in the bone, and you scoop out this gelatinous, soft meat and mix it with the small pieces of pasta. Very strange, yet very delicious. 

Of course, pizza followed. Ours came with spicy homemade sausage, beautiful tomatoes and arugula. Nothing revelatory, but just perfectly delicious.

 Our biggest indulgence was probably the cavatelli pasta, adorned with sausage and black truffles, which came with a $27 price tag. Every bite was worth it. The ricotta gnocchi was unreal, the truffles added an earthy, slightly mushroomy richness, and the sausages gave it body and depth. 

Naturally, after four courses, the furthest thing from my mind was dessert. Well, that’s actually a complete lie. The kitchen is helmed by a husband and wife duo—he handles the dinner, she does the desserts. After debating the merits of something lighter, like a panna cotta with huckleberries, we decided we had to go big or go home, and decided on a chocolate budino tart with salted caramel and olive oil. I have to say, it practically stole the show. It was rich, yet light. When you bite down on a flake of salt, it’s like heaven. I think the reason it was just so good is because it was so reminiscent of a childhood dessert, just grown up. Remember making “dirt cups” out of pudding and Oreos? It was like a sophisticated tart-version of that, just minus the gummy worms. 

I could truly go on and on about this meal, but it’s just making me sad that it’s over. It was without a doubt the best meal I have had in a very long time, and I want to thank my mom very much for giving me the best birthday present. Love you lots. 

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Since I haven’t yet settled into a 9-5 grown up routine yet, I’m still thriving on that college student schedule…wake up at noon, in bed around 3am. That means breakfast at 1pm, lunch around 6pm, and dinner somewhere between 11-12am. Thankfully, LA has plenty of late-night dining spots that serve food well into the night. My new favorite is Brite Spot in Echo Park, which I had been dying to try since I did a Q&A with owner Dana Hollister last year. It’s an adorably kitschy diner complete with comfort food and pie. Last year, Hollister revamped the interior and opened up a quaint little patio area, perfect for LA’s summer nights. 

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We went sort of a savory/breakfast-y route—I got one of my personal favorites, chicken and waffles, and Brandon got a southern style breakfast with biscuits, gravy, cheese, egg, and I don’t even know what else (but what I do know is that I stole many bites). 

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And of course, no late-night dinner would be complete without two HUGE pieces of pie—lemon meringue and banana creme. Oh baby. 

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To see my Q&A with the fascinatingly quirky Dana Hollister:  http://www.lamag.com/lafood/digestblog/2012/10/03/qa-dana-hollister-on-her-brite-spot-revamp-si

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Admittedly, I’m less adventurous than I’d like to be when it comes to picking restaurants. When you have limited resources and time to go out to eat, you have to be judicious in choosing places that have a good reputation and are known for being the exceptional or noteworthy in some way. Let’s be honest, if I’m gonna drop $30+ on a meal I’m not taking any chances. But sometimes, even with all the hype surrounding a place, you can have an experience that falls short of your expectations. In the case of a professional food critic, you have the luxury of being able to try a place multiple times to see if that one time was just a fluke.

But in my case, I visited The Parish, one of the most talked about restaurants of last year, and personally recommended by people I trust. I really love the architecture and design—located Downtown, the building itself looks like a miniature Flatiron building. Upon entering, there is a small downstairs area, but upstairs is a bit more extravagant, as sort of a dimly lit, vintagey dining room and bar area. The cocktails are fun and interesting, and filled with unfamiliar ingredients—I basically just asked my server which was the best and ordered that one, as my bartending knowledge isn’t quite up to par.

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We started with a green bean and buratta dish which I expected to like more just because I love buratta so much, but topped with hazelnuts and a strange combination of hot and cold and textures, I wasn’t immediately smitten.

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The redeeming part of the meal was a bigoli pasta with peas, sausage, mint and ricotta, however for $18 the portion was tinyyyyy.

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The pork rillette (not pictured) was fine, but entirely unmemorable. We finished up with a side of corn with honey butter, which was tasty, but hey, it’s corn.

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I basically paid about $40 for a meal only to be hungry less than an hour after I left. I try not to let my grievances about price affect my feelings about the dishes themselves, and in this case, I’d like to think I’ve remained unbiased, though the price did bring my feelings down another notch. I would, however, like to return to The Parish for their infamous fried chicken, although I’ve heard they only serve it on Sundays now because that’s all anyone was ordering anyway. Kind of a lame move if you ask me…if that’s what people want then let them pay you for it! So, this has been my tale of unmet expectations. It can happen to anyone. 

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As part of my push towards adulthood, I have officially moved in to my first big-girl apartment in Hollywood! I’m loving the neighborhood so far (I have a theory that it’s as close to New York as you can get in LA), it’s four blocks away from Runyon Canyon where there’s an awesome hike and outdoor yoga classes, so I’m a happy girl, and I’m excited to have an new area of LA to explore. My roommate is great (I’m now a believer in the magic of Craigslist) and her boyfriend’s pomeranian, Lady, is my new spirit animal. Surprisingly, I’ve lived there for three weeks now and have managed to not spend any money at the Pinkberry that’s right across the street. Thankfully, Momma Okey came up after I moved in to help me get settled, and of course we tried out some new restaurants in the process. I knew she would love Laurel Hardware on Santa Monica, which was a total scene even on a Monday night. Don’t be deceived by the outside—it’s a renovated hardware store and the front dining area doesn’t look like much (momma was skeptical at first), but the back is poppin. There’s a bar and lounge area, and a beautiful back patio complete with foliage and twinkly lights. Small plates (a little too small…but tasty) and cocktails were just what we needed. The dim mood lighting made for some less than appetizing photographs, but you get the idea. image

 Spicy Asian-Inspired Ribs

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Burrata and grilled tomatoes

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mmm Scallops in creamed corn

The next day we went out to run our errands, and started out with lunch at Seasons 52. They rotate their menu with the seasons, so we had some fabulous summer dishes. 

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Heirloom Tomatoes with panko crusted mozzarella

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Ahi Tuna Tartare with mango chutney and a Fig Flatbread

And for our last dinner (with Lena, of course), we went to a little neighborhood wine bar a couple blocks down from my place called Vintage Enoteca. For you USC kids, think Bacaro all grown up. Lots of vegetarian options too, which was perfect for Lena. 

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Watermelon, feta, and basil salad with red wine reduction

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This Mac and Cheese was amaze-balls.

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Sweet potato gnocchi with basil cream sauce and candied pine nut…by far the most delicious thing we had, despite how strange and unappetizing it looks.

Definitely a great food trip, as always. Thanks again, momma for all your help! I couldn’t have done it without you…you’re a domestic goddess! xx

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Maccheroni Republic vs. All’ Angolo

Italian food is one of my favorite cuisines, whether it’s super authentic or super Americanized…Pasta, pizza, anything carb- and cheese-laden for that matter. With the likes of Bestia and Pizzeria Mozza, it seems that getting a truly memorable experience involves a rather hefty price tag. However, two eastside hole in the wall joints have garnered a bit of buzz this year (not enough in my opinion), and I went through the trouble of trying them both (my pleasure, really) and I’m debriefing them both for you.

Maccheroni Republic - Downtown

Located in a rather randomly sketchy area of downtown, next to a McDonalds, is this charming (albeit reminiscent of an Olive Garden) establishment. It’s as if the waiters were imported straight from Italy, and ours was not only helpful and kind, but hooked it up in the dessert department when they ran out of Tiramisu (teardrops). No liquor license yet so it’s BYOB, which is nice if you’re on a starving post-grad budget such as myself. Most pasta dishes were reasonably priced below $15, and the portion sizes are substantial for how cheap they are (I had to take some home). The fried shrimp cake appetizer was tasty, the lasagna almost rivaled my mother’s, and my fettuccine with duck sauce was revelatory. Really. For dessert, our waiter brought us both a ricotta cheesecake AND a vanilla creme caramel, but rest assured I will be going back to try the tiramisu.

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All’ Angolo - Koreatown

This place is the epitome of hole-in-the-wall. You’d never guess how good the food was inside just by driving past it. Randomly located in Koreatown, it’s a stripped-down, no-frills interior. BYOB as well. Pastas priced below $10, and pizzas range from $7-16 depending on the size and toppings. The lasagna was solid, but a bit on the dry (read: lacking sauce) side, and the pizza was good as well—we had the Emiliana, topped with prosciutto, arugula and balsamic. 

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Winner: Maccheroni Republic

I enjoyed my meal at All’ Angolo, but I’m not dying to go back, while Maccheroni Republic is one of the more memorable meals I’ve had this year. I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about it (the fact that they spell “macaroni” like “maccheroni” is probably turning people off). It’s a comfortable atmosphere where you can go out for a nice meal without feeling like you have to be a part of the scene. I want to encourage people to check it out, but just let me have the place to myself for a little while longer. 

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After years of trying to coordinate this, my darling sister finally came up to visit me last week in LA. She’s going off to UCSB in the fall, so at least she’ll be close (and I’ll have an excuse to go visit), but it was so nice to spend some quality sister time together and get to show her around LA. I took her on a hike to the Hollywood sign and dragged her around on a few errands, but in a shocking twist, most of our plans involved food. Most notably, Savannah had her first hamburger in nearly 2 1/2 years at In N Out (and she loved it, obviously). We went out for hipster Thai food in Echo Park…

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…made banana bread french toast with blueberries (which was DIVINE if I do say so myself)…

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…and went out for crepes in Koreatown. 

She takes after her sister and loves some tasty food. Love you Savvy! Come up to visit again soon xxx