Certain parts of downtown Los Angeles feel like a real, cohesive, thriving city. These are single city blocks full of shops, restaurants, bars, apartments and pedestrian traffic.
The stretch of Broadway between 3rd and 4th Streets, home to the Grand Central Market, the DTLA Superette, a theater, several restaurants, bars, and a shop selling yoga pants at bargain prices, is one of these valuable places.
There I found my new favorite sandwich, a French-Mexican creation served at the counter in front of a bar with a speakeasy joint in the back that I happened to pass when I went to buy some butter at a cheese shop before making my reservation at a Korean one Restaurant with tasting menu. The only thing that could make this sentence more LA-like would be if I mentioned the highways I took to get there. That would be the 210 to the 134 to the 2 to the 5 to the 110. Really.
But it’s gems like these that make me grateful to live in Los Angeles, where there’s a beef bourguignon torta and it just makes sense.
Beef Bourguignon Torta from Fabby’s Sandwicherie
“It’s very Mexican, very Los Angeles and very French in its essence,” says Alejandro Guzmán of his small sandwich shop, where he also serves beef tartare on a paper plate.
Guzmán, who has cooked at Le Comptoir and La Cha Cha Cha, deftly navigates the tiny kitchen at Fabby’s Sandwicherie, assembling tortas and toasting them in a panini press.
After moving to the United States from Mexico City, his first job was at his mother’s restaurant in North Hollywood, where he washed dishes, prepared and cut carne asada.
“That’s how I got my pocket money and used it to pay for prom and stuff when I was still in school,” he says. “I told myself I would never go into a kitchen again, and here I am in a kitchen naming the restaurant after her.”
The tortas of the day are presented like the dessert tray that some chain restaurants bring out after dinner. They stand on a glass case containing dozens of birote, salted, naturally leavened demi-baguettes from Bakers Kneaded.
I spied the bread and sandwiches out the window and, with only 50 minutes until my dinner reservation, stopped by to share a beef bourguignon torta with my companion.
Guzmán makes what he describes as a fairly traditional bourguignon, although he substitutes a Grenache blend from Valle de Guadalupe for the French wine. And he braises the beef for 24 hours and finishes it with butter to eliminate the gameness that can come from long braising. What’s left is juicy, dark and concentrated. You can taste the wine. You can taste the beef.
Before he piles the meat on the bread, he pipes a Joel Robuchon-style mashed potato on top, made with equal parts butter and potatoes. He adds stretchy strips of Oaxaca cheese and quickly picked carrots cut into quarters for a hefty hit of acid and salt.
The heat from the panini press crisps up the already crunchy baguette and melts the buttery potatoes into the rest of the sandwich. It’s pure decadence between two bread ships.
Guzmán serves the torta with a cup of salsa roja, using a recipe he’s been cooking since he started working at his mother’s restaurant. It tastes garlicky and a little sweet, with a hint of spiciness from whole chiles de árbol.
“The salsa roja is what really ties everything together as a Mexican dish,” he says.
The sandwiches, the tartare and whatever else Guzmán cooks are available from noon to midnight. It’s an ideal place to visit before or after a drink in the two bars at the back of the restaurant. He also serves a weekend-only brunch tasting menu at nearby Mignon Wine Bar. Because why not?
Nem Khao and Pieng Xeen from Yum Slut
Less than a mile north in Chinatown, you’ll find a Laotian pop-up restaurant operating out of half of Lokels Only’s kitchen next to a soul food restaurant.
Here, Tharathip Soulisak prepares food that reminds him of his mother’s cooking. Both of his parents are refugees from Laos who moved to Virginia in the late 1970s. When Soulisak landed in California, he missed his mother’s food.
“I would go to a Thai restaurant and try to get them to modify Thai dishes to make them taste a little more Lao,” he said.
Thailand and Laos share a border, with many dishes overlapping with similar flavors and ingredients. “But it never worked out,” he says.
Soulisak began preparing his own Laotian food, cooking for friends, and eventually was hired as a chef. In March he moved to the Lokels Only area.
The Nem Khao is the dish on every table, more of an elaborate platter than a plate of food. About half the space is taken up by a mound of crispy rice studded with morsels of cured pork, peanuts, pork skin and scallions. The other half consists of a mixture of coriander and mint on lettuce leaves.
Soulisak cooks the rice in a liquid enriched with red curry paste, sugar and salt. After it’s cooked and cooled, he forms the rice into balls, deep-fries them, and then breaks them into pieces. The fried rice crumbles are seasoned with fish sauce, sugar, lemongrass, galangal, makrut and shallots.
It’s easy to get distracted by the rice and forget about the mountain of lettuce and herbs. The rice is teeming with the complex acidity of the pork and lemongrass, as well as the distinctly spicy note of the fish sauce. It tastes wonderful with a fork alone, but the lettuce wraps are only half the fun. Place a mound of the rice mixture on top of the salad, load it with herbs, and dip it in one of the many sauces that arrive on the condiment cart that the staff pushes to each table.
Soulisak’s chili crunch, made with a variety of flavors including Sichuan peppercorns fried in pork fat, is hard to resist. You may end up with a spoonful at the end of everything.
I will also recommend the Pieng Xeen. The grilled beef platter is accompanied by sticky rice and a bowl of Yum Slut, a green salad. The rib-eye is marinated in lemongrass, oyster sauce, sugar, garlic and cilantro for at least a full day. It is grilled and served with two sauces. The first is an orange fish sauce vinaigrette that Soulisak calls “crack sauce.” The second is Jeow Bee, a variation of the first, with the addition of beef bile.
“It’s the most traditional sauce you see on people sitting at the grill at someone’s house and eating,” he says. “We add a little sugar so it’s not too strong for people.”
The sauce has a tart meatiness with a sharp bitter bite and lots of chili heat. Even bring the beef!
Paneer pinwheels and duck birria tacos from Baar Baar
If you’re near Crypto.com Arena, be sure to plan a meal at Baar Baar, the Los Angeles outpost of chef Sujan Sarkar’s New York Indian restaurant.
One evening almost every seat was occupied. Many guests wore saris in every color of the rainbow. The energy and good vibes of a big backroom party permeated the entire dining room.
Start the evening with an order of the Kashmiri duck birria tacos, one of the dishes only found in Los Angeles.
“LA is a big fan of tacos,” says Sarkar. “Even Nobu has a taco. “We wanted to do tacos, but to make it make sense.”
The braised duck meat is tucked into a crispy corn tortilla with grated cheddar cheese, red onion and cilantro. There’s also a cup of braising liquid, rich and warm with fenugreek seeds, cardamom and cinnamon.
Sarkar says he plans to make significant changes to the menu in January, but the tacos will remain, as will the paneer pinwheels.
“If we had a signature dish, it would be this,” says Sarkar. “Paneer is one of the staple foods in India. However, what you get here is not the same. “We wanted to make something that was as close to paneer in India.”
Sarkar chose pinwheels with cheese and a filling of paneer slivers. He stuffs the cheese with ground almonds and pistachios, onions, coriander, green chili and a homemade garam masala. The cheese and nuts are rolled into a pinwheel cake, which is steamed and fried before serving. The cheese takes on the consistency of al dente pasta and the filling is reminiscent of a hearty baklava.
The pinwheels swim in a creamy, warmly spiced tomato sauce, thickened with cashews and cream. There are plenty of them to use as a dip for the bowl of naan you should order for the table.
Where to eat in downtown LA right now
Fabby’s Sandwicherie, 351 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (818) 796-3897
Yum Slut, 635 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (818) 795-5384
Baar Baar, 705 W. 9th St., Los Angeles, (213) 266-8989, baarbaarla.com