Eating L.A.: City of Gold and Blue
By Lara Rabinovitch
Published Jul 1, 2016 8:00 AM
In establishments ranging from high-end restaurants to ubiquitous food trucks, Bruins are helping change the way Angelenos think about food.
With artisanal Mexican tortillerias, reinvented takes on classic French dishes and Japanese izakayas rivaling Tokyo’s finest, L.A.’s culinary landscape is sizzling. These innovative cuisines star in the documentary City of Gold, featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold ’82 and the talents of director/producer Laura Gabbert M.F.A. ’04 and cinematographer Jerry Henry M.F.A. ’02. And behind many of the eateries that serve these dishes are Bruins inspired by their own heritage and the vitality of the city they call home.
Ray Garcia, Broken Spanish
“Our cuisine is uniquely Angeleno,” says Ray Garcia ’00, chef/owner of the recently opened Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria restaurants in downtown Los Angeles, which have already accrued a list of accolades. “Los Angeles is the lens through which we view Mexican food and its traditions, culture and ingredients,” says Garcia, who was named Best Chef in 2015 by Esquire magazine. Indeed, with dishes like lamb neck tamale or clam and lardo taco, he has a bold and unusual approach to Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles.
A third-generation Angeleno, Garcia remembers that his Japanese roommate at UCLA, whose parents ran a sushi bar in Seal Beach, introduced him to foods like raw fish and foie gras; another friend’s mother cooked mind-blowing Indian meals. “The diversity of the campus led me to explore the restaurant world,” he says.
Garcia, who went to cooking school after UCLA, describes his identity as “not fully Mexican, not fully American.” Before opening Broken Spanish, he helmed the kitchen at Fig restaurant in Santa Monica and other high-end establishments. For his current project, he has drawn upon his ancestral roots and other regional Mexican cuisine. But rather than recreating classic recipes, he has reinvented them with some surprising twists. For example, in his lemon-pepper chicken chicharrones with shishito peppers at the taqueria, he takes a classic Mexican (and Spanish) food that usually consists of fried pig rinds and applies French technique and local Angeleno flavors to chicken.
At both Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria, Garcia calls upon the culinary knowledge of his staff, many of whom hail from regions in Mexico or Latin America that Garcia has yet to visit. “It’s exciting to tap into dishes that I didn’t have on my table growing up,” he says. “I am able to learn from everybody in the restaurant, and that translates into what the guest experiences.”
Whenever he can get away from the kitchen, Garcia loves to explore the city’s foods, citing Thai cuisine as among his favorites.
Natasha Phan, Commissary
Although not a chef, Natasha Phan ’07 has had a direct hand in changing the way Angelenos eat for almost a decade. She leads brand and business development for nearly all of Roy Choi’s restaurants, overseeing much of the marketing, branding, business development and communications for the chef’s ever-expanding food empire; she also co-wrote his cookbook-memoir, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food (Ecco, 2013). In other words, she is responsible for spreading the gospel of Korean-inspired tacos of Kogi fame — and then some.
Phan began working with Choi in 2009, just months after he launched his first food truck. Now the company boasts four Kogi trucks and a roster of outlets featuring a wide swath of unique Asian-American mash-up foods (think kimchi Spam bowls or tacos with Korean barbecued short ribs). There is Chego in Chinatown and Kogi Taqueria in Palms, which features new takes on classic tacos in addition to popular Kogi fare. Under a different company, Choi also co-owns LocoL in Watts, with Phan serving as PR/branding guru. An enterprising restaurateur herself, Phan also serves as co-owner of Commissary, POT, POT Lobby Bar and POT caFe at the Line Hotel.
The child of Vietnamese immigrants who came to Los Angeles as refugees in 1975, Phan says food was always an important part of her upbringing: “It became part of who I am; my parents communicated their love to me through food.”
Phan, who majored in international development studies, began her career in advertising with Taco Bell and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She credits UCLA with teaching her “to be an outlier, wherever you are.”
Bryant Ng, Cassia
“A recipe is almost like a lab class,” says Bryant Ng ’00, chef and owner of the Southeast Asian restaurant Cassia in Santa Monica, who earned a UCLA degree in molecular biology with a specialization in business administration. “When I create a dish, it sort of free-flows, but once I want to reproduce it in the restaurant, I need to train other people to do that dish. That’s where the recipes come in, and that’s where what I learned in lab class helps.”
After UCLA, Ng continued his education at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and a number of well-known restaurants (including Campanile in Los Angeles and Daniel in New York City). He drew from these experiences in his first restaurant, The Spice Table, which he opened with his wife, Kim Ng, in downtown L.A. in 2011 and which closed three years ago.
He opened Cassia with Kim and another husband-wife restaurant power couple, Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb, in a grand art deco space in the former home of General Telephone. Although Cassia’s menu spans the globe, it is actually close to home for Ng and his wife, drawing from both his Singaporean-Chinese roots and Kim’s Vietnamese background. “When it came to opening my own restaurant, I wanted to cook the cuisines of our heritage,” he says.
Cassia’s menu also reflects Malaysian and French influences, as well as its California backdrop. Dishes like wok-tossed asparagus and avocado with preserved turnips, ginger and chile oil epitomize this approach. The house-made charcuterie consists of salted pork with grilled bread, Sichuan lamb ham, Singaporean candied pork, Vietnamese meatloaf, smoked red sausage, smoked curried duck and cabbage relish. The notable burger includes ground short rib, shallot mayo, sambal and curried pickled cucumbers.
Santa Monica, the restaurant’s location, also has personal meaning for Ng. In the 1950s and 1960s, his maternal grandparents owned the popular Cantonese-Polynesian restaurant Bali Hai, where diners could order multihued tiki cocktails and watch brave fire-eaters. So Cassia feels like home.
Christine Veys, Sotto
Christine Veys ’06, general manager and sommelier at beloved Italian restaurant Sotto in Beverly Hills, sees a deep connection between her political science degree and the wine industry. “Wine is a very political thing,” she says. “It [also] makes you excited about geography and climate.”
Veys, who has Armenian, Egyptian and Greek roots, says her education made her “more aware of the world.” This comes into play when she selects vintages from little-known or protected regions to serve with Sotto staples like rigatoni with chicken liver ragu or brick-pressed chicken with preserved lemons. She travels regularly to source wine from southern Italy.
When Veys was in middle school, she and her family moved from Chicago to the San Fernando Valley. Later, while attending UCLA, she supported herself by working as many shifts as she could in restaurants, including Hamburger Hamlet. She credits that combined experience of working while studying with giving her a strong work ethic.
Her background in political science also aids her in the delicate art — and politics — of restaurant management. “You’re dealing with the public, and all sorts of different walks of life,” she says. Although Sotto is well-respected and rather high-end, Veys tries hard to keep the atmosphere welcoming and open: “It’s very refined food, but a really casual and fun environment,” she says. “At Sotto it’s not crazy for people to bring their kids in on a busy Saturday night. L.A. really embodies that.”
It’s an environment that Veys finds “addictive.” After her shift at Sotto, she’ll venture out for carnitas tacos on Venice Boulevard or hot tofu stew in Koreatown.
Andre Guerrero, The Oinkster
Andre Guerrero ’78 runs the popular fast casual restaurant The Oinkster, located in Eagle Rock and Hollywood. It features rarely seen house-cured pastrami, as well as slow-roasted pork, rotisserie chicken, Belgian fries and killer milkshakes.
Fine arts graduate Guerrero cites his background in abstract expressionism as the unlikely inspiration for his culinary path. “You’re always being challenged by a blank canvas,” he says. He still approaches ingredients and flavors as his palette, with each dish his canvas.
Born in the Philippines, Guerrero moved to Los Angeles at age 9, after immigrating to San Francisco two years earlier. Food quickly became a big part of his life. An aunt introduced him to French cooking, and his father had had a pastry shop in the Philippines. As a kid, Guerrero learned to make professional dessert staples like pâte à choux and sponge cakes. The year after he graduated from UCLA, he opened a restaurant with his father and brother called Café Le Monde in Glendale, featuring food inspired by their collective of disparate experiences with French, Belgian, Philippine and Chinese cuisines. It’s no coincidence that Guerrero will soon open a bakery in Highland Park, featuring items you might find in a Paris bakery. It will be called Sugar & Bone.
Before opening The Oinkster, Guerrero was known for the now-defunct San Fernando Valley restaurants MAX, a fine dining European restaurant with Philippine flair (think pear and candied squash halo) that he opened in 2002, and Mexican eatery Señor Fred, which opened a year later. Among other ventures, he is also currently a partner in Highland Park’s Maximiliano, a beloved Italian restaurant with favorites that include a burrata salad and handmade tagliatelle with Bolognese.
Los Angeles has been a constant source of inspiration, too: “Living in Los Angeles, you meet every kind of person, every ethnicity, every kind of culture. We get to eat some of the best Thai food, the best Mexican, the best Chinese, Italian food,” Guerrero says. “We’re always exploring.”
Stephen Kooshian, Pacific Plate Brewery
It was while attending UCLA that history major Stephen Kooshian ’09 began making beer in his student apartment in the Palms area. “The number one thing that got me into brewing was [learning] the history of the style [of making beer],” says Kooshian, who is half Nicaraguan and half Armenian. “If you’re thinking about where a pale ale comes from, it ties in directly to the Industrial Revolution. You could follow that change in the history of beer, and that fascinated me.” Plus, “when you’re 21 years old, making beer sounds like a great idea.” At the time, Kooshian worked for UCLA Catering, and one day he decided to spend his entire paycheck on a homebrew kit.
Today, at his Pacific Plate Brewery, the most popular beer, the Horchata Stout, is Nicaraguan-inspired English milk stout flavored with pure cocoa, fresh Mexican cinnamon, Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and milk sugar.
After a few years as a hobbyist — he threw homebrewing parties in his apartment for friends while at UCLA — Kooshian decided to start a small commercial brewery in Monrovia with two partners, one Guatemalan American and the other Mexican American. All three partners embrace their cultural backgrounds to infuse the beers at Pacific Plate with Latin-American flavors. As Kooshian explains, “We combine our cultural roots and develop these flavors that remind us of our childhood, what our mothers and fathers used to make for us, and put those things into beer.” Other beers include a Mango IPA and a Cardamom Ginger Saison.
Kooshian is now developing an Armenian-inflected beer in homage to his family’s roots. (His father, also a Bruin, earned a Ph.D. in Armenian studies in 2002.)