An Insider’s Guide to Los Angeles
Fourth generation Angeleno Natalie James of NJ in LA takes us on a tour through her hometown picks for best places to eat, shop and hang. With fast and easy trips to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner, it’s never been easier to check out La La Land. Let’s get started.
Natalie: Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in America and having the opportunity to experience food, traditions, music, et al. from all around the world make it my favorite place to be. People should visit L.A. because we are rich in culture beyond belief, you just have to know where to go. All is takes is a little effort and asking the right people (like me). The representation of our city on television and in major media is not the city I experience every day. We are a city filled with hard working people and an infinite amount of knowledge and stories. The entertainment industry is merely a small blip on the radar for most of our people. From museums to restaurants to nature, our city is overflowing with things to do – all you have to be is curious.
What are some of your top dining spots? Perfect places for a cup of coffee? Brunch? Dinner? Great drinks?
I feel so blessed to wake up in Los Angeles every day, if not just for the tacos alone. Have you ever tried to find bomb tacos in another state? The challenge is very real. As much as I get asked to eat at “top restaurants” in this town, it’s the mom n’pops that always keep me coming back. Don’t get me wrong, I will not refuse a delicious meal at Bestia (bone marrow to die for) or Saint Martha (one of the best dinners I had this year) but I seek out places under the radar and that are friendly to all budgets. My favorite places without a doubt, the immediate go-tos are the following: Chengdu Taste in Alhambra for amazingly hot Sichuan, Beijing Pie House in Monterey Park for incredible soup filled meat pies, Mariscos Al Faro food truck in Highland Park for a lobina (sea bass) ceviche cured over 24hrs that’ll just blow you away, Night + Market Song in Silverlake for a pork taro (neck) so fatty and flavorful you just might weep, and Portsmouth in Whittier for fresh seafood any Mexican would approve of. Oh, and how could I write a list of my favorite spots without mentioning the cold noodle soup found at Koreatown’s The Corner Place.
Drinking is not so much my game, but when I am going to toss one back, the vibes have to be right. Keeping this in mind I would choose the Tiki Ti in Silverlake for a good time, especially now that Bahooka (my favorite tiki bar of all time, grew up going there) is closed. For elevated cocktails, I am really impressed with what they’re doing at Faith & Flower in Downtown L.A. They really impressed me with their Russian absinthe tableside experience. For coffee I like what’s going down at Koreatown’s BrewWell with menu options like lavender cappuccino and giant slices of cake. If I am feeling a bit more serious, I’d go with Blue Bottle or G&B Coffee – they never sacrifice quality and will drop major knowledge about their beans. I know “fresh pressed juice” is considered sooooooo L.A. and with the crazy amount of options we have I totally get it, but I cannot deny how much I also love a cold bottle of anything from Juice Served Here, especially their nut milks!Considering that we are in a perpetual state of sunshine, your brunch game has got to be strong. I especially love what Chef Alisa Reynolds is doing with California farmers market produce meets Souhtern Comfort at My Two Cents. Added bonus is the DJ that spins the perfect soundtrack while you’re eating shrimp grits.
If it is your first time in L.A. I’d recommend you rent a car. Our city is vast and you don’t want to miss a minute of it. If you’re simply relying on the metro or just exploring what’s outside your hotel, you’ll barely scratch the surface. Plus, driving on the freeways will give you the full L.A. experience. You must visit the Griffith Observatory and if you have time, hike the surrounding area. You’ll get such a great view of the city. The beach is an obvious destination but not all are created equal. Drive up PCH just a little past Malibu to the stunning Leo Carrillo State Park and have fun frolicking in caves and looking for sea creatures in their sparkling tide pools. Watching the sunset is simply magical there. Our selection of museums is vast (LACMA, MOCA, The Getty), but places like The Museum of Jurassic Technology or Watts Towers are unlike anything else you can find. Go there! And if you’re looking to get a whole lot of flavors in one stop, visit the bustling Grand Central Market in the ever changing Downtown L.A. From carnitas tacos to artisanal ice cream to the much hyped (and rightfully so) EggSlut, this is such a fun place to be right now.
When it comes to shopping it takes a lot to really impress me, and as much as I do love fashion, tchotkes, and the like, I am not much of a consumer, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t know where to find some of the coolest stuff. On the fringe of Chinatown is Iko Iko, a unique space unlike any other with minimal, modern, and avant garde pieces. If it’s crystals you are looking for – I mean, you are in L.A. after all, really go for it – check out Silverlake’s Spellbound Sky for a beautiful selection that will surely get your chakras aligned. Blow outs and vintage Yohji Yamamoto are always a good look, so check out Downtown L.A.’s The Well when you need to re-up the color black in your wardrobe and your tresses could use some love, their salon is excellent. For chill California vibrations with some rustic undertones, I’d head over to General Store in Venice. This is such a perfect spot to pick up a gift, snag some local botanicals, or to treat yourself to some gold pieces by L.A’s very own Kathleen Whitaker (I love her stick earrings). I don’t collect much, but I have been collecting paper since I was a kid and I think L.A. has some great card/stationery shops. My favorites are The Library Store located in Downtown L.A.’s Central Library (I used to be a paper buyer there), Kinokuniya in Little Tokyo and Urbanic Paper Boutique, located on the ever popping Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Is there anything else we should know about L.A.?
To know the real L.A. is to love it. Check your preconceived ideas at the airport, we are a diverse population of people creating interesting things on the daily. Don’t be surprised with how much happier you are with the sun shining on your face!
Tacos and sunshine, the perfect recipe for any vacation. With Natalie’s insider tips you’re sure to enjoy your next trip to L.A. whether you’re a first-time visitor or veteran!
Did we take you to L.A. on your last Amtrak adventure? What insider tips do you have? Let us know in the comment section below.