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RESTAURANTS IN THE EIGHTIES : L.A. Discovers the Exotic in Its Own Back Yard : An Array of Ethnic Dining Choices Started a Revolution That Now Blends East and West

December 29, 1989|RUTH REICHL | TIMES RESTAURANT EDITOR

When it comes to eating, the '80s were L.A.'s decade.

This is not because of California Cuisine--which was a '70s phenomenon that started in Northern California.

It is not because of the way Italian restaurants exploded onto the scene, making pasta a household word.

It is not because we had the first haute Southwestern restaurant, the first restaurant for grazers or the first multi-chef charity event either. Our obsession with health food certainly isn't what put us on the map.

All of these things would eventually happen all over the United States.

But in the 1980s, people in Los Angeles proved that they were exceptionally adventurous eaters. "My customers will eat anything," said one prominent Los Angeles chef in 1983, "so long as it's different than what they ate last night." And while eaters all over the country were discovering their native cuisine, learning to pronounce fajita, investigating the difference between radicchio and arugula and going gaga over diners, we were starting to explore other local resources.

What we found was an absolutely incredible array of ethnic eating places. And we were not alone: While chefs in the rest of the country were still looking to Europe for inspiration, our local chefs simply looked around.

It all started with sushi. In the beginning of the decade, we overcame our fear of raw fish, learned that the only place to eat sushi was at the sushi bar, and discovered that the service was better when you remembered the difference between toro and maguro . When the check came, we paid and then pressed an ostentatious tip upon the chef. We wanted him to remember us when we returned.

But sushi was just the start. Having ventured into one kind of Japanese restaurant, we soon became curious about the rest. We prowled around Little Tokyo, discovering restaurants specializing in eel, wonderful little noodle joints and sake houses that served mysteriously delicious snacks. Before long we were making our way out to Gardena for elaborately exquisite kaiseki dinners.

Chefs liked sushi too. They liked it so much that little Japanese touches began to appear in local French restaurants. When you went to La Toque, for instance, there might be eel in the salad. Soy sauce and sesame oil could be found in every kitchen. Shiitake mushrooms turned up so often that some people actually thought they were a rare Italian species. Meanwhile, chefs who really cared about fish started going to the Japanese fish markets and we suddenly started hearing a whole lot less about fish flown in from France.

All this started having an influence on our diet. If you eat sushi one night, lobster bisque seems pretty heavy the next. Tofu came into the culture; we started thinking about health food. Even French restaurants started leaving out the cream and butter. Before we knew what had happened, our diet had changed.

But there was other news on the Asian front. Lots of it. There was a new Chinatown east of the old one just waiting to be discovered. And the rewards for those who ventured to Monterey Park were incredible. In the '70s we fell for Sichuan food, but the '80s made Cantonese respectable once again. For the new restaurants in Monterey Park--restaurants whose customers were almost entirely Chinese--were places that produced real Cantonese food. This food was as fresh, pure and simple as the food that we had come to call California Cuisine. Where else, after all, could you find restaurants that fished the scallops out of the tank just before they cooked them for you?

If the Chinese food we were eating was not as spicy as the Sichuan and so-called Hunan food of the last decade, Thai food more than made up for it. Thai food was one of the great revelations of the decade. It was colorful and exotic, sweet and spicy with a tropical tinge that we all found overwhelmingly seductive. We loved the heat, we loved the sweet, we loved the coconut flavor that bound so many of the dishes together. We loved the way it looked and we loved the way it tasted. Most of us couldn't get enough of it; before the decade was over Los Angeles was the Thai restaurant capital of the country, with virtually hundreds of little Thai places dishing up mee krob and pahd thai. While the rest of the country remains grateful to be able to simply taste Thai food, Los Angeles offers the opportunity to taste Thai food from various regions.

Having discovered spice, we wanted more of it. Lots more. Our Mexican restaurants had always served salsa, but compared to the kim chee sitting on the tables in some places in Koreatown, it was hardly even hot. Korean restaurants remained a mystery for much of the decade, but in the past couple of years adventurous eaters have discovered that restaurants catering to the large local Korean population have a whole lot more to offer than grill-it-yourself beef.

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