Pork and crab bun (use the straw!), clockwise from top left, at Wang Xing… (Christina House, For The…)
Is this list organic, artisanal, free-range, small-plate, modernist, hand-crafted, small-batch, and 100% sustainable? Not quite. But it should be!
1 Juicy crab and pork bun. If you've spent much time eating in the San Gabriel Valley , you have probably become adept in the various rituals of the Chinese table. This food is meant to be wrapped in a pancake, that one to be seethed in broth, the other one to be extracted with a dental implement. But nothing quite prepares you for the signature buns -- tender-skinned water balloons stuffed with pork and crab -- at the Wuxi-style dumpling house Wang Xing Ji. If you try to lift it with a spoon, it disintegrates under its own weight; if you attack it with chopsticks, you are liable to be squirted with boiling juice. Finally you remember the plastic implement served with the dumpling, and you intuit its proper use. You will feel silly sipping hot crab juice through a straw, but your shirt and your dignity will be saved. 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 211, San Gabriel, (626) 307-1188.
2 Sea snail tostada. At Street Food Fest, the annual summer gathering of the food trucks at the Rose Bowl, observers tend to notice a couple of things. One is the extraordinary profusion of Los Angeles food trucks, which tend to become odder and more specialized by the year. And the other is the astonishingly high quality of the loncheros, traditional Mexican street vendors, whose products are honed through years of hard-fought competition. The last couple years have seen several stalls operated by the best chefs from the refined yet street-oriented food movement now sweeping through northern Baja. And this year, nothing was better than the simple tostadas from the La Guerrerense cart in Ensenada: a crisp tortilla; a handful of sliced, marinated sea snail, and fugal drips of super-spicy house-made chile sauce splashed onto the tostadas from jars -- earth and sea and pain and pleasure in a single crunchy bite. Cart at corner of 1st and Alvarado in Zona Centro, Ensenada.
3 Vegetable paella. Even in Los Angeles, where you can find everything, paella has been nearly impossible to find. For years, the default best version of the rice dish has been the one served by reservation on Saturday afternoons at La Espanola, a Spanish butcher in an obscure industrial park in Harbor City, but even that had little relation to the sublime paella you find in rural restaurants outside Valencia. But this year Perfecto Rocher, a credentialed young chef actually from the Valencia countryside, popped up at Lazy Ox and prepared the real thing one night a week -- massive pans of plump bomba rice piled only a few grains deep for maximal caramelization; made with bean broth instead of meat stock; rich, concentrated and delightfully chewy. Then he disappeared, taking his paella with him. Rocher is supposed to be opening a new restaurant this spring. I recommend you be there, spoon in hand.
4 Veal tartare. The best thing to eat at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant Cut has always been his bone-marrow flan, a dish so elegant in its simplicity that you might assume it had been borrowed from Escoffier rather than invented by his team. So when you encounter a snowy marrow bone at Puck's re-invented Spago, you might be expecting a similar dish. Since Fergus Henderson's re-imagining of the roasted bone at his St. John's in London, marrow bones have become kind of a thing. But Puck's bone is stuffed with a classic, pickle-intensive tartare made with veal filet mignon instead of beef, and the ends are capped with chilled, smoked mascarpone that tinges the concoction with hints of barbecue. It's what bartenders like to call a twist on a twist. 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880.
5 Toast with Santa Rosa plum chutney and Sonoma pecorino. This was a year when the ideas of craft and homespun virtue crashed over the land like a sticky wave of artisanally gathered honey, and pop heroes began to include micro-distillers and baconistas as well as actors and banjo players. Making great preserves from superb California fruit is not a new idea, but Jessica Koslow turned out to be very good at it, and her gift is never more apparent than with this plain yet magnificent toast preparation from her preserves-focused Sqirl cafe. If your tastes lean less toward the minimalist than the baroque, have it topped with bacon and a lightly fried duck egg. 720 N. Virgil Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 394-6526.