One of my least favorite requests to field is at the behest of an out-of-towner desiring to “meet up” for coffee, or for dinner, or for any other similarly neutralized petri dish wherein small talk is cultured. And don’t misunderstand – it’s not that I loathe the very idea of catching up with old friends. Far be it from me to deny the inexorable pull that leads us to gossip about past tense high school dramz over strawberry lemonades at Red Robin late into the night. But the operative word(s) in my position is that nagging out-of-towner bit. Because inevitably the call crackles through something like this:
Old Friend: Okay, so, we’re going to be in L.A. next week and we’d love to see you!
Curmudgeonly Me: Oh sure…I think I can make that work. Where are you staying?
Old Friend [pick one, or all, of the following]: San Clemente! Pasadena! Van Nuys! Burbank!
Curmudgeonly Me: I’m hanging up now.
This wildly exaggerated exchange only serves, of course, to illustrate the point which I think many of you can relate with: “L.A.” (to the out-of-towner) is one helluva big swath of countryside, in’t she? And that says nothing of the mistaken idea that the landmass comprising Southern California (south of the Grapevine, north of, say, the Mexico border) falls rather ungracefully under the bloated definition of “L.A.” Sure, Los Angeles can keep its borders in check as a city proper, but L.A. on the other hand – what land! What vast expanses! What conquered territory! Not even Texas can compete with sheer square mileage!
It goes without saying that anyone who lives in Los Angeles or Orange Counties knows differently. After all, to make the trek from the southernmost tip of L.A. County to the northernmost point would add 196 miles to ones’ odometer, give or take. And the expansiveness of the county only serves as an apt introduction to the fragmented nature of the City itself. To play a round of metaphorical Pin The Tail On The City Center would prove futile (and with more than one of the party-goers with pins and needles stuck in unfortunate places). The core from whence the pulse of the city radiates is as ephemeral a location as it is an idea. It’s only until just recently that downtown Los Angeles has asserted itself as a receptacle worthy of the most coveted faction of our cash flow: Entertainment. Prior to that, the glue could have been Hollywood or the Westside or Beverly Hills or any number of big-ticket cities surrounding L.A. Proper. And like the subtle shifts in entrepreneurial meritocracy that beckon the masses to infiltrate, the targets of their micro-immigration are constantly and necessarily changing.
With the risks involved in planting oneself permanently both sky high and laughably a human construct (after all, The Big One could wipe any number of us out with one glib shakeout), it’s not surprising that restaurants – like our buildings, our hot spots, and our must-sees – are as fleeting as stabilized rent. The traditions of stigmatized neighborhoods and classified areas are irrelevant in a city that reinvents itself every ten years. After all, what was once an outsider’s ghost town containing only its native residents – as foreign as foreign can be in terms of influx of entertainment-related cash flow – quickly transitions as its residents are replaced by the ruthlessly hip. Sure, this phenomena exists everywhere, but the difference is that in Los Angeles, it exists in the same way the concept of a light year relates to distance, not time: In L.A., the tectonic cultural plates are shifting constantly. It’s not a matter of when it will happen, but of where. And where after that - and again and again and again, ad infinitum.
New York’s foray into testing the bounds of the outer boroughs is a perfect example. The young and forward thinking will always be expanding their limits, testing their horizons, and gentrifying the fringes. It’s inevitable. You’ll always have Manhattan, no matter how far its hip kids are willing to commute to maintain ties to its beating heart. But in Los Angeles, this idea is as commonplace as breathing; therefore the rapidly changing mood of the city dictates also the ephemeral nature of its core. And what of its cultural grab bag of inhabitants? With its neighborhoods and commercial arteries being transfused with new blood on a near-constant basis, the tensions are often palpable, but far less so than in other cities. That lackadaisical beach city-adjacent attitude yields little more than a resigned shoulder shrug. It is what it is, isn’t it?
With so much in upheaval on a regular basis, it’s hardly surprising that Los Angeles has never quite staked a legitimate claim in the Food Capital Of The United States territory. Restaurants, it seems, are ever the petulant younger siblings to New York’s older, wiser, ineffably cooler locations. Chicago has the pizza. The PNW has the coffee. Texas and its surrounding states have BBQ and other gastrointestinal biohazards. New York seems to have everything. But what about California? Nothing much to brag about…until now.
It’s only appropriate given the generally blended nature of L.A.’s culture that Mexican-fusion would find its legs in the empty parking lots of L.A. County. Not only has Korean BBQ taken up a torrid affair with Mexican food, but they’ve bought the Winnebago and they’re going at it on the open road.
The food truck has traditionally been the bastion of working-class, proletariat ideals: You work hard, so we’ll come to you – frill-free with prices to match. The secret that only a handful of the middle-class neurgeoisie were savvy to was that “Roach Coaches” proffered the city’s best tacos. And then came fusion. Korean short rib and kimchi garnished by the taco’s venerable cilantro-and-onion accoutrements. A match made, it seems, in gastro-heaven. Instead of opening an outpost in one of L.A.’s dozens of hip neighborhoods, Kogi utilized the unifying exclusive/inclusive dichotomy that is Twitter to advertise their location from hour to hour, day to day. And instead of meeting the people where they were gathered, Kogi built a loyal following by leading its potential customers on a veritable treasure hunt – resulting in, of course, the kind of nosh that proves innovation, quality, and inexpensiveness aren’t mutually exclusive.
Now the mobile-food market is flooded with eager imitators hoping to capitalize on the unique phenomenon of the ever-roving “scene.” If your trend never stops moving, will anyone ever grow tired move on? Kogi, Calbi, Nom Nom, Don Chow, CoolHaus, and Buttermilk certainly bring the masses together – but the location is rarely the same, thus creating an apt metaphor for the city’s nomadic, tribal culture. In fact, the two reflect each other, a palindrome that’s the same forward as it is backward. In so many cases, you can’t visit the same place in L.A. twice because it’s already moved on by the time you find yourself returning to it. And like a late-night pang that kicks you in your stomach for a particular brand of sweet-and-savory taco, you have to be resolutely and deliberately in the loop to know where to find it.