Wednesday, November 30, 2022

In praise of the best-smelling food spots in L.A.

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A special kind of alchemy happens on Crenshaw Tuesdays through Saturdays. Driving with the windows up on Adams and glancing south, you might mistake it for a dumpster fire. But if you let the haze of silver smoke waft through your car, and into your nose, a sensation will overtake you even as your eyes might start to sting: Your heart opens. The delicious smell lets you in to an encounter with the sublime.

A man grilling meat at a taco stand in West Adams.

L.A. food leads with the nose. Mostly because the best of it is being cooked on the street, like this taco stand in West Adams.

(Bethany Mollenkof/For The Times)

Phillips Bar-B-Que, a neighborhood takeout joint most known for slinging sticky ribs slick with mahogany sauce, smokes meat — beef ribs, pork ribs, chicken, a variety of links — “all day, every day,” one of its managers told me. The smell of the smoke is a flag waving unbelievably tall, and depending on the time of day, wide. It points you in the direction of something that based on smell alone vows to make your tastebuds do a little two-step. In other words, it gets your olfactory bulb stoned.

L.A. food leads with the nose. Mostly because the best of it is being cooked on the street — oftentimes we don’t even have to walk into a restaurant to be enthralled by it or convinced that it’s what we need in that moment. It meets us where we are. Some cities have their own distinct smells according to season — roses in the spring, hot trash in summer. We have Phillips Bar-B-Que and the birria truck that posts up right around the corner, all year round.

While smell affects our relationship to food, scent has the possibility to exist independently from taste — it usually precedes it, of course; sends off little jolts (a.k.a. dopamine) to your brain that prompt you to put it into your mouth — but it can be a unique vehicle to experience it on its own. I was vegan for almost a decade, the majority of my time living in this city. I’m mostly pescetarian now, but for almost 10 years, my primary relationship with nonvegan food was through smell. It built a sensory muscle that was naturally, and maybe abnormally, strong to begin with. (When I was a kid, my mom would joke that I should moonlight as an odor tester. I could smell when my grandpa had eaten a can of sardines even hours after he was done, and even when the trash bag that held the can was taken out.) When a group of friends would invite me out to eat Korean barbecue, I knew the smell alone would make me feel in on the experience — even if I was just eating white rice and the vegan banchan. My jean jacket would lock in the floating particles of grilled galbi well into the next day.

The interesting thing about the smell of food is that even though it’s correlated to the taste, we don’t always imagine it as an exact match. But researchers have found that it does something similar to our brains. Venkatesh Murthy, a neuroscience professor at Harvard, said during a talk at the university that “all of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating all the beautiful, complicated flavors … they are all smell,” the Harvard Gazette reported in 2020.

Pupusas sizzling at McArthur Park.

The smell of pupusas sizzling at McArthur Park is a regular part of L.A.’s weather report.

(Bethany Mollenkof/For The Times)

The smells of L.A. come sweet and savory and fermented. They serve as guideposts, breadcrumbs that might help you understand the city’s landscape better. You catch a whiff of sour tejuino as it’s being scooped from a bucket on a cart during peak summer. The smoke from burning meat — for tacos or burgers or shawarma — is an unchangeable part of the weather report.

You can eat a full meal in L.A. without even taking a bite.

What are the restaurants or eateries that draw you in with their scent? The reaction may be based on bodily response alone, or it could even be an emotional one. Maybe it’s a place whose smell reminds you of that time you got a big promotion at work, or Saturday mornings spent with your ex, or a different version of yourself that you miss, or are glad you moved on from. Maybe it’s just one so strong, so enticing, that it made the fine hairs on the back of your arms stand up the first time you encountered it and has been burned into your memory since. Those spots you recognize instantly, with your eyes closed, nostrils open.

Leo's Taco Truck on La Brea.

Some cities have their own distinct smells according to season — roses in the spring, hot trash in summer. We have Leo’s Taco Truck.

(Bethany Mollenkof/For The Times)

Scent and memory are undoubtedly connected but their relationship still exists so uniquely for almost anyone. These are some of the places where, for me, aroma and experience are linked. These are the smells from food spots around L.A. that have fed me.

Sonoratown

Plenty has been written on Sonoratown’s mesquite grilled beef and stretchy flour tortillas that taste of butter. Former Times restaurant critic Patricia Escárcega described it as a “perfume.” The smell, delectably detectable in any direction of its general vicinity of the Fashion District, feels like a cloud that transports you there. When you smell that smell, there is no choice. Suddenly, you’re standing in the taqueria watching a skilled master wielding long metal tongs command the grill, filled with steak, chicken and tripe, from behind the cash register. You order the caramelo, because duh, and take a long inhale before even biting in. For me, it smells like summer — like either the last stop or the first of the night. Multiple locations. sonoratown.com

A vendor sells fresh fruit and juice.

Walking through the Jewelry District downtown, you can smell fresh cut fruit from vendors.

(Bethany Mollenkof/For The Times)

Park’s BBQ [or enter favorite KBBQ here]

The running joke on the internet is that you shouldn’t hit KBBQ with freshly washed hair because chances are you’re just going to have to wash it again, and again and again. That’s half of the joy of eating at any of the Korean barbecue joints in the city: the smell of grilled meat, crackly drips of fat melting into clothes, your hair, your pores. It’s a fully committed experience. And for me, it’s one that reeks of celebration. It’s the place you go hit with a group of new co-workers as a bonding exercise: You all walk in smelling one way and leave with the same scent. It’s a scent that binds you to the person you dined with. 955 S. Vermont Ave. G, Los Angeles. parksbbq.com

L.A. hot dogs (any L.A. hot dogs)

L.A. hot dogs are one of our strongest scent traditions in this city. They remind me most of walking out of a dark, sweaty room where the walls are bumping with music. You trade the smell of spilled drinks on the floor for one of grilled pork and onions and bell peppers, a bun slathered with mayo and being toasted to a crisp. Breathe it in, because you’ve made it, baby: out of the club and to your nearest hot dog vendor. While the smell is savory, the feeling is bittersweet: It marks the end of what was hopefully a memorable night.

Panaderia Cuscatleca

Imagine opening up a steamy, golden bolillo and lying inside of it like a sleeping bag. That’s what walking into Panaderia Cuscatleca when the ovens are full smells like. In my brain, the scent works as an olfactory equivalent to a hug from my mom when I haven’t seen her in a very long time: familiar, comforting, a little emotional. Rows and rows of pan dulce — some of it vegan — line the cases of this Pico-Union, family-run staple. 1566 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. @panaderia__cuscatleca

Panaderia Cuscatleca in Pico-Union.

The smell at Panaderia Cuscatleca in Pico-Union is the olfactory equivalent of a hug from your mom.

(Bethany Mollenkof/For The Times)

Tacos y Birria La Unica

Earthy. Juicy. Savory. Gamy (if it’s made of goat). The smell of birria will always evoke a special occasion for me. Served with rice, beans and tortillas at quinces and weddings — some lime, cilantro and raw white onion on the meat — it was once a rarity, something you only ate when you had something to celebrate. Now of course, it’s everywhere — in ramen, on pizza, in our collective subconscious. Tacos y Birria La Unica, with trucks in Boyle Heights and Mid-City, emits a smell that feels special, still. The styrofoam cups of consomé are little universes of flavor and scent all their own. Multiple locations. @tacosybirrialaunica

Porto’s Bakery

Sometimes I think I can smell cheese rolls in my dreams: sweet and a little tangy, reminding me of waiting in long lines that somehow went much faster than I could have imagined. When I was a college freshman, one of my professors walked in on the last day of finals smelling like he was packing something special. He passed out one cheese roll to each student. It was my first time having them, and the memory is burned in my brain forever. Walking into a Porto’s today smells like celebration — like finishing freshman year of college. Multiple locations. portosbakery.com

Masa of Echo Park Bakery & Cafe

My strongest scent memory of Masa happens while standing outside it, on Sunset, with the crew of people waiting to get in. My best friend and I would go there any chance we could in our early 20s. The door cracks open to reveal the smell of freshly baked dough and red sauce. It’s a unique torture until you get a table and are enveloped by it. Still, it takes around 40 minutes to get your Chicago-style deep dish, so in the meantime you bask in the scent like an appetizer for your nose. Something special follows when you order dessert, which you should, and we always did. A warm slice of croissant bread pudding can be detected from across the room. Before you even take a bite, you breathe it in — the aroma is akin to soaking in a jacuzzi of toasty vanilla custard and caramel. 1800 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. masaofechopark.com

A restaurant in the Piñata District waits for the lunch crowd to fill up.

Venkatesh Murthy, a neuroscience professor at Harvard, said during a talk at the university that “all of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating all the beautiful, complicated flavors … they are all smell.”

(Bethany Mollenkof/For The Times)

Bloom & Plume

Bloom & Plume Coffee in Echo Park, founded by floral designer Maurice Harris, combines two of the smells that fire off the most happy chemicals in my brain: coffee and flowers. The Echo Park shop features Harris’ whimsical, sometimes futuristic designs to ogle — and smell — while you order an oat chagaccino that brings its own earthy, sweet fragrance. 1638 W. Temple St., Los Angeles. @bloomandplumecoffee

Boiling Point [or enter your favorite hot pot restaurant here]

The smell of broth can offer a taste of home, automatically heating your body like a convection oven of memories before you even takea slurp. Each culture and family has its own version of that: a hot savory liquid that feels safe. That’s the sensory pull of hot pot: comfort. Dipping in slices of meat or vegetables only activates the scent further, wafting it into the air. At a place like Boiling Point, the global chain that offers already-set bowls of hot pot, you can choose from flavors like milky curry, Taiwanese spicy or Thai tomato. Multiple locations. bpgroupusa.com

Lucy's Drive Thru.

The food smells of L.A. serve as guideposts, breadcrumbs that might help you understand the city’s landscape better. Since 1969, Lucy’s Drive Thru has been serving Mexican food in Pico-Union.

(Bethany Mollenkof/For The Times)

Grilled chicken on Adams

Imagine it. You’re driving home, starving. Making anything sounds overwhelming and unattainable. The idea of ordering in when you get home only offers more uncertainty. And then you smell it: barbecue chicken. Your senses take over, guiding you to the source. You spot a skilled man slinging birds on the grill on a residential corner of Adams. The aroma — wafting out of tarp across from a buzzy new-ish restaurant in town — rings of possibility. Breathing in the charred bits of meat reminds you of a backyard kickback on a Saturday. Warm weekday afternoons driving the length of Adams on my way home from work or the store were always seasoned with this tantalizing smell.

Monty’s Good Burger

West Coast people know the smell of In-N-Out in their sleep. But Monty’s, the vegan joint with locations across L.A., is quickly making its own stamp in our scent memory bank. The smell of an Impossible patty on the griddle is familiar now, beckons us into a late-night snack in Koreatown or Echo Park. The tater tots, smelling of deliciously fried oil, offer something to soak up a beer or pregame it. (Monty’s also has outposts in Riverside, Culver City and 3rd Street.) Multiple locations. montysgoodburger.com

Saigon Dish

The way pho plays with smell is deceiving. The broth can be so delicate that it doesn’t overwhelm you when you walk into a place like Saigon Dish, a Vietnamese favorite in the Lawndale neighborhood, but when you’re finally sitting in your car, which offers a contrast, you can see how the broth, the raw onion, the basil, sticks to your clothes in such a way that reminds you fondly of the meal you just ate — like a doggy bag for your nose. This is the place I go to when I want to feel satisfied on all sensory fronts: It’s comfortable and delicious and smells like a version of a home I’ve made for myself — I started eating here years ago, and it’s where I still meet one of my best friends who lives down the street every few weeks. Spires Court Plaza, 15725 Hawthorne Blvd. #108, Lawndale. saigondish.info

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