There are countless mom-and-pop eateries and eclectic brick-and-mortar spaces across L.A. County to satisfy even the most particular palate. Like hidden gems, these restaurants and cafes exist in just about every neighborhood, and there’s nothing like discovering good food that you and your family will return to again and again.
Whether you’re new in town or L.A. born and raised like me, it’s always exciting to learn about a beloved spot you’ve never tried. Here’s the scoop on a few of my personal favorite indie places to grub. Call ahead or check online before you go to any of these places because COVID-19 restrictions and shorter hours are still in effect in some spots.
Blossom Hall Market
Located near the historic Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in San Gabriel, Blossom Market Hall was formerly a Masonic lodge. Converted into 13 stalls, the hall serves choices upon choices of good food and drinks: crepes, Caribbean, Korean and Mexican cuisine, Vietnamese coffee, sandwiches, salads, barbecue, artisanal ice cream, Thai iced tea, plant-based burgers and even a wine bar.
Instead of singling out one of the vendors, I will just say that on our first visit we sampled five vendors and each were excellent. Blossom Hall just opened last December and is already a San Gabriel Valley favorite. With everything consolidated under one roof, your whole family can sample different fares and still sit together. blossommarkethall.com/
Opened in 1946, Chili John’s is one of the oldest restaurants in Burbank. Originally established in Green Bay, Wis., in 1900, the eatery is widely considered one of the best chili makers in America.
There are four types of chili — beef, chicken, turkey and vegetarian — and they can all be made at different levels of spiciness and served with burgers, hot dogs or spaghetti. The horseshoe-shaped counter has that old-school appeal, and you might recognize the mid-century neon sign from Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” which included a scene filmed there. The filmmaker is a fan of Chili John’s food and decor.
It takes 20 hours to cook each batch of chili, and the savory taste of this time and care is reflected in each hearty bite. chilijohnsofca.com
Affectionately known as Retro Row, the 4th Street Corridor in Long Beach, a dozen-block stretch of vintage stores, eateries, galleries, bars and bookstores, grows longer every year. It was originally just a few blocks long. The district’s genesis dates back to 1990, when owner Kerstin Kansteiner opened Portfolio Coffeehouse and Kathleen Schaaf opened Meow, a vintage clothing shop. I have been going to Portfolio, a mecca for poets and artists, since the early ‘90s. And even though I don’t live in the area these days, the java there is worth the drive.
Once you’re pumped up on your joe, check out the rest of this eclectic neighborhood, which is located just east of Downtown Long Beach and south of Cambodia Town. The food and shopping options, charm and walkability rival other similar Southern California neighborhoods. There are two bookstores, Page Against the Machine and Bel Canto Books. Bel Canto Books sits inside a larger space called “The Hangout,” which features a restaurant, housewares, old and new clothing, a leather maker, a garden and vintage camera store, as well as an event space. Retro Row is also home to The Art Theatre, a movie palace built in 1924. portfoliocoffeehouse.com
The Park’s Finest
“Smoke meat every day,” is what they say at The Park’s Finest. This iconic barbecue spot in Historic Filipinotown started as a catering company serving family parties, weddings and “backyard boogies” in 2009. By 2012, the fare was so popular that owners opened a brick-and-mortar space on Temple Street just west of Downtown L.A., where Echo Park, Angelino Heights and Historic Filipinotown converge.
Some specialties include San Pablo pulled pork, Timuay beef tri-tip, Mt. Mayon hot link medley, short rib and the Mt. Taal Manok chicken. Mouthwatering sides include a cornbread bibingka, smoked gouda mac & cheese, elotes and the veggie medley. The restaurant’s famous sauce mixes pineapple, cane, soy sauce, peppers and spices. Priding themselves on “a place where American cuts meet Filipino flavor,” The Park’s Finest is a down-home touchstone serving comfort food. There are IPA beers on tap at this friendly and cozy spot that always has on a soundtrack of soulful music. It’s become such a local favorite that Vans created a collaborative shoe with them during the pandemic that quickly sold out. theparksfinest.com
Spoon House Bakery & Restaurant
Spoon House Bakery & Restaurant is a Gardena institution serving up “Japanized Italian” pasta with a full menu of choices such as carbonara, bolognese, vongole bianco and Japanese clam sauce — all done with panache.
You can sit at the counter and watch chefs lace the plates up. After almost 20 years of going there, last year I noticed for the first time a framed L.A. Times article by the late food critic Jonathan Gold. In his 1991 article, Gold praised Spoon House’s food. My favorite of Gold’s sentences captures Spoon House’s magic: “The chef, behind a sort of sushi-bar-like glass counter, manipulates the octopus-like controls of what is labeled the Al Dente System, a complicated water-boiling carousel that cooks pasta to order; other cooks fry ingredients for sauces at the stove and toss noodles in big wooden bowls.” As usual, Gold was ahead of everyone. Spoon House deserves all the praise. You might fall in love. In lieu of a website, visit the yelp review.
“Bachan” is Japanese for grandmother, and the founder of this popular eatery named it in honor of his wife’s late mom, who was known for cooking phenomenal Japanese food.
Formerly located in Rosemead, Bachan’s Takeout is slated to reopen later this summer in a new location on Garfield Avenue in Monterey Park. Loyal patrons of Bachan’s are thrilled because the food has become legendary for Eastside residents. The restaurant specializes in homestyle Japanese comfort food, and some of my favorites are furikake ahi, grilled ono and teriyaki steak plates. They also make epic taquitos and chili burgers. In lieu of a website, check out the yelp review.
Mike Sonksen is a Los Angeles-based poet, professor and author of “Letters to My City.”