Try to define the signature cuisine of Los Angeles, and the answer you get will vary depending on who you ask and where you are. In some corners of the city, you’ll find the best Asian food you’ve ever had. In others, the Mexican cuisine is unparalleled. This is especially true of Southern California’s famed fish tacos, which get better the further south you go. In my mind, what defines Los Angeles’s food is a spirit of inventiveness – really, where else can you get an cotton candy burrito filled with ice cream and breakfast cereal – plus a drive to present diners with something new, and the hope, overt or not, of becoming a viral sensation. But none of that helps you when you’ve got a brief stay in the city and you’re hoping to get a real taste of it all. To do that, you have to go to Smorgasburg LA.
Smorgasburg LA – the West Coast iteration of the food festival that started in Brooklyn in 2011 – is a “food flea market” that gathers regional food vendors every Sunday at the Alameda Produce Market in Downtown Los Angeles. The event showcases nearly 60 food producers every week, along with a beer garden, an artisan marketplace and live music (plus, in an essential Los Angeles piece of information, coveted free parking for the first two hours). There are also rotating add-on events like record sales. Smorgasburg is a cornerstone of the revitalization of a long-neglected corner of downtown, and is part of a larger development called Row DTLA, a mixed use area with residences, galleries, office space and shopping.
The event draws crowds in the thousands, and the lines can be long, so here are two pro tips for you. One: go on off-hours, either when the event opens at 10am, or in the later afternoon (the biggest crush is from 12pm-2pm). Two: go with a game plan. So let’s talk about food.
One of the defining characteristics of Los Angeles cuisine is the abundance of healthy, produce-forward food, like the OG Coconut Bowl (pictured above) from Amazebowls. It’s an acai bowl topped with granola, fresh fruit and fruit crisps, served in a coconut half. Among the many other health-conscious options at Smorgasburg are Avocadamama, a vegan mac and cheese cart serving creative iterations of plant-based pasta like Curry and Buffalo Cauliflower mac and cheeses; and Cena Vegan, serving plant-based meats in burritos and tacos.
On the total opposite end of the spectrum is Daddy’s Chicken Shack, an all-things-fried-chicken vendor serving decadent sandwiches like the Spicy Daddy with Sriracha and ginger mayo and Popcorn Chicken with Maple Bourbon Donut Holes. Cheezus serves turned-up grilled cheeses – like the Incredible Hulk, with sharp cheddar, aged provolone, smoked bacon, avocado, lime zest, chili oil and a fried egg – and Raclette, a Swiss way to eat mounds of melted cheese over potatoes. Ugly Drum serves pit-smoked pastrami, and Porchetta Republic serves, well, you can probably guess.
One of the most fun things about Smorgasburg is all of the weird, inventive ways that vendors redefine liquid refreshment. The Base Co, which is essentially a juice cart, consistently has one of the longest lines – and for good reason. They make “bases” out of juices and herbs, like Grapefruit Basil, Thyme Orange and Pomegranate Lavender, which you mix with your beverage of choice, like Meyer lemonade or green tea. Once you brave the line, though, the line to get refills out of your glass jar is much shorter. Sip Matcha makes matcha green tea beverages that look like rainbow art pieces, with fresh flowers in them.
There are excellent tamales from The Tamale Shop, Venezuelan food from Sus Arepas, vivid Korean Mandu dumplings from Workaholic, Hong Kong-toasted butter buns from Bolo. Then, of course, there’s the seafood. Lobsterdamus grills their lobsters and serves them in Lobster Nests over garlic noodles, or on Lobster Truffle Fries. The Jolly Oyster is a traveling raw bar. Anarchy Seafood does fish its own way, with Salmon Poke Nachos and spicy, excellent Crab Croquettes. Expect a long wait at Shrimp Daddy, which serves traditional Hawaiian garlic butter shrimp inside a hollowed-out pineapple. It’s exactly as good as it sounds, and it’s worth every minute in line. Just make sure you get something to snack on while you wait.