EAT THIS CITY takes us to the best places to eat in the far corners of a different city each week. This week, we eat our way through Los Angeles with Chef Josef Centeno!
The life of a chef is a busy, hustling, intense one. There are always dishes to be prepped, products to be inspected, and ideas to dream up. This is the case when you work in ONE restaurant, but Chef Josef Centeno is the chef owner of FOUR successful restaurants in Los Angeles. How a person with four restaurants ever manages to go out to eat, much less fit in a phone call with EAT THIS CITY, is a wonder. It must make him a superhero. A superhero who still has to pause the phone call and deal with the plumber.
That’s just the way it is, he explains.
Before moving to LA, Centeno cooked his way through New York City at the old gastronomic temples, then to San Francisco, and on to Los Gatos at Manresa. During his time at the latter establishment, he says the quality of life couldn’t be beat — surfing every morning in beautiful Northern California before working on into the night. Still, he longed for a restaurant of his own.
Ten years ago, Los Angeles was far from being a foodie destination. There were a lot of high-end restaurants where people with expense accounts could eat, and great ethnic options, but no mid-price (but still innovative) dining option. There was a demographic of people who were into food, but no one was cooking the way Centeno envisioned. He started experimenting with tasting menus. Eventually he opened The Lazy Ox (now closed) where he says all his ideas came together. Next, he opened Bäco Mercat and got in good with the landlord who owned a whole block of storefronts. Nine months later, he opened Bar Amá featuring the Tex Mex food he grew up with. Nine months after that came Orsa and Winston, his fine dining spot with 28 seats and nightly tasting menus. Then nine months after that came Ledlow, his New American concept.
Holy Hail Storm, Batman!
In the last five years, the food scene has blown up in Los Angeles. Centeno says it’s an incredible place to be. The economics make it much more feasible to open restaurants (with such low profit margins) and succeed (as long as you’re making good food — which Chef Josef most certainly is). When he’s not in one of his own restaurants, you may find the culinary star dining in one of the following hot spots. Gas up your cars; there’s a lot of ground to cover in this sprawling city.
There are a lot of great places for pizza in Los Angeles, but I’ve returned to Pizzeria Mozza again and again to sit at the bar for one of Nancy Silverton’s bubbly-crusted pies, especially the one with eggplant and creamy ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomatoes and basil.
See Street Food for tacos. For Mexican, family-run Guelaguetza Oaxaca cuisine, and the nuanced regional specialties at La Casita Mexicana in Bell. Hopefully Rocio’s Mole de los Dioses will reopen (after having suffered a fire) for some of the best moles in the city.
Szechuan Impression for spicy whole crab (that you eat with the plastic gloves they give you), tea-smoked ribs, cold sliced pork, and wontons in chile oil. Everything has just the right amount of Sichuan pepper and chiles.
I’m a gelato fan, and my neighborhood gelateria is Uli. Uli makes great flavors inspired by whatever’s in season. My favorite: yogurt and cherry.
Michael Cimarusti’s Providence. He has a way with pristine seafood. Everything sparkles and is insanely fresh, and he treats everything with just the right amount of technique and flavor. Nothing is overwrought or underwhelming. It’s beautiful.
My neighborhood go-to spot for handmade pastas and appetizers — like arancini — that your Italian grandmother would be proud of.
Gary Menes’ Le Comptoir for an all-vegetable tasting menu at his 10-seat restaurant in Koreatown.
I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who doesn’t eat brunch. But when I do, there are fewer places nicer than the patio at Chateau Marmont.
ICONIC FOOD OF THE CITY
When I want an iconic dining experience, I will go to an old school steak house like Taylor’s, Musso & Frank’s, or Pacific Dining Car.
ODD CULINARY EXPERIENCE
Nothing seems odd to me anymore.
Braised oxtail and short rib stew at Sun Nong Dan in Koreatown, rich with meat and potatoes and rice cake, brought to you in a bubbling cauldron. It probably cures anything.
Kagaya shabu-shabu in Little Tokyo. The quality of their meats is great, and there’s nothing that brings two people together like cooking your food in the same broth.
RESTAURANT RUN BY A FRIEND
I love Rustic Canyon run by Jeremy Fox. His food is always spot-on and delicious and thoughtful. I have a lot of respect for him as a friend and as a chef.
Stay tuned for more EAT THIS CITY — where each week we’ll feature a premier-level chef in a different city sharing their insider eating tips! Missed a week? Revisit the past here: Brooklyn, New Orleans, Providence, Memphis, Orange County, Boston or Detroit.
See you next week!