Los Angeles' Thriving Strip Malls Feature Great Food
Let’s face it: The average Los Angeles strip mall doesn’t inspire much in terms of aesthetics, especially at a distance. From the street as you zip by (or crawl along, depending on the hour), cinderblock façades, brick-enclosed dumpsters and faded signs dominate what isn’t obscured by parked cars. These mini-malls, or convenience centers as they are referred to by their more affectionate fans, achieved peak construction sometime in the mid-1980s in Southern California. Most of them look like they haven’t seen any upkeep since.
Look past the neglected paint and oil-stained parking spots, though, and many of these structures reveal a multicultural urban oasis. They’re a refuge for small-time shop owners and immigrant entrepreneurs who lack the resources to secure a storefront at a more coveted address. For young restaurateurs trying to break out on their own, the right strip mall lease can make the difference between opening up their own space or spending a few more years working behind someone else’s pass.
Across the city, tucked among computer repair stores, bilingual tax preparers and check-cashing stores, enterprising chefs are opening some of Los Angeles’ most interesting restaurants— businesses that might have never taken shape if developers hadn’t designed so much of this city to cater to the car.
Finding great dining in a strip mall may seem like an oxymoron for people anywhere but Los Angeles, but here, strip mall restaurants have a long history. The immigration boom in the 1960s led to a doubling of the city’s Asian population, which soon realized that strip malls were places immigrants without a lot of money could open a business. Add in the car-friendly entrances and exits (not to mention available parking), and strip malls flourished in a city running on cars.
Jonathan Yao was against formidable odds when he opened Kato with his parents. At 24, the recent college graduate hadn’t even been to culinary school, let alone run a restaurant. Yao had done a few stages for experience, and the last one, at Coi in San Francisco, turned out to be formative. “I met people there that really made me want to stay in the industry,” he says. “They really made me feel comfortable cooking and choosing this as a career.”
He and his family found a recently shuttered Persian restaurant near UCLA, where, after conducting a minimalist renovation, they hoped to cater to Asian students with flavors from Taiwan and Japan. The old restaurant sign remains outside, but through Kato’s front door, the transformation is complete, with blond woods and whitewashed walls setting the stage for a tranquil but serious meal. Back in the kitchen, equipment is sparse, reflecting a shortage of space as much as the family’s limited resources. “We have one two-panel French top, a six-top burner and one stock range,” Yao says. “It’s a fairly small line.”
From this tiny workspace, Yao conjures what may be the city’s most affordable and dynamic tasting menu. He sous vides ocean trout so gently it glistens, and pairs it with cabbage seared until the leaves blacken and wilt; grilled baby abalone is similarly paired (recipe). A creamy porridge studded with crabmeat and dried scallops is mirrored in texture and flavor with a delicate garnish of sea urchin. Diners enjoy dishes one after the other in a tasting menu that costs only $49, in part because of an affordable lease. Considering the caliber of his cooking, Yao could likely charge twice as much.
A Temple to Fermentation
When Kwang Uh describes his dream location for a restaurant, it reads like a description of some far-off Zen retreat. Picture a remote mountainous region, a small structure framed by a forest and stream, a small garden and a quaint space for guests to stay. It’s a nice image, but Uh is also a realist. “There are few places like this that exist in the world,” he notes.
Still, the address he finally leased for Baroo, his experimental restaurant that quickly won national accolades, couldn’t be any more different from his utopian image. Holding court between a convenience store and a Oaxacan takeout spot, the space occupies a particularly faded strip mall close to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Every 30 minutes, the 704 bus stops across the street to pick up passengers and belch exhaust.
The location was born out of practical requirements. Since this was his first restaurant, Uh was wary of licensing costs and delays, so he wanted a location with up-to-date certifications. He wanted an open kitchen and a sleek space, or at least one that would be easy to clean up and streamline. It also helped that the previous tenant was a Thai restaurant, which meant a wok burner—a necessary tool for his now-famous kimchi fried rice—was already installed.
Now the pastoral scenes in Uh’s mind play out on his earthenware bowls, in stark contrast to the grit of the city. That kimchi fried rice is anchored by a softly cooked egg surrounded by a forest of microgreens and nori. Break it open with your chopsticks, and the yolk flows in golden slow motion. That feeling continues throughout the menu. His kimchi toast with avocado mousse (recipe) is a personal take on a California classic. Uh dresses handmade fettuccine in a rich oxtail ragù (nests of the pasta dry on sheets just behind the counter) and combines Job’s tears, farro and kamut with koji beet cream, dashi and a kaleidoscope of garnishes.
Across all of his creations, Uh’s handiwork prominently features fermentation —a process on open display at the back of the small dining area. Shelves hold an array of plastic buckets and jars, like an apothecary devoted to tartness, umami and funk. Many of the larger buckets hold his home-brewed kombucha made with flavors like rose, elderflower, raspberry and lemon verbena, to name a few. Each is intensely flavorful and arrestingly sour.
From Mexico to France
“I really want to be accessible to people,” says Ludo Lefebvre, when asked why he’s opened multiple strip mall restaurants. Rent is a huge concern, the French-born chef concedes, but there are other reasons he’s chosen these seemingly humble locations. “Strip malls make me think about California—it’s the lifestyle of California,” he says, pointing to the ease of parking and the melting pot of local businesses strip malls attract.
That same mix of cultures helped shape Trois Familia, the Silver Lake restaurant Lefebvre opened with partners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, in a space that used to house a decades-old Mexican restaurant. The team wanted to give a nod to the previous tenant, so they created bar nachos ($12.25, recipe), crème fraîche replacing the crema; stuffed a burrito with a delicately cooked omelet, thinly shaved ham and truffle salt; and adorned a tostada with beet tartare ($7.95, recipe) in a series of riffs on French and Mexican breakfasts.
Is that galette stuffed with chorizo? Yes, it is. And avocado crema and a sunny-side up egg add brightness. At Trois Familia, churros become French toast and hash browns become chilaquiles. It’s cuisine that kick-starts a weekday, or obliterates a hangover, and it might not have taken shape if a French chef hadn’t stumbled upon a lease in a shuttered Mexican restaurant.
Noree Pla and Fern Kaewtathip took a different approach when they opened Luv2Eat Thai Bistro in Hollywood, on the outskirts of L.A.’s Thai Town. “We try to make the food authentic as much as we can,” Kaewtathip says. Instead of turning to fusion or other popular trends in Asian cooking, Pla and Kaewtathip turned to their family dinner table, hoping Angelenos would be drawn to their passionate, often fiery, cooking.
Their menu includes a crab curry that is spicy enough to induce a sweat after a few bites. Pla brings it to tables in a large serving bowl for sharing, and makes sure everyone knows it was made from scratch. It’s messy eating, forcing diners to hunt through thick sauce and fragmented shells for tiny morsels of crabmeat, but it’s true to their roots. “We serve what we eat,” Kaewtathip says.
Strip malls make me think about California — it’s the lifestyle of California.
Ludo Lefebvre, Trois Familia, Los Angeles
Papaya salad, for instance, is as familiar a menu item as pad Thai or mango with sticky rice, but diners willing to expand their palates should ask for the version made with salted crab. The crabs are salted in-house and stored in a mixture of fish sauce and sugar. They are crushed whole with a mortar and pestle before they’re added to the salad, their shells adding a crackly crunch and an intense pungency.
Sure, there’s mango and sticky rice on the menu, but why not try the durian version? The fruit, prized for its flavor, texture and challenging aroma, can be hard to come by outside Southeast Asia.
Customers who want to stick with the familiar can order pad Thai with bean sprouts and green onions, or Hat Yai fried chicken ($11, recipe). The well-known plates served here are just as good if not better than most Thai restaurants that cater to American palates.
But to play it safe is to ignore what makes this strip mall gem special, and by sticking to their roots, Pla and Kaewtathip have cultivated a loyal customer base. After a year of operating in their original address, they took out a lease on the adjoining space, more than doubling the size of their dining room. Not long after, they opened a small carryout restaurant in a nearby neighborhood. On a recent shopping trip for that newest space, the pair hunted for cow’s liver and intestines for a home-style soup, confident that the dishes they grew up eating will carry them into the future.
Tyler Gugliotta says he drew his line in the sand early when formulating a plan with his partners for their Hermosa Beach strip mall restaurant, Baran’s 2239. Gugliotta didn’t want to be boxed in by the expectations associated with the French, Italian or other cuisines that dominate traditional restaurants. Instead, he wanted to dip into flavors and techniques from around the globe, putting his own twist on dishes.
“I wanted to do a Scotch egg,” he says. “But after a bit of research, I learned the scotch egg wasn’t invented in Scotland, it was invented in India.” Gugliotta ran with the revelation, wrapping a soft-cooked egg in a heady lamb sausage. He serves his Indian egg with a mild curry sauce. Thin ribbons of cucumber add color and coolness, while a thick yogurt salad stands up to any Indian restaurant’s raita.
Unsatisfied to remain in the subcontinent, Gugliotta’s cooking bounces around the globe, embracing ingredients from soy chili gastrique (served with his smoked chicken, $18, recipe) to saffron, truffles and tater tots. The result is a menu that pleases culinary adventurers in a tiny dining room.
The location seems like a great fit now, but Gugliotta admits it was not his first choice. “Ideally, I wanted to be in downtown Manhattan Beach,” he says, where a cluster of restaurants draws customers from surrounding South Bay and beyond. “But I’m actually happy that I’m not there now,” he says. A few customers still rib on the address because it’s out of the way, while others wish there was more seating. But that’s fine according to Gugliotta. “That just means that we’re good.”
Scott Reitz is a Los Angeles-based writer.