Consuming L.A. Earlier than It Eats Itself: Los Angeles lacks a signature dish regardless of its vibrant meals scene
Some cities have cemented a unique food into their identities over the course of several decades. The Philly Cheesesteak is the foundation of Philadelphia’s reputation as a city. Deep-dish pizzas are baked in Chicago’s brick buildings. Boston is sealed from a cream cake along with clam soup and pudding. These foods extract a city’s cadence and personalize an intangible culture. They are also able to stimulate fire-filled debates, attract an ungodly crowd of tourists, and comfort a returning traveler.
From an outsider’s point of view, even cities with thousands of different voices can have a unified court. New York City, as tasty as it is, can be cooked into a dollar slice of pizza (or maybe a slice of cheesecake).
But when I live in Los Angeles, my view of our iconic food is mixed up. Allegedly the birthplace of Cobb salad and French dip, Los Angeles had a fair share of historical foods, and with its constant trend towards novelty, Los Angeles has produced a fair share of modern trends too. But the French dip doesn’t shimmer on shiny postcards in LA’s tourist traps, nor does the Cobb salad, a slice of pizza, a special dessert, or a piece of meat.
What is the epitome of the Los Angeles food icon?
In the world of regional variations, the LA hot dog is an outstanding product. The sizzling bacon-coated street dogs that cut through any post-event drunk stupor are only found in Southern California, and Los Angeles has the highest concentration. Even beyond the danger dog, Pink’s Hot Dogs draws a long line of tourists eager to try the famous laden toppings. The Dodger Dog has built a considerable fan base of its own. Unfortunately, these other hot dog suppliers are recycling other cities’ inventions – they are stealing the sacred cult of the American hot dog. In the end, only the danger dog is enough to represent Los Angeles, and even that lacks the notoriety necessary to make it an icon.
In the world of movie stars and health gurus, there are several popular foods that were pioneered or touted in Los Angeles. Green juice, avocado toast, smoothie bowls: all are modern emblems of nutrition-conscious Angelenos. However, it is difficult to pinpoint Los Angeles as the real owner of any of these foods. Often times this city takes a healthy dish from another trendy city (Seattle, Portland, Palo Alto) and gives it cultural relevance, which then leads to fame online. And frankly, no city should be represented by Goop’s Clay and Maca Diet.
Perhaps the iconic Los Angeles food was brought in from overseas. Legend has it that sushi was transformed from an alien curiosity to a luxury specialty in the chic dining rooms of the 1980s LA by creating the American pallet-friendly California bun with later additions like cream cheese, tempura, and even steak. Now Los Angeles has some of the best sushi in the country. But even then, the best LA sushi can only recreate Japanese sushi. With a style of cooking so heavily dependent on method and mastery, sushi can never really belong to Los Angeles – its heart will always be in Japan.
In my eyes, the taco is the best contender for the most iconic food in LA. Though borrowed from Mexico, the amount of variations and revolutions in Los Angeles tacos make them something that is unique to this city. The tacos at BS Taqueria, Guerilla Tacos, Guisados and Mariscos Jalisco are meticulous masterpieces that combine regional influence with California’s focus on fresh taste. And the street and truck taco is ubiquitous in LA, rivaling the dirt dog for nightly popularity. But with such a colorful selection of tacos, it’s impossible to determine which taco the LA taco is – Los Angeles is divided by taco pluralism, where no taco is ubiquitous and most are delicious.
Perhaps, from an outsider’s point of view, there isn’t any iconic food in Los Angeles because the city is still buried under the prejudice that Angelenos are too health concerned to appreciate good food. Maybe LA is just a city of sackcloths and celery juices, where vegan alternatives are at the top. It wouldn’t be surprising if other cities saw Los Angeles this way – Michelin critics said the same thing when they stopped reviewing LA restaurants in 2010.
This may have been the case 10 years ago, but certainly not now. Los Angeles was built with delicious beef sandwiches, coated hot dogs, and signature salads, but it was made with some of the best Korean and Japanese dishes in the country, tacos worth waiting in line at 2 a.m., and restaurants with ingredients that transform our rounded expectations of Los Angeles as a city preoccupied with its image.
Maybe Los Angeles is better off without a signature dish. Without some of the restaurants offering a monotonous menu, this city has diversified and instead offers a variety of serious dishes. If the taco is the winner of the icon debate, there are hundreds of distinctive tacos across town for you to try. If the bastard is the winner, it says something different about Los Angeles – as a city known for its superficiality, a humble roadside cart seems like the last place to look for legacy, but we value these dogs with fervor.
The debate rages on, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that Los Angeles cannot be reduced to a one-of-a-kind dish because it feels as unexpected and diverse as the city itself.
Christina Tiber is a junior who writes about food. Her column “Eat LA Before It Eats Itself” appears every second Thursday.