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7 Don't-Miss Dishes in Southern California

Southern California food correspondents reveal their favorite dishes of 2019.

Food correspondents for Westways, the member magazine for the Automobile Club of Southern California, eat hundreds of meals each year in restaurants around Southern California. Some are memorable; others not so much. Which are the standouts? Here, they dish on their favorite bites and tell you where to find them.  

1. Bento Box

1320 E. Seventh Street, Los Angeles; 213-395-0607

Hayato Bento Box

Photo courtesy Hayato

The bento box at Hayato in downtown Los Angeles is one luxe lunch. You’ll need to reserve yours in advance because chef-owner Brandon Hayato Go makes only 20 lunchtime bentos each Friday and Saturday. But the planning and pursuit is so worth it. When you open the wood box, you’re met with an almost overwhelming sight: More than a dozen perfect bites, and each astounds in its own way. There’s rosy seared duck breast, juicy Agedashi Eggplant (lightly fried and then simmered in dashi, stock made from fish and kelp), grilled Hokkaido scallop, chrysanthemum greens with sudachi (a sour Japanese citrus), and so much more. This a Michelin-quality, multicourse meal all in a single dish. —Miles Clements

2. Tarte au Caramel

Et Voilà French Bistro
3015 Adams Avenue, San Diego; 619-209-7759

Tarte au caramel at Et Voila

Photo courtesy Et Voilà! French Bistro

My best bite of 2019 was the wonderful-to-behold tarte au caramel, served daily at Et Voilà French Bistro in San Diego’s hip North Park. Chef-owner Vincent Viale creates a classic French dessert by augmenting a caramel cream–filled cup of sugar pastry with many sweet bells and whistles, including a lush honey-caramel sauce spooned over the tart and in artsy blobs around the oval plate. The pastry is adorned with a sort of croquette of caramelized nuts, a scoop of praline ice cream bedded on slivered almonds, and tenderly tart segments of kumquat poached in sugar syrup. —David Nelson

3. Pepperoni Pizza

Montecito Country Mart, 1014 Coast Village Road, Santa Barbara; 805-770-2383

Pizza at Bettina

Photo by Chuck Place

Pepperoni pizza sounds like a simple dish, but chef and co-owner Brendan Smith at Bettina in Santa Barbara takes it to another level. Maybe it’s Smith’s naturally leavened, slow-fermented dough. Maybe it’s his expertise and skill honed at the highly regarded pizzeria Roberta’s in Brooklyn. Maybe it’s the top quality of the pepperoni, the hand-pulled mozzarella, or the transcendent drizzle of chili oil and Ojai wildflower honey. Is it the baked-to-blistered-perfection crust from the wood-fired oven? The friendly, neighborhood vibe and the warm welcome from Smith’s wife and co-owner, Rachel Greenspan, add to the enjoyment. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’m definitely going back for more. —Nancy Ransohoff

4. Dungeness Crab Cake

Bon Temps
712 S. Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles; 213-784-0044

Dungeness  Crab Cake at Bon Temps

Photo by Chris Fortuna

The best thing I ate this year was the Dungeness crab cake at Bon Temps in L.A.’s Arts District, where veteran pastry chef-owner Lincoln Carson shows off his skills on the savory side of the ledger. For an unforgettable, made-for-Instagram starter, he folds Dungeness crab and scallop mousse into a perfect disk, then applies a custom-fitted wafer of pain de mie pastry infused with squid ink. Avocado slices are fanned on top, finished with delicate greens that cut the richness beneath. Arriving in a silken bath of mustard beurre blanc, this dish may sound a bit precious, but just consider it a humble crab cake receiving a glamorous makeover. —Roger Grody

5. Shaved Brussels Sprouts

5916 1/2 N. Figueroa Street, Los Angeles; 323-545-3536

Shaved Brussels Sprouts

Photo by Vanessa Stump

Few childhood tortures exceeded that of brussels sprouts. My mother is a good cook, but back in the ’60s, she made them as most everyone else did: boiled and plain. We kids came up with every imaginable ruse to get out of eating those sulfurous, nasty green balls. So, imagine my shock when I realized that the dish I’ve most loved this year is Hippo’s shaved brussels sprouts. The balance of flavor and texture is perfect—finely shaved raw sprouts are given a nutty sweetness with toasted almonds, a savory tang with a fluffy mound of Parmesan, and a seductive aroma with fresh mint, all bound together with a crisp lemon vinaigrette. I could eat it every day. —Colleen Dunn Bates

6. Murray Family Farms Citrus Salad

Union Restaurant
37 East Union Street, Pasadena; 626-795-5841

Murray Farms Citrus Salad

Photo courtesy Union Restaurant

I hadn’t eaten at Union Restaurant in Pasadena for a long time, and I was curious how this old favorite was doing, so my husband and I headed there last February for dinner. We were blown away by the food. (Disclosure: I was recognized, which seldom happens.) Of all the dishes we tried, the one that sang was a fresh citrus salad, an artful arrangement of citrus sections in every color, from pink to orange to deep purple, from Murray Family Farms in Bakersfield topped with crunchy toasted pistachio nuts and crumbled ricotta salata. Sweet, salty, and piquant, it was the essence of midwinter in Southern California. —Jean T. Barrett

7. Whole Roasted Duck

Juniper and Ivy
2228 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego; 619-269-9036

Roasted duck

Photo by Rachel Ng

I love duck, especially the whole roasted ducks frequently sold at Chinese and Vietnamese delis. I rarely see duck beak-to-tail at more-formal American restaurants, so imagine my pleasant surprise when I saw it on Juniper and Ivy’s menu. There, the duck (weighing 3½ to 4 pounds) is served with stir-fried wheat berries, charred vegetables, and a fried duck egg. The breasts are brushed with spiced honey, coriander, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, star anise, and cumin, while the confit legs are seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic, then cured overnight. It was the most memorable dish I’ve had in 2019, and perfect to share with friends and family. —Rachel Ng, Westways Food Editor

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