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3 restaurants with a modern spin on meatballs

Bluegold's eggplant "meatballs." Photo by Jen Warren

Your childhood memories of meatballs are probably of beefy orbs atop a bowl of spaghetti. And while those meatballs aren’t hard to find these days, especially with the rise of retro-meets-upscale Italian eateries on California’s culinary scene, a new breed of experimental (and sometimes meat-less) meatballs are also found on restaurant menus throughout Southern California. Here are 3 versions worth trying right now.

Kettner Exchange, San Diego

Kettner Exchange's duck meatball

Kettner Exchange's duck meatball. Photo by Joann Van Noy

To honor the Little Italy location of his stylish Asian-influenced kitchen, head chef Brian Redzikowski came up with the restaurant’s beloved duck meatball. Based on his grandmother’s recipe (no beef, add some grits) and mixed with plenty of onion, garlic, and parsley, they are rolled in panko and cooked in a traditional tomato sauce.

Between Kettner Exchange and sister restaurant Waverly in Cardiff, kitchen staffers roll more than 300 each week. Closed Mondays.

Tuk Tuk Thai, Los Angeles

Shrimp meatballs at Tuk Tuk Thai

Shrimp meatballs at Tuk Tuk Thai. Photo courtesy Tuk Tuk Thai

Sisters Katy Noochlaor and Amanda Maneesilasan, daughters of the original owners of this West L.A. Thai spot, relocated the restaurant last year to Sawtelle Boulevard—one of L.A.’s most iconic streets for Asian food. Their revamped menu has more of a street-food spin, with small plates such as crispy shrimp meatballs.

Chef Maneesilasan combines chopped white shrimp with pork fat and spices, including coriander root that she imports frozen from Thailand, for this sextet of seafood spheres. The deep-fried globules arrive atop a heavenly house-made sweet chile dip.

Bluegold, Huntington Beach

This coastal Orange County spot in the Pacific City mall touts its blend of old- and new-world cooking techniques, so it makes sense that corporate chef Jorge Valines points to old-school eggplant Parmesan as the inspiration for his eggplant “meatballs.” Even people who don’t like eggplant might be tempted to try this dish he invented as a “smaller, more convenient approach” to Parm.

For an umami boost, Valines incorporates shiitake and oyster mushrooms and amps up the heartiness factor with a Calabrian chile–San Marzano tomato sauce. The balls are stuffed with Grande fior di latte (mozarella made with fresh whole cow’s milk) and topped with a warm, creamy Burrata. 

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