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Westways food critics’ 18 best places to eat in 2021

Cauliflower served at Social in Huntington Beach, CA At Social in Huntington Beach, the whole-cauliflower entrée is fried and dressed like a crunch roll. | Photo by Kevin Tackett/Julee Ho Media

In the first half of the year, we ate a lot of takeout. In the latter half, we cautiously ventured back out to beloved date-night haunts and discovered new neighborhood eateries. During this time of staying close to home, we could still explore a variety of cultural cuisines thanks to our diverse communities.

Despite the extreme disruption to the SoCal restaurant scene, Westways restaurant critics were able to find places that were pivoting and innovating both to stay afloat and to feed hungry diners seeking comfort and connection over delicious meals. From a parlor serving Detroit-style pizzas to a seafood market selling legit Hawaiian ‘ahi poke, here are some of Westways restaurant critics’ favorite finds in 2021. 

Los Angeles & environs

Reviews by Coleen Dunn Bates

Other locales: The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

1. Alta Adams, Los Angeles

Fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, and collard greens at Alta Adams in Los Angeles.

Fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, and collard greens at Alta Adams in Los Angeles. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Alta Adams is a modern soul-food restaurant that seems to be the perfect fit for its neighborhood and its time. Manning the kitchen is Watts native Keith Corbin, who started his culinary career at LocoL. Here, he gets to execute his own vision, which melds soul-food standards with a California reverence for fresh ingredients and the occasional jolt of West African flavor. The corn bread is, to my taste, crumbly in a good way. Everything I’ve tried here has been flat-out delicious, including the creative cocktails; the candied yam gratin with cashews; the juicy fried chicken; the kitchen’s most famous dish, tender oxtails with rice; and the pineapple-coconut upside-down cake. (323) 571-4999; altaadams.com.

2. Mírame, Beverly Hills

Whole fried Baja snapper at Mírame in Beverly Hills.

Whole fried Baja snapper at Mírame in Beverly Hills. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

For folks on the Westside, a new-to-the-pandemic restaurant is Mírame, an Alta California place showcasing the exceptional food of celebrated chef Joshua Gil, formerly of Tacos Punta Cabras. You can dine indoors or at the patio and sidewalk tables, where you can enjoy the crisp fried Baja snapper, the grilled albacore tacos with smashed avocado, and the terrific hanger steak with a Winter Caesar salad. (310) 230-5035; mirame.la.

3. Bootleg Pizza, Los Angeles

Pep’d Up and Hot Jimmy pizzas from Bootleg Pizza in Los Angeles.

Pep’d Up and Hot Jimmy pizzas from Bootleg Pizza in Los Angeles. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

The pandemic may have been disastrous for most restaurants, but for pizzerias, especially those that deliver, it’s been a bonanza. Pizza pop-ups were already popping when the March 2020 shutdown happened, at a time when L.A. was discovering the high-fat joys of pan pizza. Several of these Detroit-style pop-ups (Dtown and Dough Daddy among them) are thriving for pickup and/or delivery. One that has transitioned to storefront is Bootleg Pizza, in the Pico-Fairfax area. Unlike the others, Bootleg does not make a Detroit purist’s pie. Kyle Lambert combines the best of the Motor City version (the thick, focaccia-like sourdough crust; the pan baking; and the crisp, deeply browned but not burned sides and edges) with the best of the New Jersey pies he grew up with—the grandma-style tomato sauce and the whole-milk mozzarella, instead of Detroit’s heavy, super-rich Wisconsin brick cheese. The result is a small, square-pan pizza that is so hearty it could feed up to three, especially if you add the crisped pepperoni, but so freakin’ good that two people will want to eat the whole thing. (323) 987-5959; bootlegpizza.com.

The Valleys

Reviews by Jean T. Barrett

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

4. Osteria la Buca, Sherman Oaks

Family meal with rigatoni Bolognese, salad, and tiramisu at Osteria la Buca in Sherman Oaks.

Family meal with rigatoni Bolognese, salad, and tiramisu at Osteria la Buca in Sherman Oaks. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Melrose Avenue mainstay Osteria la Buca opened a Valley outpost last year, and who doesn’t like an Italian neighborhood spot? The restaurant has a full menu of Italian specialties, but I’ve been leaning in to the “Family Meal,” a generously portioned three-course dinner for two, four, or six diners. Opt for one of three hearty main courses—spaghetti pomodoro, rigatoni Bolognese, or chicken Parmesan—and you’ll also get bread, a fresh green salad, and tiramisu. Pricing ranges from $40 for spaghetti pomodoro for two to $190 for chicken Parmesan for six. We found that the meal for two served three to four, and I don’t believe we are modest eaters. Abbondanza, or abundance, seems to be the operative word at Osteria la Buca! (818) 456-1216; osterialabuca.com.

5. The Brothers Sushi, Woodland Hills

Sushi platter with spicy tuna rollout at The Brothers Sushi in Woodland Hills.

Sushi platter with spicy tuna rollout at The Brothers Sushi in Woodland Hills. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Popular West Valley spot The Brothers Sushi pivoted to contactless pickup and delivery this past year (delivery available for a minimum $75 order, within a 10-mile radius of the restaurant). You can order à la carte (available by phone order only), but the $75 sushi platter of 20 pieces of nigiri and a spicy tuna cut roll is a real buy. Elegantly arranged on a clear-topped, oversized tray, the sushi platter gives diners a bit of the restaurant experience at home. What’s really fun are the DIY hand-roll kits, which include all the ingredients to make your own sushi rolls; the kits cost $20 for a vegan version, $35 for a basic version, and $60 for a premium. Quantities are limited each day, so order early. (818) 456-4509; thebrotherssushi.com.

6. Mazza Modern Kitchen, Studio City

The Trio Mazza Platter from Mazza Modern Kitchen in Studio City.

The Trio Mazza Platter from Mazza Modern Kitchen in Studio City. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

The two-level mall at the southeast corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura boulevards has seen many restaurants come and go, but I’m hoping Mazza Modern Kitchen has staying power. This is no ordinary Middle Eastern spot; Mazza has its own point of view and a menu studded with distinctive specialties from Iran, Morocco, and Uzbekistan, the owner’s homeland. Try the “world famous” Uzbek plov, a hearty lamb-and-rice pilaf served with a homey side salad of cherry tomatoes, a dish ample enough to serve two. The Trio Mazza Platter comes with Moroccan-style braised tomatoes, baba ghanoush with truffled mushroom, grilled eggplant caviar, and assorted olives. The masabacha hummus features creamy whole chickpeas in the mix, and the Florentine Khachapuri is akin to a cheesy Mediterranean flatbread. (818) 308-6670; mazzakitchenla.com.

Central Coast

Reviews by Nancy Ransohof

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

7. Secret Bao, Santa Barbara

Fried shrimp bao from Secret Bao in Santa Barbara.

Fried shrimp bao from Secret Bao in Santa Barbara. | Photo by Chuck Place

When Secret Bao flung open its doors, foodies who knew co-proprietors/chefs Peter Lee and Felicia Medina’s cooking from their pandemic-era pop-ups and tenure at Santa Barbara’s Loquita jumped for joy. The couple, who between them have experience working with the likes of Joël Robuchon, José Andrés, and Nancy Silverton, started with a takeout-only lunch and dinner menu that spans techniques and flavors from Korea to Italy. The menu is evolving, but you can’t miss with any of the pillowy bao buns with fillings such as Korean fried chicken, six-hour-roasted pork belly, and fried shrimp. In the “Not Baos” section, you might find a flavor-packed fusion dish of kung pao cauliflower or silky jap chae made with sweet potato glass noodles. Rice dishes, snacks like gyoza, and a kids’ menu including a PB&J bao round out the offerings. For outdoor dining, you can eat on the restaurant’s patio or order takeout and head across the street to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden. (805) 259-3226; secretbaosb.com.

8. Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar, Santa Barbara

Mama’s Hand-Wrapped Jiaozi Potstickers and Thai noodles at Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar in Santa Barbara.

Mama’s Hand-Wrapped Jiaozi Potstickers and Thai noodles at Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar in Santa Barbara. | Photo by Chuck Place

The popular Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar has been doing to-go orders almost since the restaurant opened in 2014. Helmed by owners Jerry Lee and Emre Balli and chef-owner Nui Pannak, the noodle bar turns out dishes that reflect an array of Asian influences, with a focus on Thai noodles and contemporary spins on classic Thai dishes made with fresh ingredients. Don’t-miss items include Mama’s Hand-Wrapped Jiaozi Potstickers; Northern Thailand Curry Noodle (khao soi) Soup made with Shelton’s chicken; and Hangover Noodle with a zing of red jalapeño, Thai chiles, and fresh garlic. Order online or by phone from Restaurant Connection for delivery (food and drink from several other Santa Barbara Public Market venues are also available), or call the restaurant directly for pickup. (805) 335-2426; emptybowlnoodle.com.

9. Bob’s Well Bread at the Ballard Store, Ballard

Blueberry lemon, maple bacon, and chocolate cherry scones; breakfast sandwich; and croque madame at Bob's Well Bread at the Ballard Store in Ballard.

Blueberry lemon, maple bacon, and chocolate cherry scones; breakfast sandwich; and croque madame at Bob's Well Bread at the Ballard Store in Ballard. | Photo by Chuck Place

The beloved Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, run by owners Bob and Jane Oswaks, has added a second outpost to its original Los Alamos location. The new bakery and café, located in a historic building in Ballard, offers breakfast and lunch (until 3 p.m.) on its spacious outdoor patio. The pastries alone are worth the trip, with the likes of buttery-flaky croissants, seasonal scones, the caramelized Breton pastry kouign-amann, and the hard-to-find canelé, a Bordeaux specialty. But don’t miss items like the breakfast sandwich with scrambled eggs and house-made turkey sausage, and the egg-in-a-jar, purple potato puree topped with Gruyère cheese, a poached egg, bacon lardons, chives, and crème fraîche. Lunch winners include the hearty meat loaf sandwich, the Reuben with house-made corned beef, and the croque monsieur. Don’t forget to add a loaf of fresh-baked bread. (805) 691-9549; bobswellbread.com.

Inland Empire & the Desert

Reviews by Roger Grody

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

10. Yuzu Japanese Izakaya, Norco

'Ahi salad and chicken karaage at Yuzu Japanese Izakaya in Norco.

'Ahi salad and chicken karaage at Yuzu Japanese Izakaya in Norco. | Photo by Rob Andrew

The Japanese counterpart to a British pub is the izakaya, a casual eatery offering shareable snacks washed down by beer or sake. Known as “Horsetown USA,” Norco may be more accustomed to tri-tip than tempura, but Yuzu turns out an impressive range of izakaya specialties. Recommended items include the soft-shell crab stuffed with mango salsa, the miso-glazed black cod, and the chicken karaage, Japan’s take on fried chicken. Less traditional but worth exploring are specialty rolls—my favorite features crab, spicy tuna, and avocado wrapped in soy paper and crispy potatoes—and Hawai‘i-inspired poke bowls. Yuzu had the misfortune of opening just when the pandemic hit, but its gracious owners adapted with takeout and delivery. (951) 479-5744; yuzuizakaya.com.

11. The State, Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands

Burger with tempura-battered shallots with aged cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon, and barbecue sauce at The State in Rancho Cucamonga.

Burger with tempura-battered shallots with aged cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon, and barbecue sauce at The State in Rancho Cucamonga. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Both locations of The State offer innovative takeout and delivery services that are the next best things to being there. The gastropub’s signature burgers—consider one that layers tempura-battered shallots with habanero ghost pepper jack cheese, pickled jalapeños, and pepper jelly—are among a full menu of upscale comfort foods. Other standouts include a spicy fried chicken sandwich, poutine (here, the fries are topped with braised short rib, cheese curds, and gravy), and mac-and-cheese. A kids’ menu is offered, as well as attractive beverage propositions for grown-ups, including bottles of wine with prices comparable to what glasses sometimes cost elsewhere. Additionally, cocktails are packaged in secure mason jars, accompanied by the appropriate garnishes for home service. For dessert, house-made crème brûlée topped with seasonal berries await dine-in customers. thestaterestaurant.com.

12. The Rustik Fork Eatery, Riverside

Nashville hot chicken strips and drunken goat burger and fries from The Rustik Fork Eatery in Riverside.

Nashville hot chicken strips and drunken goat burger and fries from The Rustik Fork Eatery in Riverside. | Photo by Rob Andrew

The Rustik Fork offers an eclectic seasonal menu created with local, organic ingredients. Start with Cajun-seasoned seared ‘ahi with avocado-mango relish or relatively tame Nashville hot chicken strips before moving on to the Wagyu steak with an Ethiopian-spiced sauce or the pan-seared salmon, a smart Mediterranean composition featuring hummus pesto, Israeli couscous, and pistachios. Burgers stuffed into branded buns can be paired with local beers, while vegan options include Chinese-inspired cauliflower tossed in an orange sauce that’s more sweet than spicy. Desserts range from a root-beer float to an organic dark chocolate brownie. For takeout meals, creative cocktails and wines from a nicely edited list can be packed to go. (951) 656-3555; rustikfork.com.

Orange County

Reviews by Miles Clement

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | San Diego & Environs

13. Social, Huntington Beach

Harissa chicken from Social in Huntington Beach.

Harissa chicken from Social in Huntington Beach. | Photo by Kevin Tackett/Julee Ho Media

Long a pubby, New American staple of Costa Mesa’s food scene, Social has expanded into Huntington Beach and kept much of the globe-trotting menu unchanged. Favorites still shine, like the roasted brussels sprouts drizzled with honey butter and studded with tasso ham, and the grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes, chicharrónes, and smoked romesco. There are a few specials unique to this location, too, like the restaurant’s clever spin on the now-essential whole-cauliflower entrée. Here, it’s fried and dressed like a crunch roll, slicked with dynamite sauce, sweet soy, and heaps of masago. Grilled Jidori chicken spiced with a harissa glaze and served over a bed of quinoa is a simple winner. Dessert is similarly basic but effective: airy tres leches cake, and house-made cheesecake with macerated strawberries. (714) 374-7715; socialrg.com.

14. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Santa Ana

Fried chicken, fried okra, coleslaw, and chess pie at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Santa Ana.

Fried chicken, fried okra, coleslaw, and chess pie at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Santa Ana. | Photo by Julee Ho

If you can’t make it to the summer cookout, bring the cookout home with a bucket or two from this Tennessee import. The star, of course, is Gus’s old-school, Southern-style fried chicken. There’s a hint of heat in the ultra-crunchy batter, but it’s not a full-on Nashville burn. The restaurant’s entire menu is available for takeout and delivery, so it’s easy to build a meal here. Consider an eight- or 20-piece chicken combo and a side order of fried okra, stewed collard greens, or creamy coleslaw. Pies are essential, so save room for at least a slice of Gus’s signature chess pie. The Southern staple is a rich vanilla custard pie that’s unerring in its simplicity. (949) 336-3936; gusfriedchicken.com.

15. Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen

Bhindi masala and Afghan-spiced lamb seekh kebabs at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton.

Bhindi masala and Afghan-spiced lamb seekh kebabs at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton. | Photo by Kevin Tackett/Julee Ho Media

Downtown Fullerton’s Khan Saab opened early last year, providing comfort from the tumult with elegant and memorable Indian and other South Asian cooking. There are street-style snacks to start, like the restaurant’s take on keema pav (toasted sliders stuffed with spiced Wagyu beef, chopped onion, and chile). Afghan-spiced lamb seekh kebabs and tandoori prawns seasoned with kalonji seeds are terrific. Bhindi masala (snappy okra and sweet onion in a deeply flavored tomato stew) makes an ideal pairing for any of Khan Saab’s curries. Along with a selection of halal Wagyu steaks, there’s a fanciful nonalcoholic bar that makes inventive mocktails, like the smoked Nigroni with Seedlip Spice 94 (a distilled nonalcoholic allspice and cardamom spirit), rose syrup, and Palo Santo bitters. (714) 853-1081; khansaaboc.com.

San Diego & environs

Reviews by Candice Woo

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County

16. The Market at HFS, Mira Mesa

Fish tacos and furikake-crusted ‘ahi from The Market at HFS in Mira Mesa.

Fish tacos and furikake-crusted ‘ahi from The Market at HFS in Mira Mesa. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Hawaiian Fresh Seafood is a direct-to-restaurant wholesaler and distributor, specializing in fish from the waters between California and Hawai‘i, and, in December 2019, the company launched a public-facing, on-site market to showcase its fresh catch. Now, a crowd gathers even before the doors of the Mira Mesa seafood counter open, eager for Hawai‘i-inspired eats that come as close as it gets locally to true island-style grinds. The poke is delicate and sparkling fresh, relying on pristine seafood and a few essential seasonings. Available à la carte or as a poke bowl with white or brown rice, the daily-changing roster includes simple shoyu ‘ahi poke flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil, spicy mayo salmon poke, and tako limu poke, an octopus-based version with seaweed. Other Hawaiian specialties include Spam musubi and butter mochi, as well as lunch specials that might include furikake-crusted ‘ahi tuna or fish tacos with pineapple salsa. In addition to pricey bluefin tuna, the seafood counter offers lesser-seen affordable and sustainable cuts such as the belly of wild-caught opah, or moonfish, which sears to a juicy and toothsome texture. (858) 282-0591; hawaiianfreshseafood.com.

17. Tribute Pizza, San Diego

Wood-fired pizzas and tiramisu at Tribute Pizza in San Diego.

Wood-fired pizzas and tiramisu at Tribute Pizza in San Diego. | Photo by Rob Andrew

What started out as an itinerant pizza pop-up has turned into one of San Diego’s most beloved pizzerias. Helmed by pizzaiolo Matthew Lyons, Tribute Pizza brings together traditional Neapolitan technique and fresh regional ingredients often sourced from the farmers market that shares the restaurant’s North Park neighborhood. The menu pays homage to some of the country’s top pizza practitioners, from the white pizza with a sesame seed crust and wood-roasted caramelized onions—a nod to Best Pizza in Brooklyn—to the Biancoverde, an arugula-topped pie that’s a signature of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, whose famed chef Chris Bianco is one of Lyons’ mentors. A favorite to pair with dry sparkling red wine is The Bees Mode, which layers soppressata, spicy honey, pickled sweet peppers, and ricotta on a base of mozzarella and organic crushed tomatoes. The 10-inch pies, which cook in a custom wood-fired oven, are also available with vegan toppings and a gluten-free crust. And don’t miss the focaccia bread, burnished in the wood-fired oven, or Tribute’s twist on classic tiramisu, spiked with coffee liqueur from a local distillery. (619) 450-4505; tributepizza.com.

18. ChiKo, Encinitas

Orange-ish Chicken from ChiKo in Encinitas.

Orange-ish Chicken from ChiKo in Encinitas. | Photo by Rob Andrew

This casual restaurant’s chef-owners bring years of experience cooking in Korean restaurants and Chinese kitchens to a not-so-serious menu that’s nonetheless rooted in the fundamentals of Asian cuisine. ChiKo was already an award winner in Washington, D.C., before it crossed the country to Encinitas. Among its most playful and popular dishes are the Orange-ish Chicken, a lighter take on the Chinese American standard that features tempura-fried chicken thigh tossed with Fresno chiles and candied mandarin oranges, and the furikake-buttered rice bowl topped with a soy sauce egg and Montreal-style smoked brisket. Also, don’t miss the spicy cumin lamb noodles and salmon with black bean butter and vegetables. (760) 230-1076; chikoca.com.

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