A sense of relief and renewal pervades Downtown.
The latest pandemic surge has abated dramatically, in perfect time with the advent of spring. The ebullient mood is reflected in a new, more positive surge: an exciting wave of new restaurants has opened for this season — and there are more yet to come.
Following is a partial and eclectic list of bright new eateries sprouting on the already colorful landscape of Downtown’s vibrant restaurant scene.
712 S. Santa Fe Avenue
The husband-and-wife team of Katianna and John Hong opened its now highly lauded Yangban Society in January.
In a few short months, the creative venue has garnered positive critical plaudits and a burgeoning loyal following among Downtown’s ravenous roving foodies.
Conceived as an elevated Korean deli and convenience mart, Yang Ban Society is an ode to the chefs’ respective backgrounds as Korean Americans and their impressive resumes.
The couple met while working at Josiah Citrin’s Melisse in Santa Monica. Katianna also cooked at Napa’s Restaurant at Meadowood, which earned three Michelin stars. She ultimately became chef de cuisine under Christopher Kostow. John Hong then assumed her position when Katianna led the opening of Kostow’s more casual turn at Charter Oak.
That said, their inspiration is articulated with the mindful detail expected from two gifted chefs. The food menu here runs the gamut of simple deli items to full dinner entrees.
The former category features more than a dozen items, including soy eggs with mirin, onion, garlic and assorted mushrooms; blistered snap peas with everything bagel seasoning, soy and lemon; chilled “dotori” acorn noodles, roasted Korean seaweed, fried garlic, scallions and pickled perilla seed in a shirodashi vinaigrette; and a kimchi pozole, a stew of pork belly and aged kimchi with Rancho Gordo hominy.
There is also an organic egg salad, with chives and dill, and a smoked trout spread with fresh horseradish root and pea leaves.
Three salads are offered as well, notably including a kimchi “ppang” panzanella with fried ppang croutons, basil, arugula, red onion, housemade bacon and a kimchi vinaigrette.
Kitchen specials indicate more substantial fare: braised beef short rib with roasted mushrooms; baked sea bream with chili daikon paste and toasted breadcrumbs; congee pot pie with roasted chicken stock, short grain rice, ginger and white pepper; yangban wings with a soy-garlic glaze; and pork belly with roasted kimchi fried rice.
Canned and bottled cocktails, wines, beer and spirits are aplenty. But don’t forget the convenience mart, where sundry retail items are for sale — artisanal soaps, incense and candles; bamboo-handled toothbrushes and silk dental floss; scented hand sanitizers and herbal bug spray; natural lip balms and face masks. It’s one-stop shopping and eating at Yangban Society.
Suffice it to say, this is not a conventional Korean deli.
777 Alameda Street
Building 1, Suite 114
Chef Jon Yao and his partners Nikki Reginaldo and Ryan Bailey opened the first iteration of Kato on the bustling Asian dining strip of Sawtelle Boulevard in 2016.
Yao’s winning Taiwanese-influenced tasting menu format quickly took the district by storm, resulting in awards and recognition, including a Michelin star. Unfortunately, the pandemic pivot to takeout and delivery did not support Yao’s unique vision and the location shuttered.
Fortunately for Downtown’s fine dining denizens, Kato’s new location opened in early February at ROW DTLA. This is not a trivial outing. When Kato opened on Sawtelle, Yao’s tasting course was priced under $100 and caused a sensation for its relative accessibility. Times change. The current tasting menu is priced at $225 with a choice of three beverage flights: The wine flight is an additional $125, the vintage wine flight is $175, and the alcohol-free flight is a mere $75. An obligatory 18% service charge is added as well. Regardless, Yao has proved himself worthy.
Yao’s tasting menu evolves. Courses have included charcoal-grilled A5 wagyu strip loin with braised tendon, potatoes and black garlic; a “donut” stuffed with Iberico ham topped with Santa Barbara uni and brown butter; a fresh vegetable course with edible flowers and Taiwanese seasoning; and a jujube dessert with muscovado, scorched ice cream and gold flakes.
Everything tastes better with gold flakes.
Kato books quickly, so patience is required when procuring a table. Kato is better off in its move Downtown, and Downtown’s fine dining scene is better off with this exciting new arrival.
124 W. Fourth Street
Pizza is having an extended moment across the city. The latest turn Downtown is the recent February opening of Pi LA. It’s the brainchild of Octavio Becerra and, notably, Fred Eric.
Eric is the pioneering chef and serial restaurateur behind the long-beloved Fred 62 in Los Feliz.
Touting “Los Angeles-style pizza,” Pi LA was inspired during a fit of pandemic boredom for Eric, when he began experimenting with pizza dough. He uses sprouted flour, which has less gluten, and kombu water for flavor. The dough is then cured for 72 hours, resulting in the crust’s crispy structure.
Despite its claim to native authenticity, Pi LA’s pies owe a modest debt to Detroit. These pizzas are baked and served in square pans. The pizzas can be ordered whole ($21) or in a half portion ($13).
Each of the pies is named after a classic car model: the GTX Muscle Car features cupped pepperoni, fennel pollen sausage, roasted red onions and fresh mozzarella; the Impala lowrider is topped with chicken mole, roasted pumpkin and Oaxacan melting cheese.
More exotic takes include the Galaxie with a Mediterranean twist of baba ganoush and hummus; the Love Bug with a potato gratin, truffle-infused gruyere cheese sauce, “jambon ham snow” and onion confit; and the Wolfie’s Packard sports smoked salmon, cream cheese, cherry tomatoes with dill and chives.
The dining room was designed by famed street artist Shepard Fairey, and the eclectic take on pan pizza is undeniably intriguing. Eric always delivers a spirit of fun to his projects, and now Downtown can join the party.
923 E. Third Street, Suite 109
Opened on Feb. 23, Camphor boasts two canny and highly skilled young chefs, Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George. The pair met in Bangkok, while they worked the stoves at Blue, created by the renowned master French chef Alain Ducasse.
Boonthanakit already marked local territory, as pastry chef at chef Mei Lin’s Nightshade (which formerly occupied the site where Camphor has just opened). George only recently moved to Los Angeles from Thailand, and he directly collaborated with Boonthanakit on devising Camphor’s menu.
That menu presents highly elevated bistro fare with distinct South Asian inflections. Caviar served with blini and pomme souffle is listed under the snacks heading, along with “gunpowder” baby shrimp.
Starters include oysters served with an amaretto mignonette, clams in garlic and parsley butter, steak tartare with herb tempura, and a “barbajuan” fritter of Dungeness crab.
The five salads and side dishes offered are listed as garden salad, glazed vegetables with truffle, lentils and lamb, sauteed spinach, and asparagus and bearnaise.
The current six main dishes are mussels with white wine and bacon, mushroom with rice and madeira, chicken with thyme and jus, scallop “demi lune,” lobster in a coral bisque, and steak au poivre. There are five desserts as well, notably a savarin with a choice of alcohol accompaniment.
Suffice it say, the menu is presented in lower-case lettering, cryptically clipped descriptions and no pricing. When dining here, the point is that the two talented young chefs in back are fully in control and that a simple surrender to excellence is the wisest approach.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall
141 S. Grand Avenue
One of the most highly anticipated openings this season was the late-March launch of Asterid with chef Ray Garcia at the helm.
A native Angeleno, Garcia is best known locally for his imaginative and well-received riffs at Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria, as well as Viva! at Resorts World Las Vegas. On the way to Asterid, he garnered the title of chef of the year from Esquire magazine.
Named for the largest family of flowering plants, Asterid’s menu, as devised by Garcia, emphasizes fresh local produce and a plant-forward sensibility.
Highlighted menu items include a sunchoke rosti, with sunflower creme fraiche and strawberry pepper jam ($37); a risotto of red beet carnaroli and fresh dill ($25); lamb shank served with charred eggplant puree, warm flatbread and pickled chiles ($67); and maitake mushrooms served with turmeric aioli, fried lemon and parsley ($21). Dessert options include a strawberry shortcake featuring Harry’s Berries on hibiscus angel food cake ($14).
Formerly with Broken Spanish, Garcia’s beverage director, Chris Chernock, has devised a menu of rejiggered classic cocktails as well as notable zero-proof options. These include a daiquiri with Oaxacan rum as well as a zero-proof coconut milk punch.
With Asterid’s arrival at Disney Hall and Frank Gehry’s new The Grand development looming across the street, Bunker Hill has quickly come back to life.
Smoke City Char Bar
899 Traction Avenue
This nouvelle smokehouse just opened March 25 in the Arts District. Executive chef Omari Williams mans the coals here. Arts District-based designer Mary Dailinger created an airy, light-filled space decorated with artwork, including a large hanging sculpture over the dining room.
Williams smokes everything on-site. The usual suspects here: brisket, tritip, pulled pork and turkey. However, fish, vegetarian and vegan options can also be identified, including salmon and jackfruit preps. All of the main dishes are served with a choice of house-made sauces like cayenne honey, molasses harissa, soy ginger and mustard cider.
Williams’ menu concept is based on a “mix-and-match” style, where diners choose a smoked protein that can be served as a plate, sandwich or salad along with scratch-made sides.
The menu highlights are sandwiches served on a brioche bun with Havarti cheese and napa cabbage slaw or on a fresh ciabatta roll with sharp cheddar, butter lettuce and pickled red onion.
Recommended salad options: the Southern style with baby kale and romaine, golden beets, shaved fennel, heirloom tomatoes, smoked chartered corn and feta cheese; or the California cobb featuring kale, butter lettuce, hard-boiled egg, avocado, cucumber and radish.
The dressings are creative: mustard vinaigrette, honey balsamic, smoked jalapeno ranch and gorgonzola cream.
Williams’ sensibility and approach here is worth noting. Regional authenticity often becomes the standard by which barbecue and smoked meat is evaluated and judged. At Smoke City, there is no pretension to such concerns. A sense of playful creativity and a simple focus on deliciousness wafts through the air here.
Benny Boy Brewing
1821 N. Daly Street
Local craft breweries have proliferated and thrived across Los Angeles over the past 10 years or so. However, LA’s first combined brewery and cidery just opened in nearby Lincoln Heights on March 26.
The husband-and-wife team of Ben Farber and Chelsey Rosetter spent more than five years exhaustively researching old-school European fermentation and brewing techniques. They adapted these techniques using modern equipment.
The venue produces, by its own admission, “clean, dry ciders and classic European-inspired beers with a California twist.” Farber is the brewmaster, and he avidly eschews the use of additives in the brewing process. Unprocessed whole flower hops are employed in every brewing formula. The ancient ingredients of time and gravity produce clear, naturally carbonated beers.
“Flagship” beers here are Backyard Basil (5% ABV), a saison brewed with fresh basil; Midnight Swim (8% ABV), a Belgian dark ale; Other Lover (5% ABV), a “dry table beer” with pilsner malt; and Desert champagne (4.6% ABV), a sour Gose style with fresh prickly pear and sage.
The primary house hard cider is the Dry Cider (7.8% ABV). It’s made with 100% raw apple juice fresh pressed from the orchard. A selection of natural wines is offered on tap, courtesy of a collaboration with Pali Wine Co. There is also a pommeau (17% ABV), produced with Downtown’s The Spirit Guild. It’s made with apple brandy and premium apple juice that is blended and barrel-aged for three years.
Benny Boy Brewing boasts an expansive, 3,200-square-foot brewery and tank bar with a 55-foot bar topped with reclaimed wood and direct taps. The cider house is 1,200 square feet with barrel walls and an apple tree installation featuring red globe lights hanging from rafter branches.
The two buildings are connected by a landscaped beer and cider garden, with lounge seating, fire pits and occasional pop-up food vendors. It’s the beer garden Downtown has always wanted.
Polanco Modern Mexican Steakhouse
840 S. Spring Street
The April 15 opening of Polanco Modern Mexican Steakhouse on Spring Street has been in the works for some time. The Downtown project’s status has been buzzing since before the pandemic. It also represents the second Polanco, following on the successful launch last May of the Hawthorne location.
More important to note is that Polanco’s executive chef is the esteemed Daniel Godinez. A stalwart on the scene in Orange County, Godinez helped pioneer elevated haute Mexican cuisine locally. His first venture in the greater Los Angeles area was the 2016 opening of the popular and elegant Maestro in Pasadena.
At the new Polanco, expect a superior steakhouse experience with Mexican flair. Highlighted menu options include starters of oysters, guacamole, ceviche, aguachile and a tostada of ahi tuna chicharron.
Reliable favorites are here, too, like Caesar salad and a wedge with blue cheese and bacon.
Hot starters include street corn smeared with chipotle ranch, cotija cheese and chili dust; Spanish octopus with frijoles de olla and green onions; and a queso fundido of molten Oaxacan cheese and fresh chorizo.
Main dishes of scallops and branzino are here, as are “traditional” chicken tinga enchiladas and pork carnitas with burnt avocado.
That said, it’s a steakhouse. There are the big-ticket tomahawks and porterhouse options as well as ribeye, hanger and filet mignon. Slightly more exotic cuts are an outside skirt and a pork tomahawk chop. All the meat mains are served with roasted cabbage, onions and serrano chiles with a bean puree and salsa verde.
Under Godinez’s guidance, Polanco promises a steakhouse the way Downtown eaters want to eat right now.
777 S. Alameda Street – Arts District
The bustling and hugely popular Sunday food fair at ROW DTLA reopened in January with more than 60 food and 20 craft vendors.
The event has served as an impressively effective incubator for new food pop-ups that have graduated to brick-and-mortar operations. Fresh developments at Smorgasburg can indicate impending hot trends and bold new flavors. Two brand-new food purveyors were added in March.
Comfy Pup, offering Midwestern comfort food, started as a pop-up inside 1802 Roasters on Cypress Avenue. Its fare is typified by the “River Grove”-style hot dog, which is largely a classic Chicago dog slathered with mustard, bright green relish, chopped fresh onions, sport peppers and celery salt.
Dog-R LA, the other new contender at Smorgasburg, also features the timeless tube steak. Featuring Venezuelan-style hot dogs, Dog-R LA and its owner, Gerardo Pacheco, serve chicken, pork and beef sausages. A plant-based option is in the works. Served in the style found in Caracas and Valencia, the “classic Venezuelan” bears no resemblance to Chicago. The sausage is topped with hot corn, shredded cabbage, onion and carrot, crispy potato sticks and cilantro. A combination of ketchup, mayo, garlic aioli and cheese sauce is mopped on, before being covered in cheddar cheese. It’s all jammed inside a fresh Italian roll.
Hot dogs and hard ciders, kimchi pozole, pan pizza and gold flakes. It’s all new now to Downtown diners and the year has only just begun. Spring has definitely sprung. Stay hungry!