Southern California Essentials: 1st Edition

NYC will always have a special place in my heart, but the world is big and I’ve spent a lot of time in Southern California over the past year and a half. This lead me to create an essentials list (places I couldn’t live without) here in California as well. However, because this isn’t just one city that’s 13.4 miles long, and I refuse to consider California as either LA or SF, I’ve broken this list down into areas all the way from Santa Barbara County to Orange County. I’ll be creating more in-depth lists for different areas, but think of these as my staples throughout Southern California.

Note: You’ll notice that In-n-Out isn’t within this list because it’s everywhere in the sunny state, but it is 100% a MUST. Eating this iconic burger is like a right of passage when coming to the west, so you will go. And then you will go again and wish you had one right near you when you return to wherever you came from.

I have clickable links throughout to details of each restaurant, but to see EVERYWHERE I’ve eaten on the #gram in Southern California, click on those “County” header links 😉

Santa Barbara County

Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach

This is your quintessential seafood spot located right on the beach. The view speaks for itself, but the food and cocktails are equally stunning and delicious.

Favorites: Lobster Truffle Mac n’ Cheese, Uni Special with Raw Scallop, Blood Orange and Ponzu

Mony’s Taqueria

Come for the $1.95 tacos, stay for their unlimited salsa bar with at least 12 different types that are sensational.

Lily’s

Another amazing taco spot in SB, except you must be a meat-lover here. They use atypical parts of the animal, and these happen to be the best options. Trust me and order a lengua and cabeza taco.

Happy Canyon Vineyard Tasting Room

Santa Barbara is within wine country with so many different tasting rooms in town. I love Happy Canyon for their reds and rosé (when it’s in season). It’s hidden in this charming, old-town setting in the middle of Santa Barbara with various tasting rooms nearby so you can hop around.

Definitely add Cebada for their Dessert Blueberry Wine, which happens to be right around the corner

Ventura County

Kanda Sushi (Westlake Village)

High-caliber Omakase right in a strip mall where Chef Mitsu gets fresh seasonal fish delivered from places like Japan and Spain. You can let him know how much you want to spend, and he’ll curate a menu based on that

CiCi’s (Westlake Village)

They have an overwhelmingly large, diner-like menu, but this is a great brunch with something for everyone. Their Soufflé Pancakes are light and fluffy, and their Beef Panang Curry with Scrambled Egg over Rice is fantastic. I also actually really dig their Happy Hour.

Sushi Oaks (Thousand Oaks)

We all have our local favorites, and Sushi Oaks is my quality go-to sushi spot in town. Don’t let its strip mall location deter you. Take note: most fantastic places in Southern California tend to be located in unassuming strip malls.

Mendocino Farms (Westlake Village/All around southern California)

The best sandwiches hands down. Whenever I’m back on the east, I crave this Southern California (and now northern) chain. These guys source high-quality and sustainable ingredients from farms that they will gladly tell you all about. They do classics better and do original creations that you didn’t realize you absolutely need in life. Mendocino also has the NICEST employees, it’s actually slightly creepy.

Favorites: Peruvian Steak Sandwich, Prosciutto & Mary’s Chicken, A Sandwich Study of Heat, The Hot Italian, Mendoza’s Chimichurri Steak on Pretzel

Bad Ass Tacos (Thousand Oaks)

Yet another quality taco spot, each being $1.75. Favorites: Al Pastor, Short Rib, Lengua, Cabeza

LA County:

Seafood City (various LA locations and OC locations)

Comfort Filipino food served “turo-turo” style from a supermarket. Think of it like a buffet with all the options ready, tempting you to choose them. For $8.99, you get 2 entrée choices plus rice or noodles, making an excellent Filipino combo. For breakfast, it’s $3.99 for a protein, garlic rice, and egg.

Din Tai Fung (various locations)

XLB aka xiao long bao aka some of the best soup dumplings you can have. Period. They also pristinely execute all their other dishes like the Shrimp & Pork Spicy Wontons, Pork Chop Fried Rice and Garlic Green Beans. My favorite location is in Costa Mesa for their large menu.

Jon & Vinny’s (Fairfax)

One of my favorite Italian spots in LA for 1) the modern and fun vibes and 2) the simply outstanding Italian. Their playlist is also my jam: think lots of Drake and Spotify’s Top Hip Hop

Eat Chego (Chinatown)

Go to Eat Chego for one reason: Chubby Pork Belly Bowl. Done and done.

Howlin’ Rays (Chinatown)

Hottest chicken in LA, figuratively and literally. They are known for their hour long wait times at any time of day and super spicy howlin chicken, but Howlin’ Rays truly is tremendous. While waiting on line, you can get Chego to nosh on (in the same Far East Plaza) and then order the Medium Chicken Sando and some regular fried chicken – the spice is real, so be careful. They update their wait times (and sometimes have sick giveaways) on their social media all day

Egg Slut (various locations)

Egg sandwiches brought to the next level. Buttery, creamy, and worth the hype. As my brother says, “You’ll feel like a little slut eating this, and it will feel so good.”

Sweetfin Poké (various locations)

The best poké outside of Hawaii IMHO. (IMHO – in my honest opinion, an acronym that I just figured out a couple weeks ago)

Porto’s Bakery (various LA and OC locations)

It doesn’t matter what time or which day you go, this place is always PACKED. For good reason. Porto’s is known for their famous 85 cent cheese rolls, which you 100% have to get, but I think everything else is equally excellent.

Other must orders: Dulce de Leche Kisses, Potato Ball, Dulce de Leche Latte (Hot or Iced), and any/all of their sandwiches and rice plates.

Cha Cha Chicken (Santa Monica)

Jamaican Jerk Chicken at a low key, BYOB spot in Santa Monica. Also make sure to get their homemade bean dip and chips at this tropical, laidback gem.

Sushi Bar LA (Encino)

17 Course Omakase for $125/person that takes from Japanese culinary tradition and cultural custom of excellent service but takes creative liberty when it comes to the food to create things like Torched Bone Marrow Nigiri and Uni Marshmallow Nigiri.

Cholada Thai Café (Malibu)

My favorite Thai place in LA. Everything is solid, super comforting and is infused with that home-cooked feeling you simply can’t buy.

Favorites: Tom Yum Soup, Golden Bags, Sapalod Curry, Nam Sod Kaw Tod, Panang Sea Bass, Pad Thai, Mango Sticky Rice (a must when it’s in season)

Malibu Farm (Malibu)

I go here on average once a month. It is the epitome of a quintessential Southern California dining experience. Fresh, simple, quality, and farm-to-table, where the difference is in the quality of produce. Dining on Malibu Pier overlooking the Pacific doesn’t hurt either. 

Favorites for breakfast: Breakfast Burrito, Farm scrambled eggs + smoked salmon

Favorites for lunch or dinner: Chicken Ricotta Bacon Burger, Cauliflower Crust Pizza, Spaghetti Squash Lasagna, Soy-Ginger Skirt Steak

Favorite Cocktails: The Papaya and The Grapefruit

Republiqué (La Brea)

Republiqué is an LA institution. From the baked goods to the simple, French/Italian focused food (which comes from Walter Manzke) infused with Asian influence (coming from his Filipino wife), everything is great in this remodeled chapel turned restaurant.

Favorites: Mushroom Toast, Kimchi Fried Rice, Today’s Quiche, whatever pasta they have on menu, Chocolate Caramel Sea Salt Cake

Tsujita (various locations)

I like Tsujita’s solid, dependable ramen and I LOVE their Dan Dan Noodles, Tokyo Style with medium spice.

Cal Mare (Beverly Hills)

Southern Italian x California cuisine at its finest – fused perfectly together to create a great dining experience.

Parks BBQ (Koreatown)

HIGH quality KBBQ in Koreatown. It’s the best, and the price reflects that.

Quarters BBQ (Koreatown)

If you don’t want to break the bank but still want delicious KBBQ, Quarters is your go-to because you will pay a quarter of the price, and it will still be great. Just expect a long wait, especially on the weekend.

Sun Nong Dan (KTown and San Gabriel Valley)

Classic Korean Braised Beef Short Ribs that will warm your soul.

Gus’ Fried Chicken (Burbank and LA)

Fantastic southern Fried Chicken that’s super crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. You must save room for their Chocolate Chess Pie.

Bavel (DTLA – Arts District)

The BEST Mediterranean restaurant I’ve ever been to and one of the best restaurants overall. LA’s newest hotspot is packed for dinner every night, and it’s because it’s simply sensational

Favorites: ALL the carbs – the pita, fried pita, and buckwheat loaf are to die for ; Hummus, Farm Cheese, Grilled Prawns, Oyster Mushroom Kebab

Marisco Jalisco (LA)

Shrimp Tacos wrapped in a crunch fried tortilla topped with salsa and avocado. That is all you need from this seafood taco truck.

Leo’s Taco Truck (LA)

The CLASSIC Al Pastor Tacos at Leo’s truly are superior. Try not to drool when you watch them shave that rotating, glistening meat in front of you.

Salt & Straw (various but my favorite is Venice)

Fantastic, unique (sometimes too unique) small-bath ice cream; if you’re looking for classic plain Jane flavors, you won’t find too many of that here, but it is simply some of the best out there.

Gjelina (Venice)

They praise seasonal vegetables here at Gjelina, and they prepare them beautifully. I also really like their wood-fired pizzas at this Venice hot-spot.

Orange County:

242 Café Fusion (Laguna Beach)

Probably the most creative sushi you can ever find at this small hidden gem on North Coast Highway. Chef and owner Miki is an artist by nature and creates beautiful and innovative masterpieces with Japanese ingredients as her canvas and inspiration. I love everything I’ve had here, each dish being its own beauty of dynamic flavors.

Must Order: Seared Foie Gras and Toro Nigiri, Truffle and Porcini Eel Nigiri, Rainbow Cloud Scallop and Shrimp Sashimi, Sexy Handroll, Laguna Canyon Roll, Hot Rock Roll, Spicy Jewelry Roll

Another Kind Café (Laguna Beach)

This family-owned and run Vietnamese spot takes their childhood directly into this restaurant, and the result is wonderful.

Laguna Beach Wine Gallery (Laguna Beach)

Owner Chris Olsen is so knowledgeable about wonderful wines and has an extensive and excellent list. Let him guide you to find the perfect glass for you to fall in love with.

Sapphire Laguna (Laguna Beach)

Global-inspired cuisine is the thing at Sapphire, and Chef and Owner Azmin curates a fantastic seasonal menu that changes every four weeks. I’ve been for both brunch and lunch, and it’s always quality and creative.

Driftwood Kitchen / The Deck (Laguna Beach)

In my opinion, one of the best oceanfront dining options in Laguna, where you get premium views, without paying a premium or sacrificing the quality of food and drinks. The Deck is a bit more informal, while Driftwood Kitchen is a bit more posh, so just choose your preference.

Driftwood Favorites: Grilled Spanish Octopus, Lobster Spaghetti Carbonara Rustichella D’Abruzzo

The Deck Favorites: Oysters, Sea Bass

Skyloft (Laguna Beach)

My favorite rooftop happy hour option in Laguna with excellent cocktails, bites, and vibes. They also happen to have a fantastic brunch as well.
Favorites: Bourbon Mimosa, Georgia Peach Cobbler, Loco Okimoto (which is a brunch item but you can order this at any time of day), Breakfast Sandwich, Stuffed Avocado

Sidecar Doughnuts (Costa Mesa)

The best doughnuts. That is all. They bake them fresh every hour, and they are just super moist, perfectly cakey without being too dense, and SO DAMN GOOD.
Favorites: Huckleberry, Butter & Salt, Basil Eggs Benedict

Urth Caffe (various LA and OC locations)

Premium organic coffee, tea, and healthy food options. The menu is large and can be overwhelming, but it’s all pretty great. I LOVE the Rising Boba Sun and Spanish Latte.

NOTABLE MENTIONS:

These are the places that I’ve been to recently and LOVED, but I just can’t put on here because I’ve only been once and almost always need to vet places multiple times

  • The Ramen Joint (LA): fantastic ramen spot right near LAX
  • Eat Jame (LA): another excellent option right near LAX in El Segundo. The Italian food here is classically delicious
  • Marugame Udon (LA): the Chipotle of Japanese udon and tempura; it’s incredible
  • Jeong Yuk Jeom Korean BBQ (LA): dry-aged quality meat at this fantastic KBBQ spot
  • Rice Bar (LA): flavorful and modern Filipino rice bowls in DTLA
Stay hungry,

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