The best restaurants in downtown L.A.

Certain pockets of downtown Los Angeles feel like a real, contained, thriving city. They are single city blocks dense with storefronts, restaurants, bars, apartments and foot traffic.

The stretch of Broadway between 3rd and 4th streets, the one that houses Grand Central Market, the DTLA Superette, a theater, multiple restaurants, bars and a store that sells discount yoga pants, is one of those prized pockets.

It’s where I found my new favorite sandwich, a French-Mexican creation served from a counter in front of a bar with a speakeasy dive bar in the back, which I happened to walk by on my way to buy some butter from a cheese shop before my reservation at a Korean tasting-menu restaurant. The only thing that could make that sentence more L.A. is if I introduced the freeways I took to get there. That would be the 210 to the 134 to the 2 to the 5 to the 110. Really.

But it’s gems like this that make me grateful to live in Los Angeles, where a beef bourguignon torta exists, and just makes sense.

Beef bourguignon torta from Fabby’s Sandwicherie

The beef bourguignon torta from Fabby’s Sandwicherie in downtown L.A.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s very Mexican, very Los Angeles and very French in its essence,” Alejandro Guzmán says of his small sandwich shop, where he also serves beef tartare on a paper plate.

Guzmán, who has cooked at Le Comptoir and La Cha Cha Cha, deftly navigates the tiny kitchen at Fabby’s Sandwicherie, assembling tortas and toasting them in a panini press.

After moving to the U.S. from Mexico City, his first job was in his mother’s restaurant in North Hollywood, washing dishes, preparing and slicing carne asada.

“That’s how I got my allowance and how I paid my way for prom and stuff when I was in school,” he says. “I told myself I’d never go back to a kitchen and here I am in a kitchen, naming the restaurant after her.”

The day’s tortas are displayed like the dessert tray some chain restaurants still bring out after dinner. They sit on top of a glass case that holds dozens of birote, salted, naturally leavened demi-baguettes from Bakers Kneaded.

I spied the bread and sandwiches from the window and, with only 50 minutes until my dinner reservation, stopped in to share a beef bourguignon torta with my dinner companion.

Guzmán makes what he describes as a fairly traditional Bourguignon, though he swaps out the French wine for a Grenache blend from Valle de Guadalupe. And he braises the beef for 24 hours, finishing it with butter to polish off any of the gaminess that may come from a long braise. What’s left is juicy, dark and concentrated. You can taste the wine. You can taste the beef.

Before he layers the meat onto the bread, he pipes on a Joel Robuchon-style potato puree that’s equal parts butter and potato. He adds stretchy strands of Oaxaca cheese and quick-pickled carrots, cut into quarters for a powerful punch of acid and salt.

The heat from the panini press crisps the already crusty baguette and melts the buttery potatoes into the rest of the sandwich. It’s unadulterated decadence between two boats of bread.

Guzmán serves the torta with a cup of salsa roja based on a recipe he’s been making since he worked at his mother’s restaurant. It’s garlicky and a little sweet, with a jolt of heat from whole chiles de árbol.

“The salsa roja is what really binds it all together as a Mexican dish,” he says.

The sandwiches, the tartare and whatever else Guzmán is cooking are available from noon to midnight. It’s an ideal place to visit before or after a drink at the two bars in the back of the restaurant. He’s also serving a weekend-only brunch tasting menu out of the Mignon Wine bar nearby. Because, why not?

Nem khao and pieng xeen from Yum Sະlut

Pieng Xeen Lao grilled beef platter from Yum Sະlut in downtown L.A.

Pieng Xeen Lao grilled beef platter from Yum Sະlut in downtown L.A.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Less than a mile north in Chinatown, you’ll find a Laotian pop-up-turned-restaurant operating out of half of the Lokels Only kitchen space alongside a soul food restaurant.

This is where Tharathip Soulisak is making the food that reminds him of his mother’s cooking. Both his parents are refugees from Laos who moved to Virginia in the late 1970s. When Soulisak landed in California, he missed his mother’s food.

“I would go to a Thai restaurant and try to get them to modify Thai dishes to taste a little more Lao,” he said.

Thailand and Laos share a border, with many dishes overlapping with similar flavors and ingredients. “But it never hit the spot,” he says.

Soulisak started making his own Laotian food, cooking for friends and eventually becoming a chef for hire. He moved into the Lokels Only space in March.

The nem khao is the dish on everyone’s table, more of an elaborate platter than a plate of food. About half of the real estate is occupied by a mound of crispy rice studded with bites of cured pork, peanuts, pork skin and green onion. The other half is a mess of tangled cilantro and mint over leaves of lettuce.

Soulisak cooks the rice in a liquid fortified with red curry paste, sugar and salt. After it’s cooked and cooled, he forms the rice into balls, deep fries them, then breaks them apart. The crumbles of fried rice are seasoned with fish sauce, sugar, lemongrass, galangal, makrut and shallots.

It’s easy to become distracted by the rice and forget about the mountain of lettuce and herbs. The rice is teeming with the complex sourness of the pork and the lemongrass, and with the distinct pungent funk of fish sauce. It’s wonderful by the forkful on its own, but the lettuce wraps are half the fun. Put a mound of the rice mixture onto the lettuce, load it up with herbs and dunk into one of many of the sauces that arrive on the condiment cart the staff pushes up to each table.

Soulisak’s chile crunch, made with various aromatics, including Sichuan peppercorns fried in pork fat, is hard to resist. You may end up with a spoonful on everything.

I’ll recommend the pieng xeen too. The platter of grilled beef is accompanied by sticky rice and a bowl of yum sະlut, a green salad. The rib-eye is marinated for at least a full day in lemongrass, oyster sauce, sugar, garlic and coriander. It’s grilled and served with two sauces. The first is an orange-hued fish sauce vinaigrette Soulisak calls “crack sauce.” The second is jeow bee, a variation on the first, with the addition of beef bile.

“This is the most traditional sauce that you see those guys who hang out around the grill at someone’s house eating,” he says. “We add a little sugar so it’s not too strong for people.”

The sauce has an austere beefiness to it, with a sharp bitter bite and plenty of chile heat. Bring on the beef bile!

Paneer pinwheels and duck birria tacos from Baar Baar

Three paneer pinwheels in a pool of sauce from Baar Barr in downtown L.A.

Paneer pinwheels from Baar Barr in downtown L.A.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re anywhere near Arena, be sure to fit in a meal at Baar Baar, the Los Angeles outpost of chef Sujan Sarkar’s New York Indian restaurant.

On a recent evening, nearly every seat was taken. Many diners were clad in saris saturated in every color of the rainbow. The energy and good vibes from a large party in the back room permeated throughout the dining room.

Start the evening with an order of the Kashmiri duck birria tacos, one of the dishes exclusive to the Los Angeles location.

“L.A. is big on tacos,” Sarkar says. “Even Nobu has a taco. We wanted to do tacos, but for it to make sense.”

The braised duck meat is tucked into a crisp corn tortilla with shredded cheddar cheese, red onion and cilantro. On the side is a cup of the braising liquid, rich and warm with fenugreek seeds, cardamom and cinnamon.

Duck birria tacos from Baar Baar in downtown.

Duck birria tacos from Baar Baar in downtown.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Sarkar says he plans to make significant changes to the menu in January, but the tacos will remain, as will the paneer pinwheels.

“If we had a signature dish, this would be it,” Sarkar says. “Paneer is one of the staples in India. What you get here is not the same, though. We wanted to do something that’s as close to the paneer in India.”

Sarkar settled on pinwheels of cheese and filling, fashioned out of slivers of paneer. He fills the cheese with ground almond and pistachio, onion, cilantro, green chile and a house-made garam masala. The cheese and nuts are rolled into a pinwheel cake that’s steamed and seared before service. The cheese takes on the texture of al dente pasta, and the filling is reminiscent of a savory baklava.

The pinwheels come swimming in a creamy, warmly spiced tomato gravy thickened with cashew and heavy cream. There’s plenty to repurpose as a dipping sauce for the bowl of naan you should order for the table.

Where to eat in downtown L.A. right now

Fabby’s Sandwicherie, 351 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (818) 796-3897
Yum Sະlut, 635 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (818) 795-5384
Baar Baar, 705 W. 9th St., Los Angeles, (213) 266-8989,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *