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A Movable Beast: L.A. Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants

LA Weekly – View Online

View more photos in Anne Fishbein’s slideshow, “99 Essential Restaurants 2010.”

When is a restaurant not a restaurant? It’s not a rhetorical question, actually, not this year. I really don’t know. Because just as parts of Los Angeles have become familiar, through the miracle of film, as suburban Connecticut, the African jungle, Gotham City and a Korean battlefield circa 1954, to the point that it is impossible to go to the actual DMZ and not be a little disappointed that it doesn’t look enough like the Malibu hills, some of the most interesting Los Angeles restaurants at the moment are as illusory as light on a screen.

Glazed pork-belly adobo for lunch? Check your Twitter feed. The truck that serves it may be around the corner or it may be two counties away. The cocktailian whose mezcal drinks you crave shifts venues more often than an NBA team on the road. Restlessness has long been a local characteristic, and we were famous for drive-ins, dine-and-dash hash houses and takeout windows long before the advent of tapas trucks and pedal-powered popsicle carts.

The best enchiladas I’ve ever tasted were made by a woman whose makeshift stand occasionally pops up around the corner from a more established stand whose location I can never quite figure out. The most celebrated young chef in Los Angeles imports his restaurant into a different kitchen every couple of months, like a soufflé-happy hermit crab inhabiting a new shell. At one of the most popular new places in town, your dinner may be prepared one night by one of the most famous chefs in Mexico; the next by a moonlighting lackey from a place you wouldn’t eat at with somebody else’s mouth.

Is the restaurant the empty taqueria where the cook watches Lucha Librebetween customers, or is it that taqueria’s truck out in the parking lot, with lines stretching down the block? Is reality the hamachi with pig’s foot that you eat at a famous restaurant, or is it that same hamachi with pig’s foot handed over with a smile at a charity benefit buffet?

The mantra of Local, Seasonal, Sustainable, Organic has become so persistent in Los Angeles, and the crush of chefs at the farmers market is so pervasive, that the menus at some restaurants seem almost identical to one another at certain times of the year, and completely different from their own menus in spring. Heraclitus once wrote that it is impossible to step in the same river twice. In Los Angeles, it can be nearly impossible to eat in the same restaurant twice.

This is, I believe, what the economists call creative destruction. And it is not impossible here to experience extremes — restaurants that are born and die in a single evening; restaurants in suburbs so distant that they may as well be theoretical; restaurants so hard to get into that they may not actually exist outside of blogs.

Los Angeles is where the modern restaurant was born, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, and we’re too far gone to stop now.

Bulgarini Gelato
“Avenue to the Sky,” it was once called, a broad, swift thoroughfare rising from the Pasadena business district up to the steep San Gabriel Mountains. Henry Ford himself used to test the engines of his cars against Lake Avenue’s steep upper grade. And as near the top as any business in Altadena, tucked in behind an auto parts store, is Bulgarini Gelato, the most improbable ice cream store in California, almost a gelato speakeasy, where the gelati are labeled only in Italian and the best flavors include Florentine chocolate speckled with sea salt and a goat-milk gelato with roasted cacao nibs that could double as a cheese course. The proprietor, soccer-mad Roman expat Leo Bulgarini, has been known to pull his delicious sorbetti from the menus of restaurants that fail to come up to his standards. But the gelateria is a singular, perfect blossom: gelato powerfully flavored with the pistachios he hand-carries back from Bronte, vibrant peach sorbetto, yogurt gelato scented with Tuscan olive oil, and dark, smoky chocolate gelati flavored with orange peel, with fresh hazelnuts or with rum. In the summer, he screens movies on the patio outside his shop, because as everyone knows, nothing goes better with a showing of La Dolce Vita than a dish of Santa Rosa plum sorbet. 749 E. Altadena Drive, Altadena. (626) 791-6174,bulgarinigelato.com. Wed.-Thurs., noon-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Takeout. Location map here.