Kerstin Kühn: LA’s best casual chains

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 29th August 2014
This is the latest in a series of monthly blogs by LA-based food writer and former restaurant editor of Caterer and Hotelkeeper, Kerstin Kühn, otherwise known as La Goulue who this month talks about LA food chains. Los Angeles may be synonymous around the world with Hollywood glamour and the extravagant restaurants and bars of Beverly Hills but it’s not all about high-end luxury, especially when it comes to eating out.   Some of the best restaurants in LA are at the casual end of the market and the city is the USA’s biggest hotspot for budding food chains that push the boundaries and go beyond the norm.   Forget greasy burgers, fried chicken and pizza: LA is home to a growing movement of casual dining labelled “fast fine”: operators, who are offering an elevated emphasis on food, hospitality and interior design while still maintaining the convenience and price point of a fast casual restaurant.   By focusing on made-to-order dishes, using fresh, local and often organic ingredients, and borrowing cooking techniques from fine dining kitchens, these restaurant chains are redefining the casual eating out market.   Here are LA’s top five restaurant chains:  Mendocino_Pork_BellyMENDOCINO FARMS Claim to fame: Gourmet sandwiches using ingredients from local farms The formula: Mendocino Farms serves dishes made with farm-fresh ingredients meticulously sourced from artisan and organic producers. The food offer is overseen by group executive chef Judy Han, who joined the company after years of working in high-end restaurants. And it shows: She has elevated the humble sandwich to delicious and innovative new heights with just the right flavour combinations and textures Favourites on the Menu: Kurobuta Pork Belly Banh Mi - with braised, caramelised Kurobuta pork belly, house-made pickled daikon and carrots, coriander, cucumbers, jalapenos & chilli aioli on panini grilled ciabatta; or the Country Club - featuring pecan wood house smoked turkey with Prime applewood bacon, aged white cheddar, avocado, mustard pickle remoulade, red onions, tomatoes, Scarborough Farm’s butter lettuce & romaine on toasted rustic white. Number of locations: Eight Average spend: $13 Contact: mendocinofarms.com; @MendocinoFarms  SUGARFISH SugarFish Claim to fame: Prix fixe sushi menus that focus on simplicity The formula: Sugarfish is the brainchild of sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa, whose Sushi Nozawa restaurant operated in Studio City from 1985 to 2012. His culinary philosophy shuns California-style extravagant rolls and fusion dishes and instead concentrates on the purity of basic ingredients offering a menu that is greatly simplified. Guests choose from three “Trust-me” menusa take off from the traditional Japanese omakase. The biggest change is that there are no visible sushi chefs behind the sushi bar. It’s about the quality of the ingredients and not the show Favourites from the menu: Nozawa’s classic warm rice, homemade soy and top quality fish make this one of the best sushi restaurants if you’re on a budget. The basic “Trust Me” menu includes edamame, sashimi, six nigiri and two hand-rolls Average spend: Trust Me menus are $17, $25 or $35 Number of Locations: Eight Contact: sugarfishsushi.com; @sugarFISHsushi   LOTERIA GRILL Loteria GrillClaim to fame: Authentic Mexican food that stands above the rest The formula: Mexico City native Jimmy Shaw started out with a stall at the Farmers Market and has grown his business into a local chain of full-service restaurants serving an array of exceptionally flavourful regional Mexican specialties. From a refreshing agua fresca to slowly cooked guisos served with handmade corn tortillas, this is the real deal. There’s a lot of Mexican food in LA but Loteria Grill stands out thanks to its authentic cooking methods and focus on quality ingredients   Favourites from the menu: Cochinita Pibil - achiote and citrus-marinated pork, slowly roasted in banana leaf, citrus-pickled red onion and chile habanero; or Chicharrón de Queso - griddle-toasted Oaxaca and Jack cheese, fresh corn tortillas, guacamole, salsa verde cruda Number of locations: Eight Average spend: $15 Contact: loteriagrill.com; @loteriagrill   UMAMI BURGERumami-truffle-burger Number of locations: 28 Claim to fame: Gourmet burgers that pack an umami punch The formula: Founded by wine writer-turned-restaurateur Adam Fleischman, Umami Burger is all about umami, the fifth taste. He bought any ingredient he could find with umami properties and experimented for a month in his kitchen before developing his secret signature Umami Sauce. Each of the burgers delivers an intense umami taste experience, with sides such as truffled beet salad or double fried smushed potatoes underlining the umami experience. The menu regularly features guest chef burgers, most recently the José Andrés Burger with a ground pork and prosciutto patty, piquillo pepper confit, caramelized onion and Manchego cheese Favourites from the Menu:The Original Burger – topped with shiitake mushrooms, caramelised onions, umami ketchup, oven-roasted tomato and Parmesan crisp; or the Truffle Burger – topped with a mild truffle-infused cheese and a truffle glaze. Average spend: $20 Contact: umami.com; @umamiburger   TENDER GREENS Tender Greens Southern Fried Chicken SaladClaim to fame: Healthy, chef-driven dishes using farm-fresh ingredients The formula: Founded by three former fine dining chefs, who were fed up with the lack of healthy and affordable food options in LA, Tender Greens embraces the Slow Food movement and works with local farmers, boutique wineries, artisan producers, coffee roasters and breweries. Each outlet has its own executive chef, who, in addition to the core menu, creates his own seasonal specials, while its Passion Project programme has seen the chefs make their own charcuterie, craft beer, mustards and cheese Favourites on the Menu: Southern Fried Chicken Salad – with freckled romaine, butter lettuce, cucumber, radish dill dressing; or Backyard Marinated Steak – grilled medium rare and served as a plate with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, on a sandwich with ciabatta, roasted red peppers and aioli; or on a simple salad. Average spend: $14 Number of locations: 14 Contact: tendergreens.com; @TenderGreens     Kerstin Kühn is a freelance food and travel writer, specialising in restaurant and chef stories. The Kerstin_Kuhnformer restaurant editor of Caterer and Hotelkeeper, she relocated from London to Los Angeles last summer, where she lives with her husband and two cats. With a vast network of chefs from around the world, Kerstin has profiled the likes of Michel Roux, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, the Roca brothers and Massimo Bottura. She has been a contributor to publications including FOUR Magazine, the Evening Standard Food and Travel MagazineM&C ReportDesign WeekFrame Magazine and City and Canary Wharf Magazines and also writes her own blog, La Goulue. You can follow Kerstin on Twitter @LaGoulue _

In these challenging times…

…the hospitality landscape has dramatically changed in the last two months, and with that our advertising revenues have all but expired, significantly impacting our business. Despite having to furlough a large portion of our staff, we are still delivering the valuable content and honest information, which hundreds of thousands of you come to The Staff Canteen for. We believe we have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs, are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector.

Your financial support means we remain independent and open to all. We were launched by a chef and remain the voice of chefs and other hospitality professionals.

We need your support to keep delivering the products and content that you love, giving you the platform to share opinions and inspiration. Every contribution whether big or small, means so much.
Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 29th August 2014

Kerstin Kühn: LA’s best casual chains