Your Essential Los Angeles Cookbooks
This story has been updated.
Maybe you have someone in your life who likes and/or eats food. Maybe you are the person in your life who likes and/or eats food. If you're shopping for either of these groups, you've probably noticed how most food-themed gifts fall in the novelty category. We, too, love burrito blankets and dragon-shaped bottles of brandy but may we suggest a cookbook instead?
In the Venn diagram of gifting, the cookbook has many virtues. It is a book so it makes you look S-M-R-T. It is about food, so there's a built-in yum factor. It is easy to buy online and easy to regift. And, even if it bores your recipient, it is unlikely to offend them. Also, it's not a scented candle.
But when you're shopping for cookbooks, you don't want to be basic. We can help you achieve this.
We've compiled a list of essential cookbooks for the modern Angeleno. All of the selections were written by Los Angeles chefs and/or interesting Los Angeles people. All of them do more than share recipes. These books add context, culture, history and personality to the genre. Unlike Santa Claus, we did not check our list twice, so there's plenty of stuff we left off. After all, we have to save something for next year.
Pro Tip: Interested in these books but can't afford or don't want to buy them? Almost all of them are available at the Los Angeles Public Library, which has tons of other benefits aside from loaning books.
Wesley Avila, Richard Parks III
Wes Avila, the mastermind behind Guerrilla Tacos, showcases recipes for all sorts of tacos — shishito pepper, duck heart, pork sparerib, octopus and chorizo, roasted pumpkin. He also goes farther afield with recipes for pozole, bouillabaisse, waffles, a turkey neck confit burrito and his famous razor clam tostada. Along the way, you get stories about how he hustled to transform his taco truck into one of L.A.'s most celebrated brick-and-mortar-restaurants.
Night + Market: Delicious Thai Food to Facilitate Drinking and Fun-Having Amongst Friends a Cookbook
Kris Yenbamroong, Garrett Snyder
The cheeky title should clue you into the playful vibe of this cookbook. Night + Market chef/owner Kris Yenbamroong — who worked at his family's restaurant, Talesai, before branching out on his own — explores the food of Northern Thailand. The book has recipes for catfish larb, cold noodles with sweet and salty coconut sauce, khao soi, corn fritters and the roasted green chile dip known as nam prik noom. Concoctions like a pomelo salad with coconut and peanuts are mixed in with recipes for rustic upcountry dishes like a grilled catfish tamale.
Bricia Lopez & Javier Cabral
Along with her siblings, Bricia Lopez runs Guelaguetza, the Oaxacan restaurant her parents opened in Koreatown in 1994. This big, gorgeous cookbook showcases many of the restaurant's dishes, most famously its moles — of which there are no less than nine recipes inside. If the book were just recipes for quesadillas with epazote and salsa de carne frita (crisp pork in a morita chile sauce), it would be enough. But the book also takes a deep dive into the food of Oaxaca, considered by many to be the "mother cuisine" of Mexico, as well as the culture surrounding it.
Josef Centeno, Betty Hallock
More than almost any other chef, Josef Centeno makes food that's difficult to pin down in terms of culture or cuisine but they are delicious. Using classic technique and drawing on a global array of influences, chef makes some of the most interesting and approachable food in Los Angeles. He might marry chicken seasoned with the Ethiopian spice blend berbere to a plate of creamy pecorino rice, or combine Tuscan melons, Persian cucumbers, Aleppo pepper flakes and the Turkish yogurt dip cacik. You can check out his creations at Bäco Mercat, Bar Amá or Orsa & Winston. For more recognizable fare — queso, puffy tacos, chicken and chile soup — his 2019 cookbook, Ama, focuses on the Tex-Mex dishes at Bar Amá.
Roy Choi, Tien Nguyen, Natasha Phan
Roy Choi, the man who kicked off L.A.'s gourmet food truck boom by putting Korean short ribs in a tortilla and driving them around town in the Kogi truck, tells his story. Growing up in a cramped Koreatown apartment, working at his parents' Korean restaurant, moving to extremely white Orange County, smoking crack, working as a high-end hotel chef and starting his own business empire — it's all in there. Alongside stories from the many phases of Choi's life, the book includes a spectrum of recipes from munchies food — ketchup fried rice, "ghetto Pillsbury fried doughnuts," "perfect instant ramen" — to more elaborate undertakings like spicy octopus, Korean-style braised short rib stew and Korean stained-glass fried chicken.
Before farm-to-table was the sort of buzzy phrase used by every chef who ever shopped a farmers' market, Suzanne Goin was setting the bar for seasonal cuisine. At her restaurants Lucques, Hungry Cat (now closed), Tavern, The Larder and A.O.C., she does understated but upscale rustic California fare. With chapters for salads, fish, meat, vegetables and dessert (each divided into sections for spring, summer, fall and winter) these recipes take full advantage of California's produce. English peas with saffron butter? Check. Lamb merguez with eggplant jam? Mmmmhm. Nectarine and blackberry galette? We'll make room. Her earlier cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques (2005), is also a standout.
Before chef Ludo Lefebvre had a bunch of award-winning restaurants, he made his name in Los Angeles running the LudoBites pop-up. This book compiles those recipes but you probably aren't going to attempt a hot foie gras with Chinese barbecue sauce and a miso-eggplant terrine, or a bread soup with gruyere marshmallows, so you're really in it for the stories. LudoBites, the book, captures a moment in time, when people outside of L.A. had just started paying attention to the crazy wonderful mishmash of cultures and talents bubbling up in the city.
Journalist Bill Esparza not only breaks down Mexican cuisine by region, he explores how those cuisines are expressed in Los Angeles. You'll learn how Ricky Piña makes sure the signature item at Ricky's Fish Tacos are crisp, how Maria Elena Lorenzo keeps the masa moist at Tamales Elena, how Raul Ortega gives the red aguachile tostada at Mariscos Jalisco bite, how Andrew Lujan prepares the squash tacos at Cacao Mexicatessen. You'll also learn about the people behind the dishes, because this book is as much a local culinary history as it is a collection of recipes.
Nancy Silverton, Matt Molina, Carolynn Carreno
Don't have the space or the dough (see what we did there?) for a $10,000 pizza oven? Consider this volume an alternate option. The book — which includes recipes from Mozza's Pizzeria and its fancier Osteria — starts with a primer on ingredients such as olive oil, anchovies, balsamic vinegar and cheese, so you can learn the difference between a buricotta and a stracciatella. Then it moves into homemade pastas, appetizers like Mozza's famous fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta, vegetable preparations such as lentils castellucciano, and meat dishes like rabbit with salsiccia. Do not sleep on Mozza's butterscotch budino, which may be the best in town.
Tal Ronnen, Scot Jones, Serafina Magnussen
Ever wonder how vegan food became plant-based cuisine? You can thank chef Tal Ronnen. Since 2013, his Melrose restaurant Crossroads has been serving seasonal vegetables and grains in sophisticated, innovative preparations. Now, you can try to make harissa potato chips, fig caponata with polenta fries, acorn squash ravioli, herb "ricotta" (it's made from almonds) and oat florentine cookies in your kitchen.
Nobody knows foraging in Southern California like Pascal Baudar. He leads plant walks and teaches all sorts of classes on eco-friendly foraging and fermenting. He corrals some of that knowledge into a book that teaches you how to recognize various plants, and what you can do with them. Most of the recipes are for drinks such as mead (honey wine), sagebrush beer, berry wine, and naturally fermented soda. This is a follow-up to his 2016 book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir, which focuses on finding edible wild plants and barks to make things like pickled acorns, smoked vinegars, infused salts and seasonings for meat and vegetables. And in March, 2020 he's coming out with his latest book, Wildcrafted Fermentation: Exploring, Transforming, and Preserving the Wild Flavors of Your Local Terroir.
Don't be fooled by the title of this book. It's not about foraging for wild mushrooms or rare herbs. Instead, Elisa Callow taps local restaurateurs to share their food knowledge and favorite recipes. Minh Phan of Porridge + Puffs explains how to pickle baby onions while Sumi Chang of Europane reveals how she makes her lemon bars. The recipes here aren't limited to any particular cuisine or region. You'll find madzooneh shorba (an Armenian/Middle Eastern yogurt soup), Anasazi chile beans and double pecan scones. You'll also learn how to make the basics — turkey stock, chicken tikka, tri-tip roast, rice pilaf, peanut butter cookies. It's an ideal compendium for adventurous home cooks who want to expand their repertoires.
This is hands-down one of the best books about the fermented arts and it's as good for newbies to as it is for experienced practitioners. Kevin West starts you on the basics — quick dill pickles and fruit jams — and works up to more elaborate options like apples in calvado jelly. Whether you want to make your own chow chow, salsa verde, grape jelly or orgeat, you're covered.
Adele Yellin, Kevin West
Food halls are booming across Southern California and the grandaddy of them all is Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. Founded in 1917, it showcases nearly three dozen food stands peddling everything from falafel, fried chicken, pupusas and tostadas to oysters, ramen, rice bowls and ice cream. Compiled by Adele Yellin, the market's owner and landlord, with food writer Kevin West, the book contains 85 recipes from places such as Egg Slut, Sticky Rice, Sarita's Pupuseria and Belcampo Meat Co. as well as several vendors that are no longer in the market, a reflection of the constant churn and gentrification of the neighborhood.
You already know we're fans of Valerie Gordon, especially her Blum's Coffee Crunch Cake. She's even reviving a classic, L.A. dessert for LAist — Clifton's strawberry cake. In this book, she shows you how to make the desserts she's famous for although good luck getting your Brown Derby grapefruit cake or white chocolate coconut cake or chocolate truffles to look anywhere near as beautiful as hers.
Margarita Manzke, Betty Hallock
Margarita Manzke, responsible for the exquisite pastries that saved French restaurant République, reveals how she makes standout plum tarts, banana pies, chocolate souffles, salted caramel croissants and xuixos (a deep-fried, cream-filled Catalonian pastry). Sadly, there's no recipe for the buko pie she serves at Sari Sari Store in DTLA so maybe there's a second book in the works?
You can find Nicole Rucker's baked goods at assorted restaurants around town (for a brief period, they were also available at her shuttered Fairfax restaurant, Fiona) but if you don't want to hunt around for them, you can try making them yourself. Start with the basics like PB&J thumbprint cookies or an apple crumb slab pie then graduate to sweet corn pudding with blackberries, flourless chocolate and pear cake, tomato pudding, and citrus upside down cake. Then, invite us over to sample the results.
Bartender extraordinaire Matt Biancaniello, formerly of the Hollywood Roosevelt's Library Bar, is known for his dragged-through-the-garden cocktails. Tired of a standard Greyhound? Throw in passion fruit pulp. Bored of a basic Pisco Sour? Get some toyon berries. Want to dip some cherry tomatoes in caramel, place them on a Himalayan salt slab and inject them with apricot-infused tequila? Good luck. The drinks in this book are fabulous, if a bit stunty, and not for the inexperienced mixologist.
Vincent Price, Mary Price
Maybe you only know Vincent Price as the dapper, stentorian actor from a raft of B-grade horror movies. He had another life (actually, he had many) as a gourmet. On their travels around the world, he and his wife, Mary, asked the chefs at more than 60 of their favorite restaurants — La Pyramide in Paris, Tre Scalini in Rome, Galatoire's in New Orleans, The Pump Room in Chicago — to share the recipes for their most beloved dishes. Featured Los Angeles establishments include Scandia, Perino's and Chavez Ravine, which you may know as Dodger Stadium. They compiled the recipes into a bestselling book packed with anecdotes, travelogues and, in some cases, reproductions of original menus. It's a snapshot of highbrow, "continental" cuisine in mid-century America. In 2015, the Prices' daughter, Victoria, spearheaded the book's re-release in a fancy new edition.
A FEW MORE...
Sonoko Sakai, Rick Poon, Juliette Bellocq
Ori Menashe, Genevieve Gergis, Lesley Suter
Christiaan Rollich, Carolynn Carreño
Jessica Koslow, Maria Zizka
*NOTE TO COOKBOOK AUTHORS: There is one recent L.A.-themed cookbook we chose to leave off this list. When the first words we see on the inner cover of a cookbook are "Once considered a culinary wasteland" in reference to Los Angeles, we roll our eyes so hard you can practically hear them click against our brain stem. Despite the praise this book has received (food publications are like lemmings), this isn't a cookbook for Angelenos and it isn't essential for anyone. This is a cookbook for people who have jumped on the "Wow, L.A. isn't a total cultural wasteland" bandwagon and expect residents of this city to feel grateful. Los Angeles has never been a culinary wasteland. The only people who think so are clueless out-of-towners who believe what they read in the New York Times, which seems to be the target demographic for this book. Recipes for charred cucumber gazpacho and cutesy pictures of hipsters deliberating over baked goods can't save this cookbook from its dare we say racist baseline assumption.