Fried chicken tacos? Kimchi burgers? Swedish pizza? When Israel Zangwill’s play popularized the term “melting pot” in the early 19th century, he couldn’t have foreseen the impact America’s profusion of immigrants would have on the future of food. A future where it seems no combination of flavors is off-limits.
From California pizza to the Kogi taco, Los Angeles has been quick to embrace the shock of the culinary new. In fact, sometimes it seems like chefs are recklessly aiming for the next Cronut willy-nilly, without regard to the new hybrid actually being an improvement on the original. Does anyone really need a wonut (waffle/donut) or a bacon-wrapped, deep-fried Oreo?
On the other hand, the combining of disparate ingredients from different cultures frequently results in surprising and delicious hybrids. Pono Burger in Santa Monica is a restaurant that integrates unusual and international flavors to exhilarating effect on both its regular and seasonal menu.
For spring, Pono Burger got inspiration from Japan, Korea, and Argentina. The trio of burgers showcases organic, grass-fed beef from the Eel River ranches in Humboldt County. The fixin’s come in the form of house-made Okinawan sweet potato chips and pickled ginger on the Sassy Wahine burger; house-made bulgogi sauce and kimchee on the Pilipili burger; and house-made chimichurri sauce and Belcampo chorizo on the ’Alekina burger.
Growing up in Hawaii, Pono Burger chef Makani Carzino was exposed to many different cultures. “I grew up eating everything: Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Hawaiian, Japanese,” she says. “I like fusing and mixing flavors. You’re dealing with alchemy.”
Fusion food has become a given in Los Angeles with everyone’s comfort level expanding as new flavors and combinations get thrown at us on a seemingly daily basis. Grub that once might have been considered audacious is becoming expected as the city’s food community competes to be the best in the country.
Mondo Taco is another Santa Monica establishment that strives to encompass a panoply of cultures. The small restaurant’s motto is “tacos without borders.” From the Southern Decadence, featuring fried chicken, bacon, barbecue sauce, and ranch dressing, to the Taj Mahal with coconut shrimp and curry sauce, tacos at Mondo defy categorization. Greece, Vietnam, England, Jamaica, and Italy all find their way into house-made corn tortillas. For those with an aversion to carbs or gluten, try a taco wrapped in a cabbage leaf, or “dino-style.”
Another terrific place to go out on a culinary limb at is Santa Monica’s Rize, which opened about a month ago. This “Thai and sushi infusion” restaurant serves up unexpected twists in all sorts of places, from the Sriracha-lada (michelada spiked with sriracha) to the Sassy Tako (octopus served inside a large basil leaf “taco” and doused in chili lime dressing). Another standout is the Salmon a la Panang, a nearly raw fish dish served with a sweet curry sauce, plus salmon roe scattered on top. A delightful twist on sashimi.
The possibilities seem infinite. Have you seen Lincoln in Pasadena’s bialy-focaccia combo, or “Beeyotch-a,” a bialy with tomatoes and herbs on top? Another intriguing mashup, the Swedish pizza at Reds, is coming soon to the Westside. Sweeza, anyone? The portmanteaus just keep on coming.
Chefs in L.A. resemble DJs, sampling from whatever they fancy and presenting new creations from scratch. As Carzino puts it, the most important thing is to “feed your soul. I want to inspire and be inspired.”