Underground LA: LA's best dishes in the most unexpected places

Check out the city's most clandestine cuisine at our top picks for the top unexpected places to eat the best dishes in Los Angeles.

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Ramen set B at Santouka in Mitsuwa Market

Ramen set B at Santouka in Mitsuwa Market Photograph: Wayne Parsons

Intrepid LA diners don't earn their merit badges these days unless they're eating at secret places, knocking on chefs' apartment doors in search of the next secret dinner. But hovering just above the underground, still way below the mainstream, is a different kind of hush-hush eatery: Non-restaurants with utilitarian purposes that just happen to also serve engagingly good eats. With its endless tangles of road, this clandestine cuisine is something our colossal city enjoys in spades, placing the best tacos, best ice cream and best Thai food where you'd least expect to find them. Whether your plan is munching on Reuben panini in a gas station or perusing a feast of Russian pastries following service at an orthodox church in Hollywood, make sure you've got a handle on our guide to the best and most unexpected places to feast on LA's best dishes.


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Liquor store

  • Price band: 2/4

Taking up just a sliver of a La Cienega liquor store, the kitchen from Dominican talent Ilonka Garcia serves up chef-driven, Caribbean cuisine. Flavor-forward dishes showcase authentic, home-style island classics such as mofongo, ropa vieja, arroz con pollo, mondongo (tripe), guisados (stews), golden empanadas and spice-laden fish served with fried cassava and plantains. Goat-meat seekers may have the most to gain—tear into Garcia's pure, stark expression of braised cabra ($10), its flavors straight from Monte Cristi, the island nation's capital of goat gastronomy.

  1. West LA
  2. Food Festival
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Furniture store

  • Price band: 2/4

This family-run furniture store puts its well-polished wares to work, serving luscious, vegan Thai curries, meat-free spicy mint noodles and fat, fresh spring rolls to diners seated on and around the merchandise. The table you're sitting at? It's teak, it's expensive, and it's for sale—though you might have to wait until your dining mates are done with their comforting, coconut milk massaman curry ($5), filled with soft tofu, peanuts and sweet kabocha, if you're planning to take it home.

  1. Santa Monica
  2. Thai Teak Furniture
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Auto parts shop

  • Price band: 1/4

Fill up on slow-cooked swine and a shine at this South Central car wash and auto parts shop that comes strapped with alambres (stir-fry of meats, peppers, onions and cheeses), tortas, tacos and the best carnitas in town. While whips get pimped, a big, bubbling steel cazo of pig parts simmers in lard, the source for pork-intensive tacos stuffed with fried rib, shoulder, skin, ear and head meats. Get cochon-concentrated with the weekend-only tacos surtidas ($1.25), a succulent amalgam of all of these cuts under one warm tortilla.

  1. South LA
  2. Tacos Los Guichos
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Orthodox Church

  • Price band: 2/4

Good news: You won't have to sit through an Orthodox service in a language you can't comprehend to enjoy the feast that follows. As long as your money is green, these babushkas ringing the church's courtyard will take it. In return, you'll choose from a homemade spread of Russian pastries and snacks, including baked and fried meat-stuffed piroshkis ($2), sweet slices of Napoleon, and hot items such as pelmeni dumplings and blinis. The church's own kitchen churns out one massive pot of borscht ($3), offering worshippers and interlopers a true taste of Mother Russia to soothe their souls every Sunday.

  1. Hollywood
  2. Protection of The Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church
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Sauna

  • Price band: 2/4

How do you make an affordably priced day full of hot baths, cool soaks, salt and ice saunas, invigorating scrubs and steaming communal showers even more seductive? By offering a sizable selection of Korean dishes at a café in its co-ed jimjilbang. But if bulgogi (marinated beef) tacos seem a little heavy after your day of detoxing, come for the restorative powers of spicy ramen ($10), freshly squeezed juice and veggie bibimbap ($13) then get your butt back in the bulgama (clay room).

  1. Koreatown
  2. Wi Spa
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