Los Angeles--How to Access a Tricky City for Tourists

08/19/2016 06:50 pm ET

L.A. is such a sprawling car culture that it’s difficult to get an overall feel for the city, and tourists have very few opportunities to interact with locals or to access any kind of neighborhood ambiance.  The best antidote for this is Melting Pot Food Tours because they did for us what the best tours always do.  They got us out of our hotel and into the local culture, with excellent editorial about what we should focus on.  

Boyle Heights is a Latino neighborhood in East L.A. that has a dozen absolute gems of Latin cuisine, if you know where to look.  Melting Pot knows, and they were superb teachers.  The greatest lesson I learned was the difference between inferior tortillas, made with corn flour, and extraordinary tortillas, made with cornmeal.  The taste of ground corn is amazing, and I have La Gloria Foods to thank for educating my palate.

My other favorite stops on our food tour were the nearby Lucero’s Pasteleria, and Liliana’s Tamales, which is just a few doors down. Birrieria de Don Boni (pictured above) is two metro stops or a short walk down First Street.  It was also a pleasure to meet fellow foodies on the tour, all of whom were actually local L.A. residents, not tourists.  This is a further testament to how Melting Pot is making magic here in East L.A., and many other ethnic neighborhoods. Bravo.

After the tour, our first dinner really captured the L.A. scene. MB Post was lively and dynamic―packed even on a Tuesday night.  I give them an A+ for their ambiance.

They are rightly famous for their cheddar bacon biscuits...

  ...and whereas I’m usually not a fan of kale salad, this one had just the right mix of salty goat cheese and Asian pear, without kale’s usual bitterness.  Other treats included the Maine scallops with celery root puree and spiced walnuts, and the shrimp with housemade spaghetti sprinkled with chili flakes.  The Moroccan lamb with caramelized onions was also a delight, and the tiny Japanese eggplants are so much sweeter than American eggplant.  A+ for their food.  The World’s Loveliest Waiter was Joseph, and our after-dinner stroll on the nearby Manhattan Beach boardwalk capped off a fantastic evening.

The AKA Beverly Hills is not a hotel so much as a luxury temporary residence, with a minimum stay of seven days.  We chose it because a central location is a very important part of tourism in sprawling Los Angeles, since everywhere you go is a drive.  

The AKA has spacious, elegant rooms with a modern feel, both light and breezy―and great views. 

The complex feels like a wide-open space, even though it’s only 2 blocks from Rodeo Drive.  We cooked some of our own meals, shopping at the Whole Foods Market conveniently next door.  You can also order in from the famous Spago restaurant by Wolfgang Puck.  Super-convenient and easy living. 

How to satisfy a family of four touring Hollywood?  My wife and I never watch TV, but we know our classic films.  Our teenage kids couldn’t care less about film classics, but they know all the current celebrities.  The win-win solution was L.A. Insider Tours, and we chose the “L.A. in a Day” tour as a sort of “survey course” of the city.

 It was a joy to leave the crazy drivers and the parking to someone else, and our tour guide Scott took us in his van to the tourist spots that one simply has to see. Griffith Park is the “Central Park” of L.A., and the observatory was lovely.  The Chinese Theater with its celebrity footprints was fun, as was seeing Santa Monica and Venice Beach:   

The Hollywood Museum featured the original make-up artist Max Factor and how his facial “scanning” devices helped him to create the make-up that created the stars of earliest Hollywood.  This museum also had the original costumes from my beloved movie, “The Danish Girl” and the actual jail room movie set used in filming “Silence of the Lambs,” which is spooky to walk through even today. 

Our guide Scott really took pride in his work, and enthusiastically drove our kids past the celebrity homes they wished to see, like Will Ferrell, Katy Perry, and Angelina Jolie.  Though the walls and hedges were high, Scott augmented the experience with aerial photos of the property he displayed on his iPad, and told fun stories of his own sightings and conversations with celebrities.  But the highlight for our kids was the secret spot Scott showed them where they could get close-up selfies with the famous Hollywood Sign, which now proudly adorns their Facebook and Instagram postings.  

I could write pages about The Bazaar Restaurant by Jose Andres

Those of you who have read my article on “ambiente” know that I’m obsessed with the social ambiance of a place, and The Bazaar is it.  Spanish chef Jose Andres serves up both traditional and nouvelle tapas in a setting that just begs people to socialize and have fun.  

The people make a place, and I have to acknowledge the manager Molly and the sommelier Albert for bringing joy to every table they visited―the place felt like a stylish L.A. club at the peak of a party.   

My wife and daughter nearly overdosed on cuteness at the jicama and guacamole dumplings dressed up like little origami art.  Other big hits were the tuna sashimi wrapped in avocado slices, the kale/spinach salad, and shrimp tapas, but what makes The Bazaar famous is thinly-sliced Philly cheesesteak on tiny little puff pastries.  My son ate about 80 of these―a sure crowd pleaser.

We had heard so much about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park that my family and I were delighted to finally experience it.  

If the goal of the designers was to create an enchanting attraction, they win first prize.  They took such pride in their work, and paid such attention to every detail that the ambiance and aesthetic of the village they created evokes no less than awe and wonder.  

And let me confess: I, a grown adult, voluntarily rode Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey twice.  Yes, I really did feel like I was flying through the air on a broom, following Harry Potter through the dangers and adventures of Hogwarts Castle.  Talk about bringing the movie to life.  Two thumbs up.  Way up.

It may sound crazy, but I highly recommend staying in more than one hotel when you visit a city.  We adored our stay in Beverly Hills, but it was fun to discover another neighborhood, and downtown L.A. has really come alive of late.  My wife and I also loved our strolls in Grand Park, flanked by City Hall and the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The Omni Hotel was our doorway to a super-dynamic neighborhood, and their Grand Cafe offers an amazing brunch with a view of the outdoor sculptures of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the red-hot new Broad Museum (rhymes with “road”) that people are raving about.   

The Omni’s rooms are spacious, quiet, and classy.

We especially loved the “dessert art” and beverages they left on our table every afternoon, and every evening when we returned to the hotel, my kids would race from the elevator to discover the latest treats that had appeared in our absence.   

Americans can learn so much from the French about preparing simple vegetables.  About the best we can do is emphasize that they’re organic or fresh, whereas the French can add a simple sauce or the right combination of seasonings to make vegetables absolutely pop, and stand alone as an entree.  The French bistro Church & State, in the fascinating, edgy Arts District of downtown L.A., achieved this miracle with the best green beans I’ve ever tasted. 

Their “Escargots en croute” were delightful little surprises hiding inside puff pastry shells that feel like an adventure when you cut into each one.  The sweet onion flatbread was like pizza with a French twist.   

I lived 3 years in Tokyo, and I can’t tell you how much I loved the design of Roku, a Japanese restaurant.  Sunlight beamed down through cheerful skylights between trestle-like wooden slats, and many of the patrons sat in lovely horseshoe-shaped banquettes beneath lush, manicured bonsai trees.   

Sure, the sushi was phenomenal, but what I miss most about Japan is what they call “Katei Ryori,” or home-cooking.  I ache for simple dishes, like the small sweet, Japanese eggplant, or natto, or the billion kinds of mushrooms the Japanese serve.  So what I really loved at Roku was the small cube of tofu they brought me, tucked in between two tomato halves. 

That tofu was like 3 years of Tokyo memories tucked into one bite: light, silky, refined―an absolute masterpiece of Japanese cuisine.  Ask for Katei Ryori and see what the chef serves you up―you’ll be delighted.

My teenage kids are thrill seekers, and Six Flags Magic Mountain did not disappoint.  The X2 roller coaster was a rare combination of beauty and thrills.   

As our car reached the top of the lift hill, we remarked on the peaceful, absolutely stunning views of the Santa Clarita Valley, seconds before plunging to our (near) death.  Our favorite roller coaster was Full Throttle, which constantly surprised us on every twist and turn.  We also enjoyed Tatsu, and The New Revolution, a virtual reality coaster where riders wear wireless goggles that bring them into a virtual world.  The visual adventure is synchronized to the action of the roller coaster. Fascinating.

At Le Petit Paris bistro (above), we sampled another joyous iteration of escargot.  Once a staple during our time living in Paris, these tasty morsels with their garlic and pesto sauce brought joy to our mouths in this charming L.A. bistro.  

We were also big fans of the saffron risotto, and their selection of Rose wines is a rarity for Americans, but a real exotic treat for the palate.  The Coffee Gourmand at the end of the meal is a French tradition worth adopting, for it gives you just the right combination of strong coffee and three delightful little treats for dessert.

When we arrived in L.A. it seemed somehow inaccessible.  But we left with a sense of familiarity, and some really great memories.  My best advice is to find ways to plunge deeply into the local culture as soon as you arrive.  L.A. is a tough place to visit, but actually, I would want to live there...

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