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A walking food tour of Los Angeles, guided by chef Kathy Gunst

Mochi in many flavors from Fugetsu-Do (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Mochi in many flavors from Fugetsu-Do (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Los Angeles is one of the most exciting, diverse food cities in the country. There are more than 4,000 taco trucks and close to 25,000 restaurants in LA County that represent cultures and cuisine from all over the world. A few months ago, I took a five-hour walking food tour of several LA neighborhoods. Here’s my report.

Walking is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of LA. Most people in LA drive and drive and drive … and sit in lots of traffic. But walking is a unique way to see parts of the city you can’t see behind the wheel. So let me set the scene. We met our guide, Ulysses Salcito from Culinary Backstreet’s Culinary Walking Tours of LA, on foot under the arch at the entrance to LA’s New Chinatown.

Ulysses pointed out the dumpling shops and small mom-and-pop shops that sell basic home goods. We walked past the Bruce Lee statue where so many movies were filmed.

Fish tacos from Angry Egrette in Chinatown. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

And then we headed to Mandarin Plaza, where we found the James Beard Award finalist restaurant the Angry Egrette, which does not serve Chinese food at all but some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever tasted.

Next door at a tiny shop called Steep, we had a traditional Taiwanese tea ceremony, sipping black tea that had been aged in dried tangerine peels for 8 to 10 years and sampled savory BBQ pork bao and sweet Taiwanese egg tarts.

Tea from Steep in Chinatown. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

The thing about LA is the way cultures collide. You’re walking through Chinatown, but within five minutes, you’re walking past a Vietnamese sandwich shop specializing in bahn mi, a Filipino wine bar, California burger joint, French cafes, and a Southern hot chicken restaurant.

Despite the number of restaurants and dim sum parlors in Chinatown, we noticed something else: There are no supermarkets in Chinatown. It is what you call a food desert. The community tends to shop for vegetables and basic homewares at small local shops rather than Whole Foods. As Ulysses pointed out, “The community here relies on each other.”

What Ulysses is speaking to here is that LA is a city with huge economic divisions. Los Angeles has some of the most glamorous neighborhoods filled with hillside mansions, but it’s also a place with a crippling unhoused population. The thing about this walking tour is that it’s focused on food, but it’s also a way to experience so many aspects of this city.

We walked on to Markey’s Plaza just off North Broadway to Baker’s Bench, a vegan bakery. Yes, a vegan Chinese bakery.

According to owner and baker, Jennifer Yee, “Many Asians are lactose intolerant. Our best seller is black sesame cookies, chocolate croissants and plain croissants.”

A furikake croissant and black sesame cookie from Baker’s Bench. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Her flaky, buttery furikake croissant — a plain croissant sprinkled with sesame seeds, seaweed and soy sauce — really won us over. It was so incredibly flaky like a really good French croissant. It was nearly impossible to believe there weren’t layers of butter inside.

Across the street at Katsu Sando, we ate a remarkably moist egg salad sandwich on homemade milk bread.

We walked on and it started to get noisy. Very noisy. We walked across an overpass above the 101, one of the city’s major freeways that runs north to south, and saw the murals that were painted for the 1984 Olympics and looked down into the ever-present traffic. We walked onto Olvera Street, the historic commercial hub for LA’s Mexican community where you can still buy a tortilla press, eat homemade taquitos and listen to live Mexican music.

Olvera Street is lined with papel picado. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Next stop, Little Tokyo! There, our guide Ulysses introduced us to one of the city’s oldest shops — Fugetsu Do Bakery Shop where the same family has been making mochi since 1903.

A variety of mochi at Fugetsu-Do (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Mochi is a small round cake made from glutinous rice, pounded with a large wooden mallet. You could hear the pounding in the back of the shop as we looked into the glass and wood display cases. All the colors of the mochi looked like artistic jeweled cakes. There was strawberry, white bean paste, chocolate, orange, lemon, and other flavors. I’ve never been a fan of mochi until I tasted these soft, almost creamy little cakes. Totally memorable.

And then we meandered through Little Tokyo past sushi restaurants, ramen bars, and Japanese street food stalls to our last stop, one of LA’s most well-known tourist attractions — Grand Central Market. Grand Central is the city’s oldest and largest public market, opened in 1917 in a Beaux-Arts-style building with more than 40 vendors ranging from tacos and sushi to pupusas, German sausages, BBQ meats, fried chicken, ice cream, coffee shops and several bakeries.

In the front of the South Broadway market entrance, we noticed a banner with a photo of Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer prize-winning food critic for the LA Times who passed away in 2018. And taking Gold’s advice, we ended the day at the well-loved shop, Donut Man. The doughnut we tasted — an oversized, fat, glazed yeasted donut — was split in half and filled with freshly whipped cream and massive, ripe California strawberries.

A woman stuffs donuts full of cream and strawberries at The Donut Man. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

We ended up walking close to five miles. We had sore feet and very full bellies. It was a day that totally reinforced my belief that LA is a remarkable, wildly diverse and delicious city to explore.

Find more information on food tours of LA with Culinary Backstreets here.

More stops on the walking tour:

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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