Los Angeles is a city obsessed with story-telling and also with food, and that fusion means there are as many origin stories about food as there are ground-breaking reboot concepts for the next movie blockbuster.
Some tales are true: tacitos (in a delicious avocado sauce) were first introduced to America at the tiny Olvera Street food stand La Cielito Lindo in the 1930s, and they’re still sold there today.
Some are true but in dispute: French-dipped sandwiches were invented in LA, but was it at Cole’s, or was it at Phillippe’s? Hey, relax, they’re delicious in both places.
Some claims are more dubious. LA invented the doughnut hole? There’s no evidence for that at all, anywhere. Hey buddy, who cares, LA did it because LA says it did.
Here are our seven of the best, true or kinda false as they may be:
chia seed superfood (or Itepesh Pinole)
Turning back the clock to the time before tarmac and tires, charred seeds found at ancient millingstones in the Santa Monica mountaints and at hearths long buried in the Malibu Canyon attest to the creation by the Chumash of this highly-prized paste or soup, caled Itepesh, high in protein and fat, made from wild chia sage.
How was this superfood made? The seeds were separated by thrashing the stalks with sticks and bare feet; then they were parched with hot coals or pebbles in baskets or clay trays; pulverized in a bedrock mortar into a meal and then mixed with water into a mush called pinole.
They say a teaspoon provides enough energy for a whole day’s foraging on the trail…
the cheeseburger (a Highland Park experiment)
A fellow called Lionel Sternberger is reputed to have invented the cheeseburger in 1926 at the age of 16 when he was working as a fry cook at his father’s Highland Park sandwich shop, The Rite Spot, and ‘experimentally dropped a slab of American cheese on a sizzling hamburger.’ And voila!
Korean short-rib taco
Chef Roy Choi and friend Mark Mangeurs came up in 2008 with the Korean short-rib taco, after a hard day’s night of celebration. Chef Choi remembers roaming the aisles of Koreatown’s Gaju market, ‘grabbing things and putting them in the cart.’ Choi added kimchi and a cabbage slaw with soy-sesame chili. ‘I put it together, and we all took a bite. It was like, whoah.’
chopped salad (for dainty celebrities)
Chopped salad began life at La Scala’s in Beverly Hills as its Gourmet Salad, a mix of lettuce, cheese, salami and garbanzo beans that has been enjoyed by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Debbie Reynolds and Warren Beatty. ‘But customers started complaining,’ says Gigi Leon, daughter of founder Jean Leon, who opened the Beverly Hills institution in 1956, ‘because the cheese and the salami were julienned in long pieces and hard to eat when you’re trying to be dainty. So my dad and the chef chopped it.’
the smoothie (for sensitive stomachs)
It’s the early 1920’s and Julius Freed, a young man with a sensitive stomach, is looking for a way to enjoy fresh squeezed orange juice. He found a way and a few choice ingredients to make them less acidic and a little frothy. His friends loved them and said, “Give me an orange, Julius”, and thus his store, the “Orange Julius” was born. Though it was to be another 40 years before anything was called a smoothie, this was the original. So there.
the California roll
The Tokyo Kaikan restaurant featured one of the first sushi bars in Los Angeles. Ichiro Mashita, sushi chef at the Kaikan, began substituting avocado for toro (fatty tuna), when he realized the oily texture of avocado was a perfect substitute for toro. When he made the roll “inside-out”, because Americans did not like seeing and chewing the nori on the outside, the California roll was born, an never looked back.
Back in the 1930s, at the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant, owner Robert Howard Cobb had not eaten until near midnight, and so he mixed together leftovers he found in the kitchen, along with some bacon cooked by the line cook, and tossed it with their French dressing. Another Whoa moment and it became signature dish.