Foods Invented in Los Angeles

What you are about to read could probably be considered, if you’re uncharitable, a “listicle.” “But wait,” you say, “you hate listicles!” You are correct, and yet here I am, offering you the lowest form of clickbait — the sort of trash one expects to read in respectable, click-driven mainstream media outlets, not this fair website. I will also add that, of these twelve culinary creations, I’ve only eaten two (hot fudge sundaes and cheeseburgers) because I’m motivated more by an interest in history and cultural interactions than hunger or clicks. I may even write a similar post about drinks or condiments invented in Los Angeles. Consider yourselves warned.


As with so much bad writing about Los Angeles, much of what has been passed off as culinary history is obviously blindly copied and pasted from dubious sources. For example, if we’re to accept the oft-repeated origin stories of the French Dip sandwich and Cobb Salad, then we must find nothing unlikely about tales of people recovering from painful oral surgery who instead of eating soft foods at home and instead go out to restaurants where they demand that the chefs invent new dishes for their sensitive mouths and that those chefs then add these soggy and chopped inventions to their menus where they’re embraced by patrons with healthy teeth and gums and then imitated by other restaurants. Makes total sense!

It’s also interesting to me how some comestible inventions, no matter how delicious, never spawn imitators and thus, don’t rise to the level of cuisine. Chefs and cooks have always adapted traditional dishes with available ingredients and for popular tastes. Gai lan is replaced with broccoli, ketchup becomes made from tomatoes (or bananas) instead of fish, and someone in St. Louis realized that non-Chinese Missourians would go for egg foo young as long as it’s served on white bread and dressed with pickles and mayonnaise. When it’s a hit, sometimes it is adopted by other chefs and cooks, gets named, and becomes “a thing.” Other times, no matter how delicious and worthy, it’s a one-off. An Angeleno might, hypothetically, substitute kimchee for curtido on a pupusa, and yet it only happens once, remembered fondly from time to time by the lucky diner who experienced it. See also the Full California Breakfast — my attempt to create a fry-up appropriate for the Golden State.


The history of cuisine in Los Angeles probably begins with the Paleoamerican pioneers who arrived here at least 13,000 years ago. They hunted fish, shellfish, and land animals. They ate plants and probably mushrooms and sea vegetables. They did not, however, leave any recipes. Their descendants, the Chumash, ate bulbs, elderberries, roots, mustard greens, and other local foods. Acorns, the nuts of our many endemic species of oaks, were the staple of their diet, used to make a mush called wiiwish — although I don’t know whether or not it was invented in what’s now Los Angeles, since the Chumash territory extended from what’s today San Luis Obispo County in the north to Orange County in the south and acorn mushes were additionally eaten but other cultures. Thousands of years later, the Takic language-speaking ʔívil̃uqaletem, Kitanemuk, Kuupangaxwichem, Payómkawichum, Taaqtam, Tataviam, and Tongva, arrived in the region from the Sonoran Desert to the east, bringing with them their own cooking traditions, including bread made from cattail pollen — but again, since they were migrants from the east, I don’t know what, if any of their dishes were invented in what’s now Los Angeles now — but they certainly can’t truly be said to have been invented in Los Angeles, since the pueblo wasn’t founded until 1781.

In early Los Angeles, as in any place, there were almost certainly unique culinary creations. Indigenous ingredients, cooks, and traditions are no doubt combined with the tastes, techniques, and imported ingredients as they have wherever cultures have mixed. It boggles the mind, though, to think that chocolate, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes were unknown in Europe or that cheese, coffee, and rice were unknown in the Americas before the 15th Century.

By 1850, when Los Angeles County was created, Los Angeles’s population had only grown to 1,610 people — which suggests to me that there probably wasn’t a thriving restaurant scene that fostered culinary experimentation. There were, however, restaurants by that decade, including Mullah’s Exchange, Montgomery House, The Old American (later Lafayette), Restaurant du Commerce, and Restaurant Francais, the menus of which included mostly meat pies (e.g. chicken, partridge, rabbit, &c) and baked products (e.g. cakes, cornbread, muffins, and rolls). Several were owned by French proprietors and run by French chefs and Los Angeles was covered with vineyards. French was, after Spanish, the second-most spoken language in Los Angeles although there were also significant numbers of Chinese, Italians, Tongva, and blacks in Los Angeles in the 1870s. Japanese began arriving in significant numbers in the 1880s, with one opening the first Japanese restaurant here in 1885. The demographics changed drastically in 1887, when hordes of Middle Westerners hopped on the train for Los Angeles, bringing with them their Middle Western tastes.


CALIFORNIA OYSTER COCKTAIL

The California oyster cocktail is a concoction made from the soft flesh of the California oyster served in a concoction made from hot sauce, tomato ketchup, and seasoning. It’s the first culinary invention that I know of that can be traced to Los Angeles and made its debut in a food cart at 1st and Main in July 1894. Its inventor was a Liverpool-born Jewish immigrant named Asher Michael “Al” Levy who’d moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco around 1890. Although he’d been the chef at Techau Tavern, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, he waited tables for four years until starting his own business. The California oyster cocktail cost ten cents — which was twice the price of the average (and then-popular) spicy tamale. The craze for oyster cocktails quickly spread to Pasadena and beyond and by 1897, Al owned three restaurants that also served lobsters, steaks, and other meats. The one at 3rd and Main had Levy’s food cart displayed on the roof. The California oyster was driven nearly to extinction by the end of the decade. In 1905, Levy opened the three-story Al Levy’s Cafe which had 57 private rooms with English, French, and German themes. Levy founded the Southern California Restaurant Association in 1906 and served as its first president. Levy was arrested in 1920, during Prohibition, for selling Sherry. He later operated Al Levy’s Grill on Spring Street and Al Levy’s Tavern in Hollywood. Levy died in 1941.


HOT FUDGE SUNDAE

The hot fudge sundae was invented at the 551 South Broadway location of L.J. Christopher’s Caterers and Confectioners in 1913. Its debut was announced without much fanfare by an understated advertisement that appeared on page two of the 29 December 1913 morning edition of The Los Angeles Daily Times. The hot fudge sundae’s inventor was Clarence Clifton Brown, an Ohioan who’d set out for Los Angeles in a covered wagon before finding employment at Christopher’s in 1906. The ice cream parlor was later renamed C.C. Brown’s Ice Cream Parlor. The original location was demolished and replaced with the current building in 1923. In 1929, Clarence’s son, Clifton Hibbard Brown, moved the parlor to the Hillcrest Cadillac Building at 7007 West Hollywood Boulevard. The elder Brown died in 1943. The younger Brown sold the business in 1963 to John Schumacher and it remained in operation until 1996.


THE CHEESEBURGER

Image: Herman J. Schultheis, circa 1937

The hamburger‘s origins are somewhat murky although what constitutes a hamburger — a ground beef patty between two pieces of bread — is considered by most to be a settled affair. Of course, there are all sorts of variations on hamburgers but somehow, apparently, no one had the bright idea to place a slice of cheese — or a processed cheese product — atop a patty until a line cook named Lionel C. Sternberger did so in Pasadena (although at least two other restaurants claim to have invented the cheeseburger). In 1924, whilst working at his father Herman Solomon Sternberger‘s restaurant, The Rite Spot (at 1500 West Colorado Boulevard). The then-sixteen-year-old Sternberger placed a slice of American cheese atop a patty and called it “the Aristocratic Burger.” Sternberger was a New Yorker, having been born in New York City in 1907. The elder Sternberger died that December. By 1928, the aristocratic burger was generally referred to by the less lofty moniker, “cheeseburger.” Sternberger died in 1954. The Rite Spot was demolished and, in 1991, replaced with an office building although a plaque marks the site of its former location.


THE FRENCH DIP

The French Dip is a sandwich made from hot meat and served with meat broth. The origins of the French Dip sandwich, like so many culinary inventions, are disputed although in this case, by just two rivals. In one corner is Cole’s, whose claim to the bragging right is that it opened, as Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet., in 1908 — which it did, albeit without French Dip sandwiches on the menu. The Cole’s version of the story was that the sandwich was requested by a customer who’d just had dental work and thus, couldn’t handle the terrifying crunch of a French roll… and what, it was added to the menu for anyone else who’d had dental work but like this mythical patron couldn’t think of anything to eat except a sandwich dipped in a broth that they agreed should be referred to as a French dip. Sure.

In the other corner is Philippe The Original, where the French Dip was actually invented. Philippe and Arbin Mathieu, two brothers from Southern France by way of Buffalo, arrived in Los Angeles in 1903. Philippe got hired as the chef at The Angelus Hotel. Five months later, the Mathieu brothers opened a deli in the Frenchtown neighborhood at 617 North Alameda Street. In 1908, the Mathieu brothers opened a sit-down restaurant at 300 North Alameda Street. Around 1912, they moved to where City Hall now stands and opened the New Poodle Dog French Restaurant. They sold the restaurant not long after. The brothers got back into business back at the location of their old deli before Arbin split with Philippe in 1916.

In 1918, going it alone, Philippe moved to 246 Aliso Street and opened Philippe’s Restaurant. One day, as Mathieu told it to a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1951, a customer asked for their pork (not beef) sandwich to be dipped in gravy and he obliged… and right away, a small group of customers asked for the same treatment. Almost immediately, customers began requesting the “combination sandwich” and Philippe added it to the menu. Encouraged by Philippe’s success, his landlord sought to quadruple the rent so Philippe instead bought a location at 364 Aliso Street in 1925. Around this time, “French Dip” sandwiches appeared on numerous menus, and writers of the day frequently referred to the craze as new, suggesting further, that the sandwich wasn’t invented by a sore-gummed sandwich addict at Coles twenty years previous. In 1927, Mathieu sold it to David and Harry Martin.

Philippe’s Restaurant closed the restaurant on 2 July 1951 because it was due to be demolished so that the 101 Freeway could be constructed. That same year, the owners re-opened the restaurant at a third location, re-named Philippe the Original, where it remains today. Mathieu died in 1962.


THE CHILI BURGER

The chili burger, as new food inventions go, is pretty straightforward, consisting as it of a hamburger with a patty sloppily topped with chili con carne. It was invented by Thomas Moulton “Texas Ptomaine Tommy” DeForest, a Kansas native born in Kansas in 1890. Texas Ptomaine Tommy came to Los Angeles around 1911 and began operating a chili cart called Ptomaine Tabernacle in 1913. DeForest served in the Air Force in World War I and afterward returned to Los Angeles, where he opened Ptomaine Tommy at 2618 North Broadway in Lincoln Heights in 1918. The chili burger was said to have been born in the 1920s and was referred to by Tommy as the “chili size” to differentiate it from the “hamburger size” and “steak size.” The original location was replaced with the current building in 1929. Tommy moved down the street to 2420 North Broadway.

By 1933, however, chili sizes were common albeit more often known as “chili burgers.” In 1934, a restaurant called The Chili-Burger opened in Van Nuys. It was one of many pretenders and, around 1950, a restaurateur had the gall to open a place called The Original Tommy’s. All of the competition eroded Ptomaine Tommy’s popularity and Ptomaine Tommy closed on 10 August 1958. Its owner and the inventor of the chili burger died eight days later, on the 18th.


THE SMOOTHIE

The Smoothie was likely born in 1929 at Orange Julius. The titular Julius was Julius Freed (born Julius Fried), the only son of a couple of German immigrants who was born in Butte in 1887 and who worked as a banker, mechanical engineer, and raced pigeons. He also ran a cigar shop that was busted for gambling, and which bankrupted Fried, who set out for Southern California in the 1900s.

In 1926, at 820 South Broadway, Freed opened a small establishment from which he dispensed orange juice, medicinal tonics, and Christian literature. He was also an inventor, who created auto-cleaning spectacles, inflatable shrimp traps, and pigeon baths but his signature drink was invented in 1929 by his real estate broker, WillardBill” Hamlin. Hamlin added sugar, milk, vanilla, and egg whites to Julius’s orange juice and blended them with ice in a blender to cut down on the juice’s acidity. The electric drink mixer was then a relatively new invention, having been patented by Polish American chemist Stephen Poplawski in 1922 and until then used primarily to make malted milkshakes rather than fruit smoothies. The frothy result was popular with Julius and customers and soon more Orange Julius locations opened. After Freed died in 1952, Hamlin took over what was by then a flourishing chain. Orange Julius was the official drink of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In 1967 there were over 400 locations and the Orange Julius chain was sold to Al Lapin Jr‘s International Industries, which also owned the International House of Pancakes and The Original House of Pies chains.

Eventually, there were all sorts of similar beverages made from blender pureed fruits and vegetables, and, around 1983, the word “smoothie” entered the English language to describe them all. How truly an invention of Los Angeles the smoothie is, though, is difficult to say. The names may vary but sharbats, lassis, licuados/batidos have long been popular in various cultures and are all very similar to the American “smoothie.”

Hamlin, the inventor of the Orange Julius, died on 29 May 1987 at the age of 90. The birthplace of the Orange Julius is today empty and available for lease. It’s served by Metro’s 10, 35, 38, 48, and 66 lines.


THE COBB SALAD

Inside the Hollywood Brown Derby

The Cobb salad is an entree garden salad typically made with chopped salad greens (iceberg lettuce, watercress, endives, and romaine lettuce), tomato, bacon, grilled or roasted chicken breast, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, chives, Roquefort cheese, and red wine vinaigrette. It originated at the Hollywood Brown Derby, which was owned by Robert Howard Cobb. One of the origin stories is that it was created by Cobb himself, for Sid Grauman, who had just had dental work done and who, for whatever reason, just couldn’t choose the soup option. It was also possibly invented by the restaurant’s chef, either Robert Kreis in 1929 (when the restaurant opened at 1628 North Vine Street. It was also possibly invented by Paul J. Posti, in 1937. The fact that “cobb salad” entered the vernacular and never appeared in print before the 1940s (at least as far as I’ve seen) suggests to me that the Posti version of the story is the more likely. Another version of the story has a hungry Cobb inventing the salad himself. The origins of the salad were debated on an episode of the television comedy, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Hollywood Brown Derby closed on 3 April 1985. Lone abandoned, fires broke out inside in 1987, 1990, and 1992. After it suffered structural damage resulting from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the city ordered its demolition. It was bulldozed on Valentine’s Day, 1994.


PASTRAMI BURGER

Pastrami traces its roots to Tukey, where cow, lamb, or turkey flesh is prepared through brining, smoking, and steaming in a process known as pastırma. From there it made its way to Romania, where it’s known as pastramă. It was Jews from Romania who brought it to cities like New York City and Montreal (where it’s known as “viande fumée”). In New York, it became the custom to serve pastrami on Jewish rye bread. Pastrami made its way to Los Angeles, too, where it was associated with historically Jewish neighborhoods.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the Eastside neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, and especially Brooklyn Heights were home to thriving Jewish communities — where they lived alongside blacks, Molokan Russians, Japanese, Mexicans, Italians, Armenians, and other minorities excluded from living in most of Los Angeles by racist housing covenants. After the Holocaust, racist hostility against Jews began ever to soften ever so slightly and Jews began to settle, in large numbers, in neighborhoods where they’d previously been excluded. The original location of Canter Bros Delicatessen would remain in business on Brooklyn Avenue until the late 1960s but by then, most of the neighborhood’s Jewish restaurants had either moved or closed.

Eastsiders had, by the time most Jews were leaving the Eastside, long ago developed a taste for pastrami, which in Los Angeles came to be served, as often as not, on hamburger buns dressed with mustard and pickles and served with a side of fries — and just as often sharing a menu with. burritos. I’m not 100% sure that the pastrami burger was invented in Los Angeles nor exactly where it may’ve debuted but it definitely has a mid-20th century Southern California vibe. The words “pastrami burger” begin appearing in print, in large numbers, in 1952 and ’53 — in restaurants all over the US. The Hat, although better known for its pastrami dip, also features a pastrami burger and opened in 1951. From the 1950s through the 1970s, many Greek immigrants settled in the Eastside, San Gabriel Valley, and Mideast Los Angeles and opened restaurants like Jim’s Burgers (founded by James Angelopoulos in 1957), George’s Drive-In (founded by George Sideris in 1967), Dino’s Chicken & Burgers (founded by Demetrios Pantazis in 1970), and Patra’s (founded 1976). All, to this day, offer pastrami burgers.


THE CALIFORNIA ROLL

Jiro Shinozaki at Kin Jo (Image: Bob Chamberlin)

The California roll is a type of sushi made from crab flesh, avocado, and occasionally cucumber all wrapped in nori and with rice on the outside. It usually also includes mayonnaise. It is often sprinkled with sesame seeds and the eggs of either the flying fish or capelin. Several chefs and restaurants claim to have created the California roll but what follows is for the most part acknowledged as fact.

Although sushi’s ancient roots can be traced back to ancient China, what most Americans would recognize as sushi began to assume its now-familiar form in the 19th Century. According to his assistant, Ichiro Mashita, Los Angeles sushi chef Teruo Imaizumi was the first to substitute avocado for fatty tuna, which he did in 1964. In 1971, sushi chef Hidekazu Tojo moved from Osaka to Vancouver. Around 1974, at Jinya, he created the Tojo roll, a crab roll with rice on the outside to hide the nori from Canadians who might be put off by the thought of eating sea vegetables. Kin Jo opened at 980 North La Cienega in West Hollywood in 1979 with sushi chef Jiro Shinozaki. It was supposedly then and there that chef Ken Seusa invented the California roll — an “inside-out” makizushi like those made by Tojo and yet featuring avocado along with crab and cucumber.

I’m not sure when Kin Jo closed. It was open at least as late as 1982. The building in which Kin Jo was located still stands and is today home to Al Layali. It’s served by Metro’s 4 and 105 lines, and West Hollywood’s CityLine and PickUp Line.


TUNA TARTARE

Tuna Tartare is derived from steak tartare, an appetizer traditionally made from minced horse or cow flesh. and usually seasoned with onions, capers, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and other seasonings. Its roots, according to some accounts, lie in France, where Tatars, were regarded as exotic and widely believed to subsist on raw meat. However, it was more commonly known in France as steak à l’Americaine until at least the 1920s — perhaps a reference to another uncivilized people. In 1984, French-trained chef Shigefumi Tachibe, then at Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills, was said to have invented a version that substituted the flesh of the tuna for that of the traditional horse or cow in order to satisfy a group of diners who were cutting back on red meat. According to Tachibe, he added it to Chaya’s prix-fixe menu to help open the minds of culinarily sheltered Westsiders to Japanese cuisine, without shocking their Eurocentric sensibilities. As tastes moved away from red meat toward fish, Tuna tartare proved popular and spawned imitations at Spago and Aqua in San Francisco. Chaya closed in 2014, after 30 years, and the site is now home to the Center For Advanced Cardiac And Vascular Interventions. If you want to pay a visit to the location, it’s served by Metro’s 617 Line.


BBQ CHICKEN PIZZA

The BBQ Chicken Pizza was invented by Ed LaDou. La Dou was born on Washington’s McChord Air Force Base in 1955 to an air force pilot and his wife. It was when he was in high school in Los Altos that LaDou began working in restaurants. In 198, Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in Beverly Hills and hired LaDou to be its experimental pizzaiolo.

In 1985, LaDou was approached by Larry Flax — co-founder of California Pizza Kitchen — about creating new pizza combinations for his restaurant. LaDou took the job and created the BBQ Chicken pizza, which quickly took off and was soon being baked in the ovens of rival pizzerias. The flagship CPK is still located at 205 South Beverly Drive and is served by Metro‘s 617 Line. LaDou opened his own restaurant, Caioti Pizza Café, in Laurel Canyon in 1987. A second location opened in West Hollywood but moved to Studio City where, of course, BBQ Chicken Pizza was (and is) on the menu. LaDou died on 27 December 2007. CPK, meanwhile, operates over 250 locations today, in ten countries. I don’t follow an animal-based diet so I’ve never had a BBQ Chicken Pizza, but I have had a vegetarian version, with imitation chicken, which was quite good and, come to think of it, probably also invented in Los Angeles.


KOREAN TACO

Korean tacos are a fusion of Mexican tacos with Korean cuisine made from corn tortillas and Korean toppings like bulgogi and kimchi. Los Angeles, home to both the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico and Koreans outside of Korea, was naturally unsurprising birthplace. They were born at Kogi Korean BBQ, a food truck launched on 19 November 2008 by owners Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin with Seoul-born head chef Roy Choi. By early 2009, the Korean tacos were a sensation, inspiring similar offerings from Cha Cha Chili in Hillside Village, the Dos Chinos truck in Orange County, and in restaurants in Austin, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle. Choi became hugely famous and in 2013, published his memoir, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food. From 2014 until 2015, there was a Kogi Korean BBQ location in Los Angeles International Airport‘s Terminal 4. In 2016, a brick-and-mortar location of Kogi Taqueria opened in Palms and inside a Whole Foods in El Segundo.


So there you have it. Hopefully, it wasn’t too painful. If you know of any other dishes invented in Los Angeles, let me know and, if you’ve just had jaw surgery, perhaps stick to soft foods and stop expecting chefs to invent soft versions of crunchy foods for you, you entitled SOB… and remember to tip your servers ↓↓↓


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

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