Gambling on Food


(Note: This article was originally published in LA CityBeat in June of 2006, so you have an excellent chance to see whether I was right or wrong. I got a few right, but still can’t find a good Danish restaurant in Southern California…)

Anyone who opens a restaurant isn’t just a chef or business manager, they’re a gambler. They’re betting that the team they’re assembling will work together rather than fight, that the ambiance they create will fit the tastes of the community, that the prices they set on their menu will allow them a decent profit despite fluctuations in food costs. Most of all, they’re betting that the style of cuisine they select will remain popular enough that customers keep coming in. Popular taste can change very quickly. Ask anyone who opened a Cajun restaurant just as that particular craze peaked – that is, if you can find them wherever they’re working now.

If the prospective restaurateurs are real high-stakes gamblers, they pick a style that isn’t popular now, and bet it will be by the time they’re open. To do this takes either nerves of steel, ridiculous overconfidence, complete ignorance, or a mixture of all three. Those who bet correctly can not merely retire on the profits of a well-run operation, they might go into culinary history as the standard bearer of a cuisine. As an example, when Tommy Tang opened a high style Thai restaurant in LA in 1978, Thai food was nearly unknown, and plenty of people thought he was doomed. Now plenty of chefs would like to be the next Tommy Tang, complete with cooking show and book deals.

Someone out there is going to give the American mainstream the taste they always wanted but never had, the one that will be a standard item the way that Pad Thai has conquered unlikely markets like the California Pizza Kitchen. The brave souls who bet their savings on being just ahead of popular taste deserve a little guidance, so for their instruction and the edification of you, my readers, I present this racetrack-style tip sheet on the likelihood of various cuisines becoming the Next Big Thing. Remember, this is not about the success of restaurants that cater to the ethnic community or to adventurous diners, but for the big break into culinary stardom. The author and this publication accept no liability for failure of these predictions to make you internationally famous, though if you do, I’ll happily accept a large check as a token of your esteem.


Albanian/Bosnian: 30-1 Though the cuisine is relatively light and might have a niche market among fans of healthy Mediterranean-style dining, the relatively bland spicing works against it. LA appreciates outspoken flavors, not subtlety, and besides, the names of the dishes have too many consonants in a row for Americans to remember.
Where to get it in LA: Aroma Café, 2530 Overland, West LA – 323-464-3663

Armenian: 5-1 The cured beef known as basturma is everything we love about pastrami but with an extra shot of garlic – make that a double shot. Put basturma on a toasted bun, pair it with a traditional tarragon-flavored soda, and you have a wonderfully outré lunch that just might become popular. You can envision a defanged version of this called a McBasturma as a popular item at Mc Donald’s in 2017.
Where to get it in LA: Sahag’s Basturma, 5183 Sunset, Hollywood – 323- 661-5311

Bulgarian: 25-1 The turnovers stuffed with feta cheese and herbs have an outside chance of going mainstream, probably in the “Healthy Bites” section at TGI Friday’s. As with Albanian food, many Bulgarian flavors are too much like a milder version of Greek cuisine. Too subtle for pop culture.
Where to get it in LA: Danube, 1303 Westwood, LA – 310-473-4214

Burmese/Cambodian: 8-1 Similar to Northern Indian and Thai, both cuisines that have made it into the mainstream, but with enough differences to be worth a separate entry. The papaya salad has a shot at greatness – it has the blend of sweet, sour, and spicy that Americans already love, but with a distinctive difference. Cambodians grill beef with basil, onions, and a sweetly spicy sauce, which is a certain hit as soon as it’s put on a pizza.
Where to get it in LA: Golden Triangle, 7011 Greenleaf Ave., Whittier

Colombian: 20-1 Will Colombian food be the next big South American success, now that Brazilian steakhouses have been opening all over the country? I’m betting against it; Colombian food is very good, but the beef-heavy cuisine doesn’t fit current trends toward lighter and healthier food. The arepa, a cheese-filled pancake, might seem to have potential as a fast food item, but they don’t travel well – that soft, delicious thing you picked up at the counter is hard and oily after ten minutes.
Where to get it in LA: Cali Viejo, 7363 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys 818-994-2930

Danish: 5-1 The modern Danish smorgasbord serves small portions that have all the color and variety of a well-stocked sushi bar, with gorgeous abstract presentations to match. Sooner or later, somebody is going to open one in Los Angeles and make enough to buy a castle in Elsinore.
Where to get it in LA: Nowhere, unfortunately

Ethiopian: 4-1 The only reason Ethiopian food isn’t wildly popular is that it’s a cuisine of stews, generally eaten with soft and slightly sour injera bread. The injera is the problem – put the spicy chicken known as doro wat or the buttery lamb stew called tibs in a burrito, and wait for the cash register to start ringing. Better yet, use sourdough bread so you get a dash of the original flavor balance… Neither will really be as good as the original injera for flavor, but Americans will be more likely to buy them.
Where to get it in LA: Fassica, 10401 Washington Blvd., Culver City – 310-815-8463, or anywhere on Fairfax near Olympic

Filipino: 7-1 Traditionally prepared Filipino food isn’t too likely to make it big in America, with the possible exception of the Adobo barbecued ribs marinated in black vinegar and spices. The problem is the Filipinos like fatty pork, which is bursting with flavor but doesn’t mesh with modern diets or ideas of texture. Slim down the meat dishes, serve the seafood wrapped in banana leaves so diners open them at the table and get the blast of scented steam, and keep the fryer busy with the tiny, flavorful eggrolls called Lumpia.
Where to get it in LA: Papillon, 408 Main St., El Segundo. 310-640-0408

Icelandic: 100-1 The longest of long shots, and not only because the dishes this country is famous for – singed and boiled sheep’s head, pickled shark, and sour ram’s testicles – aren’t even that popular in Reykjavik any more. There are some wonderful local specialties, such as the flatbread, distinctively spiced yoghurt, and slow-smoked lamb. Unfortunately, the lightly sour and herbal flavors that enliven the best of this cuisine have never been big with Americans who live very far from North Dakota.
Where to get it in LA: Nowhere. And I’m not holding my breath waiting

Indonesian: 3-1 The Indonesian rijstaffel is perfect for someone who likes spicy food and has a very short attention span – dinner consists of a few bites each of ten or fifteen different dishes, generally served all at once. The flavors run wild from very spicy to vinegary, sour, and sweet, and most preparations are on the healthy side. Dress up the presentation, serve the dishes sequentially instead of all at once, and you have an experience worthy of The French Laundry gone native.
Where to get it in LA: Indo Café, 10428 1/2 National Blvd, LA. 310-815-1290

Oaxacan: 6-1 I’m almost afraid to think of what Taco Bell would do to a tlayuda, the thick corn pancake topped with chicken and sauce that is the breakout item for Oaxacan cuisine. (At least they’re likely to regularize the name of the thing – some places call it a clayuda, others have more arcane spellings.) The tlayuda is the obvious choice, but the green and black mole’ dishes have a good chance of going big. American’s aren’t fans of oxtail soup, another specialty, but if it was made with different or deboned meat, that could catch on too.
Where to get it in LA: Guelgazeta, various locations

Peruvian: Even odds. Once a dark horse, now a favorite, thanks to the popularity of chicken marinated in chicha, the Andean spiced corn and citrus drink. There’s a lot more to discover – the potato stuffed with meat, olives, and onion, then deep-fried, should be a fast food hit, and the saltados, stir-fries with french fries tossed in, will appeal to fans of healthy eating and french fry hounds alike. It might take a while for the high Andean cuisine like cuy picante – an opossum-like animal topped with hot chili sauce – to go big, but the Lima-style cuisine has all the marks of a winner.
Where to get it in LA: El Pollo Inka, various locations

Polish: 15-1 Polish food is a promising yearling – unlikely to go big right now, but it has potential. Pierogies, the Polish ravioli, come in a variety of flavors and can be served steamed or deep-fried; dim sum gone on a Northern European vacation, where they made the acquaintance of dill sauce and other delights. Some of the salads that blend vegetables and fruit fit the California lifestyle too. There’s more to Polish food than sauerkraut and sausage, and an entrepreneur who could be the Wolfgang Puck of Polish cuisine could make it big.
Where to get it in LA: Polka, 4112 Verdugo Road, Eagle Rock, (323) 255-7887 or Warszawa, 1414 Lincoln Boulevard, Santa Monica. 310-393-8831

Singaporean/Malaysian: 2-1 Why do I rank Singaporean food as having such potential? Because it started as a street stall food, fast, fresh, and spicy, and it’s just waiting for a fast food entrepreneur to make it a hit. The burrito-like poh piah might need a little thicker crepe so it will survive the car ride home next to the limeade and iced sugar cane juice, but otherwise, this filly is ready to run.
Where to get it in LA: Singapore’s Banana Leaf, Farmer’s Market, LA, or Kuala Lumpur, 69 West Green St., Pasadena

Uzbek: 8-1 Yes, most Americans can’t find it on a map, but they can’t find Sicily on the first try either, and that hasn’t hurt lasagna. Uzbek cuisine has a flavorful combination of European and Asian, with intriguing stuffed pastries, handmade pasta fried with lamb and vegetables, delicate seafood with herbs, and terrific fried rice called plov. It’s comfort food with a hint of exotica, a combination that could take off in America if well presented.
Where to get it in LA: Uzbekhistan Restaurant, 7077 W. Sunset, Hollywood

Vietnamese Bun: Even odds. The Vietnamese got the idea for sandwiches from the French, and they improved vastly on what they received. Unlike American sandwiches that are meat-heavy, the Vietnamese use small amounts of very flavorful meat along with both pickled and fresh vegetables. It’s light, fresh, and tasty, and odds are good it’s what we’ll all be eating a few years from now. This thoroughbred is ready for the roses…
Where to get it in LA: Mr. Baguette, 8702 E. Valley, Rosemead, or most Vietnamese restaurants at lunchtime…

West African: 15-1 This is another cuisine with lots of stews, a problem in our finger food culture, but the flavors here are so good that they’ll take off if well presented. I haven’t tried putting the savory peanut-chicken stew on a pizza, in a burrito, or between bread, but someone will figure out how to do it someday, and they just might have a shot at stardom.
Where to get it in LA: Ngoma, at 5358 Wilshire Boulevard, LA. 323-934-2695

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