Restaurant inspiration does not come in a vacuum. You have to get out in the world to see what other people are cooking up. For this very reason, Joe and I have spent inordinate amounts of time at restaurants, both high and low, in cities all over—eating, drinking, and scrutinizing everything from food to cocktails to design.

Which is why restaurant industry R&D trips should really be called E&D trips. Research and development quickly transforms into eating and drinking—a lot of it. In an attempt to squeeze in the most tastings as possible, meals are doubled-up: breakfasts extend into lunch which, with a small break for a nap (or maybe a trip to the gym in a futile attempt to turn back caloric time), picks back up with a multiple-restaurant progressive dinner. If you’re hardcore, you continue on to another bar or two. Or if you’re me, you go back to your hotel room, take an Alka-Seltzer and pass out.

The most recent E&D trip I attended was last week when Blake Askew, Chino’s new chef, and I went to Los Angeles. We arrived at 10 am Wednesday morning and left at 8 pm Thursday evening and, with a decent night of sleep, managed to squeeze in nine eating and drinking stops.

Blake gets ready for his big moment.

Blake gets ready for his big moment.

The true impetus for our trip was to visit Din Tai Fung in Arcadia. Until last Wednesday, Blake was a DTF virgin and he needed to experience what I’d call the DTF XLB Awakening—that jaw-dropping moment when one first experiences a perfect soup dumpling made with a gravity-defyingly thin yet taut, 18-pleated wrapper holding a gush of liquid gold and a pork meatball. Watching him spoon up the dumpling, I held my breath: It was like a test of lifeblood. But thankfully, with one bite, Blake uttered a little moan and his eyes properly rolled in the back of his head. I’m happy to report back that Blake is not dead on the inside.

A visit to Din Tai Fung always affords revelations that extend far beyond their soup dumplings. I always crush on something, even if I’ve had it before. This time it was the fish dumplings—made up of nothing more than a pleasingly mild and juicy snow-white fish quenelle surrounded by a perfectly dimpled, crescent-shaped dumpling wrapper. But this isn’t to say that the fried rice, tossed with tender velveted chicken and dotted with the tiniest bits of bright yellow egg and barely a sign of scorch or oil, isn’t perfection. Ditto the creamy, peanuty spicy sesame noodles which arrive with the noodles laid out in parallel, like how I imagine a bird with OCD might build a nest. Then there is the dish of vivid green, bitter-sweet and crunchy mustard greens with nothing more than slivers of ginger; the smoked tofu salad with glass noodles and seaweed (Chino’s seaweed salad is a tiny nod to this dish); and the perfectly stacked, garlicky, crunchy little cucumbers. I could go on.

Of course I’m not the first to fawn over Din Tai Fung, but what’s truly revelatory about this restaurant is its light, sophisticated, and modern touch and the consistently good service. Now that I know how challenging it is to run multiple restaurants that serve soulful yet consistently finessed food, the fact that DTF is a multi-unit chain, born in the 70s, with locations both in the US and all over the world (including one opening in Santa Clara soon!), is truly humbling. It’s almost so perfect that it’s inhuman. Come to think of it, DTF might be run by aliens.

Of course, in the name of E&D, Blake and I ate at more places than Din Tai Fung. Since we stayed in Koreatown, we kept our visits on that side of town. It also allowed us to fly out of Burbank, which is like flying out of a small-town airport located in the corn fields of Iowa. There was no security line (like zero people), and when it was time for our flight, the United person actually walked into the tiny airport bar to personally announce it.

WHERE WE ATE

Phoenix's coffee jello.

Phoenix’s coffee jello.

JJ Bakery
Located just across the way from Din Tai Fung, this classic Asian bakery chain serves up everything you can imagine, from egg custard tarts to mochi to cakes to perfect, soft, brioche-like buns filled with everything from hot dogs to sweet taro, the latter being my weakness and so scrumptious (this is a bun that calls for that word) that I ate the whole thing—before we sat down for dumplings.

Phoenix Food Boutique
In the same strip mall, and also before our DTF lunch, Blake and I sat down at this Chinese jello shop. Though they serve far more than jello, Phoenix’s beautiful little jiggly squares, comprised of everything from almond milk to red bean to green tea to mango, is what I love the most. They also make a coffee jello that you pour cream into (soon to appear in some form on the Chino menu).

Pot
I wanted to try out Roy Choi’s new-ish hot-pot restaurant located in the trendy Line Hotel. Though the food was tasty, this is a restaurant so beholden to the concept of irony (granny-style flowered wallpaper, servers in flowery aprons, half-dead house plants all combined with a menu formed as a newspaper and a booming club-quality sound system) that the food and service (which was pretty checked out) was secondary. I think I loved the charred octopus salad, but I kind of wanted to take it back to our hotel and eat it without distraction—speaking of granny.

Guisados
After Pot, our chef friend and dining partner Perry Cheung, formerly of the Slanted Door, now the owner of LA’s popular pho spot Phorage, kindly drove us to a bar for a cocktail after which we capped the night off at the downtown LA location of Guisados, a taco spot which I’ve waxed on about before. Let’s just say that the chorizo and cheese quesadilla was just as killer as last time, and, after eating a chicken tinga taco, Blake uttered these fighting words: “This might be the best taco I’ve ever had.” Despite my allegiance to Tacolicious, I might have secretly agreed with him and because he himself said might, I decided we should let him continue to work for our company.

Sqirl
When in Los Angeles, do as the Los Angelenos do. When I visit a city, I like to see what’s buzzing, and if anywhere in LA is high on the trend-o-meter, it’s Sqirl, which Bon App gave a huge spread of love to and Mark Bittman just wrote about for the New York Times. On Thursday, we breakfasted at Sqirl, standing in line with an appropriately fashionable group of folks waiting to order at the self-service breakfast and lunch spot. Everything at this tiny place is just so, from the perfectly-pitched mismatched plates, to the chalkboard sign, to the tempting pastries, to the menu of healthy, egg-driven treats. I loved the way the menu sounded (a lot of “lacto-fermenting” going on) maybe more than I loved the actual food (my crispy rice salad with a fried egg was incredibly vinegary), but for an E&D trip, it was a perfect hit of LA.

A Won
By day two, a lunch of hoedeopbap (or hwe dup bap)—a classic Korean dish of sashimi salad with warm steamed rice—was a much-needed antidote to everything else we’d consumed. I found A Won recommended in a great article by Jonathan Gold, who might know LA’s Koreatown more intimately than any Korean out there. Blake and I mowed down a gargantuan bowl of chopped greens and raw cubes of fish, all topped with a sparkly dollop of crunchy, orange tobiko, and mixed up with warm white rice. When cold, crunchy, and warm all come together in perfect synergy, I’m telling you, magic happens.

The wings at Kyo Chon

The wings at Kyo Chon

Kyo Chon
We had 20 minutes before we had to leave for the airport, so Blake suggested we walk ourselves over to Kyo Chon, a tiny, modern little spot hailed as the mother of Korean fried chicken. In the company of a lot of Korean teenagers posting selfies of each other, we ordered the wings in both soy-garlic and spicy (the latter which came with a stern warning from our server). Let’s just say that the twice-fried wings are indeed addictively delicious in that crispy, sticky-sweet-salty way, but the spicy ones had a slow burn that evolved into a blue flame that erupted on our lips. I kept asking Blake to let me know if I was actually on fire. Unfortunately, Kyo Chon doesn’t offer a bowl of yogurt to dunk your face in.

WHERE WE STAYED
Hotel Normandie
This refurbished, historic, boutique hotel based in Koreatown (and a block away from The Line) was everything we needed: reasonably priced with comfortable, if small rooms, and great service. I’d stay there again in a heartbeat.