It’s hard to believe that Smorgasburg L.A. has been open for a few years now. What started as a test run for an outdoor, weekly Food Festival of sorts, has turned into a permanent, weekly, massive gathering of food stalls from up-and-coming and established, legit restaurants.
Originally launched in New York in 2011, Smorgasburg NY was enough of a success to spawn a spinoff here in Los Angeles. It’s been successful enough, and even surviving 2020 (it was shut down the entire pandemic last year), that it’s now a permanent fixture at the ROW DTLA outdoor retail area, essentially taking over the Alameda Produce Market in Downtown L.A.
This past weekend marked the grand re-opening of Smorgasburg L.A., closed for over a year due to COVID-19. As you can see from the pics, there were thousands of guests, many of them unmasked, with zero social distancing. It felt horrifying, strange, different to be sharing this space with so many, even though it was outdoors (we remained masked the whole time, except when it was time to eat).
The return of Smorgasburg brought with it some new vendors / food stalls that have been garnering attention through their pop-ups. The vendor we were most interested in was:
Opened by a group of chefs who worked at Son of a Gun (Chef John Shook & Vinny Dotolo’s Seafood-focused restaurant), they were featured in the L.A. Times and various other local media publications. Some proclaimed it the best Fish Sandwich in L.A. We couldn’t wait to try it.
Fried Fish Sandwich (Pacific Striped Bass, Pickles, American Cheese, Kewpie Mayo):
The Fish featured in their Fried Fish Sandwich changes depending on what they can get fresh. For this visit, they were using a Pacific Striped Bass, which is unusual and unique for a Fried Fish Sandwich. They are clearly going for a homage to McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. Taking a bite:
Super soft, fluffy Bun that tastes like Martin’s Potato Roll, but softer. Then you get this super light, delicate, crunchy bite of the Fried Pacific Striped Bass. It is super moist, delicate, a touch briny, but delicious. It features a Beer Batter, and according to one publication they also Koji-cure the Fish Filet first. Impressive. It’s airy, soft, delicate, crunchy.
Is it the best Fish Sandwich I’ve ever had? No. But it’s pretty darn close. I like it just a touch below Honeybird’s OG Phil Lee ‘O Fish Sandwich. I mention “OG” because Honeybird’s current iteration is a shadow of it’s OG self. But that original Phil Lee O’ Fish was incredible! This one by Little Fish is a very close 2nd, and quite tasty.
Fresh Squeezed Lemonade:
A touch too sweet, but otherwise, refreshing, cooling and perfect for the hot Summer Sunday.
The Bad Jew
The humorously named restaurant, The Bad Jew bills itself as “a very unkosher deli based in Los Angeles.” They are the home of the Porkstrami Sandwich (Pastrami made with Pork, instead of Beef).
Half and Half:
The Danny Boy (Porkstrami, Havarti, Russian, Slaw, Mustard on Rye):
Their non-grilled Sandwich option, The Danny Boy tasted like a weird take on Langer’s #19, but the Rye Bread was a weakness (just like every other contender trying to challenge Langer’s over the years). The Bread was slightly stale / firm (not steamed like Langer’s). The Porkstrami was… interesting. Not bad, it sort of tasted like Pastrami, but the Pork-base gave it a more earthy component.
The Reubecca (Porkstrami, Havarti, Russian, Kraut Grilled on Rye):
The Reubecca is their Reuben Sandwich. The grilled Rye helped give it more texture, a lightly toasted crunch. But overall, the taste of the Porkstrami was unique, but did not make us miss Langer’s Pastrami at all.
The Goat Mafia
This was another long-time pop-up that we had been hoping to try. They are a Birria de Chivo (Stewed Goat Meat) specialist, and their pop-ups in the past were always too far away for us (and/or just bad timing). The one challenging aspect is that they offer only 1 menu option: A Combination Platter featuring all 3 of their dishes. There’s no option to only have their Birria Tacos, nor any other offering a la carte.
A cute name / idea, this is their Vegetarian option, featuring Goat Cheese and Beets in a “Quesadilla” type format. The only problem is this “Quesadilla” was lukewarm / cold, the Tortilla was barely griddled, tasting like it was out of the bag. The inside tasted exactly like its ingredients: Some Beets, some Goat Cheese. That’s it.
Their Hog-Lisco Taco was much better, tasting like Carnitas in an Adobada Sauce, some slight crunch from Chiccharon (Fried Pork Skin), and the Pickled Onions helped provide a nice tart aspect. Tasty.
Birria de Chivo Taco:
And the highlight: There is a reason they are called “The Goat Mafia.” The Birria de Chivo (Stewed Goat) was super moist and tender, full of big flavors, Chile de Arbol, layers of herbs and long-stewing suppleness. This was delicious!
Probably one of the best Birria Tacos we’ve had in recent memory.
Sadly, the only way to get this right now is to order their Combination Plate, which at $16 feels a bit overpriced for a tiny, mediocre Beet Quesadilla, and 2 Tacos. Hopefully in the future they’ll offer the Birria Taco by itself, and you can order a few to enjoy.
This was another pop-up that I was very curious about, as Bill Addison and the L.A. Times had written glowing things about this place. They were also a welcome debut at Smorgasburg L.A. this weekend. Bridgetown Roti is a Caribbean Food pop-up by Rashida Jones.
Mom’s Curry Chicken Roti:
When I first heard their name (Bridgetown Roti) and that it was Caribbean food, I thought it might be “fusion” since Roti was always something I associated with Indian food. But it turns out that this round Flatbread is also quite popular in the Caribbean.
Bridgetown’s version of Roti resembled a large Flour Tortilla. They wrapped up their Chicken Curry within, and it was even shaped like a Burrito.
There was a lot going on inside, Red Cabbage, Cilantro, Stewed Vegetables, Caribbean Chicken Curry that wasn’t spicy at all (they served the Hot Sauce on the side for all orders). It was pleasantly spiced, very different from Indian, Thai, Chinese or Japanese Curries. The pliant Roti and the filling gave this a completely unique taste from any “Burrito” you might be expecting.
Oxtail & Peppers Patty:
Their Oxtail & Peppers Patty was full of zesty, herbally flavor. Nice, tender, shredded Oxtail meat (de-boned) and mixed with Peppers. The outside Patty crust was crumbly and light.
The Hot Sauce (Medium) packed some real heat. It tasted like Scotch Bonnets, so a little dab was enough.
Go Go Bird
We had tried this Fried Chicken pop-up from Chef Brandon Kida (of Hinoki & The Bird fame) before the pandemic. It was tasty and showed great promise. But then the pandemic hit and we never got a chance to try it again. So we were definitely looking forward to enjoying Go Go Bird again, now that it’s at Smorgasburg L.A. every week.
Looking at the menu, we were disappointed to learn that they are not serving Chef Kida’s Bone-In Fried Chicken. They are serving only Tenders, a Fried Chicken Sandwich, and Wings (which sounds just like what Howlin’ Ray’s is doing).
Fried Chicken Sandwich (Fried Chicken Breast, Pickled Slaw, Japanese Ranch, Potato Bun):
Their Fried Chicken Sandwich was decent. There was some crunch, but as you can see in the photo (above) it’s fried at the wrong temperature, looking very dark, and it tasted greasy.
Japanese Cheddar Biscuit, Go Slaw:
Each “Chicken Box” comes with their 3 sides, and the Japanese Cheddar Biscuit was pre-made earlier in the day (but that’s to be expected given the outdoor food stall type setup). It was fine, lightly crumbly, but a bit dry.
The Go Slaw was also just sort of there. Nothing standout about it.
Their Fries were lightly crispy (just barely), and very soft and potato-y within. Not bad.
Fried Wings (3 Spicy Whole Chicken Wings):
One look at their Fried Chicken Wings and you can see that their fryers were just not up to par. Fried at the wrong temperature, the Wings were soaking in oil. It looked really unappetizing, and nothing like their OG Pop-Up product. Taking a bite:
Saturated in grease and heavy tasting. The Chicken meat within was tender, but it had so much Oil around it, that’s not surprising. It was also over-salted. Terrible.
Did not help at all.
Go Go Bird at Smorgasburg is a good example of a pop-up suffering from the outdoors, tiny, temp kitchen setup. The fryers clearly weren’t sufficient for their needs, and they put out mediocre / bad Fried Chicken (Sandwiches and Wings). Hopefully we’ll see a more permanent space appear in the future to better enjoy what Chef Kida is trying to do.
In the end, Smorgasburg L.A.s Grand Re-Opening was a success in terms of sheer number of people. The actual pop-ups / vendors? Not so much. The strongest would probably be Los Dorados, the outstanding Flautas specialist that @A5KOBE and I have written about previously. They had their own Food Truck on site, so their product was consistent, crunchy and delicious.
Burritos La Palma is another excellent vendor, with their top-notch Handmade Flour Tortillas, one of the best in the city. They have locations in El Monte and Santa Ana already, so if you can’t make it there, then this is a great alternative to try Burritos La Palma.
Little Fish is probably the star, new vendor to join Smorgasburg, and worth a visit for their Fried Fish Sandwich, which is like the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish of your dreams. If The Goat Mafia starts selling their Birria Tacos a la carte, then that’s a must visit as well.
There’s also a very large group of Vegan food stalls, which is worth considering for any vegans out there wanting to try a variety of options. Smorgasburg L.A. is currently a shadow of its highest point (when they had Guerrilla Tacos (with Chef Wes Avila in the house), Pastry Chef Nicole Rucker’s amazing Pies, Porridge & Puffs (stunning!), Goa Taco (when they were good), but there are still some highlights here that would make a visit worth it, if you’re willing to brave those lines and throngs of unmasked people.
(At the ROW DTLA)
777 S. Alameda St.
Los Angeles, CA 90021