Favorites at Masters of Taste 2022

Hank’s “Single Diamond Slider” from Chef Isaias Piña at Masters of Taste. Photo by Elise Thompson.

Masters of Taste 2022 recently brought together more than 100 “Culinary Masters” “Sweet Masters,” and top Beverage Masters at the Rose Bowl. The event featured the best of Los Angeles, including the best local restaurants of its host city, Pasadena. It always features the newest food trends and introduces you to new restaurants you can’t wait to try. It is cocktail-heavy, with some of the best mixologists in the area creating exciting, crafted drinks. Usually I focus on the food, but this is one event where I let go and really drink. “Hey Mr DJ” kept the tunes spinning, even making us nostalgic with songs like the Cure’s “Just like Heaven.”

This year, Masters of Taste took place during Songkran, Thai New Year, so Chef Vanda  Asapahu, Host of this year’s event, invited local Thai restaurants to participate in the Songkran Thai SELECT Pavilion in the Rose Bowl’s end zone. As a culinary challenge, each Thai restaurant was tasked with preparing a dish, dessert, or cocktail using sahm kler (which translates to “3 buddies”), and is made up of white peppercorn, garlic, and cilantro root.

For her part, Chef Vanda caused an absolute sensation with her scallops under glass, infused with Jasmine smoke. Jasmine is a celebratory flower of Songkran. Everyone was taking videos of themselves lifting the dome to watch the smoke curl into the sky. Her sister, Chef Cathy Asapahu, was able to use the “3 buddies” in her desserts, believe it or not. My favorite was the ice cream in cute little tulles.

Little Llama Peruvian Tacos’ Shrimp Ceviche Tostada. at Masters of Taste 2022. Photo by Elise Thompson.

Little Llama Peruvian Tacos may have won the bite of the day with their Shrimp Ceviche Tostada. Combining little chunks of ahi tuna and two whole shrimp would have been enough for a truly generous tostadita. But gilding it with mango, pickled red onion salsa, cumin guacamole and an aji amarillo leche de tigre made for full and rich flavors that exploded in your mouth. Strangers stopped me to tell me that the tostadita I was holding was their favorite bite. For many years Little Llama could only be found at SmorgasburgLA, but now you can try their delicious takes on tacos and burritos in DTLA.

At a food event, your appetite is a precious commodity, so I normally wouldn’t eat a giant burger right off the bat, but Hank’s “Single Diamond Slider” from Chef Isaias Piña was so appetizing-looking, I went for it, even though I knew it would fill me up. It was worth it. The burger was comprised of a thick, juicy patty with Tillamook cheese, butter lettuce, grilled onions and a house sauce. The chef also created a fantastic

Speaking of burgers, Chef Kasja Alger, who I have loved since her days at STREET with Susan Feniger, brought a slider version of the vegan OG Burger that she and her team developed for Stand Up Burgers, a Veggie Grill brand. But what I was really there for were the coffee donut holes with java glaze and a rich coffee caramel sauce for dipping that were presented in partnership with Donut Friend for Masters of Taste.

Alexander’s Steakhouse always brings something befitting its reputation, and this year Chef Richard Archuleta impressed me with their Kurobata Pork Skewers. in soy garlic beurre noisette, although my plus one preferred the A5 Wagyu.

Bone Kettle is a perennial favorite, and they did not disappoint this year either. Now one of my regular lunch spots in Pasadena, I was first turned on to this Southeast Asian kitchen at the Masters of Taste event. Their Wagyu Beef Curry Croquette was perfection. As you broke the potato ball apart, the delicious aroma of curry hit you even before you tasted it. The Lao Gan Ma (Chili Crunch Sauce) aioli was a nice touch. A week later I was sitting on the banquette at Bone Kettle ordering more of them.

Bone Kettle’s Wagyu Beef Curry Croquette at Masters of Taste. Photo by Elise Thompson.

Two of the Drago brothers, from the Sicilian-American cooking dynasty, offered a duo of pastas, and really, pasta doesn’t get any better. Pasadena’s Celestino served Busiato con Pesto alla Trapanese, a corkscrew pasta with a Sicilian almond pesto. Drago, in DTLA, served a well-balanced, intense yet subtle Garganelli Pasta with a Sausage and Wild Mushroom Ragout. The Garganelli was served out of a hollowed-out wheel of Parmesan, which is a total baller move.

Yardbird Chef Eduardo Osorio served no less than five plates, including Fried Green Tomatoes and Street Corn (Esquites), but it was the Chicken ‘n’ Waffle Skewers that blew me away. I felt like I was channeling Top Chef judges, as I thought, “That was absolutely the perfect bite.” Chicken and Waffles have been done to death in recent years, but there is a good reason for it. When done properly, there may be no better brunch dish, and this juicy, crispy chicken and maple syrup-soaked waffle were proper.

Mi Piace, a beautiful, white tablecloth Italian restaurant on Colorado in Pasadena pulled a double header with rich slow-braised short ribs in a demi-glace with Vahlrona chocolate and a mireproix on Saffron Risotto from Chef Gil Saulnier, and the only dessert that made me return for seconds–a mini brulee cheesecake.

We had the good fortune of receiving Bertha Mae’s Brownies in our gift bags at the press preview of Masters of Taste. At the event, was handing out single bites, which was a good thing, because then you could try every single flavor without getting overwhelmed. sea salt and caramel, peanut butter, chocolate mint, cinnamon chip, and my favorite–toffee.  They were so rich and fudgelike, you didn’t need a huge bar. Bertha Mae was the founder’s grandmother, and this is her recipe.

Chef Calogero Drago at Masters of Taste. Photo by Elise Thompson.

John Hensley, owner of the family-owned, famed Lark Cake Shop, wowed me with their Red Velvet cupcakes, which really, is no surprise. They have been wowing the denizens of Silver Lake with their classic and custom cakes since 2007. Now with a location in Pasadena, I have no excuse not to visit for every special occasion.

Along with a selection of Gildas, cute little Basque skewers made with pickled vegetables, South Bay local Gabi James offered a “Butterfly G&T” that was the best cocktail of the day. Butterfly sweet pea floral-infused gin and a grapefruit tonic combined to create a light, clean cocktail. I had not even realized that my shoulders were bunched up by my ears until I took my first sip and felt them relax. Another favorite was the Gooseberry Cocktail from Mixologist Joy Yuon of Holy Basil, a Thai street food spot in DTLA. The Raymond 1886, who always brings awesome cocktails, offered a Scotch-based drink and a Rum-based drink.

“100% of the proceeds from Masters of Taste 2022 will directly benefit Union Station Homeless Services, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is committed to providing permanent solutions to end homelessness and rebuild lives…Homeless Services’ mission is guided by the belief that everyone deserves a life of dignity and a place to call home. In the last four years Masters of Taste has raised over $2 Million in support of Union Station Homeless Services life-saving programs.

This year, Masters of Taste partnered with Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, Los Angeles (C-CAP LA), a national non-profit that provides culinary, job, and life skills to over 20,000 middle-and-high school students. The non-profit, founded with Marcus Samuelsson, provided high school student volunteers to assist the chefs.”

Gooseberry Cocktail from Mixologist Joy Yuon of Holy Basil at Masters of Taste. Photo by Elise Thompson.

Elise Thompson

About Elise Thompson

Born and raised in the great city of Los Angeles, this food, culture and music-loving punk rock angeleno wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city. While Elise holds down the fort, her adventurous alter ego Kiki Maraschino is known to roam the country in search of catfish.
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