Favorites from Masters of Taste: Culinary Masters

Chili John’s Chili Dog’s at the 2023 Masters of Taste event. Photo by Elise Thompson.

Written with Karin E. Baker

Last Sunday, the Rose Bowl’s field was dotted with white tents and picnic tables as guests spilled out of the stands to enjoy the Sixth annual Master’s of Taste food event. It was a beautiful day, and the event was well-attended, but not crowded. It was just right. 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. Best of all, 100% of the proceeds from this fundraiser will directly benefit Union Station Homeless Services, a non-profit organization celebrating 50 years of providing homeless services and housing for thousands of neighbors.

This year’s Masters of Taste hosts were Chef Michael Reed his wife and co-owner, Kwini Reed. A native of Oxnard, Chef Reed is a classically trained chef with 19 years of experience. He is the co-owner and Executive Chef behind Poppy + Rose in Downtown LA, and Anaheim’s Poppy & Seed, both of which he runs with Kwini Reed, along with an upscale catering company, Root of All Food, which they founded in 2011. Kwini Reed has a degree in marketing and runs the business end of things. She is active with local nonprofits, such as Brown Bag Lady, which provides meals to people experiencing homelessness in LA. Kwini and Michael Reed will will soon open Poppy + Rose in San Pedro, offering casual brunch and a refined dinner menu.

The Host Chefs are naturally expected to bring it, and Poppy + Rose blew us out of the water with pulled pork on a crispy brick of hash browns topped with an over easy quail egg, arugula and creme fraiche.

Poppy + Rose (Chef Michael Reed) Pulled Pork on brick hash browns with quail egg, arugula and creme fraiche at the 2023 Masters of Taste event. Photo by Elise Thompson.

Also going with a brunch vibe, Georgia’s Restaurant’s chef Nika Shoemaker-Machado served shrimp and grits, a light yet comforting bite, perfect for the weather which was turning from Winter to Spring. Great Maple, which has locations in Pasadena, Anaheim, Newport Beach, and San Diego, served one of our favorite plates. Chef Scott Floyd’s soda pop ribs — baby back ribs, slow-braised and then grilled — were served alongside a white cheddar and black pepper biscuit.

Chef Richard Archuleta of Alexander’s Steakhouse made skewered A5 wagyu brisket braised in tomato sauce, and served with a side of nishiki rice, parmesan and spring peas. The wagyu was rich and satisfying, and it was the perfect little bite for our nearly overstuffed bellies. Hank’s in Pacific Palisades is renowned for its burgers: in fact, The Los Angeles Times designated one of their burgers “Best of the Southland”! Chef Isaias Peña once again shared Hank’s Slider with us. This juicy, custom-made patty composed of wagyu, short rib, and brisket was worthy of the award.

The city of Burbank represented, with two of its best independent casual eateries, and a new concept in a special-occasion restaurant. Chili John’s, which opened in 1946, brought chili dogs. Considering they only make chili, you can have it dozens of ways — turkey, vegetarian, with or without beans, on spaghetti, and even quinoa. If you ever make it to the neighborhood, have a seat at their old-fashioned horseshoe counter and order up some lemon icebox pie. World Empanadas, which started out in the back of a liquor store on Victory in Burbank, brought a representative selection of their popular baked empanadas, including chicken pot pie (my favorite), caprese, and vegan mushroom cashew cheese. I didn’t realize I could have more than one, but luckily, I live near the little storefront and can get a banana nutella or dulce de leche empanada for breakfast.

The Green Room, a seductive cocktail lounge hidden away in the Castaway, impressed with Cajun Hot Seafood: Grilled Peruvian Scallops and Oysters, BBQ Lime Butter, crispy garlic and scallions served on a bed of river stones. Chef Czarina Sico’s spicing was thoughtful and accentuated the natural flavor of the seafood instead of masking it. Be sure to make a reservation for their intriguing “Alice in Wonderland” themed pop-up.

Perfect for a sunny afternoon, there were a number of cold fish dishes. Winner of a Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2019, Ayara Thai offered Khao Gee + Koi Salmon: charcoal-grilled sticky rice topped with raw salmon seasoned with fish sauce, lime, roasted chili, toasted rice and herbs. When we peeked in the back to say hello to Chef Vanda Asapahu, we were pleasantly surprised to see Chef Stuart Skversky of “Stu and the Kids” lending a helping hand. He told us to watch for the upcoming return of his popular benefit.

City Club LA is a business and social club located in Downtown LA that caters to its many foodie members. The club’s chef, Victor Munoz, served us a sophisticated take on the tostada. His Kimchi Pacific Albacore Tostada featured Pacific albacore, spicy cucumber salad, kimchi vinaigrette, tiny rice crackers called bubu arare, burnt potato foam, cilantro, and kimchi. It might sound overpowering, but it was in fact a beautifully balanced symphony of flavors. A native of Japan, Atsushi Kenjo brings his knowledge of both Japanese and French cuisines to West Hollywood’s La Boheme. Kenjo’s Salmon Crudo, featuring tender morsels of raw salmon with  aji amarillo (hot yellow pepper paste), ponzu, onion, cucumber, and cilantro, was a crowd pleaser.

Mercado‘s Chef Jose Acevedo shared his ceviche, made with high-quality, sashimi-grade ahi, avocado, jicama, mango, Fresno chilies, red onion, cilantro and chile de arbol aioli served atop a plantain chip. The softness of the avocado against the crispy plantain was an appealing contrast, and the dish had a nice balance, despite the many ingredients. Mercado is located in Hollywood, Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach, Pasadena, and Santa Monica. Pez Cantina, a coastal Mexican restaurant in DTLA, offered one of our favorite dishes of the day: hickory-smoked steelhead rillette with roe and pickled shallot atop a crispy black rice cake. Chef Bret Thompson succeeded in combining contrasting textures and flavors; smoky, creamy, piquant, salty. Pez Cantina also served our favorite nonalcoholic drink of the day, an intense strawberry mango agua fresca.

The authentic Italian cuisine served at Celestino in Pasadena has earned accolades for over 20 years. A native of Sicily, Celestino’s owner and executive Chef Calogero Drago served three types of risotto at this year’s Masters of Taste: spinach and peas, red beets and goat cheese, and balsamic risotto. The flavors of the trio were contrasting, yet complimentary. Montrose’s Casa Cordoba is a Spanish restaurant inspired by the cuisine of the Andalusia region. We savored Chef Alberto’s Mendoza’s Casa Cordoba Paella. Unlike the seafood-intensive paellas so often served in Spanish eateries in the US, Casa Cordoba’s house paella is made with chicken, duck, and chorizo.

Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery, with fresh baked goods, creative dishes, and of course charcuterie and cheeses to die for, is hands-down our favorite place for brunch. Chefs Vanessa Tilaka and Thomas Kalb showed their versatility with a spring vegetable bruschetta topping their crunch focaccia with Briar Rose Fromage Blanc, marinated spring vegetables, and balsamela — a sweet apple vinegar.

Champion’s CURRY was established back in 1961 and took over Japan. In 2020, famed Chef Yoya Takahashi introduced the brand to the United States with a bright red and yellow casual dining room in Downtown Los Angeles. The signature chicken katsu over curry and rice was comforting and flavorful, and the chef always has a big smile for everyone.

Gabi James, a tapas place near the water in Redondo Beach, served Albondigas Chimayo, an incomparable turkey meatball in an ancho chile cream sauce. Sarah Gabriele and Adam Aro also brought their signature gildas — cute but intense little skewers of anchovy, olives and pickled, roasted peppers.

Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken, a Nashville legend that began 80 years ago, is the current winner of the National Fried Chicken Festival. It’s also the 12th Tastiest Restaurant in America to Chow Down, according to the Travel Channel, while GQ Magazine declared Gus’s one of the top 10 restaurants in the world worth flying to for a meal. The line for Gus’s was longgggg, and the crispy, juicy, spicy chicken breasts they served made it worth the wait. Gus’s local locations are in Burbank, Long Beach, and Los Angeles.

Chef Louis Huh & Chef Marcos Spaziani of Marlou, with locations in Koreatown and Downtown Los Angeles, created Arepitas Borracha, consisting of four-hour slow-braised brisket, sweet and spicy gochujong aioli, radish, and micro cilantro served atop a thin disc of crispy cornmeal. It was a pleasure to see Socorro “Mama” Herrera of Yuca’s Restaurant, located in Los Feliz and Pasadena. Yuca’s was founded in 1976 and won a James Beard Award in 2005. Mama handed out Yuca’s signature dish: her famous tacos laden with cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style pork, slow roasted in banana leaves), topped with pickled onions and a side of chips and chipotle salsa.

Lunasia, considered the best dim sum in LA, drew a long line for its oversized shrimp har gow, soup dumplings, and siu mai. Not to be outdone, Ramen Tatsunoya‘s Chef Ryuta Kajiwara served a hot and crispy gyoza. Get them in the Pasadena and Silver Lake locations.

We loved Yardbird‘s fantastic street corn made with chipotle crema, farmer’s cheese, fresno chiles and bacon. Nestled in the heart of Culver City, ARTH is an urban, Indian-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar. ARTH served India’s most popular vegetarian dish — the heavily spiced Chana Masala — along with a dish we will always remember as the late Jonathan Gold’s favorite — Butter Chicken.

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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