Note: The Usual is one of 10 finalists for our inaugural Best New Restaurant Award! We’ll announce the winner in mid-January. Until then, you can check out who else we nominated and learn more about our esteemed panel of judges. Thanks for reading and happy eating!
The Eggslut chef can cook more than just the perfect yolk. Alvin Cailan of the famed Los Angeles chain has planted culinary roots on the corner of Kenmare and Elizabeth Streets in the form of the Usual, which promises “American comfort food by immigrants.” While the bright, brassy dining space sits at the base of the Nolitan Hotel, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill hotel restaurant. Spoiler: You’ll have your usual order figured out by the end of your first dinner service.
The “comfort” food goes way beyond casseroles and chicken soup.
Look deeper into the menu and you’ll get a taste of the kitchen’s global upbringings. (Most of the staff consists of children of immigrants.) Eastern European spaetzle is finished with a kiss of Japanese influence thanks to the inclusion of roasted nori and house-made kimchi. Comforting cauliflower gets the kung pao treatment and is stir-fried with bell peppers and Szechuan peanuts. Even the commonplace Cheddar-chive biscuit takes a trip down south by being bathed in crab étouffée, a staple along the coast of Louisiana. If you’re more of a culinary traditionalist, the N’awlins-style fried chicken is both crispy and juicy (mastering both is harder than it looks); and the ham-and-cheese takes an Italian minimalist approach, consisting of thinly sliced prosciutto and milky, creamy burrata from nearby neighbor Di Palo’s in Little Italy.
The flavors are deeply evocative.
While most dining destinations aim to change the way you think about food, Cailan and co. are instead asking you to reminisce on the foods you’ve grown to love. The pozole verde underneath the gently fried octopus tentacles, for example, had me flashing back to a simpler time. March of 2012, if we’re being exact. That month was when I first discovered the soul-warming Mexican stew at a dingy food cart underneath the 7 train at 2 in the morning. What I was doing there, I can’t recall. But eating that dish immediately transported me to a rare bright moment in an otherwise forgettable time span.
It is bringing natural wines to the mainstream.
Cailin has recruited someone close to him to run the show behind the bar: his brother, Anthony. The 26-year-old sommelier made a name for himself at buzzy Los Angeles spots like Bestia and Hayden, partially for his vast knowledge of natural wines. His vision for the Usual’s wine list reflects the sentiment; most of the restaurant’s 150-plus bottles are biodynamic and come from small producers in Europe and on the West Coast.
Dinnerware envy is real.
From the matte gray cutlery to pleasing porcelain pottery bowls, you’re going to want to eat all of your food off the Usual’s dinner plates. The waiter may have caught me shamelessly flipping over the serving dishes and spoons to see who made what for future kitchen upgrades. So that you, at least, can keep your dignity, this is the tableware.