I used to think picnics were all about white people and wicker baskets. COVID-19 changed that. When the pandemic forced restaurants to shift to take-out, picnics presented the perfect solution. They gave us a chance to get out of our homes, meet up with friends and soak up some sun. As Los Angeles opens up, Delta variant be damned, we’re gearing up for another summer of dope picnics.
How is that going to happen if you show up with boring food no one really wants to eat?
We feel you, bringers of industrial-size tubs of sad potato salad with way too much mayo. We know you want people to think, “Damn, you’re amazing! I was planning to bail on this picnic but you made it worth it. I love you.” LAist is here to help. With a little planning, anyone can be a picnic hero. Use our Official Summer 2021 Picnic Guide to win friends, impress Tinder dates and revel in the glory of being the dopest person at your next picnic.
The Main Course
A good sandwich will never fail you. The Padrino from Pizzana in WeHo has a way of making you feel like a genius. Wood-fired ciabatta is smeared with Calabrian chili aioli then layered with the works — soppressata, mortadella, provolone, lettuce, pepperoncini, tomatoes and pickles. If you want something classic, head to Roma in Pasadena for their simple meat-and-cheese sandwich, which comes wrapped in pink paper and is good enough to give Tony Soprano a panic attack. Crusty Italian bread holds a heap of capicola (aka gabagool), mortadella, salami and provolone, with a squirt of olive oil. Grab a jar of spicy giardiniera or Calabrian chile paste and invite some heat to the party.
If you want something new, Echo Park sandwich pop-up Happy Medium Deli has you covered. Their McDuffuletta is an assortment of house-cured meats (mortadella and porchetta di testa) and house-made giardiniera on a house-baked seeded focaccia. What started out as a home-based pop-up during the pandemic is now selling out of The Window in Echo Park.
Not into sandos? Fried chicken is ideal picnic fare. I recommend the birds at Hotville, Howlin’ Rays, Gus’s Fried Chicken or Tokyo Fried Chicken. Depending on how many people are coming, a full bird should do. (Even if it’s just you, you’re going to want the whole thing.) Hotville and Howlin’ are known for their Nashville chicken, Gus’s reps Memphis and Tokyo Fried Chicken offers crunchy fried chicken with sweet and spicy house-made ponzu.
Another easy way to be a picnic all-star? Bring an order of Hainan chicken rice from PRD in Chinatown. Chicken is boiled in a stock with aromatics and garlic then served with rice enriched by chicken fat and sides of scallion-garlic sauce, hot sauce and sweet soy sauce. An order of PRD’s char siu pork neck served over steamed rice or egg noodles should also satisfy the hungry masses.
You’ve taken care of the hard part. Now, what do you serve with your main course?
Mac and cheese is a hall-of-fame picnic food. If you’re going to any of the places I mentioned for fried chicken, you’re in luck. Gus’s, in Mid-City and Long Beach, makes an ooey gooey mac and cheese with elbow macaroni. Hotville, in Baldwin Hills, kicks it up a notch with four different kinds of cheese and their one-of-a-kind seasoning mix. In Monterey Park, Tokyo Fried Chicken drenches rotini in a velvety bechamel sauce then sprinkles nori strips and crisp mustard seeds on top.
The most surprising mac and cheese comes from Hanchic in Koreatown. Elbow pasta and tteok (Korean rice cakes) are swirled together in a Mornay cheese sauce infused with doenjang (Korean soybean paste). The chewy rice cakes are coated in a thin but concentrated layer of cheese sauce, each bit erupting with rich, sharp, umami flavor and they stay cheesy to the end.
If you prefer something cold, the mac salad from Howlin’ Ray’s is a refreshing mix of elbow pasta, crunchy celery, pimentos and dill. The japchae banchan from Park’s BBQ in Koreatown makes another great cold salad. Glass noodles, beef and veggies are tossed in soy sauce and sesame oil.
For some people, it’s not a picnic without potato salad. My favorites come from Chichen Itza at Mercado La Paloma and Konbi in Echo Park. The former is a peppery, Yucatan-style dish made with a spiced potato puree dotted with carrots and peas. It usually comes as a side with their fantastic torta de cochinita pibil (an excellent main course for any picnic). The latter raises the crunch factor with celery, pickles and fried okra, bound together by Kewpie mayo. For a classic backyard BBQ potato salad of red potatoes, hardboiled eggs, mayo, mustard, celery and dill, head to Moo’s Craft BBQ in Lincoln Heights.
Although I love potato salad, my favorite starchy picnic companion is frijoles. Carniceria Los Compadres in Lynwood sells pints of frijoles puercos, which are pinto beans made with cheese, chorizo and jalapeños. While you’re there, do not fail to grab a tub of their pico de gallo. It’s spicier than most thanks to all the serrano peppers and lime, and it tastes like ceviche without the fish. Saucy Chick Rotisserie, a virtual restaurant and pop-up that serves Indian-Mexican rotisserie chicken, offers awesome whipped beans prepared with chorizo, cheese, jalapenos and olives. They’re smooth enough for dipping and delicious enough to eat straight.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tokyo Fried Chicken, again. It’s a goldmine of glorious sides. The soy-glazed yams with sesame seeds never disappoint. The fried brussel sprouts with goat cheese are a creamy vegetarian dream. The curry corn salad should be standard at every major celebration. Even their basic rice, prepared with dashi and chicken fat, makes a standout side — and it’s even better with a splash of their housemade ponzo or yuzu pepper sauce.
Shiku, in the Grand Central Market, is another rich source of picnic sides. It specializes in hefty Korean rice bowls, made with grilled galbi or pollo. They’re perfect for a solo picnic. Opt for the phenomenal sticky fried chicken then choose a couple of items from the assortment of stellar banchan. The white kimchi — cabbage in a creamy sauce made with perilla oil and sprinkled with brown perilla seeds — is unlike any other kimchi I’ve tried in L.A. But the corn kimchi might be my favorite. Each kernel bursts with a smoky sweetness amplified by the floral acidity of yuzu and a hint of heat.
Dips & Spreads
Dips and spreads are two of the best ways to snack at a picnic. Mini Kabob, an Areminian restaurant in Glendale, offers an exceptional version of ikra, also known as eggplant caviar, a vegan condiment made with roasted eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and herbs. The result is a thick, smooth, smokey spread. Grab some lavash, smear it with whipped garlic, dilled yogurt, eggplant caviar and you have yourself a little taco. Mini Kabob also makes picnic-friendly mains such as their combo plate of grilled chicken thighs, luleh (ground chicken) and pork tenderloin with hummus, basmati rice, flame-kissed tomatoes and peppers.
Happy Medium Deli has delightful dips that rotate from week to week. I love the one made with cannellini beans, beets, citrus and tahini. Their pimento spread, which relies on sharp cheddar, aleppo and piquillo peppers, and a touch of cream cheese, goes great with sandwiches — and everything else.
The granddaddy of dips is hummus. The hummus from Mini Kabob will make you more than happy. You could also head to the Arts District and seek out Bavel, which would, in an ideal world, sell hummus in hot tub-size vats and stacks of pita. It might not be a feasible business model but it would make for a fascinating picnic. The hummus from Dune in DTLA is heavy on the tahini and goes great with falafel. So is the one from Mizlala, in West Adams.
Now, we need some freshness. Coffee Coffee on Melrose whips up a farro salad with seared zucchini, assorted lettuces and a light, acidic green dressing. DTLA Cheese in the Grand Central Market also does a stellar farro salad. It changes with the seasons but every iteration has a generous helping of parmesan.
If you’re looking for classic crunch, consider Jon & Vinny’s gem lettuce salad, which is crusted with breadcrumbs, parmesan and a mellow calabrian chili dressing.
I also adore Din Tai Fung’s famous cucumber salad — the crunch of the pepino, the jolt of garlic, the nuttiness of sesame and chili oil. Saucy Chick Rotisserie enters the ring with the Kachumber Salad, a combo of English cucumbers, coconut shavings, mint, cilantro, fried mustard seeds in a coconut, lime, and peanut dressing. A scrumptious substitute for pickles, it cuts through the richness of fried chicken.
If you’re thirsty for portable cocktails, you’ve got a wealth of takeout options from L.A. bars and restaurants. Want a heavyweight tiki drink? Try the King Kamehameha from Melrose Umbrella Co. and its sister bar, Lono. Looking for something light and citrusy? Grab a canned Angeleno Spritz from Ventura Spirits, an L.A. version of an Aperol Spritz.
When I want tasty, affordable wines (I’m talking $20 and under/bottle), I head to Wine Stop in the Art District. If you spot a black bottle with a red “Pronto” label, snap up a few. This bold Italian Lambrusco Secco sells out quickly.
If wine isn’t your thing, head to Sara’s Market in City Terrace and build your own six-pack from their extensive craft beer selection. Sara’s also has a great array of natural wines. Tell owners Steven and Sara Valdez what you’re looking for and they’ll set you up with something you’ll love.
Dessert is, arguably, the best part of any meal and that’s no less true for picnics. While you could visit one of L.A.’s pastry strongholds — Clark Street Bread, Proof Bakery, Gusto Bread, or Republique — I’m going to suggest something more low-key.
EL Antojito, a jugueria (juice bar), lonchera and antojitos shop in Gardena, is the best place in L.A. for fresas con crema. Each order, served in a cup, is filled with sliced strawberries layered with a sweet, cinnamon-spiced yogurt. If you find yourself licking the side of the cup after you’ve finished the last berry, know you’re not alone. I do it every time I eat this treat.
Mango sticky rice is the answer to one of life’s ultimate questions: What’s the perfect dessert to share? Juicy Ataulfo mangos over sweet coconut sticky rice. I’m partial to the ones from Jitlada and Bhan Kanom Thai in Thai Town.
A cup of fresh fruta from your local fruit vendor is always a good bet. Chopped mangos, pineapple, cucumbers, papaya, melon and oranges topped with chamoy, lime and tajin is a tart and spicy dessert — and a great way to support street vendors.
A picnic is like anything else. If you want it to be awesome, it’s going to take a bit of planning. Once you’ve picked your local park, peruse our list, mix and match your favorite foods and enjoy. You survived the pandemic! That’s worth celebrating. And if all else fails, bring a box of chili cheese fries.
The LAist 2021 All-Star Summer Picnic Roster
The Main Course
- Pizzana: Padrino sandwich
- Roma: the sandwich
- Happy Medium Deli: the McDuffuleta sandwich
- Chichen Itza: cochinita pibil sandwich
- Hotville: fried chicken
- Howlin’ Ray’s: fried chicken
- Gus’s Fried Chicken: fried chicken
- Tokyo Fried Chicken: fried chicken
- Mini Kabob: combo plate of chicken thighs, luleh and pork tenderloin
- PRD: Hainan chicken, char siu pork neck
- Shiku: galbi or pollo rice bowl, sticky fried chicken
- Gus’s Fried Chicken: mac and cheese
- Hotville: mac and cheese
- Howlin Rays: mac and cheese
- Tokyo Fried Chicken: mac and cheese, soy-glazed yams, fried brussel sprouts, curry corn salad, rice
- Hanchic: mac and cheese
- Konbi: potato salad
- Chichen Itza: potato salad
- Moo’s Craft Barbecue: potato salad
- Carniceria Los Compadres: frijoles puercos, pico de gallo
- Saucy Chick Rotisserie: Mom’s Beans
- Shiku: white kimchi, kimchi corn
- Park’s BBQ: japchae
Dips & Spreads
- Mini Kabob: eggplant caviar, dilled yogurt, lavash, hummus
- Happy Medium Deli: cannellini beet dip, pimento cheese
- Mizlala: hummus
- Dune: hummus
- Coffee Coffee: farro salad
- DTLA Cheese: farro salad
- Jon & Vinny: gem lettuce salad
- Saucy Chick Rotisserie: Kachumber Salad
- Wine Stop: red label Pronto lambrusco
- Sara’s Market: build your own craft beer six-pack
- El Antojito: fresas con crema
- Jitlada: mango sticky rice
- Bhan Kanom Thai: mango sticky rice
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