Eating through the city

Church and State is a Downtown restaurant — a dimly lit bistro within an old National Biscuit Factory building so far on the outskirts of the city it’s practically in Alameda, or maybe Boyle Heights.

If there’s any sign of a surrounding neighborhood, it’s certainly not visible by the dark of dinnertime. The restaurant is a pain to get to, even by so-is-everywhere-else-in-L.A. standards. And a meal at Church and State is certainly not conducive to maintaining a college budget.

You’d be crazy not to go.

The mussels are outrageously good with long stems of herbs remaining in the broth. The flatbread-like tartes are, by turns, chewy, gooey, crispy and crumbly. The cocktails are among the best I’ve had in the city, and I’ve had a lot of cocktails in this city.

You’ll hear these recommendations often during your time at USC, and certainly not just about Church and State.

There’s an assortment of good food in Los Angeles, of cheap eats and fine-dining empires. This is the city of Suzanne Goin and Nancy Silverton (look them up if you must).

This is also the city of In-N-Out and Winchell’s Donuts. All are worthy of praise. All are favorites among food-obsessed friends.

You may also seek out recommendations on your own. There are Yelpers and Chowhounds, Eaters and Serious Eaters.

The professional food coverage here is impressive but head-spinning. A few examples: the Pulitzer Prize-winning star Jonathan Gold at the Los Angeles Times, the exhaustive blogging at L.A. Weekly’s Squid Ink, which recommends multiple bests for every obscure foreign dish you’ve never heard of and soon won’t be able to avoid, the Grub Street blog that recently posted a slideshow of the 40 — 40! — best tacos in Los Angeles.

Overwhelmed yet? Los Angeles is a sprawling and international city, and the dining scene can appear a jungle.

The key is to set goals. Make them accomplishable. In the quest to best enjoy L.A. dining you are accountable only to yourself.

Running lists that include the not-to-be-missed seafood place your parents’ friends insist you visit and the breakfast truck with the city’s best chilaquiles are not lists you’ll follow. And most of all, these are lists bound to disappoint. Only you know how to expand and satiate your tastes.

Do some quick research. As the best chefs will tell you, a little bit goes a long way. Find the food writers that you respect most, the regional cooking you most long to try, the prices you can swing. Whittle your options down with those criteria and you’ll have a manageable, exciting list of restaurants to try. If you’re told not to miss Church and State but balk at the prices and gag at the thought of French-style pots of terrine, ignore that recommendation, no matter how diligent the recommender might be.

Keeping up with the culinary joneses can quickly take the joy out of eating. Don’t sweat the pop-up restaurant you missed in Venice — another one will quickly take its place or reappear in Silver Lake. You might hear praise for the shrimp toasts at Son of a Gun by numerous people and publications. But if you convince yourself you enjoy shrimp toasts more than you would the restaurant’s less-touted fried chicken sandwich, you’ll have cheated yourself out of a potentially great dining experience at an undeniably great restaurant.

And remember, just because you haven’t read about something, doesn’t mean it’s not worthy. Food coverage is expansive in this city, but places still get overlooked. Only now that star chef Josef Centeno has left Lazy Ox Canteen is the nearby Spice Table getting the recognition it should have received when opening last year.

Trust your instinct and find your own hot spots. It’s the rare day that Santa Monica’s Cha Cha Chicken gets a shout-out from a major food overage outlet, but it’s something of an abomination to drive by that vibrantly colored shack without picking up plantains and jerk chicken.

In Los Angeles, there’s the constant, increasing sense that you could always be eating something better. Think of it as optimism. An eternally optimistic passion of the greatest kind.