BEST ROCKIN’ BEEF ROLL
The beef roll served at101 Noodle Express is perhaps the most raved about single item on any menu in the San Gabriel Valley — if not on any menu in all of L.A. Who would have imagined that such acclaim would come to such a humble dish, served at such an unassuming Alhambra hole in the wall? It turns out that the beef roll is also one of the area’s best bargains. Big enough to serve two, it costs just $6.75. A deceptively simple concept, it arrives at your table looking something like a chimichanga cut into thirds. Its slightly crispy, though doughy exterior is filled with thinly cut beef, cilantro, onion and hoisin sauce. Dipped in chili oil, it makes a perfect appetizer or main course. It’s practically restaurant policy to serve at least one to every group of diners — as you’ll quickly infer by scanning the room — but don’t forget there are other worthy dishes on the menu as well. The dumplings and noodle dishes get mainly good reviews and pack similarly good bang for the buck. There is, however, no confusing what the main draw is here. 1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 300-8654
BEST PLACE TO FEEL AS IF YOU’RE BREAKFASTING IN AN ITALIAN PALAZZO
An affogato, which means “drowned” in Italian, is the blissful marriage of two of Italy’s finest exports: espresso and gelato, and it may well be the best union of hot and cold since the Baked Alaska. At Intelligentsia Venice, this combination is achieved by first placing a scoop of dense vanilla bean gelato, made by David Myers’ of Comme Ça bistro, into a pleasantly weighty Gibraltar glass (a small bar glass, so called because, if you turn it horizontally, the thin space between the upper and lower wells resembles the Straits of Gibraltar). The barista then pours a just-pulled double shot of Black Cat espresso over the gelato. The thick crema from the espresso melts the outer edges of the gelato, forming what looks like a bit of haphazard latte art in the glass. As both the espresso and the gelato are dense, perfectly orchestrated examples of their species, the affogato resists melting for a surprisingly long matter of minutes. Far longer than it will take you to finish off what is perhaps the best breakfast combo to be had in L.A. 1331 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 399-1233, intelligentsiacoffee.com.
BEST AFFORDABLE ITALIAN WITH NO CORKAGE FEE
Who says Italian food has to be expensive? Between the Mozza empire, the Drago empire, Il Moro and others, L.A. has an abundance of Italian dinner options to set you and your date back a hundred-plus bucks before you’ve even blinked. It’s the wine, especially, that gets you. Yet while you could decide to go the fine dining route and skip the alcohol altogether, you’d also be missing out on an unequivocal truth of Italian culture: booze goes with food. That’s why the phrase “no corkage fee,” when uttered in a public place, is guaranteed to prick up every ear within range. At Colori Kitchen, just a few blocks from Staples Center, you can nestle yourself into the spacious and oddly ’90s-esque dining room, eat from a menu of basic Italian-American fare, and most importantly, drink freely from your own bottle (or bottles) of wine. Items like tricolore salad, spaghetti and meatballs and spinach ravioli are eaten freely and without judgment, and the cioppino, while one of the more expensive items on the menu, is also packed with enough seafood to make Poseidon weep. A slice of the ricotta cheesecake makes for a nice close to an utterly affordable evening. 429 W. Eighth St., L.A. (213) 622-5950.
BEST HUMBLE BURRITOS
Even if you think Korean BBQ burritos or the ones served at Chipotle Mexican Grill are the wave of the future, it’s worth experiencing the simple formula that’s kept Al & Bea’s in business since 1966. These are burritos completely devoid of embellishment, and they may be the best L.A. has to offer. With few exceptions, all of the options on the menu are some combination of just three ingredients: refried beans, Mexican cheese and stewed beef. My favorite, though, is the burrito with a chile relleno inside. It’s an exquisitely fluffy battered chile bundled up with a generous helping of beans that oozes molten cheese with every bite. Like the food, the restaurant is about as humble as can be. There’s a window for ordering and a window for picking up. The seating area, which is really just a handful of miniature picnic tables with an overhang for shade, evokes a junior high quad. But no matter what time of day, you’re sure to find it crowded with locals and probably a renegade downtown office worker or two. 2025 E. 1st. St., L.A. (323) 267-8810.