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Best Of 2009

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Best Of :: Food & Drink

BEST OAXACAN STREET FOOD
Quesadilla cart, 1246 Echo Park Avenue

We're the taco truck town, so why not a quesadilla cart? Every day, usually between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., a very nice woman stands behind her cart on Echo Park Avenue, just north of Sunset, where she makes blue corn tortillas by hand, stuffs them full of Monterey jack cheese and the filling of your choice, then presses them down onto a heated, flat top until the contents become warm and gooey. She usually has standard items like chicken, beef and wonderfully soft potato, but will often have more interesting offerings as well, like chicharron, squash blossom and huitlacoche (corn fungus — an inconvenience to most farmers in the U.S., but a much-loved ingredient in Mexico). At the front of this real-estate-maximizing cart, you'll also find jars filled with two kinds of salsas, Cotija cheese and even cactus salad. The price for these blue semicircles of melted cheese splendor? A mere three dollars each. Also, if you're lucky, you might notice a churro truck parked just down the street. 1246 Echo Park Ave., L.A.

—Noah Galuten
1246 Echo Park Ave., Los Angeles, 90026
MAP
BEST 50TH STATE DATE PLACE
Local Place

The Local Place is the more casual of the two South Bay restaurants associated with sweet bread makers King's Hawaiian. Located on Western Avenue in Torrance, near the 405, this restaurant has lengthy lines, but the service is quick. Breakfast is the best bargain, with Spam and egg musubi for $2.05 and breakfast sandwiches for $2.85. For lunch or dinner, the Porky Boy combo ($5.95) consists of a good-sized pork sandwich on a fresh, sweet roll with fries and a drink. Specials, which include the teriyaki bento box ($8.45) featuring beef, chicken and pork, change daily. In addition, the Local Place's bakery is filled with cakes, cookies and pies stuffed with macadamia nuts and coconut. The paradise cake, made with guavas, limes, passion fruits, strawberries and peaches, is a local favorite. Of course, you can also stock up on King's Hawaiian bread here. 18605 S. Western Ave., Torrance. (310) 523-3233.

—Liz Ohanesian
18605 S. Western Ave., Torrance, 90504
MAP
310-523-3233
BEST AFFORDABLE ITALIAN WITH NO CORKAGE FEE
Colori Kitchen

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.

—Noah Galuten
429 W. 8th St., Los Angeles, 90014
MAP
213-622-5950
BEST BACON-AND-AVOCADO BURGER
Howard's

If you're old enough to remember your parents taking you to a restaurant without consulting a Zagat for fear of choosing the "wrong" place, or not even thinking to ask who designed the interior, and you yearn for that kind of simplicity, Howard's is for you. If you were part of the more progressive, health-conscious generation born thereafter, and your mom never let your precious lips touch white bread, Howard's is for you. Now's your chance to experience this untouched-by-time diner, squat in the middle of an unattractive strip mall without a Starbucks (is that possible?) — where you can park right in front of the restaurant! — just like people did in the olden days. And for $5.35 you can get what the place is famous for: a gooey, drippy bacon and avocado burger tasting of the grill. It puts the Carl's Jr. version to shame. For $3.99 you'll get a classic BLT with four— count 'em—four slices of glistening bacon on toasted white bread. And trans fats be damned, here you can get the unadulterated full-fat version of French Fries ($2.10). In case you've got to know: Décor is by Howard. Go before it all becomes extinct. 11127 Venice Blvd., Ste. 7, Culver City. (310) 838-9111.

—Heidi Dvorak
11127 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, 90034
MAP
310-838-9111
BEST BALL SLAPPING
La Piñata Tortilleria

Making tortillas by hand may be a dying art in East L.A., but La Piñata Tortilleria stubbornly refuses to yield to the machine. They spend three mornings a week slapping oblong balls of maize flour on the counter and pounding out hundreds of tortillas a mano for their customers. Yes, La Piñata does offer mass-market tortillas as an option. At $1.89 for a package of 36, these tortillas de maquina offer significant savings, especially if you eat them often. But as far as taste goes, they're not in a league with the softer, thicker, más Mexicana tortillas a mano, made Friday through Sunday mornings. Arrive early, because that's when the food's freshest and sells out fast. Handmade tortillas are $3 for a package of 10 on the day they're made. They get knocked down to half price on Monday and Tuesday — if there are any left at all. La Piñata also makes excellent tamales, which come in pork, beef, cheese, chicken or sweet varieties for $16 per dozen. 607 W. Whittier Blvd., Montebello. (323) 726-0327.

—Todd Krainin
607 W. Whittier Blvd., Montebello, 90640
MAP
323-726-0327
BEST BARGAIN-BASEMENT BURGER
Hawkins House of Burgers
Garret Snyder

Hawkins House of Burgers is most famous, perhaps, for its Hawkins Special, a truly absurd and behemoth creation consisting of three one-pound burger patties, cheese, bacon, chilies, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, fried eggs, pastrami, mustard, a butterflied hot dog, pickles and mayo. It weighs in at five pounds, costs sixteen bucks, and comes with fries and a soda. I'm not sure exactly how many people the monstrosity feeds, but let's hope it's more than one. Yet, while The Special is their claim to fame, it probably shouldn't be. Where else in Los Angeles can you pick up a delicious double cheese burger, an enormous pile of nicely prepared chili cheese fries and a tallboy of Olde English for around five bucks? Also, if you're really looking for a bargain, there's usually a guy on the patio outside selling bootleg DVDs for a dollar (not that we recommend that sort of behavior). And while you're there, take the opportunity to visit the Watts Towers just down the way. 11603 Slater St., Watts. (323) 563-1129.

—Noah Galuten
11603 Slater St., Los Angeles, 90059
MAP
323-563-1129
BEST BEEF HEARTS ON A STICK
El Pollo Inka

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. In Peru they wear them on a stick — beef hearts that is. As its name suggests, El Pollo Inka is known mainly for its excellent chicken, which can be seen browning and sputtering on spinning racks in the giant brick oven at the front window. But we're here for that unique and essential Peruvian dish: anticuchos — beef hearts on a stick. Tender, succulent morsels on a skewer, lightly spiced and slightly charred, they taste mostly of beef with a hint of organ-meat crunchiness, and are served with a cob of corn, and a boiled, bland half potato (Peru is the epicenter of potato culture) that offsets the cup of scorching, take-no-prisoners salsa. This salsa starts off with the homey warmth of garlic and cleanness of cilantro, but the two types of chiles sneak up on you like a Portuguese man-of-war: burning, tears, cries for a lifeguard. Worth it for the salsa alone.

—Jedd Birkner
15400 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale, 90260
MAP
310-676-6665
BEST BIG, FAT GREEK-O ON PICO
Papa Cristos C & K Importing

In old-timey L.A. days, this area (Pico about two miles west of downtown) held an actual Greek residential enclave. Now the neighborhood is sub-Koreatown and primarily Latino, yet you can still find an incredibly ornate Greek Orthodox church and this quite useful and delicious grocery store/restaurant that is making Greek converts of the neighbors, whatever their background. Papa Cristos C & K Importing is one-third shelved groceries and service counter; one-third hot, prepared food counter; and one-third large, bright, sparsely casual dining room. Here the savory spiciness of Middle Eastern, the light, fresh healthfulness of Mediterranean, and the toothsome heartiness of Eastern European are all on display in Papa Cristos' spanakopita, dolmades, tyropitakia, tzatziki, souvlaki, moussaka and oktopodakia. Thursday nights feature a much raved-about "Big Fat Greek Dinner" special. Be fat and Greek; be very, very fat and Greek. 2771 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (323) 737-2970.

—Adam Gropman
2771 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 90006
MAP
323-737-2970
BEST BRUSSELS SPROUTS? YES, INDEED
Nine Thirty

If you're into high-falutin' dining for cheap-ass prices, live it up at the Nine Thirty restaurant, inside the W Hotel in Westwood, where, for $8, you can indulge in caramelized Brussels sprouts — offered as an appetizer — which more than suffices as a meal in itself. What makes them a gas is executive chef Monique King's spin, derived from her stint as a line cook at Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger's legendary, much-missed City restaurant. Her directions sound easy, except that you can't replicate the dish at home. "I start them raw, which keeps them from tasting cabbage-y," says King. "I sauté them in browned butter, then add toasted pecans, lemon juice, salt and pepper. After Brussels sprouts haters eat a couple bites, they remark, 'It's like candy,' " says King. It is. Keep costs minimal by avoiding the W's $15 valet fee, and park on the street. If you're Pasadena-close, you can enjoy the same dish sans pecans for $5 at King's own restaurant, Firefly Bistro, as prepared by her chef-husband, Paul Rosenbluh.

—Heidi Dvorak
930 Hilgard Ave., Westwood, 90024
MAP
310-208-8765
BEST BUTCHER
Huntington Meats

At some local meat markets (ahem, Bel-Air Prime, we're talking about you), a crisp $100 bill will afford you the grass-fed equivalent of a Tiffany silver key ring. Guess who's not coming to dinner? At Huntington Meats in the Los Angeles Farmers Market, the quality custom cuts and knowledgeable staff are as easy to swallow as the Harris Ranch prime-beef prices. You'll also find fowl of every size and feather, heritage Korobuta and more humble pork breeds, and two-dozen house-made sausages. The shop's butchers, Dan and Jim (they wisely keep their last names off the record due to the sharp knives involved) are refreshingly frank in telling you when a cut-to-order brisket rather than the pricier, prime rib roast is really what you want. In the process, you'll save several 10-spots. Maybe even enough for several pounds of raw pet food for Fifi, sterling-silver serving dish not included. 6333 W. 3rd St. at the Los Angeles Farmers Market. (323) 933-8577, huntingtonmeats.com.

—Jenn Garbee
6333 W. 3rd St. at Los Angeles Farmers Market, Los Angeles, 90036
MAP
323-938-5383
BEST CAFÉ WITH NATURE HIKE ATTACHED
Trails Café

If Julia Child and John Muir were to meet for lunch, and Julia wanted good, simple, butter-confident food made from scratch, and John asked only that they eat outside, in the shade of a few sequoia with dirt beneath their feet and the company of birds, they would agree on Trails Café in Griffith Park. Set a few blocks north of Los Feliz Boulevard adjacent to the well-worn hiking paths and grassy picnic plots where readers settle down with their books, and lovers practice tangling their bodies on blankets in the sun, the walk-up café is a water mirage in the desert for hungry hikers. It is also a destination for those eager to sit down with a good book, a homemade sandwich and a cup of iced tea, as though they were breaking for lunch at a campsite in the country, where time slows, appetites peak, and the food tastes better because the elements have a tendency to intensify flavor. A quaint kitchen in a cabin at the base of the park, with recipes orchestrated by aptly named pastry chef Jenny Park, Trails serves coffee and homemade tomato goat cheese tarts, vegan mushroom cashew pie, avocado sandwiches on dark bread, and egg salad so perfect you might stop to wonder which came first, the park or Trails. You can't have a forest without forage, the gastronomer might argue. The naturalist would likely disagree. One thing's for sure: They both will concur that lavender belongs with sugar, butter, flour, and salt in Park's coveted lavender shortbread. It's natural selection. 2333 Fern Dell Drive, L.A. (323) 871-2102, thetrailslosfeliz.com.

—Erica Zora Wrightson
2333 Fern Dell, Los Angeles, 90068
MAP
323-871-2102
BEST CATERER FOR THESE TROUBLED TIMES
Jennie Cooks Catering

The good news about a rather heated confrontation with your landlord is that it forces the obvious question: Why pay prime-beef rent prices for lower-quality choice cuts? It was one such escalating rent dilemma that forced Jennie Cook, formerly owner of the Culver City restaurant and catering company Cooks Double Dutch, to pack up her stainless pots and head east. The drop in rent for Cook's new Jennie Cooks Catering in Glassell Park is your pocketbook's gain. She's ditched the restaurant side of the biz for an all-catering outfit but does offer private dinners in the new space. Starting at $20 per person, Cook cooks (the singular version is her honest-to-gravy birth name) a sustainable dinner and sets the table, so all you have to do is bring the guests and the booze. For half the price, she'll deliver any of her "Ten for Ten" lunch menus replete with gooey white lasagna or smoky Hawaiian-style Kalua pork to your next meeting. She'll even hook you up with a vegan feast, if forgoing butter and cheese is your idea of a feast.

—Jenn Garbee
3048 Fletcher Ave., Los Angeles, 90065
MAP
323-982-0052
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BEST OAXACAN STREET FOOD: Quesadilla cart, 1246 Echo Park Avenue

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