Our 99 Essential Restaurants in Los Angeles issue dropped this week, and as always it honors a wide range of eateries, from the very high end to the very, very affordable. Today, we highlight those extra affordable options in L.A., the ones that are not only essential but also within each for any kind of budget. Here are 10 places where you could get your fill for $10 or less.
10. Buna Ethiopian Market
It’s easy to miss Buna Ethiopian Market amidst the handful of restaurants in Fairfax’s Little Ethiopia, as it’s hidden in the back of a small grocery store selling homemade berbere mix and Teddy Afro CDs. Persist, though, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by impeccably prepared stews that border on life-changing, made from the likes of spiced lentils, collard greens and juicy cubes of sauteed beef, each spooned onto a canvas of soft, sour injera bread. For the bravest diners, there is dullet, a wild, mineral-sharp mixture of raw liver and tripe, seasoned into submission with large amounts of diced jalapeño and cardamom. Maybe next time? Better to end with an espresso and a delicate square of tiramisu instead, both cultural holdovers from the days when Mussolini annexed Addis Ababa into his short-lived empire. 1034 S. Fairfax Ave., Mid-Wilshire. (323) 964-9731. Entrees $8-$13.
9. El Faisan y El Venado
People throw around the term “mom-and-pop” a lot for the small, family-owned restaurants that make up the heart and soul of dining in L.A., but El Faisan y El Venado is the real deal. The cheerful Highland Park restaurant specializing in the food of the Yucatán is run by Angel and Maria Eugenia Contreras de Campos, a husband-and-wife team who are generally the only people working there, he in the dining room and she in the kitchen. From that kitchen comes moist, luscious, long-simmered cochinita pibil, but also zesty escabeche oriental, a vinegar-stewed turkey leg swathed in mounds of cooked onions, and panuchos and salbutes, variations on fried tortillas topped with meat, refried beans, avocado, lettuce and pickled onions. Angel is one of the most welcoming and enthusiastic hosts around, and he’ll walk you through the menu if you’re feeling unsure. He may also offer his services as a handyman — we can’t vouch for that side of the business, but if his painting and repairs are as good as his wife’s cooking, then you won’t be disappointed. 231 N. Avenue 50, Highland Park. (323) 257-1770. Entrees, $6-$11.99.
The South Bay has been the home to a large population of Japanese and Japanese-Americans for decades, even more so after several of the major Japanese automakers moved their operations into the area. Thus there are more solid ramen options per square mile in the area than in most any other place in the country, with Jidaiya being among the best of them. This would be the ramen shop located in a plaza just off the 405, a place that looks like the sort of roadside restaurant that Tampopo may have had if she’d had the luxury of space. Inside, you’ll walk past a corner dedicated to old-school Japanese candies and trinkets and sit down to enjoy Jidaiya’s wonderful tonkotsu and miso ramen; its tsukemen is stellar, too. And if you order the UFO Dumplings out of sheer curiosity, you will be rewarded with half a dozen gyoza, pan-fried together so they fuse and form a crust of sorts, then flipped over onto a plate as you might a pineapple upside-down cake. Reasonable minds and FBI agents may differ on whether this looks like a UFO. That it’s pretty awesome, though, is a fact upon which we all can agree. 18537 S. Western Ave., Torrance. (310) 532-0999. Entrees $6.95-$9.95.
7. Kogi BBQ Truck
At this point, Kogi is practically edible academic text, an utterly necessary experience if you want to understand L.A., our food scene and our most visible culinary troubadour, Roy Choi. The fleet of trucks, which daily appear all over the city, are most famously dispensers of the original Korean tacos, a trend that has now swept the globe, for better or worse. At Kogi the existence of the mash-up is undoubtedly for the good of us all, the sweet slightly sour kimchi making beautiful sense nestled against beef short rib or spicy pork and wrapped in a tortilla. The Kogi dog is also a thing of wonder, a snappy hot dog showered in shredded romaine, kimchi and Sriracha. From the burritos to the sliders to the Sriracha candy bar, this is undoubtedly food for the inebriated (booze or weed, pick your poison), but there’s something childishly gleeful about it, too, something that will make you grin and snarf it down even stone cold sober. As a symbol for our city, its diversity, sense of fun and the talent of our people, we couldn’t ask for a better (or more delicious) emblem. Times and locations via website (kogibbq.com) or Twitter (@kogibbq). Dishes $2.29-$9.
6. Myung In Dumplings
If ever you doubted the immense influence of Tony Bourdain, head on over to Myung In Dumplings, the fantastic Korean dumpling house that used to be the subject of one of L.A.’s great mysteries: Why, when these handmade dumplings are so damn delicious, was no one ever in the dining room? The place is empty no more: Since Bourdain stopped by for the Koreatown episode of “Parts Unknown,” business has been much brisker. Bourdain, of course, only reiterated what many of us already knew: Even if you were to take all the Chinese and Japanese dumplings in L.A. into account, Myung In’s various fried, steamed and soup-immersed dumplings rank among the city’s best. There’s spicy soup and fried rice to fill out the offerings, but take your cues from Mr. Bourdain, who is smiling down at you from a huge photograph on the wall: Order the large steamed mandu, and glory in the experience, which is much like eating a doughy, pork-filled softball. 3109 W. Olympic Blvd., #B, Koreatown. (213) 381-3568. Entrees, $7-$10.
5. Ricky's Fish Tacos
It was a perfect L.A. moment: standing in a parking lot across the street from a Vons, eating the most glorious fish tacos, which had been fried right before you on a makeshift setup. It was too good to be true. The original iteration of Ricky’s Fish Tacos came to an end, but he’s now returned with a truck (which he parks in that same parking lot), which is a little more typical, I suppose, but doesn’t change the fact that these fish tacos could rival any fish taco anywhere. Ricky Piña’s Baja-style tacos are the stuff of legend, the delicate white fish cooked to an ideal golden brown, topped with chopped cabbage and pico de gallo and folded into a warm flour tortilla. There’s creamy white sauce and spicy red salsa to drizzle at your discretion, and there are shrimp tacos as well if you want to mix it up. For $3 apiece, it really does not get any better than this. 1400 N. Virgil Ave., E. Hlywd. (323) 906-7290. Tacos, $3.
4. Ruen Pair
It’s hard to convince people that one of L.A.’s must-try dishes is something called “salty turnip and egg,” but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Ruen Pair is known mainly as one of Thaitown’s best purveyors of late-night eats, a post-bar savior where you can gobble enough crab fried rice and spicy noodles to absorb some of the boozy damage you’ve done. But it’s also a great place for a ridiculously cheap lunch, or an outing to impress friends who might be in the market for some duck feet soup. It’s one of those restaurants where diners who would prefer to stick to basics can get a fantastic red curry, for instance, while others might feast on pork blood soup or raw crab salad. Go for whatever floats your boat, but be sure to get that salty turnip and egg, a kind of crispy omelette/patty that is slightly sweet and slightly salty and goldenly delicious, at any time of day. 5257 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 466-0153. Entrees $6.95-$7.95.
3. Philippe the Original
Philippe the Original is mainly billed as the birthplace of the French dip sandwich, and there’s no doubt that’s quite an achievement (though if you ask the folks over at Cole’s, they’ll claim the honor for themselves). But what we find so endearing about Philippe’s, so wonderful, so … essential, is the sensation of wandering, through some kind of time warp, into L.A. circa 1910. Philippe’s opened in 1908 and has added some modern amenities in its 107 years: There are a few neon signs behind the counter along with the wooden ones, and late last year they even started accepting credit cards. But the experience of standing in line, ordering your sandwich and having the meat carved in front of you (go for lamb, double-dipped), then finding a place in the massive dining room, is unchanged. Early in the morning this is a great place to find a kind of club for old-timers and municipal workers, and the breakfast is unbelievably cheap. The whole place oozes a down-and-dirty charm, the true vintage soul of Los Angeles. 1001 N. Alameda St., Downtown. (213) 628-3781. French-dipped sandwiches, $6.50-$8.
2. Irv’s Burgers
Irv’s Burgers makes a burger that’s hard to find these days: a simple one. This is the quintessential roadside burger, with a thin, nicely seasoned patty, melted cheese, lettuce and onion on a toasted bun. The Hong family has operated Irv’s since 2000; back then, it was located a few blocks from its current space, in a roadside burger stand originally built in 1950 on what had become some valuable West Hollywood real estate. So it wasn’t a surprise when the land’s owners drastically increased the Hongs’ rent late last year, effectively evicting the family. The David-and-Goliath story didn’t quite end with a slingshot between the eyes, but it was close enough: The Hongs left their beloved stand — a “beach-style cafe” now sits in its place — but found a new spot nearby. The community followed, enthusiastically, and it takes just one visit to see why. It’s impossible not to be taken in by the warmth that fills Irv’s, especially when Sonia decorates your to-go bag with one of her famously kawaii doodles. “Just for you!” it might say, above an illustrated thumbs-up. Of course, there is the burger itself, fantastic in its simplicity. Thumbs up indeed. 7998 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. (323) 650-2456. Burgers $2.75-$5.
The little Boyle Heights taco shop that could just never seems to lose steam: After expanding in 2013 to Echo Park, Guisados also has opened a storefront downtown on the Spring Street side of the Spring Arcade Building, serving beautiful tacos on handmade tortillas. It also has added Sunday breakfast to all three locations, and is perhaps in the process of perfecting a truly L.A.-style breakfast taco. But the star of the show at any time of day remains the guisados, and in particular the sampler plate, on which you get six mini tacos, each with a different meat — tinga de pollo, cochinita pibil, chicharrón and more — and each adorned with the perfect garnish. It is perhaps the world’s cheapest tasting menu, and we’d take it over the soignée kind most days of the week. 2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Boyle Heights (locations also in Echo Park and downtown). (323) 264-7201. Tacos $2.50-$7.
Check out all 99 of our essential restaurants for 2015 here.
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