Did you catch our latest issue, which determines L.A.'s 99 Essential Restaurants? It came out last week, and, as in years past, it's chock full of amazing places to dine – from classic institutions to trendy newcomers, high-end splurges to budget-friendly finds. Here we're highlighting the latter: Here are 10 places where you can have a mind-blowing meal for less than $10.
Burritos La Palma
If your mental projection of a burrito involves a foil-wrapped behemoth the size of a newborn, then the svelte, almost dainty creations at El Monte’s Burritos La Palma might at first seem shocking. Flour tortillas are patted out by hand daily, filled with a spoonful or two of soft braised meats like beef birria or gooey curls of braised chicharron, then given a toast on the grill that lends the tortilla a subtle, golden-brown color. Each taco-sized burrito is a precisely calibrated package, a miniature essay on the joys of restraint, stewed chilies and high-quality lard. It’s not uncommon to order them four at time. Although La Palma is the first American outlet of a chain of tortillerias and burrito stands based in Zacatecas, Mexico, there are little splashes of Mexican-American influences here and there, including on the especial plate, which smothers twin burritos in melted cheese and chili sauce until they resemble enchiladas. Could the burrito be the new taco? Depending on whom you ask, a burrito is just a taco by another name. –Garrett Snyder
5120 Peck Road, El Monte; (626) 350-8286.
Beijing Pie House
Navigating the restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley can be intimidating, especially for those who aren’t Chinese. You don’t want to be the dude ordering beef skewers at a place specializing in abalone porridge, after all. But if there’s a restaurant where your directives are clear from the moment you sit down, it’s Beijing Pie House. The wildly crowded restaurant in Monterey Park focuses on the most dangerous style of dumpling. Here, the unit of consumption is xian bing, puck-sized dumplings that contain a loose patty of meat and vegetable suspended in boiling-hot broth that spurts out when prodded with a chopstick. How do you tackle the xian bing? Do you perch one on your wide soup spoon and gingerly slurp out the innards? Do you bare-hand the thing and risk first-degree burns? These are matters of personal debate, but what’s undeniable is that the pan-fried lamb and green onion “meat pies” are crispy and juicy and utterly addictive. You drizzle it with a bit of black vinegar and a few drops of chili oil, which perfectly cut through the richness of the minced lamb, and tear off bites of the dumpling’s thick skin piece by piece. Just don’t forget what your chemistry teacher taught you about contents under pressure. –G.S. 846 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 288-3818.
Don’t be fooled by the imitators, the lesser producers, the many other tacos dorado de camaron in L.A. The version at Raul Ortega’s Mariscos Jalisco, the Boyle Heights mariscos truck, is far and away the king of fried tacos, in this city and perhaps in the country. Don’t be confused by the crowds surrounding the other trucks nearby. Go directly to this corner of Olympic Boulevard and wait as they fold the shrimp into a tortilla and fry the whole thing in hot oil, pulling it out at the perfect point of golden crisp, then coat it with creamy slices of avocado and pert red salsa. If you’re in the mood for a feast, the Poseidon tostada, loaded with a jumble of ceviche, octopus and shrimp aguachile, will have you feeling like a god of the sea yourself. For that, and for the crispy tacos, our loyalty will never waver. –Besha Rodell 3040 E. Olympic Blvd., Boyle Heights; (323) 528-6701, facebook.com/mariscosjalisco.
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. Philippe’s opened in 1908 and has added some modern amenities in its 108 years: There are a few neon signs behind the counter along with the wooden ones, and in late 2014 the restaurant 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, and add a magenta pickled egg on the side for fun), 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. –B.R. 1001 N. Alameda St., downtown; (213) 628-3781.
We use the term “hole-in-the-wall” as a folksy cliche, but RiceBar truly is a hole in the wall, a teeny kitchen with a door on downtown’s Seventh Street. The entire space – kitchen, storage, fridges, dining area – is 275 square feet. The master of those 275 square feet is chef Charles Olalia, an exceedingly friendly dude who often looks kind of happily stunned to find himself here. It is quite amazing to find him here, given that his last job was executive chef at Patina in Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the ritziest restaurants in California. Before that, he worked at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. At RiceBar, the focus is not on fine dining but rather heirloom, fair-trade Filipino rice bowls in a variety of flavors. The menu is built around the four large steamers in the front window, each holding a different kind of rice. Kalinga Unoy is a rust-colored red rice, grown on ancient terraced fields in Kalinga in the Philippines, then sun-dried. The flavor is lightly nutty and sweet, and it delicately complements RiceBar’s suggested topping, bistek tagalog: tender, pan-seared, soy-marinated beef. There’s black rice covered in hunks of lush avocado, crisp radish, sweet pops of marinated grape tomatoes and tiny, pointy, salty, crunchy fried anchovies. Pork longganisa, a sausage that’s made in-house, comes sliced and accompanied by pickled veggies; it has an almost floral and aromatic yet funky flavor that leaves a light, fatty sweetness behind. Olalia will recommend you order this over garlic fried rice and also that you add a fried egg. He’s a wise man in both regards. –B.R. 419 W. Seventh St., downtown; ricebarla.com.
Sapp Coffee Shop
There are two camps when it comes to Sapp Coffee Shop: those who insist the Thai boat noodles – a funky, spicy-sour soup stocked with chopped herbs, bits of pork skin, meatballs and coagulated cubes of blood – are the greatest item on the menu, and those who double down on the supremacy of the dry jade noodles – bouncy, green-colored strands paired with roasted pork, shredded crab, peanuts, crushed chili and a thimbleful of white sugar. They might both be correct. Of course, what’s universally agreed upon is that this homey diner inside a weathered Hollywood Boulevard strip mall is one of Thai Town’s most resilient gems, a warm and welcoming place to sit for hours sipping condensed milk-sweetened coffee and read the newspaper (many regulars do just that). But whether you deviate from popular opinion and opt for the krapow pork, tossed with basil and a wok-fried egg, or the murky, tripe-heavy soup listed on the menu as “menudo, Thai style” (both excellent), it won’t particularly matter. Sapp has the nourishing feel of a family kitchen, and it’s hard to debate the value of that. –G.S. 5183 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 665-1035, sapp.menutoeat.com.
Tacos los Poblanos Estilo Tijuana
One of L.A.’s most visceral food pleasures involves driving a few miles southeast of USC, where two of the city’s best taco vendors set up shop nightly a mere two miles apart. Both offer Tijuana-style tacos made with superlative carne asada – proper carne asada, taco aficionados will insist – which is unfurled on a charcoal grill in long meaty sheets, then hacked into manageable nubs on a large wooden chopping block. Both vendors pat out tortillas by hand and cook them to order on a large griddle, and both load their tacos with a scoop of thick, buttery guacamole, a sprinkle of chopped onions and a dab of smoky salsa. Wrapped tightly in squares of wax paper, they resemble meaty ice cream cones more than they do tacos. Tacos los Poblanos on Central Avenue and the colloquially named Tire Shop Taqueria on Avalon are so similar you might think they were branches of the same operation. Do we have to pick just one? The hours at Tacos los Poblanos are a little more consistent, the seating a bit more accommodating, and the char on the meat a bit more intense. And there are other perks: On a Saturday night, a mango merchant pulled up in his truck and began offering free slices to those waiting in the line. You couldn’t have dreamed up a better appetizer. –G.S. 5711 S. Central Ave., South L.A.; instagram.com/tacoslospoblanosestilotijuana.
Tel Aviv Grill
When assembling your sandwich at Tel Aviv Grill, a perpetually crowded Israeli shawarma shop inside an Encino strip mall, try not to be indecisive. Sure, the process begins innocently enough: A counterman pulls a fresh sheet of pillowy laffa bread from a small domed oven in the corner, then shaves off an ample portion of chicken shawarma – juicy bits of meat, crispy on the edges and saturated with spices – from a rotating spit that’s as tall as Ryan Seacrest (most days there are two spits standing next to each other, sizzling and spinning in unison). Then the hard part comes: You are presented with about a dozen bowls of sauces, toppings and other accoutrements – a build-your-own wrap situation. The counterman flicks his tongs with staggering speed, loading up your sandwich with a slug of velvety hummus, tart cabbage slaw, deep-fried eggplant, a splash of cilantro-heavy hot sauce and a hit of amba, the addictive pickled-mango condiment that’s pretty much indispensable. You’ll start to feel the impatient stares of those waiting in line behind you. Shawarma this good has a following, and they don’t like to kept waiting. –G.S. 19014 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; (818) 774-9400.
What is the best ramen in America’s best ramen city? It depends, I suppose, on your mood, on your stylistic preference, on many things. But the consensus among the throngs of diners lining up outside Tsujita is that this is the best ramen in L.A., and we tend to agree. Once inside (the wait is long – it’s worth it), you’ll feast on Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen or perhaps get your dip on with the fantastic tsukemen, its dipping broth thick and silky and rich. With a ramen annex across the street and a sushi restaurant down the block, the Tokyo-based company is slowly taking over this stretch of Sawtelle, and Tsujita Sushi’s lunchtime offerings are outstanding in terms of raw-fish value. Perhaps once in a while we’ll make that detour, but for the most part you can find us up the street waiting in line and then slurping on ramen, intensely thankful for our noodle riches. –B.R. 2057 Sawtelle Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 231-7373, tsujita-la.com.
From just about the day Wexler’s opened, L.A.’s food obsessives started asking the question: Is this now the best pastrami sandwich in town? In light of our city’s devotion to Langer’s, the question seemed to be heresy, yet it isn’t unreasonable. At its best, the pastrami at Wexler’s rivals any in this city or any other: deeply rich, slightly smoky, sweet at its edges with a prickle of pepper and clove. Located in a stand in Grand Central Market, Wexler’s is highly traditional, an old-school Jewish deli, pure and simple. Chef Micah Wexler smokes his own fish and cures his own pastrami, makes his own pickles and generally obsesses over the quality of every last detail. There may be no better outcome of all that obsessing than Wexler’s lox: Slick, supple and delicate, the cured salmon tastes like a rushing mountain river in the same way an ultra-fresh oyster tastes like the soul of the ocean. –B.R. 317 S Broadway, downtown; (213) 624-2378, wexlersdeli.com.
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