Our 99 Essential Restaurants issue came out last week. In celebration, we're highlighting some of the spots for their special attributes. Today: Cheap eats!!
In many cities, the best food is also the most expensive. That is certainly not the case in Los Angeles, where you're just as likely to find food nirvana on a street corner as you are in an upscale restaurant. For this year's 99 Essential Restaurants list, there are plenty of spots highlighted that aren't much of a financial commitment at all – in fact, you ought to be able to get in, get out, and get fed for under $10. Here are ten of those spots.
10. Bánh Mì My-Tho
Until we're all lucky enough to have neighborhood bánh mì shops the way we have neighborhood taquerias and neighborhood cafés, Bánh Mì My-Tho will have to serve as our collective neighborhood Vietnamese sandwich shop, a tiny, standing room-only place where you'll find fantastic, crusty bánh mì. Here the sandwiches are layered with pickled carrots and daikon, mayo, sprigs of cilantro and your pick of meat, like, say, grilled pork (thit nuong) or the ever-popular ?ac biet (cold cuts), which comes with that critical shmear of pâté. Regardless of what you order, you always could top off your sandwich with a fried egg and have yourself the best morning sandwich in L.A. Banh Mi My-Tho has served the breakfast and lunchtime crowd for a remarkable 20 years; even more remarkable – almost criminal, in fact – is that, even after all that time, most every bánh mì here is $3 or less. If there were any justice in the world, a sandwich here would cost at least as much as almost any other sandwich in L.A. But who's complaining? Sandwiches, $2.50-$3. 304 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 289-4160.
9. Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita
There are times when you want not just a sandwich but a very particular type of sandwich: something less intense than the #19 at Langer's, say, but with a bit more bite than a torta. In which case, you're likely craving a cemita, the sandwich from Puebla, Mexico, that's the specialty of Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita in Boyle Heights. The cemita will have slices of brilliantly green avocado, a web of hand-pulled string cheese called quesillo, terrific smoky chipotle chiles and your pick of meat, though everyone seems to pick the milanesa, a piece of veal that's been pounded thin, breaded and perfectly fried. Everything will be improbably crammed into a toasted seeded roll that's softer than its crunchy exterior would suggest. The sandwich is filling on its own, but you may also want to grab a taco arabe, filled with shredded pork rolled in a soft tortilla, for good measure. In any case, your craving will be supremely satisfied. Sandwiches, $2.50-$6.50. 3010 E. First St., Boyle Heights; (323) 881-0428.
8. Colonia Taco Lounge
At Colonia Taco Lounge, Ricardo Diaz of Guisados fame brings together two factions that have long been destined to share an intimate relationship: very good tacos and very good beer. Located on a somewhat desolate stretch of Valley Boulevard in La Puente, Colonia is brightly designed and feels almost upscale once you're inside. Order from the blackboard menu on the wall, then sit and wait for your tacos to arrive. The guisados, or stewed meats, are just as warming and hearty as you might imagine if you've ever worshipped at the temple of Diaz's landmark restaurants, but there are a few completely original surprises here. The cauliflower taco takes the award for best vegetarian taco in town, with fried cauliflower florets that pop like shrimp. Then there's the actual shrimp taco: Served on an outstanding warm flour tortilla from Mexicali, the shrimp, sautéed in aji, burst with freshness. What sets this taco apart is the base of creamy, coconut rice smeared between the tortilla and the shrimp. The rice is so comforting, so sweet, so full of flavor, it makes for a taco that engages you both emotionally and physically. That alone is worth the drive to La Puente. Tacos, $3-$5. 13030 E. Valley Blvd., La Puente; (626) 363-4691.
7. Golden Deli
Golden Deli is now just over three decades young, or, to put in perspective, the same age as a Millennial. That it has not only survived but thrived, in a part of town that sees restaurants open and close with alarming regularity, is testament to its dependability, which rivals that of your old Civic. No matter what your age, the bowls of pho here are always comforting, as is the chicken curry served with bánh mì or steamed rice. And, of course, those egg rolls: search for #chagio on Instagram, and you'll very likely pull up at least one photo of the restaurant's amber, cigar-sized egg rolls. With the possible exception of the ones your family makes at home, these are the best you'll find in L.A. County. More recently, the restaurant introduced cupcakes – yes, cupcakes – to its menu; as is the style these days, these are sometimes topped with things like Fruity Pebbles. Will you Instagram them, too? Probably. But not before posting a photo of that egg roll. Hashtag: best. Entrees, $5-$10. 815 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel; (626) 308-0803.
6. Guerrilla Tacos
If the thought of having a fine taco alongside a fine cappuccino has never occurred to you, surely it will now: Wes Avila and Tanya Mueller usually park their Guerrilla Tacos truck curbside outside Handsome Coffee Roasters in downtown's Arts District or Cognoscenti Coffee's Culver City shop. After stints in various fine-dining establishments in the city, including Church and State and Le Comptoir, Avila left behind those whites for this blue taco truck, where the emphasis is not so much farm-to-table as it is farm-to-truck. Thus it's not a surprise that the market-driven menu will change with the season; given Avila's talents, it's perhaps not a surprise, either, that no matter what the ingredients, his tacos are consistently some of the most excellent in the city. Recently, you could have had a taco with charred octopus, pistachios, Cara Cara oranges and a fiery arbol chile, or one with roasted romanesco, purple cauliflower, Medjool dates and almond chili. Occasionally, there will be terrific treats on the menu like a tostada topped with uni and kombu dashi. This is fine dining, indeed. Tacos, $4-$10. (818) 640-3033.
If there's a better way to spend $6.95 in the city of Los Angeles than Guisados' taco sampler, we've yet to discover it. The owners of the taco joint wisely figured that for many people, trying to decide between their tinga de pollo, cochinita pibil and chicharrón tacos would prove too difficult. Each stewed, meaty variation, cradled in soft, handmade tortillas, simply has too much allure. Thus the sampler was born: six smaller tacos, a collection of greatest hits that touches on all the smoky, spicy, saucy goodness this place has to offer. Each vibrant meat gets its own thoughtful topping – a dab of avocado here, a draping of pickled onion there. It's a thing of true beauty. Since beginning in Boyle Heights, Guisados has since spawned a second location in Echo Park. And in a town with a huge variety of tacos, they both sit at the very tippy top of our list of favorites. Tacos, $2.50-$7. 2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Boyle Heights; (323) 264-7201.
4. Ha Tien Quan
Part of the menu at Ha Tien Quan you've seen before: pho, rice with grilled pork chops. The other part? That's where things get interesting. Ha Tien is a city on the Mekong Delta well known for its bun mam, a hyper-regional soup that's often referred to as “Vietnamese gumbo.” Like comparing bánh xèo to a crepe, though, this is an analogy so inexact as to be almost useless. Bun mam is a soup that can be defined only on its own terms, and there is perhaps no better place to experience it than at Ha Tien Quan. Here, rice noodles, eggplant, shrimp, pork belly and catfish are submerged in a complex, murky broth with a profoundly fishy umami, which can be traced to the fermented anchovies that owner Larry Ta imports from Vietnam. It'll be served with herbs and a lemon wedge; both should be liberally applied. You'll also want to order cha gio re – egg rolls with an intricate net of thin vermicelli, rather than rice paper or egg wrapper, hugging the filling. Is any other restaurant in L.A. cooking what Ha Tien Quan is cooking, and just as well? Probably not. All the more reason to go. Entrees, $7-$10. 529 E. Valley Blvd.,#178A, San Gabriel; (626) 288-1896.
3. El Huarache Azteca
El Huarache Azteca is one of Highland Park's many gems, a small restaurant on York Boulevard that specializes in the eponymous huarache, a thick, oblong wedge of masa shaped into something that roughly resembles a men's size-7 sandal, then fried and topped with zigzags of cream, crumbles of cheese, lettuce and meat. You'll need just one or two of these, plus any number of the restaurant's other terrific antijitos (Pambazos! Sopes!) for a very satisfying lunch, one that's bested, perhaps, only by lunch here on the weekends. That's when longtime and newer residents alike crowd the entrance, waiting to pick up the pound or so of the restaurant's barbacoa de borrego, lamb prepared in the style popular in Texcoco: roasted over a pit, slowly, until the meat collapses off the bone with the slightest nudge of your fork. Everyone, apparently, loves a great roast. Entrees, $3.50-$8.99. 5225 York Blvd., Highland Park; (323) 478-9572.
2. JTYH Heavy Noodle II
In the vast pantheon of noodle-dom – the pasta rolled paper-thin by Italian grandmothers, the noodles pulled and strung tableside at Chinese restaurants, the udon pounded and sliced as finely as filaments – there are few things as glorious as a bowl of knife-shaved noodles done in the manner of Shanxi. At JTYH, an unassuming restaurant at the back of a Rosemead parking lot, there are many, many bowls of some of the best hand-shaved noodles in Los Angeles. You can choose your method of delivery, as half the menu, more than 30 dishes, is devoted to the noodles. They come heavily laced with Sichuan peppercorns in a numbing dan dan sauce; submerged in a soup with stewed beef tendon; pan-fried with pieces of meltingly tender lamb. Once you tire of noodles, you might try some of the dumplings that restaurant workers often make at one of the center tables in the afternoons. Or the excellent leek buns, their edges fried to gorgeous filigrees. Or just get them to go (sold frozen, they're 50 for $15), and order another bowl of noodles. Entrees, $4.95-$9.95. 9425 Valley Blvd., Rosemead; (626) 442-8999.
1. Kogi BBQ Truck
Consider the Korean taco: Who would have thought an idea so seemingly misguided would launch a culinary empire? Yet that's what it did for Roy Choi, who is currently enjoying the spoils of celebrity chefdom: a bestselling book and book tour, multiple restaurants, the platform to give MAD Symposium talks about the culinary community's responsibility on issues of hunger. With seven projects sprinkled throughout the city, Kogi BBQ Truck is the place you can still taste that original stroke of foolhardy genius, of a Korean short rib taco, or a hot dog covered in kimchi and shredded romaine and drizzled with Sriracha. It's a humble food truck that's turned out to to be the best PR ever for the underpinnings of what make Los Angeles great, foodwise: cultural diversity, lack of establishment rules about what constitutes a restaurant, and the talent and fortitude of our chefs. Dishes, $2.29-$6. kogibbq.com.