In the hierarchy of restaurant rolodexes there have always been certain places for specific moods — places to celebrate an anniversary or a first date, places when you're feeling particularly adventurous for, say, for Hunan braised fish or lamb biryani. At the very bottom rung of this ladder, if you're like us, are those peculiar days when some greasy takeout seems inexplicably more appealing than a prime round of steak or a fresh kale salad — the food equivalent of a quickie hook-up in the back of an El Camino.
If you can resist the occasional pull of the Americanized Chinese combo plate — there are plenty of those in L.A. who can — we salute you. But for us, a list of places where an overstuffed box of chow mein and orange chicken is an invaluable asset when you find yourself weak in the knees for some MSG. (In this field, Midtown Lunch's Zach Brooks has been a true pioneer.) Skip Panda Express and support one of these local Chinese fast food shops; your food will taste better and probably end up cheaper, too. Feel free to add your own favorite steam-tray dives in the comments as well.
If you're into the most-bang-for-your-buck ethos, you should observe this place during the lunch rush. After ordering a three-items combo complete with the desired mix of carbohydrates, we've watched the ladies strain to close styrofoam boxes packed to their tensile limits with food. The thick slices of sweet BBQ pork, stained a deep crimson color, aren't half bad either. 1722 S Western Ave., L.A.; (323) 735-5321.
4. J&J Wok:
If any fast food Chinese place could be worthy of a cult following, it's probably this North Hollywood strip mall favorite. The guys out front move with lightning-quick speed, dispensing fried salt-n-pepper shrimp (no extra charge), a cumin-scented curry chicken and a trencherman's portion version of sauce-covered broccoli beef. 6118 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 763-9789.
3. O K Chinese Food:
Is this restaurant's name a clever way of subliminally lowering your expectations? If it is, it certainly works. The surprisingly crispy fried chicken could rival most soul food restaurants in town, plus when you combo it with Mongolian beef, chow mein, fried rice and a syrupy orange Thai tea, the total will still be under $5. 2256 Colorado Blvd, L.A.; (323) 258-3178.
Turn the page for #2, etc.
There seems to be a unanimous consensus that ordering the jalapeno chicken, a sticky battered stir-fry that substitutes in a tongue-scorching sauce for the usual saccharine glaze, is the way to go. A combo box loaded with two steam-tray items, fried rice and chow mein will cost you $4.87, plus its location just off the 5 freeway makes it prime for a clean getaway. 1828 Marengo St., L.A.; (323) 223-0783.
1. ABC Chinese Fast Food:
Like gas stations and produce sections, the high rate of turnover at this downtown lunch counter is good news for you. There is always a freshly wok'd tray of something emerging from the kitchen, and the variety of dishes — from kung pao to mapo tofu — appear to be near limitless. Prices range from just over $1 for one item to $5 for a plastic plate straining under its own weight. They even will toss on a few fried plantains on the side if you ask nicely. 100 W. Seventh St., L.A.; (213) 489-5189.