Los Angeles is ripe with culinary riches, from gourmet fine-dining joints to casual, quick-service cafes. The city is also home to a diversity of cheap eats. The following are merely a few of our favorites that run the gamut from regional Mexican food to soulful Israeli cuisine.
Who knew a gourmet take on the iconic fast-food cheeseburger could be so deeply satisfying? On their way to “fiendishly delicious” global domination, the owners of Sugarfish have given us a new burger concept that is anything but boring. It is the ideal version of the thin, griddled double-patty, fast-food cheeseburger. On its website, HiHo Cheeseburger touts itself as “the only burger restaurant that exclusively serves 100 percent grass-fed Wagyu beef.” Juicy, drippy, packed with beefy flavor, these cheeseburgers are the best burgers I've had in recent memory. Simply topped with melted American cheese that oozes into the ground beef and an addictive onion compote that adds the desired sweetness in the proper measure, it's the burger of your dreams. Suffice to say, I went back for a second cheeseburger after inhaling the first one. A slab of superb banana cream pie topped with a quarter-inch-thick layer of barely sweetened, softly whipped cream is a fitting coda to your burger meal. HiHo even offers some fine wines by the glass, including a dry Battaglini zinfandel that goes surprisingly well with the burgers. (Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways was surely on to something when he paired his greasy fast-food cheeseburger with a glass of 1961 Cheval Blanc.) Too bad HiHo's not open 24/7, since it would work wonders for those in need of something to soak up a melancholy, Bukowski-esque bender. And most everything on the menu is easily under $10.
1320 Second St., Suite B, Santa Monica; (310) 469-7250, hiho.la.
Soom Soom Fresh Mediterranean
Opened recently in Beverly Grove, Soom Soom (which translates to “sesame sesame”) serves up classic Middle Eastern staples in a no-frills, counter-service atmosphere: Think airy falafel balls, mouthwatering shwarma and grilled kebabs served with a plethora of toppings, Chipotle-style, from creamy hummus to addictive amba (mango-based hot sauce) to a fiery zhug. The quick-service surroundings belie tremendously well-honed flavor, skilled craftsmanship and quality ingredients. The succulent chicken shwarma, carved straight from the vertical spit, hits all the right taste receptors and may make you dream of the hefty pita sandwiches topped with fries that you relished on your last trip to Tel Aviv. The creamy, suave hummus, slicked with good olive oil, topped with green chili, laced with the puckery tang from fresh lemons and hot garbanzo beans may even remind you of the sainted hummus specialist Abu Hassan in Jaffa, Israel (as some on Instagram have mentioned). You can find the justly famed Israeli spin on lemonade, lemonnana, which contains the crucial element of mint leaves. Here you can have glass after glass of this restorative tonic.
8744 W. Third St., Beverly Grove; (310) 888-8804, soomsoomfresh.com; additional locations in Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles.
Santa Rita Jalisco
Despite the plethora of taco trucks in East L.A. doling out everything from suadero to lengua to tacos al pastor, pezcuesos de pollo (fried chicken neck tacos) are still a rarity. And no truck does them better than the Santa Rita Jalisco truck, parked at the corner of East First Street and Dickerson in the heart of East L.A. These more exotic tacos are found in Tijuana and usually are referred to as “Kentucky Fried Buches.” Santa Rita serves them three to an order, sluiced with an incendiary, chunky tomato salsa that grows on you as you chow down. The crispy bits of chicken that cling to the bones pack a wallop of flavor — the meat on the bone always seems to impart the deepest, truest flavor — while the fiery salsa cuts down the richness of the fried chicken. Each order is all of $2.50. The tacos plus a pineapple agua fresca make just about a perfect lunch on a sunny day. The truck has been parked at this spot continuously for nearly two decades (the adjacent brick-and-mortar taqueria has been defunct for years) and hopefully will remain there indefinitely. The owner hails from Puebla, Mexico, where they know a thing or two about food — it's the birthplace of the legendary pomegranate seed-topped chiles en nogada.
3900 E. First St., Los Angeles; (323) 261-2738
This Lilliputian hut is quite possibly the tiniest restaurant to ever win a prestigious James Beard Award (it took the regional prize in 2005). Even longtime Los Angeles Times critic Ruth Reichl praised its bean and cheese burrito as one of the top dishes in L.A. But the awards would mean nothing if the food didn't taste great. Socorro Herrera, affectionately known to longtime customers as “Mama,” opened the stand in 1976 with her husband, Jaime, to share a taste of her home-style Yucatán cooking. The carne asada tacos taste like a steak you might grill up at home if you weren't so lazy, which is to say the home-cooked flavor comes through loud and clear. Each taco is simply topped with a mild pico de gallo. You can add some of the various bottled salsas if you need more of a kick. Mama usually will hold court outside the stand and scrawl your order on a paper plate. Curiously, Yuca's chili cheeseburgers are significantly better than those at most fast-food joints around town, most likely something to do with the flavor built up on the trusty four-decades-old grill. And the Yucatecan specialty cochinita pibil is fiendishly tasty. Makeshift tables and recreation room–style chairs are set up in the parking lot Yuca's shares with a liquor store in case you simply can't wait to devour your tacos.
2056 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz; (323) 662-1214.
Wild & Free
This Sherman Oaks healthy-casual cafe was opened back in October by the original proprietor of the Plan Check chain, Terry Heller. The streamlined focus is on rotisserie chicken in various spice rubs, from one inflected with black pepper to another emphasizing rosemary and sage. It's deeply satisfying, juicy chicken offered in quarter- or half-size portions with a couple of sides. Though it's not necessarily a novel concept, it certainly fits the bill for those lazy nights when only a crisp-skinned rotisserie chicken consumed in front of the TV will do. Wild & Free also offers smoke-infused chicken as well as its take on pollo a la brasa (wood-fired Peruvian rotisserie chicken). And one of the potato side dishes is even roasted in schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). We wouldn't be surprised if Wild & Free rapidly multiplies across the city. Caveat emptor: Wild & Free accepts only credit cards, which sadly seems to be the trend these days with many new restaurants.
4550 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 616-5688, eatwildandfree.com.