Good steak houses are basically of two kinds: the ones that pass along the $15-plus per pound they pay for prime meat wholesale, and the ones that use less expensive grades but make up for it with low prices, friendly service, strong old-fashioneds and plenty of atmosphere. Among the latter, none is more atmospheric than the Arsenal. Here is your basic restaurant from the Twilight Zone, with medieval weaponry mounted on the walls, mortar shells hanging from the ceiling and a queer, Hieronymus Bosch–like mural behind the bar. The prices are low — steaks start at $9.50 — and the waitresses, who seem to have been working there since Century City was a bean field, are most friendly. 12012 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 479-9782. Open Mon.–Thurs. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. till 11 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$25. Full bar. AE, CB, DC, Disc., MC, V.
Though other burger stands figure more prominently in the consciousness of most Angelenos, those who know consider Cassell’s hamburgers to be among the very best in the United States: softballs of freshly ground USDA prime beef that weigh a full one-third or two-thirds of a pound, broiled in a hinged inferno of Mr. Cassell‘s own design, served naked on a toasted bun. If Cassell’s has a flaw, it is that the meat is too good, the preparation is too careful, so that when you splash your burger with ketchup, every gram of Heinz-borne sugar makes itself known. A Cassell‘s hamburger stands out not because it is typical of the Southland, but because it is apart from it, the sort of hamburger you might expect at a quality-obsessed diner somewhere in deepest Iowa, a Spartan, anti-exuberant hamburger qua hamburger in which each element tastes only of itself. 3266 W. Sixth St.; (213) 387-5502. Open for lunch Mon.–Sat. Lunch for two, food only, $5–$7. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
The basic unit of currency at El Chamizal is the parrillada, a squat iron brazier shimmering from the heat of the charcoal within, brought to your table piled high with thin grilled steaks, pork chops marinated in chile, hunks of chorizo sausage, fried bananas, whole jalapeños burnt black, and little ramekins of melted cheese and scallions bronzed and wilted to a superb sweetness. The meat is terrific, well-marinated, rich with crunchy carbonized bits — rather overrich in them if you leave the stuff on the grill too long — very nice folded into a little taco with the house’s fine smoked tomato sauce and a spoonful of the smoky bacon-stewed beans. 7111 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park; (323) 583-3251. Open daily 8 a.m.–2 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $20–$28. Full bar. Entertainment and dancing. Street parking. AE, Disc., DC, MC, V.
Phuon Pagode is devoted to the cult of the Vietnamese all-beef set dinner — bo 7 mon — which involves seven courses of cow brought to you one after the other until you drop. First up come slices of rose-red raw beef fanned out on a plate. You swish the beef a slice at a time through a tabletop pot of boiling vinegar just until it whitens, then wrap it in rice paper with vegetables and a splosh of the nam men. There is a big, fluffy steamed meatball — studded with clear noodles, something like a loose, sweetly spiced Vietnamese pate — that you scoop up with shrimp chips. There is a platter of stuff: delicious grilled meatballs, and tough strips of beef already rolled around vegetables, also little cylinders of minced beef wrapped in Hawaiian la lot leaves — which either do or do not have a narcotic effect, depending on whom you believe. Item six is a sauteed-beef salad, in a powerful vinaigrette. Item seven is a powerfully flavored beef soup, clear and concentrated, pungent with ginger and garlic, with a tablespoon or so of rice at the bottom. You don‘t wrap the soup. 710 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel; (626) 282-6327. Open seven days 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $11–$22. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Disc., MC, V.
The menu at Tito‘s, painted on a wall behind the counter, is not long — tacos and enchiladas and tamales, two kinds of burritos (with beans and without), tostadas and chile con carne, rice and beans. Enchiladas are cheesy and goopy — the cheese being the bright-orange, salty kind that seems to exist solely to turn rubbery when it melts — the tamales uncheesy and goopy. Inside the burritos are meat and beans and cheese (35 cents extra), the meat being the same stewed (”100% Steer“) chunks in a mild red-chile sauce that used to be served everywhere from El Coyote to the cafeteria in the UCLA Co-op, my favorite restaurant in the world when I was 8. For an extra six bits or so, you can get a little Styrofoam cup of ”guacamole,“ which probably contains about as much actual avocado as ”Krab“ does crab, but which serves the essential purpose of turning things tart and green. What you’ll actually eat are tacos. With cheese. 11222 Washington Place, Culver City; (310) 391-5780. Open daily 9 a.m.–11:30 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $6–$10. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
Valenzuela‘s Mexican Restaurant
Valenzuela’s is almost synonymous with Jalisco-style beef roasted in its own juices — thin, massively heaped confetti of browned beef flavored with bits of smoky bacon, filled out with soupy beans, garnished with chopped onion and a handful of cilantro, sopping in a spicy puddle of juice. On the side, a plate holds sugary roasted onions, grilled scallions, hot chiles that have been charred to an elusive sweetness, radishes and lime. It‘s a classically compelling dish, each spoonful subtly different — smoky, meaty, spicy, tart — with the promise of carnivorous nirvana in every bite, and hungry people can demolish giant piles of this stuff in just a couple of minutes. 11721 E. Valley Blvd., El Monte; (818) 579-5384. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $12–$24. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, DC, MC, V.