Some definitions: 1) A flauta is a corn tortilla wrapped around a meat filling and fried crisp. Stylistically, flautas can range from the greasy things your college dorm used to serve, to the giant, tasteless, alto-flute-size roll-ups served by certain upscale Mexican chains. 2) Located just down the street from the famous El Tepeyac burrito stand, Ciro‘s is something of an East L.A. institution, around as long as anyone can remember, never without a customer, beloved by local teenagers, families and cops. 3) Ciro’s flautas are tiny things, piccolo flautas, that come six to an order, tightly rolled and very crisp, sauced with thick, chunky, fresh guacamole and a dollop of tart Mexican cream. The shredded meat inside provides a smack of pure beef flavor that cuts through the strong tastes of corn and hot oil. It‘s easy to see how, over the years, these have become an obsession. 705 N. Evergreen St., Boyle Heights; (323) 267-8637. Open all day Tues.–Sun. Dinner for two, food only, $9–$15. Beer only. Takeout. Cash only.
Cole’s P.E. Buffet
When you trip down out of the bright sunlight into the dim warren of Cole‘s, you stumble into another era, with real Tiffany lamps, sawdust on the floors, and a couple of pickle-nosed guys at the bar who look like they haven’t budged from their stools since 1946. As you stand in line at the buffet, tray in hand, you might think that Cole‘s would be a swell place to try meat loaf, or knackwurst and beans, or corned beef and cabbage, or stuffed peppers. It’s not. Fortunately, Cole‘s also happens to serve — and claims, along with its downtown competitor, Philippe (the Original, see below), to have invented — huge, glorious French-dip sandwiches, soft and crisp, rich and meaty, of freshly roasted turkey, meltingly delicious brisket, and darn good roast beef, pork and pastrami. 118 E. Sixth St., downtown; (213) 622-4090. Open Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–7 p.m. (bar until 10 p.m.). Lunch for two, food only, $8–$10. Full bar. AE, Disc., MC, V.
La Luz del Dia
The last place you’d expect to find a real Mexican joint is among the maraca vendors and befuddled German tourists of Olvera Street, but there it is (and has been for decades), La Luz del Dia, serving cactus salad to the hordes. La Luz is a simple place, and most of what it serves are basic permutations of the two or three things it does best. So whatever you think you ordered — tacos, burritos, tostadas, whatever — you‘ll probably get at least one helping of picadillo, the chunky Mexican beef stew that, with its carrots and potatoes, looks like a stew somebody’s mother might have made . . . provided that somebody‘s mother has an industrial-size garlic press and a Thai tolerance for chile heat. 1 W. Olvera St., downtown; (213) 628-7495. Open Tues.–Sun. for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $8–$10. Beer only. Cash only.
Musso & Frank Grill
It’s 3:30 p.m. at Musso & Frank. The warm scent of wood smoke spreads across the room. A red-jacketed waiter comes over and pours a clear, cold martini, Hollywood‘s best, from a pony into a tiny frosted glass, then carefully spoons Welsh rarebit — rich and warm, if a little grainy — from a metal salver onto crustless toast. Here in these worn wooden swivel chairs beneath the ancient hunt-scene wallpaper, this seems very much the perfect gentleman’s lunch. The service is solicitous, but mostly leaves you to your own thoughts. You can order coffee and a bread pudding and people-watch for hours during the pre-theater rush. (You can even eavesdrop.) Musso‘s, the oldest real restaurant in Los Angeles, is a gggn easy place to be happy. 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; (323) 467-7788. Open Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $25–$40. Full bar. Validated parking in rear. AE, DC, MC, V.
Located downtown by the rail yards, Nick‘s — owned by a couple of LAPD homicide detectives who are sometimes shanghaied into pot-washing duty when an employee calls in sick — is one of those basic breakfast spots that seems to have survived intact from the ’40s, a haven of quilted aluminum, Dad‘s-den wood paneling and old railroad signs. A clean, masculine funk of fried ham and strong coffee hangs in the air. The shirtsleeve clientele seems mostly made up of the big-city guys who make factories run. Conversation around the U-shaped counter may touch on a big mariachi concert or the news from City Hall, but it always turns to football. The hot tri-tip sandwich with homemade gravy and real mashed potatoes puts anything at those fancy neo-’50s restaurants to shame. And you won‘t find arugula at the Salad Korner. 1300 N. Spring St.; (323) 222-1450. Open Mon.–Fri. 5:30 a.m.–2 p.m., Sat. till 11:30 a.m. Breakfast or lunch for two, food only, $6–$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
Philippe the Original
Everybody who has lived in Los Angeles more than a year has heard how it was Philippe himself who invented the French-dip sandwich — 60 years ago, when he accidentally dropped a sandwich into some gravy. The place is so much a part of old Los Angeles that sometimes it feels as if it isn’t really a part of Los Angeles, as if it belongs to a city much older and much more attached to its distant past. The lamb sandwich is wet and rich, with something of the gamy animal pungency of old-fashioned roast meat, while all around the restaurant you can see nostrils flare as people hit a little depth charge of Philippe‘s hot mustard in their sandwiches. Philippe’s is a fine place, too, for lunch, dinner or breakfast: crisp doughnuts, decent cinnamon rolls, and coffee for 10 cents a cup. 1001 N. Alameda St.; (213) 628-3781. Open daily 6 a.m.–10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7–$12. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.