Strip malls will catch your eye for all sorts of different reasons. Maybe they sit at a clogged intersection, where you and every other bored commuter have lots of time to take in the scenery. Perhaps there's a certain food you're partial to — Indian, say — and you find yourself seeking out the hidden lunch buffet gems as a habit. It could be bright colors, obtrusive architecture or sheer size that draws you to any other strip mall, but at the Clar-Ven Center on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Clarington Avenue, the first thing you'll notice is the variety.
Each end is stamped with a regional Asian food chain, the first being Miyako Japanese Restaurant and the other a Thai Original BBQ. But in between, you'll find plates of Oaxacan food, daily Italian dishes and that ever-present Indian buffet. Here's a look at what you'll find inside each.
The dim lanterns and fake-paper walls are a nice touch at Miyako, even if they don't do much to transport you to another continent while you eat. Not much on the menu will either, although that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is take-out Japanese, the sort of bento boxes and quick serve lunch combinations that make up the bulk of lunchtime orders. Specialty sushi rolls are always under $10, and picking up a plate loaded with teriyaki chicken, shrimp tempura and a California roll comes in at about the same price. Miyako also manages to serve a thinly-brothed ramen, some straightforward soba noodles and bowls of thick, tacky udon.
The hot, soupy items are about the only things you really need to eat on-site in order to preserve their consistency. Otherwise, Miyako is take-away territory, offering cheap Japanese alternatives to hungry lunchers on foot along this stretch of Venice Boulevard. Miyako gladly accepts credit cards, and is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. 10020 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 310-202-770.
Formerly the much-maligned Diablo Taco back in 2010, this strip mall taco hall seems to have found its groove. Perhaps its the kitschy cantina feel, or the cheap Negro Modelo beer behind the counter, but Villa Tacos seems like the sort of place where fun could pop up at any moment. Maybe it comes in the form of a two beer lunch, or a little after work chips and salsa. You could even pull off around 6 p.m., sopping up mole with your corn tortillas while the rest of Los Angeles crawls by on Venice Boulevard.
The Villa Tacos menu skews towards Southern Mexico, but you won't find the same attention to detail as newcomers Casa Oaxaca down the street. But to look for it at Villa Tacos probably misses the point anyway. This is everyday strip mall Mexican, where the waitress slides into a booth and shares snacks with a couple of regulars when it's slow, then ribs a few construction workers who come in looking for aguas frescas. Cheap plates of mole, soupy beans or bites of overcooked chorizo won't keep you coming back to Villa Tacos, but the atmosphere — and those Negro Modelos — just might. Villa Tacos is open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and accepts plastic. 10022 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 310-841-2520.
Of all the spots inside the Clar-Ven Center strip mall, the most-likely-to-have-been-heard-about-before award goes to Giovanni's Trattoria. It's not mind-bending Italian food, but for a neighborhood that could use a few more moderately priced local options, Giovanni's helps to fill a void. And they do it with pasta.
There's gnocchi pomodoro, rigatoni with Italian sausage, farfalle with salmon and a lots of mozzarella everywhere. It's laid in waves over the chicken parmesan, served stringy and warm on their bubbly pizzas and stuffed to the gills inside an $11 calzone. If you're expecting Evan Funke's Bucato, you'll have to drive a few miles east, but Giovanni's sparkling lights, rustically painted walls and sometimes elbow-to-elbow seating emanates a closeness. People seem to like it inside, and the waiters seem to like them back just as much. Giovanni's is open Monday through Friday for lunch, beginning at 11:30 a.m. and running to 3 p.m. Dinner is served nightly from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Giovanni himself will swipe your Visa card if you're so inclined. 10026 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 310-839-1757.
You know the saying: Behind every good strip mall there's a great Indian lunch buffet. Well, Mama's Indian Kitchen doesn't quite hit the “great” mark, but for an $8.99 all-you-can-eat experience, there's still plenty to love. Just ask the worker bees from nearby Sony Pictures, who seem to cling to the place once the steam table fires up for the day. By mid-afternoon, the tables have given way to legions of elderly folks, slowly sipping chai tea and snacking on squishy sweet gulab jamun. Sunny, the brightly-lit owner, regards both with affection when they walk through the door.
What those old folks really ought to be snacking on is the garlic naan, which emerges from the kitchen as a work of tandoori art. Chewy and light, with lots of garlicky funk, this is the perfect mechanism for sopping up the thick chan masala or hoisting sag paneer to your mouth. You may find less to love in the oily samosas or low-grade tandoori chicken, but vegans and those with gluten disagreements can rejoice at Mama's Indian Kitchen. The menu is bolstered with friendly alternatives, and Sunny himself will make sure you get exactly what you need. 10032 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 310-841-6514.
Sure, you can order the pad thai or the drunken noodles, but when a regional chain has BBQ in the name, it's best to stick with what they do best. In the case of Thai Original BBQ, that means pork ribs, glowing and greasy and bearing the marks of a warm grill. For lunch, it also means a serious bargain.
Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can get the above plate of ribs for around $9. That's a lot of pork for one person, and is surely enough to leave you napping back at the office in the afternoon. And beyond the sticky sweet orange goop that accompanies your meat, it's a pretty straightforward meal. The pork is tender enough to pull off the bone with ease, but makes no pretense about coming from heritage pigs, or even particularly soft ones. The side order of fried rice is little more than an egg scramble over some orange-tinted sticky rice, but if you're just in the mood for meat it won't really matter. If you're after something else, noodle lunches hover in the same sub-$10 category, and you can even get a boba to go if you're so inclined. Should you be dining in, be sure to glance up at the multi-colored, jagged ceiling; it looks surprisingly like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust face paint. Thai Original BBQ is open daily from 11 am to 10 pm, and will accept your credit card with a $10 minimum. 10036 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 310-559-9711.
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