A splendid three-course dinner in a three-star restaurant can be had for the price of an entree. A dozen oysters on the half-shell are yours for 15 bucks -- and there's even an ocean view. A sashimi lunch at one of the city's best sushi bars is priced so low you think it must be a mistake.
Restaurant prices may seem out of sight these days, but there are deals out there, delicious ones. We've searched high and low for the best of them, from Little Saigon to Studio City, from East L.A. to Pacific Palisades. We found them in taquerias and trattorias, bustling pho houses and chic new dining rooms. So put away that maxed-out credit card and rev up your appetite. A world of irresistible -- and affordable -- delights is waiting to be discovered. For our list of favorites, see Page 5
1. Coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail) at Mariscos Guillen, $3.50. Out of a little blue shack at the border of Santa Monica and Venice comes a big white cup brimming with an outrageously good coctel. Unlike their American counterparts, Mexican seafood cocktails don't involve thick, sweet, ketchupy, horseradishy cocktail sauce; these are soupier and brighter in flavor, almost like a cross between gazpacho and ceviche. At Mariscos Guillen, the coctel de camarones is a cool concoction of succulent shrimp (about a dozen of them in the "small" 12-ounce serving), ripe avocado chunks and chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro in a tomato-clam broth. Spike it with a squeeze of lime and a splash of hot sauce -- just be sure to ask for the latter. You'll never have to ask for the stack of tostadas that come with it, though; break off a shard and dip it into this divine -- and generously portioned -- cocktail. There's nowhere to sit, really; Tiny La Playita (as Mariscos Guillen is also known) is more of a takeout joint. (Its Hawthorne location, however, has restaurant seating.) Mariscos Guillen (La Playita), 3306 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 452-0090. Also at 12319 Prairie Ave., Hawthorne; (310) 973-1810. * 2. Special combination pho at Pho Thang Long, small, $4.95; large, $5.45. There are a million bowls of pho out there -- and many are interchangeably good. But this Vietnamese beef noodle soup (No. 15 on the menu, pho bo thap cam) stands out even in Westminster's Little Saigon. It's the broth that gets your attention: Full-bodied and unmistakably beefy, it's made by simmering bones and meat with grilled onions, ginger and herbs. The special combo is also a fun pho to eat. It includes tender slices of rare and well-done steak, chewy little slabs of brisket, crunchy slivers of tripe and gelatinous hunks of shank. Squeeze some chile sauce and hoisin sauce on your condiment dish, and dip as you eat the meaty morsels. You can add even more flavor and texture, picking from the rau son (side plate of herbs) -- here it includes basil, sawtooth and shiso, bean sprouts, jalapeno slices and lime wedges. The small bowl is plenty generous, but if you're on either side of plain hungry, the large bowl is just the thing to share or to have all to yourself. Pho Thang Long Restaurant, 15579 Brookhurst St., Westminster; (714) 839-4955. * 3. Pain au chocolat at A la Tarte, $2.75. Slightly crisp and golden brown on the outside, this pain au chocolat is tender yet springy on the inside and wonderfully flaky. And at the center is not just any chocolate, but a strip of Callebaut, deep, dark and molten within the buttery layers of dough. Owner Bonnie Abitbol, a self-taught American cook who lived in France for nearly two decades, says she doesn't have a single mixer on the premises. So the pain au chocolat, like all the pastries at A la Tarte, is made entirely by hand. A la Tarte. 1037 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades; (310) 459-6635. * 4. Sashimi lunch special at Sushi Gen, $10.50. Lunch is often a better deal than dinner at restaurants, but Sushi Gen's sashimi lunch special is in a league of its own. First come the little dishes and bowls: assorted pickles, a lovely sunomono, some silky tofu cubes simmered in beef broth, miso soup in a covered bowl. Then the centerpiece, a rectangular ceramic platter holding what looks like an architectural model of a sashimi town: little towers of fish in all their fresh glory, with a hill of wasabi on one side and a green patch of seaweed on another. It's a lot of fish, some just raw slices, others made into salads. The selection changes day to day, but there's usually tuna and yellowtail. You'll also get a bowl of fluffy rice. Sushi Gen, 422 E. 2nd St., L.A.; (213) 617-0552. * 5. Kibbeh maqliyeh plate at Sunnin Cafe, $5.50. It's no stretch to say that Em Toni makes the best kibbeh maqliyeh around. What, you may ask, is kibbeh? The Lebanese specialty is a walnut-sized torpedo-shaped meatball of lamb and bulgur ground to a paste, filled with browned meat, onions and pine nuts and deep-fried. The trick is to make the crust as thin as it can be without breaking up as it fries. Many a Lebanese teenager has cried herself to sleep because she hasn't mastered this exacting skill. Em Toni has, though. Toni first surfaced at Al Amir Restaurant on Wilshire; when it closed in 1996, she opened her own place in Westwood, where she still makes much of the kibbeh (she's semiretired now, and her children make the rest). Made from beef rather than lamb, it's a top-notch version. Sunnin's kibbeh plate has four pieces with a bit of hummus and turnip pickle on the side. Sunnin Lebanese Cafe, 1779 Westwood Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 477-2358. Also available at its other location ($6.50 for three pieces), 5110 E. 2nd St., Long Beach; (562) 433-9000. * 6. Sunday night supper at Lucques, $35 for three courses. If you think your pockets aren't deep enough to dine at Lucques, consider this: On Sunday evenings, you can sit on the lovely patio and enjoy three courses at one of the city's best restaurants for just $35. On a recent visit, dinner started with dandelion and radicchio salad with pancetta, roasted wild plums and crumbled goat cheese. There was a choice of main courses: grilled king salmon with freshly dug potatoes, roasted cherry tomatoes and anchovy vinaigrette (delicious); or "steak tartare poele," a roughly chopped steak tartare with cornichons, shallots and parsley that had been quickly seared on both sides, served with a huge mountain of herbed frites. Hard to decide? Chef Suzanne Goin assures us you can get half orders of both main courses on any given Sunday, which stretches the experience into four -- count 'em, four -- courses. For dessert, we had bittersweet chocolate cake with noyau ice cream. Noyau, in case you were wondering, is the pit of an apricot. The flavor was superb. Accompanied by a 2001 Pic St. Loup, very reasonably priced at $28, it was quite the swell evening. Lucques, 8474 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 655-6277. * 7. Asada taco, Tortas Mexico, $2.10. Tucked into a nondescript strip mall on Ventura Boulevard, Tortas Mexico must have great tortas. We'll probably never know, though, because the tacos are so good it's hard to resist ordering them every time. Dreamy handmade corn tortillas, on the thick side, with just the right amount of give, are 35 cents apiece. The asada is our favorite. There's enough juicy, perfectly seasoned carne asada to divide over two tortillas, so you'll want to spring for an extra one. Slathered with their excellent salsa verde or pico de gallo, it's a happening on a paper plate. Wash it down with a watermelon agua fresca. On Sundays, beware -- the place closes early (open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.). $2.80 with two handmade tortillas. Tortas Mexico, 11040 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818)760-2571. * 8. Pastrami sandwich on rye at Langer's, $10.77 (tax included). Ten dollars for a sandwich might not seem like a bargain, but it's far less than the 400 bucks you'd have to pay for an airline ticket to New York, where you'd probably find pastrami almost as good. Everything about this sandwich at Langer's is perfect: the hand-cut pastrami has a texture and flavor that puts Carnegie Deli to shame, the rye bread (from Bea's Bakery in Reseda) has startlingly good crust; add a little mustard, and it all comes together magnificently. You can eat in at the old-timey deli (it's been around since 1947), but takeout is the thing do here: Call ahead and Langer's will not only have your sandwich ready, it'll actually deliver it to your car. The cook watches for you at the window; when you pull up, he comes out with white bag in hand. Inside are your sandwich, neatly wrapped in paper, pickles hermetically sealed in plastic, a wad of napkins and a red-and-white mint. Now that's service. Langer's, 704 S. Alvarado St., Los Angeles; (213) 483-8050. * 9. A dozen oysters on the half-shell at Ocean Ave. Seafood, $15. During the "oyster happy hour" in the bar and at the oyster bar, this top-notch Santa Monica seafood house offers an "oyster of the day" for $1.25 apiece; a dozen is an even better deal. It could be Coromandels from New Zealand, Totten Virginica from Washington state or Falsa Bays from California. You might want to order one or two before you commit to a dozen since the varieties are so different. Chase them down nicely with a $5 glass of the white wine of the day (in this case a 2003 Dynamite Sauvignon Blanc from Lake County). A number of appetizers are also available greatly discounted from the regular menu -- lobster taquitos for $6.50 (regularly $10.95); steamed Manila clams (a couple dozen in a nice, white wine-herb broth) for $7.50 (regularly $13.95); crisp and flavorful fried calamari with a good tartar sauce for $4.50 (regularly $9.95). And there's always a $5 "bartender special house cocktail," which changes every week or two. Right now, it's a rum runner, juicy and delicious. And perfect with that ocean view. Oyster happy hour, 4 to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Ocean Ave. Seafood, 1401 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-5669. * 10. Costillas de puerco en chile negro at Teresitas, $9.99. If it's Wednesday, it's time to go to Teresitas. That's the only day it serves those braised pork short ribs with that marvelous black chile sauce. Mildly spicy and deeply complex, the sauce is made with black chiles toasted on the grill, onion, garlic and a touch of Ibarra Mexican chocolate. Can't make it on a Wednesday? Here's a great Pork Plan B: the carnitas plate, equally priced and equally delicious. Technically, "carnitas" means "little meats" -- as in, bits of pork. But in this case, they're hardly little bits but great hunks of flavorful meat that will fill many a tortilla. Both plates come with excellent rice and beans too. Did we mention that the portions are gigantic? Teresitas, 3826 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 266-6045. * 11. Corkage at Rocca, free when the wine is purchased at Wine Expo. This is one of the best wine deals going: If you're planning to dine at Rocca, Don Dickman's personable Santa Monica trattoria, swing by Wine Expo first and pick up a bottle of something Italian. That's not hard because owner Robert Rogness specializes in Italian wines and Champagnes; he has one of the best selections around. He's terrific at pointing out delicious bargain bottles. Just show the silver Wine Expo sticker on the bottle when you get to Rocca, and they'll waive the $10 corkage. Rocca, 1432A 4th St., Santa Monica, (310) 395-6765. Wine Expo, 2933 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 828-4428. * 12. Butter-poached lobster at Opus Bar & Grill, $32. Yeah, yeah, we know $32 is a lot of money. But you'll spend quite a bit more elsewhere for the dish Thomas Keller made famous -- $46 at Providence, $47 at Water Grill. Opus' version, which looks to be pulled from a 1 1/4 pound lobster, is sweet and perfectly cooked, served lately with meltingly tender braised fennel, dried tomato and deeply flavorful lobster bisque sauce. It's spectacularly luxurious for the price. Opus Bar & Grill, 3760 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 738-1600. * 13. Hamburger at Pie 'n Burger, $5.45. This classic old-fashioned burger -- one of our favorites in the world -- is best enjoyed at the wood-grain Formica counter at the Pasadena landmark. Tall and proud in its collar of white paper, the nicely cooked (i.e., not overdone) patty is adorned by a stack of crunchy iceberg lettuce, a slathering of Thousand Island dressing and plenty of pickles. The bun is undistinguished, but somehow perfect. This is one of the few burgers on earth that doesn't need ketchup or a slice of tomato -- it's just got that gorgeous burger gestalt. Pie 'n Burger, 913 E. California Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 795-1123. * 14. Blood orange ice at DiDio's Italian Ice, $2.50. At an almost painfully cute little storefront on Montana Avenue, fans wait at the counter for a scoop of probably the best Italian ice in town. Bob Didio has been making his most popular flavor from fresh-squeezed, blood orange juice for about six years. The flavor is very pure, very clear, very grown-up. The season starts in January when blood oranges appear in the market; he squeezes enough juice to last approximately through August. "I actually like wrapping it up," he says. "If I ran it all year 'round, it would be a nonevent." In September, he says, he'll start offering pomegranate ice. DiDio's Italian Ice, 1305 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 393-2788. * 15. 13-course menu at Yong Su San, $22.99. You can almost randomly choose one of the set menus for lunch or dinner at this serenely elegant Koreatown restaurant; they range from $14.99 to $49.99. The Su Table d'Hote menu begins with "soft creamy porridge," which is like a winter squash soup. Then it proceeds with terrific jellyfish and finely julienned cucumber in a spicy mustard dressing; a refreshing bean sprout, radish and apricot salad; fabulous mung bean noodles with beef, mushroom and seaweed; Kaesung-style steamed pork -- slices of pork belly with a fish dipping sauce and a stack of kimchi; egg-battered fish and zucchini; Kaesung-style "wrapped kimchi," which has been fermented inside a whole cabbage; clear noodles stir-fried with vegetables; sea scallops on a skewer with mushrooms; a sesame-dressed salad; beef barbecue on an aromatic bed of grilled onions. Then your choice of several types of rice soup. And finally, a lovely, cold, gingery persimmon punch and a little ginger cookie. Two-person minimum for the set menus. Yong Su San, 950 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 388-3042. * 16. Souvlaki plate at Papa Cristo's, $8.99. Bargains abound at this popular taverna-deli in the mid-city Byzantine-Latino quarter. The octapodakia, for instance -- a generous platter of grilled baby octopus served with lemon wedges for $5.99. But the souvlaki kebab is extraordinarily good: six big chunks of marinated lamb loin, laced with bell peppers and onion and grilled to perfection. With it comes an outsized portion of homey roast potatoes, a small Greek salad, wonderfully fresh pita bread and yogurt-dill sauce. Papa Cristo's, 2771 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 737-2970. * 17. Literati salad, at Literati II, $10. Huge portions, first-rate food and attractive prices make Literati II, the casual West L.A. spot where Chris Kidder presides at the stove, prime territory for bargain-hunting. Many of the first courses, including the snazzy $8 bruschetta with baby octopus and the $10 Caesar, are large enough to serve two. We particularly love the Literati salad -- endive, arugula and shaved fennel, punctuated with dried cherries, dressed in a lovely citrus vinaigrette and topped with an herbed goat cheese crouton dotted with pistachios. The whole is unexpectedly better than the sum of its parts. Chalk it up to the dressing? Literati II, 12081 Wilshire Blvd. (at Bundy), Los Angeles; (310) 479-3400 * 18. Spanish tapas platter at Ciudad, $16.50. We have a hard time not ordering this every time we dine at Ciudad, so good, so varied and so generous it is. Who could resist? Triangles of torta Espanola, a potato omelet, have squiggles of Peruvian chile aioli. A toast point pairs oven-dried tomatoes and boquerones (white anchovies). Half a deviled egg is dusted with paprika. Honey is drizzled over Manchego cheese and arugula. A bright-red piquillo pepper is stuffed with creamy avocado and goat cheese. Paper-thick slices of serrano ham are piled next to morcilla (blood sausage). Add to that spiced almonds, marinated olives and roasted red and poblano peppers, and it's terrific however you divide it. The platter makes an ample lunch or a light dinner for two, rounded off by the mixed-seed and chile flat breads made from tortillas that come in a basket with hummus and tapenade. Or a very generous appetizer for four. Ciudad, 445 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles; (213) 486-5171. * 19. Trenette alla carbonara at La Buca, $12.25. At this tiny trattoria near Raleigh Studios, the pasta is made by hand every morning, according to the owner's mother's recipe (Loredana Cecchinato will return from Italy in a month or two to resume pasta-making duties). The trenette, which translates as "ribbons," are like tagliatelle, but a little wider. The texture is amazing -- fine and springy -- and the pasta convincingly soaks up the eggs, cheese and bacon of the carbonara sauce. Handmade spinach-and-cheese-filled ravioli (try it with raddichio cream sauce; $11.75) is also terrific. La Buca, 5210 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 462-1900. * 20. Chicken basket at Reddi Chick BBQ, $7.95. Reddi Chick is a way of life for untold numbers of Westsiders, and the BBQ chicken is one reason why (the other reason is the ribs). In the basket are half a golden, crisp-skinned chicken, a nice mountain of fries and tangy BBQ sauce to dip it all in. Unless you're the supersize type, it's enough for two to share. Don't think about taking it home, though; it doesn't travel well. Better anyway to eat it there, taking in the scene around the firepit at the Brentwood Country Mart's picnic tables. It's properly messy, so don't forget to beg for extra napkins. Reddi Chick BBQ, Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Brentwood; (310) 393-5238. Times staff writers Charles Perry, S. Irene Virbila, Russ Parsons and Michalene Busico contributed to this report.