UNLESS you're hanging out with conspicuously consuming celebutantes, you may have noticed a new mood in the air these days. It seems as if more and more Angelenos are talking about enjoying life without ruining it for the next generation, and when it comes to food and wine, they're focusing on real quality instead of being distracted by glitzy hype.
Many chefs and restaurateurs are in a deliver-the-goods mode lately too, and it's a point of pride in many quarters to offer good value. So our annual hunt for delicious dining deals has been particularly rewarding this year. It was easy to go deep. Food section writers researched tips, checked out old favorites and followed their own well-used noses from North Hollywood to Artesia, from Harbor City to Costa Mesa, looking for the best dishes, meals and specials at the best prices.
FOR THE RECORD:
Cheeseburgers: In the article "Striking It Rich" in Wednesday's Food section, wrong prices were given for the prime cheeseburger that is served at both Taylor's Steakhouse locations. The article said the burger was $7.95 at lunch and $11.95 at dinner at the La Cañada Flintridge location, and implied that it cost $9.95 for lunch in Koreatown. The correct lunch price at both locations is $9.50. The dinner price is $11.50 in La Cañada Flintridge and $12.95 in Koreatown. —
We came up with 25 incredible bargains -- and not only cheap eats, though we found plenty of those, such as a mouth-watering $1.29 cabeza taco and a delectable $7.95 Indian lunch buffet. But there are also wonderful luxuries worth every penny you pay for them, including a cold, creamy hand-made ice cream bar studded with toasted almonds for the same three bucks you might pay for a cone at a chain ice cream store. Or a pair of happy-hour Kobe sliders with house-made chips for only $8.
Some of the best deals show up at lunchtime or are available only on certain days of the week. Check out the three-course Sunday supper under the olive trees at a popular West Hollywood restaurant for -- brace yourself -- $15. Or the Fridays-only New Orleans blue crabs and crawfish just off the plane and boiled with Creole spices for $4.99 a pound.
Whether you're looking for pan-fried dumplings or jerk chicken, a seven-course chef's tasting menu or a great happy hour, we have a deal for you.
1. Jamón serrano sandwich at La Española Meats, $4.95. Food lovers have long flocked to Harbor City's La Española Meats for imported Spanish foodstuffs and house-made chorizos and hams. Now there's one more reason to shop there -- at lunch they've started serving a sandwich. But what a sandwich. They take a small baguette, drizzle it with Spanish olive oil and then layer it with La Española's domestic jamón serrano, some dried chorizo, roasted piquillo red peppers and a couple of slices of Manchego cheese, and then bake it until the cheese melts and the crust crisps. With a cup full of olives cured in a tomato sauce, that's $4.95. Eat it out back on a picnic table under an arbor shaded with bougainvillea. La Española Meats, 25020 Doble Ave., Harbor City; (310) 539-0455.
2. Roasted chicken with beans and rice or fries, tortillas and garlic sauce at Pollo a la Brasa, $5. For anyone who's gotten blasé about rotisserie chicken, the wood-fire roasted chickens from this Peruvian outpost will change your tune. The burnished skin and juicy meat are intensely flavorful, though this shouldn't stop you from splashing the awesome garlic sauce onto the bird, as well as onto the beans and rice and tortilla that come with the special. You can spot the place from the pile of lumber buttressing the back wall of the building -- and from the lines outside. Pollo a la Brasa, 764 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 382-4090; 16527 S. Vermont Ave., Gardena; (310) 715-2494; and 2100 W. Whittier Blvd., Montebello; (323) 727-1965.
3. Nostalgia breakfast at Chips, $4.50. With its gorgeous aqua towers holding the letters of its name like giant playing cards way above the roof line, this Googie landmark coffee shop is worth visiting just for the late-'50s, early-'60s architectural glamour -- but dining's a delightful throwback too. Fluffy scrambled eggs (or two eggs, any style), creamy grits (or fruit) and toast (or a muffin) are served by super-pro waitresses who adroitly manage many customers, sliding in and out of English and Spanish with ease. They're happy to bring some fresh salsa and refill your coffee cup. Chips, 11908 Hawthorne Blvd., Hawthorne; (310) 679-2947.
4. Frites deals at Fraîche, $13 and $22. At Fraîche, the new Culver City Mediterranean, Jason Travi turns out a steak frites that would do a top Paris bistro proud at a very affordable $22. The steak is the flavorful -- and very fashionable -- flatiron cut, and it comes with a heap of golden, hand-cut fries. You can also get moules frites, the classic mussels steamed in white wine and garlic served with a raft of bread for dipping into the juices, for $13. Add a glass of wine, and it's dinner in a swell restaurant for a price hovering around $20. Fraîche, 9411 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 839-6800; www.fraicherestaurantla.com.
5. Platter of nem nuong at Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, $13.99. First you dip a rice paper wrapper into a bowl of water, just to soften it a little, and then you pile on the lettuce, mint, cilantro, Thai basil, pickled carrots, bean sprouts, cucumbers and chives. Then you add your choice of charbroiled pork meatballs, delicate shrimp spring rolls or pork sausage grilled in banana leaves. Roll it all up and dip into nuoc nam cham, fish sauce with garlic, vinegar and shredded carrots. The menu says the platter of nem nuong at Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa serves two, but it could easily serve four, even six, as an appetizer. Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, 9016 Mission Drive, Rosemead; (626) 286-3370.
6. Sunday supper at Dominick's, $15. Wowie-kazowie, can a three-course dinner at a hip restaurant with great food really be $15? Dominick's Sunday Supper can. Although if you try it, you're likely to have to keep pinching yourself. One recent week, the menu was an heirloom tomato bruschetta, tortiglioni pasta with sliced sausages and peppers, and, for dessert, house-made fennel-pollen gelato. Add to that a really decent bottle of red table wine for $10 (or a Moretti beer for $2), and you've got quite the deal there on that lovely patio under the olive trees. Nor do you need to feel like a cheapskate: A server told us that 70% of Sunday diners order it. Dominick's, 8715 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 652-2335; www.dominicksrestaurant.com.
7. Daily special ice cream bar at Milk, $3. It's hot, it's trafficky, you've been shopping all day along Beverly Boulevard, and the daily ice cream bar from Milk is calling. Give in. Banana butterscotch crunch has banana ice cream dipped into a thick butterscotch coating and studded with toasted almonds, or cookies 'n' cream ice cream dipped in chocolate and covered with chocolate cookie crumbs. The house-made ice cream and hand-dipped coatings are dreamy. At $3, that's little more than the cost of a Häagen-Dazs bar. Milk, 7290 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 939-6455.
8. Red velvet cupcake at Jongewaard's Bake 'n' Broil, $1.95. It has been scientifically proven that the cupcake is the perfect format in which to enjoy a red velvet cake -- it provides exactly the right ratio of moist chocolate cake to tangy cream cheese frosting. So perfect is the combination that there are places on the Westside where you can pay as much as $5 for the pleasure. Or you can head to Long Beach's Jongewaard's Bake 'n' Broil and enjoy a superlative example for $1.95. And sometimes -- when the bakers are feeling pretty -- they even put sprinkles on them. Jongewaard's Bake 'n' Broil, 3697 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach; (562) 595-0396.
9. Happy hour martini at Wilshire Restaurant, $7; bar snacks, $5.50 to $9. The price of martinis in this town has gotten crazy, so it's great news that Wilshire, the Santa Monica restaurant where chef Christopher Blobaum showcases his savvy market-produce-driven cooking, has started a happy hour. Monday through Friday, 5 to 6:30 p.m., you can sit either in the lounge or -- even better -- at the lovely outside bar and have the bartender mix you up a dry one for half price ($7). Pomegranate or apple martinis are $7.50; two decent wines by the glass are only $5. The bar snacks menu during the hour is a happy thing too. A couple of Kobe sliders -- toasted buns filled with braised Wagyu beef and pickled onions -- come with a fine mess of very thin, very crisp house-made potato chips, judiciously seasoned with truffle oil for only $8. Half a dozen iced Pacific oysters on the half-shell go for $9 (good with that martini). "Figs in a blanket," halved black Missions wrapped in La Quercia Prosciutto Americano and drizzled with balsamic vinegar are a sweet deal at $5.50. Wilshire Restaurant, 2454 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 586-1707; www.wilshirerestaurant.com.
10. Indian lunch buffet at Woodlands, $7.95. The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at Woodlands Indian vegetarian restaurant is nothing short of unbelievable. One of the best South Indian places in Southern California, Woodlands lays out a buffet spread full of wonderful food for only $7.95. Among the highlights one recent afternoon: dahi vada (fried lentil dumplings baked in a yogurt and black sesame seed sauce), poriyal (a "dry" vegetable curry fragrant with curry leaves), a complex vegetable curry and a rich, smooth payasam pudding scented with cardamom. And even with all of that, the waitress will ask whether you'd like one of their famous masala dosas. Don't refuse: This is a potato-based curry rolled up in a thin, crisp crepe so big the ends overhang the dinner plate. Woodlands Indian Cuisine, 11833 Artesia Blvd, Artesia; (562) 860-6500.
11. Wednesday bagels, 18 for the price of 12, at Schwartz Bakery, $5.50. If you're looking for bagels, you've come to the right place, the new Fairfax location of Schwartz Bakery. Just make sure you come on the right day -- that's Wednesday -- to get a big bag full of 18 bagels for the price of a dozen. Fat, chewy, delicious bagels (the deal applies to all kinds -- plain, onion, whole wheat, garlic, sesame, poppy seed, everything). Come early because they go pretty fast (by 10:30 or 11 a.m., the pickings may be slim). And if it's not Wednesday, they're a pretty good deal anyway at $5.50 a dozen. Schwartz Bakery, 443 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; (323)653-1683.
12. Fresh boiled Gulf Coast crustaceans at New Orleans Fish Market, $4.99 per pound. Summer means seafood, and the best deal on Gulf Coast blue crabs and crawfish in L.A. is found at New Orleans Fish Market. The family-owned market at Arlington and Vernon avenues in the Crenshaw District flies in fresh crabs and crawfish every Friday during the season. By 1 p.m. the crustaceans are available: Still kicking, they cost $4.49 per pound; boiled with Creole spices, they're $4.99 per pound. The crabs are mostly females, which means they are smaller than jimmies (the crabs we bought last week weighed slightly less than half a pound each), but the meat is sweet and tender. New Orleans Fish Market, 2212 W. Vernon Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 296-3817.
13. Fourteen-inch "calzone from the Caucasus" at Dream Bakery, $2.50. Kachapuri is a sort of cheese calzone without tomato sauce from the Republic of Georgia. Picture a flatbread 14 inches long and 3 or 4 inches wide, filled with cheese and baked. It's just $2.50 (a 4-inch-square version in flaky pastry is $1). A kachapuri has a pizza-like fresh bread taste and is often still warm and melty. It's a snack for two people, but practically lunch for one. Dream Bakery, 12908 Sherman Way, North Hollywood; (818) 765-3844.
14. Large cheese pizza at Folliero's, $10. The pizza's delightful at this long-loved local pizzeria: a fragrant, thin and tender crust topped with good cheeses, fresh herbs and, depending, of course, on which kind you order, a quick slick of tomato sauce and various toppings. The place has been around since 1968, but it's not so much old-school as it is faithful to its own confident style. In terms of decor, with its exposed brick walls it even looks a bit spruced up. The food's honest and fresh Italian American, great for an easy family meal. Pasta dinners are only $5.25. Folliero's, 5566 N. Figueroa St., Los Angeles (Highland Park); (323) 254-0505.
15. Seven-course chef's tasting menu at Tagine, $42. With chef's tasting menus going for close to $100 at many places around town, the seven-course Moroccan extravaganza at Tagine is quite the deal. Chef Abdessamad "Ben" Benameur changes it all the time, shuffling dishes and adding new ones. One thing it always includes is his sumptuous bestila (chicken and almond pie in filo dough) and a bevy of Moroccan salads, a couple of tagines (Moroccan stews), couscous, dessert, and, of course, extravagantly perfumed mint tea. Owned by Benameur and actor Ryan Gosling, Tagine is an oasis for young Hollywood and anybody hankering for Moroccan food in an intimate setting. Tagine, 132 Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 360-7535; www.taginecuisine.com.
16. Sansai soba at Yashima, $8.99. Nothing beats heat and hunger like a good bowl of cold soba. At Yashima in West L.A., the sansai soba, topped with oodles of Japanese mountain vegetables -- all manner of tender shoots and roots and delicate greens -- is uncommonly refreshing and satisfying. Served with a bowl of dipping sauce garnished with oroshi (grated daikon), scallions and wasabi, it's a terrific lunch for $8.99. Especially when you consider that iced mugi cha (barley tea) is on the house. Yashima, 11301 Olympic Blvd., Suite 210, West Los Angeles; (310) 473-5297.
17. Taylor's prime cheeseburger at lunchtime in La Cañada Flintridge, $7.95. An L.A. classic for decades, the prime cheeseburger at Taylor's Steakhouse is made from prime beef steak trimmings. It's so tender and steaky it seems a shame to burden it with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles, but that cheddar sets it off nicely. At one time it was available only at lunch ($9.95), but now it's on the dinner menu too and at a reasonable $11.95. But at the La Cañada Flintridge branch at lunch, the steakburger's a steal at $7.95. Taylor's Steakhouse, 3361 W. 8th St., L.A.; (213) 382-8449; and 901 Foothill Blvd., La Cañada Flintridge; (818) 790-7668; www.taylorssteakhouse.com.
18. Pozole at Taquería El Granjenal, $4.39. A breakfast favorite at Taquería El Granjenal is the $4.39 bowl of vibrant red pozole. Tender hunks of pork, long-cooked onions and lots of hominy are stewed with ground red chiles and served with limes, a pile of shredded cabbage flecked with Mexican oregano, chopped onions and a stack of crisp tortillas to break up and sprinkle over the soup. Who needs pancakes? Taquería El Granjenal, 899 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa; (949) 645-4964.
19. 1 Barrel Rum. $11.95. One of the best rums in town is one of the cheapest. We'll tell you the name if you can guess what country it's from. Forget it, you'll never guess. It's 1 Barrel (One Barrel) Rum from the nation of Belize, and (for now, anyway) it's going for only $11.95 for a 750 ml bottle. The main attraction is its startlingly plush nose -- it's like the molasses sweetness of rum crossed with the plush smoky-buttery perfume of an aged Madeira. Beverage Warehouse in Los Angeles, (310) 306-2822, beveragewarehouse.com; and Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463.
20. Whole crab lunch special at Seafood Village, $17. The house special crab at Chiu Chow restaurant Seafood Village is mind-blowing, and only $17 at lunchtime (at dinner, it's $30). A really big whole crab is pulled from one of the live seafood tanks, chopped up into chunks, deep fried and then covered with fried minced garlic, scallions and chiles. The crisp-fried pieces of tender, luscious crab meat are brought to the table piled high on a platter -- dig in! Seafood Village, 684 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 289-0088; 9669 Las Tunas Drive, Temple City; (626) 286-2299.
21. Bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado sandwich at Rustic Canyon, $10. The Santa Monica spot that features chef Samir Mohajer's farmers market-inspired cooking is now open for lunch Mondays through Fridays. Even dinners are well-priced here, but the noontime BLTA is a slam-dunk at 10 bucks: Niman Ranch bacon, wild arugula, ripe heirloom tomatoes and rich avocado on good, dense, multigrain toast. It comes with a generous, perfectly dressed salad of pristine baby greens. Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen, 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 393-7050; www.rusticcanyonrestaurant.com.
22. Pan-fried dumplings at Mandarin Noodle Deli, $5.75. The menu at Mandarin Noodle Deli lists more than 30 noodle dishes, but the dumplings are among the showstoppers. You get eight big, fat, half-moon pillows for $5.75. Thick top-pleated dough filled with juicy ground pork, garlic and leeks, nicely browned on the bottom with crisp edges. The only problem is, you might order them to share, but then want them all to yourself. Mandarin Noodle Deli, 9537 Las Tunas Drive, Temple City; (626) 309-4318.
23. Jerk chicken Sunday special at Ackee Bamboo, $6.95. Fall-off-the-bone Jamaican jerk chicken with a jazzy black pepper kick -- served with a mound of rice and peas, fried plantains, hush puppies and sauteed cabbage -- should cost a lot more than $6.95. But that's the deal at Ackee Bamboo in Leimert Park on Sunday afternoons, when spicy jerk chicken is the restaurant's daily special. If you don't have room left for Ackee Bamboo's flaky beef, chicken or vegetable patties ($1.85 each), pick up a sackful of these generous lunch-box-sized treats to take home. Ackee Bamboo, 4305 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 295-7275.
24. Khua kling from Jitlada, $8.95. Thai old-timer Jitlada has new owners, and they've turned it around. Everybody's talking about its rare southern Thai dishes, and you can't get any more rare than khua kling -- or more southern; it comes from near the Malaysian border. It's a powerful, earthy curry, positively grainy with spices, particularly turmeric, galangal (a cousin of ginger) and ground chiles. It's hot enough to induce meditation, but they'll add more coconut milk if you can't take the full blast. Jitlada, 5233 1/2 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 667-9809.
25. Cabeza taco at Taquería Chihuahua, $1.29. All the tacos are delicious at Taquería Chihuahua, a new spot on Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista, but those filled with cabeza -- beef cheeks -- are good enough to make you cry. And they're only $1.29 each. Taquería Chihuahua, 12034 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 313-2350; taqueriachihuahua.com.
Leslie Brenner, Corie Brown, Betty Hallock, Russ Parsons, Charles Perry, Amy Scattergood and S. Irene Virbila contributed to this report.