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Fried Hainan chicken from Cluck2Go in Pasadena.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The most affordable restaurants from The Times’ 101

[It’s here: The Los Angeles Times’ 101 restaurants, dishes, people and ideas that define how we eat in 2020.]

Even during a devastating pandemic, when the survival of so many neighborhood restaurants is tenuous, the Los Angeles dining community is a vital force in the city’s culture. These 20 restaurants included in the 2020 101 restaurants guide represent many communities and corners of the metro region — and experiencing their cooking is an affordable pleasure.

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An overhead shot of a spread of dishes from Apey Kade.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Apey Kade

Tarzana Sri Lankan $
| 2019 | #99
| 2020
Well before the crises of 2020, chef Niza Hashim and her husband, Lalith Rodrigo, knew how to excel at takeout. Lamprais (pronounced lump-rice) is their most compelling order-ahead item — a Sri Lankan feast designed for portability. In the center of a banana leaf, Hashim bundles boneless chicken or beef curry; melted rounds of eggplant; fried green bananas; seeni sambol, a tangled of fiercely spiced and caramelized onions; a squishy fish croquette; and a bed of short-grained rice. The steam when you unwrap this parcel releases a perfumed cloud of sweet spice and coconut palms. Give her an hour’s notice to prepare it.
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The birria burrito from Burritos La Palma.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Burritos La Palma

El Monte Mexican $
| 2019 | #15
| 2020
It’s difficult to conjure a more perfect food than the birria de res burrito at Burritos La Palma: a sleek goblet of spiced, long-stewed shredded beef melded to a griddle-crisped flour tortilla. It has a perfected-over-time quality that you can trace back to Jerez, Zacatecas, where the Bañuelos Lugo family opened a flour tortilleria in 1980 that has evolved into what Burritos La Palma represents today: a perfect union of buttery flour tortillas and brazenly lush stewed meats. Today Southern California has four locations of its own, purveyers of those exquisite beef birria burritos but also burritos wrapped tightly around smoldering chicken tinga with potatoes, and a spicy chicharrón en salsa verde that achieves a level of profundity that’s rare outside the Mexican home kitchen. The platillo especial, with two beef birria burritos lavished with chile verde and melted cheese, is more thrilling than you expect it to be. Of course, the natural portability of the burrito, rooted in Mexican working-class ingenuity, is suited for our times.
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Hainan chicken with white and dark meat from Cluck2Go.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Cluck2Go

Pasadena Singaporean $
| 2020
The menu includes chicken noodle soup and fried honey-garlic wings but, really, the decision here should be easy: Cluck2Go excels at Hainan chicken rice, one of the most calming dishes on the planet. Owner Qi Yang and his daughter Jenny Yang run locations in Pasadena, Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights and Diamond Bar. They use fresh, locally raised chickens poached with lemongrass, ginger and other spices. The essence of the bird resounds through the rice and the broth served alongside. Vinegary chile sauce and a gingery scallion puree add crucial oomph. Another painless decision: Order extra for leftovers.
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Two mixed plates of tacos and a sobaquera from El Ruso.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

El Ruso

Boyle Heights Mexican
| 2020
Julia Silva and Walter Soto are new to the taco limelight but not to their trade: They’ve popped up around L.A. for the last several years, and they’ve been perfecting their techniques together for two decades. Combining culinary traditions from Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California, their Boyle Heights operation is made for the moment in tacos. Silva transmutes flour into masterful tortillas. On days when she isn’t slammed she’ll make sobaqueras — the nickname for supple, thin tortillas the size of an 18-wheeler’s hubcap — best filled with birria de res or satiny chile Colorado. Soto is the boss taquero. The business expanded into a larger trailer this year, giving him room to add handmade corn tortillas to the rotation several days a week: Try one as a vampiro welded with melted Monterey Jack cheese and pummeled with carne asada. Hours and menu items change often; El Ruso updates its Instagram account daily with the latest info.
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The chorizo verde (green) and black pastor tacos from Evil Cooks in El Sereno.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Evil Cooks

El Sereno Mexican $
| 2020
Elvia Huerta and Alex Garcia of the ride-or-die “metal taco” duo named Evil Cooks drive around Los Angeles in a black 1989 Dodge van that looks like the touring wheels of a metal-punk band. They cook in rock T-shirts and bandannas, stamping their fresh-pressed corn tortillas with their sello, or imprint: a smirking, goateed cartoon devil logo that Garcia designed himself. Following their canceled residency at Smorgasburg L.A. this spring, the duo have been cooking under the cover of face masks and a plastic tent they erect every weekend on a quiet street in El Sereno. There they marinate stacks of pork in recado negro chile paste until the flesh turns dark blue on the rotating “goth” trompo, which was inspired in part by a similar “black” al pastor made by Mexican chef Roberto Solis. The spice-rubbed meat, shaved over fresh-pressed corn tortillas, is distinctly earthy and succulent. Lately the Cooks have been making enormous burritos filled with things like chilaquiles and carnitas, and the emerald-green vegan chorizo that Garcia spent all summer perfecting. I’ve grown mildly obsessed with the nopal dish that involves breading and deep-frying a grilled cactus pad until it starts to resemble a pounded-thin chicken fried steak — they call it “nopales a la milanesa.” The menu is always subject to change, but you can count on one or two desserts, including Huerta’s citrus-tinged flan taco made with thin, crepe-like tortillas. Together, Huerta (born and raised in El Sereno) and Garcia (a proud son of Querétaro in central Mexico) cook food that bridges Chicano and Mexican culinary tropes and traditions while also gently rebelling against them with verve, humor and rock music. Theirs is some of the most interesting and exciting cooking in Los Angeles.
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The cheese boat from Forn Al Hara restaurant in Anaheim.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Forn Al Hara

Anaheim Middle Eastern $
| 2020
Mo Alam was as prepared for the moment as a restaurateur could be: His bakery-cafe has been churning out to-go orders from Anaheim’s surrounding “Little Arabia” community for nearly 20 years. Alam specializes in manakeesh, the thin, softly golden flatbreads that Lebanon relies on for on-the-fly morning meals. Start with one spread with the dusky green, sesame-speckled mix of za’atar and olive, the most traditional option, and then branch out to nearly three dozen ingredient combinations. A manakeesh with eggs and soujouk (cured, cumin-scented beef sausage that manages to be both crumbly and lush) makes for a substantial breakfast, as does lahm bi ajeen, a version spread with spiced ground beef given the faintest tart edge from pomegranate molasses. Buy some fatayer — billowy triangular pastries filled with spinach zinged by lemon and sumac — for later. Ensconced in the nook of a shopping center that Alam partly owns, Forn Al Hara is no secret: As much as a business can safely bustle right now, this one does.
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A taco sampler, and sides of salsas, at the original Guisados in Boyle Heights.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Guisados

Boyle Heights Mexican $
| 2020
There’s possibly no greater joy than huddling around a taco truck late at night, in close proximity to friends and strangers, eating freshly prepared tacos. This ritual has been greatly diminished by the pandemic. At Guisados, Los Angeles’ stalwart taco micro-chain, thoughtful takeout packaging goes a long way toward sustaining the warmth, texture and instant gratification of eating fresh tacos. The popular taco sampler is contained neatly inside a domed plastic platter, a painter’s palette of braised meats and toppings chosen and prepared for vibrant, delicious juxtaposition: bacon-infused steak picado humming with the bright, cascading heat of green serrano chiles; smoky, luscious mounds of scarlet-red chicken tinga; mole poblano anointed with curdles of queso fresco; and the magnificently soupy chicharrón taco, the melty irresistibly tender cueritos (skins) served in a medium-spicy chile verde sauce that numbs your lips for a few precious seconds before it fizzles out like a comet streaking the darkness.
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The Leaning Tower of Watts burger at Hawkins House of Burgers
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Hawkins House of Burgers

Willowbrook
| 2020
Next door to the historic Willowbrook neighborhood market founded by James and Elsie Hawkins in 1939, this landmark burger restaurant, opened by the original owners’ daughter, Cynthia, in the early 1980s, specializes in baroque Angus beef burgers bursting with char-edged patties and wagging tongues of thick apple-smoked bacon. The signature Whipper burger, a double-patty burger padded with pastrami and a hot link, rouses every pleasure center in your brain. The secret is the coarse ground beef, lightly seasoned and hand-packed into loose patties, charred so that, even in the depths of winter, it tastes freshly plucked off a summer backyard grill. Wholesome veggie burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and salmon croquettes fill out the menu, but the thing to order at least once in your life is the Leaning Tower of Watts burger, a sculptural, multitiered colossus bursting with no less than three beef patties; crinkly slips of pastrami and bacon; shatteringly crisp onion rings; and at least three meals’ worth of condiments. It costs $27 and comes with fries and two drinks; a gold-brown chicken wing is pinned to the top like a star decorating the top of a Christmas tree. It is one of Los Angeles’ finest burgers, and surely also its tallest.
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Honey walnut shrimp sandwich from Katsu Sando.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Katsu Sando

Chinatown $
| 2020
Sandos — the convenience-store sandwiches (and the heady, often meticulously sculpted spinoffs inspired by them) that fall in the category of yōshoku, or Japanese foods inspired by Western dishes — are appearing around Los Angeles with increasing, welcome momentum. Daniel Son built an audience for his sandos through pop-ups at his now-closed West Hollywood restaurant Kura and a stall at Smorgasburg L.A. Then in July he opened his storefront in Chinatown, giving his mastery a standalone platform. Pork katsu is the foundational sando, built (as are all the sandwiches) on honey milk bread, baked in-house. The clincher, though, is the honey walnut shrimp variant, a witty feat of architecture that fuses battered nobashi shrimp with shrimp tartare emulsion. Its crunch and creaminess winks at the Panda Express favorite but is ultimately far, far superior. Order it with a side of the curry cheese crinkle fries. If you’re passing by in a hurry, grab a cold sando from the fridge.
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A breakfast burrito with bacon and avocado from Lucky Boy
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Lucky Boy

Pasadena American $
| 2020
Two thoughts converged to bring Lucky Boy to the roster: a conviction that we should be supporting our beloved institutions more than ever, and the profoundest gratitude for breakfast burritos, an L.A. essential that leaves us in a happy stupor so we can weather the madness. The shingled, carob-brown outpost of Lucky Boy on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena makes the breakfast burrito adored by pretty much everyone. A sheath of egg splattered and scrambled on the grill, home fries, wispy slicks of melted orange cheddar and a choice of sausage, bacon or chorizo, all wrapped in a crisped tortilla: That’s the recipe for fortitude. Add avocado to mine, please.
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Empanadas de camaron from Mariscos El Faro.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Mariscos El Faro

Highland Park Mexican $
| 2020
The Highland Park food truck specializes in Sinaloa-style seafood, raw fish preparations remarkable in their freshness and searing heat. Aguachile tostadas are at the heart of the menu, the plump shrimp, cucumber, wispy purple onion and avocado briefly cured in a voluptuously spicy citrus brine and a dusting of chiltepin (almost every dish gets blasted with the bright, lacerating heat of the wild pepper). Callo de lobina, salt-cured sea bass, tastes wonderful with the smoky, salty, house-made salsa negra. Mazatlán-style shrimp tacos, deep-fried specimens filled with springy shrimp, are half crunch, half suppleness, with tender, creamy middles. Don’t leave without trying shrimp-stuffed empanadas, crispy-edged with a hot molten center.
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Tacos de camarones from Mariscos Jalisco.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Mariscos Jalisco

Boyle Heights Mexican $
| 2019 | #61
| 2020
When I hear any mention of Olympic Boulevard, my mind immediately leaps to the Mariscos Jalisco food truck, the all-white lonchera that has been parked more or less in the same spot on an industrial strip for a decade, and whose tacos dorados de camarón and chile-blistered seafood tostadas are widely considered the best in Los Angeles. Sitting there on the low brick stoop in front of the lonchera, among parents wrangling kids and teenagers laughing loudly, it might be the most visceral two or three bites in the city. The fresh-fried, perfect half-moon taco shatters into salty morsels between your teeth. Somehow the shrimp are impossibly springy, creamier than you remember, and the crisp shell dampened by rough-chopped tomatoes, onions and slivers of ripe avocado. There is more to Mariscos Jalisco than crunchy shrimp tacos, of course — the aguachile is bracingly fresh and spicy, and the Poseidon, an ultra-spicy conflagration of octopus, ceviche and shrimp aguachile, is equally legendary.
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Specialties at Northern Thai Food Club include khao soi (being squeezed with lime) and sai oua (pork sausages).
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Northern Thai Food Club

East Hollywood Thai $
| 2019 | #37
| 2020
It’s odd to see the menu of “Nancy” Amphai Dunne’s 12-seat Thai Town restaurant spelled out online. The ritual of dining at Northern Thai Food Club involved a conversation with Dunne as she stood behind her steam table, talking about what she had available. Scents of meats, citrus and herbs hovered and collided; sometimes she’d hold up a ladle so you could peer at the latest stew she’d brought from the kitchen. Sai ua, pork sausage coils packed with minced lemongrass, are a specialty of Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province, where Dunne grew up. They set the stage for gaeng hung lay (pork belly curry zigzagging with chiles, sour-sweet tamarind and julienned ginger), garlicky green mango salad with salted crab, and a mild, sweet khao soi that’s meant to be offset with chile oil and lime juice. The good news is that Dunne’s food holds up splendidly as takeout.
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House special noodles from Phnom Penh.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Phnom Penh Noodle Shack

Long Beach $
| 2020
Long Beach’s landmark Cambodian noodle restaurant specializes in kuy teav, a traditional breakfast soup layered with springy noodles, aromatics and various porky odds and ends. The clear, wholesome broth is lovely, vaguely sweet and vivid with cilantro, green onions and the deep musk of garlic. For ballast, order the seafood version laden with shrimp, fish cake, squid, scallops and mussels; the chluy bowl, furnished with chewy flaps of beef intestine and pork rinds, is particularly lush. Perhaps the most comforting thing on the menu is the terrific chicken porridge, which tastes wonderful with the airy, baton-like donut called cha quai. You dip it in the fragrant creamy whorl and the fried dough dissolves as naturally as snow melting in sunshine.
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The Burrito 2.0 from Sonoratown.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Sonoratown

Downtown L.A. Mexican $
| 2019 | #5
| 2020
Named after one of the first established Mexican neighborhoods in Los Angeles — the “lost barrio” of Sonoratown that once stood near L.A.’s present-day Chinatown — Jennifer Feltham and Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez Jr.’s influential downtown taquería has helped spread the gospel of mesquite grilled steak and finely honed flour tortillas far and wide. The restaurant has been a vital takeout staple throughout 2020, bundling carne asada, grilled chicken and the house chorizo by the pound with the restaurant’s famed flour tortillas, which are still made using soft Sonoran wheat flour produced in Diaz-Rodriguez’s hometown of San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora. There is succor to be found in a take-home tray of the char-tinged, finely chopped beef, gloriously accessorized with all the requisite trimmings, including shredded cabbage, earthy-sweet grilled green onions and the taqueria’s silken guacamole salsa. For a single bite that reminds you why the cooking at Sonoratown is essential, consider the Burrito 2.0, a sumptuously meaty parcel of chunky guacamole, Monterey jack cheese, pinto beans and your choice of meat. It is arguably the most perfect lunch in downtown Los Angeles.
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Sweet tamales wrapped in corn husks, left, and tamales wrapped in banana leafs, right, from Tamales Elena Y Antojitos.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Tamales Elena y Antojitos

Bell Gardens Mexican $
| 2020
Maria Elena Lorenzo and her husband, Juan Irra, have been fixtures in the Watts community for three decades, selling Lorenzo’s sustaining tamales to students and neighbors, first from carts and then from a food truck they continue to operate. Six months ago, the couple fulfilled a dream nearly 30 years in the making: They opened a freestanding restaurant in Bell Gardens with their daughters, Nayeli Irra, Judepth Irra, Heidi Irra, Maria Irra and Teresa Irra, all of whom have cooked in marquee restaurants around L.A. Their menu illuminates the Afro-Mexican cuisine of Costa Chica, part of the southern coastal state of Guerrero. Try the Guerrero-style tamale — thin layers of masa steamed in banana leaves filled with pork in red salsa or chicken in green salsa. Delve further by ordering dusky-sweet mole costeño, lengua in plantain sauce, aporreadillo (a Guerrerense pairing of salted, crisped beef with eggs) and, most gloriously, pozole verde, whose flavors bound in every possible direction.
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A special plate of yukon gold potatoes, red beets, arugula, Argentinian chorizo and two runny eggs from The Chori Man.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The Chori-Man

San Pedro Mexican $
| 2020
In the hills of San Pedro, Humberto “the Chori-Man” Raygoza is a fourth-generation chorizo maker who learned the finer points of sausage making at his family’s butcher shop in Zacatecas, Mexico. There he learned the painstaking labor of grinding down pork shoulder to soft flesh, and the requisite devotion to toasting and pounding fresh whole spices until they are less substance than flavor. In his shop next to Colossus Bakery, he makes red chorizo flavored with guajillo chiles, the roasted peppers impossibly deep and smoky. The moss-green chorizo made in the style of Toluca is very popular; it seethes with roasted poblanos and the sharp perfume of coriander. Rounds of his sausages, freshly vacuum-sealed, are available to go from the shop’s refrigerator. Many customers come to eat; in the back, the tiny kitchen dispenses first-rate burritos and tacos until closing. Don’t miss the chile relleno burrito, a doughy behemoth padded thickly with layers of cheese, sausage and fragrant green chile.
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Double cheeseburgers with fries at The Win-Dow restaurant.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The Win-Dow at American Beauty

Venice American $
| 2020
On Rose Avenue in Venice, the Win-Dow dispenses one of SoCal’s new burger stars: a thick, loosely packed, char-edged burger glossed thickly in American cheese and heaped with soft grilled onions and pickles, barely containable inside its shiny bun. The French fries are the thin-cut variety, well-seasoned and hot, tucked into a brown paper box, to be scarfed down immediately. There is a very good chicken sandwich, hot and crisp, along with serviceable grain bowls, kale salads and a version of the Impossible burger. But the cheeseburger is the marquee star of the Win-dow, an unfussy, delicious, wildly affordable burger in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Southern California. The beachy burger stand is attached to the hip Venice steakhouse American Beauty, where lavish dry-aged steaks go for more than $100. What does this $4 burger reveal, if anything, about the fluctuating demographics of Rose Avenue, or economies of scale in the restaurant industry? Does this burger telegraph the future for Venice Beach, or is it an accident of time, space and circumstances that you find yourself here, eating a burger on the beach, like so many before you?
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The combo plate with a side of chicken tacos, bottom left, and vegan grape leaf tamales from X'tiosu Kitchen.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

X’tiosu Kitchen

Boyle Heights Mexican Lebanese $
| 2019 | #87
| 2020
At their Boyle Heights restaurant, brothers Felipe and Ignacio Santiago merge the flavors of their native Oaxaca with classic Lebanese mezze to brilliant effect. “Oaxacan” hummus made with whipped black beans and a dusting of cayenne pepper is earthy and rich. Their take on tabbouleh salad cleverly swaps out bulgur in favor of nopales tossed with chopped onions, tomatoes and extravagant quantities of fresh parsley. The adaptation is so elegant, bright and refreshing, you wonder why you haven’t been eating it all your life. Falafel is bolstered by lavish quantities of garlic and cilantro, but the dish to try is the chicken shawarma taco: spice-rubbed, spit-roasted chicken shaved over a corn tortilla, anointed generously with the house-made “arabesque salsa,” a creamy blend of extra-garlicky tahini and salsa verde. The taco, in turn creamy and savory, succeeds by the steady accretion of flavors, its garlicky richness snapped into balance by the bright, vinegary smack of fuchsia-pink pickled turnips, a staple of the Lebanese table that is right at home at X’tiosu Kitchen.
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The signature flatbread from Zhengyalov Hatz.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Zhengyalov Hatz

Glendale Armenian $
| 2020
In late 2019 Vresh Osipian and his family opened a branch of their Armenian bakery that focuses almost solely on the namesake flatbread, alternately spelled “jingalov hats,” stuffed with 15 herbs. (The specialty comes from Nagorno-Karabakh, the region at the center of the ongoing Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict.) Freshly chopped sorrel, dill, scallions, spinach, beet greens and other herbage merge into a delicious mulch. A pat of butter comes on the side. Smear it quickly over the hot, freckled dough. The only complement possibly needed to this balanced marvel, perfect as lunch or a substantial snack, is tea steeped with thyme and mint; its flavors strike the same tonic chord as the flatbread.
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