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Jun 3, 2012 07:01 AM

Need recs for one day visit to LA of unique cheap ethnic eats


My wife and I are in LA for just a Saturday, and she's never been. We would like to visit 2-3 restaurants/food trucks/markets w/ food stalls that highlight L.A.'s unique cultural diversity. We're from New York, so we're especially excited about things that are different from what we can get here. We're culinarily adventurous but don't eat seafood, sadly. Last time in town I went to Flame (and Saffron and Rose), Jitlada, and La Casita Mexicana, and enjoyed all three, although all felt very 'safe' (not off the beaten path). We have a car, so stops can be a little spread out.

Your recommendations would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance.


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  1. Here is a complete (more than you will ever need) plan:

    2 Replies
    1. re: Servorg

      The problem with that list is that it leaves out the "unique" or "adventurous".

      1. re: ipsedixit

        You have to remember that it's not just the OP's list that is available via that thread, but also there are a lot of other places contributed by hounds who chimed in with other ideas.

    2. New issue of LA Magazine at newsstands now has 101 best cheap eats in LA . It's a very good list too.

      1. To me, off the beaten path would mean going deep into one or more of the enclaves. San Gabriel Valley for all things Chinese and a lot of Vietnamese is the obvious one, but Koreatown is so dense with culture as well. The Latino communities around East LA, Lincoln Heights, Pico/Union and Westlake/Rampart areas are culturally deep.

        One Saturday can be quite a day, depending on when one starts and ends. My first compulsion would be to start out eating carnitas at Carnitas Michoacan since they are always open, but that might kill your appetite for the first half of the day. The many family-run panadarias are an incredible bargain, and a few baked goods with a champurrado would be a way to get your appetite in gear. As many panaderias as there are, one has really stood out in my mind, but you might consider this to be safe as well. I owe this following rec to posters Liu and Dommy. La Monarcha is a small panadaria chain that also serves some cafe food. Their coffee drinks are very nice as well. The quality is of a level that I've personally not experienced at more traditional panadarias. Nothing against them - they are in a fiercely competitive market that caters to the local communities that are very price-sensitive (as are so many of the ethnic enclaves). La Monarcha feels somewhat more gringo-fied and is more expensive, but it's not a major investment food-wise, and I think it would be a good way to jump start your day.

        A place of Mexican cuisine that stands out as unique in my mind is La Flor de Yucatan. Yucatecan cuisine is not common in LA. This place specializes in it. Located on Hoover a few blocks from the 10 freeway, La Flor de Yucatan a panaderia, small shop,cafe/deli counter and cultural enlightenment center of sorts that makes it a big-bang for your buck one-stop. The baked goods are delicious as are all the hot savory dishes like cochinita pibil, vaporcitas, morcia, panuchos and kibis. Much of it travels well - we end up ordering a lot at one time and have friends over to feast. The pickled red onions are standard with most of the dishes, as are the habanero chiles - use the onions liberally and use your judgement on the chiles. They do have a very nice creamy habanero salsa as well. For me, the highlight of this place is learning about the history of food of the Yucatan via Marc, the man at the helm here. He's very approachable and his patience in explaining the food is almost librarian-like - he knows it that well.

        Koreatown is like a deeply boiled down brew of Korean culture. Relative to the size of LA, it's not that big, but as far as enclaves go, it is so thick with food offerings of such variety and ethnic matter-of-factness. Jonathan Gold recently created a list, "60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know." He gets slapped around on this board for some unknown reason - he used to be a poster here - but I personally find his articles to be well-written, informative and great reads. Here's the list:

        I think Korean bbq is probably the most common entry point for many trying out this cuisine, but I find dishes like kimchi or seafood pancake, bossam, soon tofu or bibimbap to be very approachable as well. I think the issue for your day is where to fit in some type(s) of Korean food relative to the rest of your food experiences. Koreatown is traffic Hell. The food can be very satisfying and filling. Many places will offer panchan (really nice side dishes) and are hard to stop eating. imho, you'll be done if you eat in Koreatown at any point. Korean eateries reflect an ethos of what Jewish and Italian mothers are known for - no one leaves unless every corner of one's stomach is stuffed. Doing bbq might be a nice way to finish the day, but the bbq places are very popular particularly on the Friday and Saturday nights. It is definitely a more pricy ethnic option as well, though not a deal-breaker for many eaters' budgets. If you decide to go this route, Soot Bull Jeep would be an option but the smell of smoke everywhere (including you and your clothes) can be off-putting - but you're looking to go deep, right? My guess would be around $50 for two. Park's is extremely loved by many but it can be difficult to get in for dinner on a Saturday - make a reservation as far in advance as they will allow unless you are willing to wait at least an hour. The service is very good and the cuts of meat are excellent - you will pay more here. I'm only the tip of the iceberg on Koreatown - I'm a total novice - so I hope other posters will expand.

        The San Gabriel Valley (SGV) is probably the culinary diamond of the LA board. It is vast, full of various eateries from different cultures and geographic areas of Chinese Asia, and can be had even on a modest budget. But like other ethnic enclaves, many find it to be a hard nut to crack because of language barriers. Another issue is the San Gabriel Valley is not close enough for many to consider on a regular basis. I think it's totally worth overcoming any perceived issues. I don't speak Mandarin, Cantonese or Vietnamese(xie xie, do ze, cam on is about it). I live 30-40 minutes away (on a good day), and I try to get out here at least once a month - sometimes once a week if I'm lucky.

        Being from New York means you probably have access to very good Chinese eateries, but the sense I get from posters here is that Chinese in the SGV trumps New York Chinese, aside from one or two specific cuisines. Cuisines from parts of China that were relatively unknown to novices like me have become very accessible in the past few of years. Beijing Pie House, Kam Hong Garden, Omar's Xinxiang Halal, Qingdao Bread Food, and Sweethome Grill are examples of such places. The vast majority of these types of places can offer a very unique meal and will leave plenty of money left in your wallet. Lucky Noodle King is Sichuan, and their dan dan mian is always on my mind.

        Vietnamese is well established in the SGV as well. I've enjoyed Golden Deli, Saigon Flavor, and Vietnam Restaurant in the SGV, but relative quick and cheap would be banh mi. Banh Mi My Tho on Valley is excellent (charbroiled pork #8) but all the major avenues and blvds have banh mi chains as well like Mr. Baguette, Banh Mi Che Cali, and Lee's. They all serve their purpose, and are very competitive.

        6 Replies
          1. re: bulavinaka

            Yes, very good bulavinaka. One minor thing, the SGV is "vast" in number of restaurants and choices, but not "vast" in horribly spread least the Western SGV. Hundreds of Chinese restaurants are in a roughly 5 mile by 2.5 mile radius. I don't want the OP to be dissuaded from visiting the SGV because they interpreted vast as being far flung and widely scattered.

            Great restaurant recommendations, +1.

            1. re: JThur01

              I agree with JThur01. In the SGV, many mini-malls actually double as food courts. And if you don't like one mini-mall/food court, there are probably a few more on the same block. I kid you not.

            2. re: bulavinaka

              Beautifully written, bulavinaka!!
              I would recommend, if they want bahn mi, to get them at the end of the day (or whenever they are in the area for them) and take it with to eat on the next leg of their trip, so they can pack-in more of the food that would be difficult to travel with. I have taken them several times with me on the plane and they are very easy to eat and not stinky in the least (and they hold up well!). Happy travels!

              1. re: WildSwede

                Thanks for the kind words, folks. I'm just channeling all the great recs, info and insight from all of you.

                I hope I didn't sound like the SGV is to vast of a behemoth to conquer. It only is if one tries to take it all in within a year (just my opinion). But taken in small bites, it's a Chow Nirvana. Wiki states the SGV is about 200 square miles, and that eight of the top ten cities with the highest concentration of Chinese-Americans are in the San Gabriel Valley - that says a lot. When driving from end to end, one does notice different areas that are more Latino, Caucasian, or Asian, but the most noticeable cultural enclaves are by far Chinese. I guess my point is that while the SGV is a huge area, it's so target-rich with eating potential that it verges on ridiculous. I've mentioned somewhere in a past thread that, as much as the SGV impresses me with the number of places to eat, I couldn't live out here because I need some space between my eateries. e.g, most Hounds would be giddy with one xlb place to drop by in their town. In the SGV, it's not unusual to find a couple in one shopping center. Here on the LA board, we can gripe, dissect and banter about who has the best, who has the most homey, and who has slipped on the xlb rankings with a full list of contenders to toss around. And by the by, xiao long bao are buns (bao), not dumplings (jiaozi). :)

            3. One area you might explore briefly is North Hollywood. There's a lot of diverse offerings in a pretty compact area.

              For instance, I might consider:

              Northern Thai at Sri Siam. Get the nam prik oom (eggplant and green chile dip) and the crispy rice with sour pork salad. For a late-night Thai alternative, Krua Thai may seem conventional, but its Pad Thai Krua Thai is not what most people typically think about when they think of pad thai.

              Lamajeune (Armenian pizza) at Sweet One Bakery and Kebab House at Woodman and Oxnard or Dream Bakery on Sherman Way near Coldwater. Just get the lamajeune, which are about $0.75 each.

              Tacos: asada or birria tacos from El Taco Llama on Sherman Way by Lankershim or, if evening, asada tacos from the Tacos La Fonda truck at Vanowen and Vineland (I think that's where it still is). If you go to Sweet One Bakery, the Rigo's Tacos in the same center has only so-so tacos, but a blistering hot and smokey salsa roja that is phenomenal.

              I'll admit that I would not consider any of those places (except Sri Siam) the "best" in the city, but they are all within a few miles of one another, so they can be visited in rapid succession.

              If you expand your horizons a bit, there is pho at one of the two pho places at Sepulveda and Victory in Sherman Oaks, Natas pastries for Portuguese natas -- little bruleed pieces of custard -- and all sorts of unusual offerings at Alcazar in Encino (lamb's brains and various preparations of Nayye, raw beef).

              If you don't want to go to the San Fernando Valley, you might consider starting in San Gabriel Valley and then heading toward downtown. Stop at Moles La Tia for Oaxacan food. Then go to Mexicali for the vampiro (like a quesadilla but with a garlic aioli) or the cachetada (a tostada-like concoction that I get with chorizo and have ranchera-style, with a fried egg on top).

              You could then move into Koreatown. I'm not an expert on Korean food and Korean BBQ would be the "safe" option. However, there are plenty of threads describing options there that would reflect a wide variety of Korean options in the area.

              6 Replies
              1. re: Jwsel

                Great list. I would add Don Adrian's at Kester and Victory for cemitas poblanas, a truly lovely Mexican sandwich. Make sure to get the added string cheese. You might also hit up El Criollo on Van Nuys for lomo saltado, and Puro Sabor on Van Nuys and Victory for Peruvian food - although I think their best dishes are seafood. Enjoy!

                1. re: ebethsdad

                  Those are good options, though I wasn't blown away by El Criollo when I tried it for the first time last week. And it's hard to recommend Puro Sabor if someone is not going to have ceviche. Takatis for pollo ala brasa or the sanguchon sandwich would be an alternative for Peruvian.

                  El Carrrusel, which is kitty corner to Don Adrian, also is a good option for pupusas.

                  And something that would really highlight LA's food diversity is to go to Ranch 99 Market at Victory and Van Nuys for some Chinese or dumplings, then go to one of the Vallarta Markets for a couple of tacos or guisados (maybe the goat birria) and agua frescas, and finally go to an Armenian or Middle Eastern market.

                  1. re: Jwsel

                    I haven't been to El Criollo since they moved, so they may have have gone downhill. That would be a shame. I love the ethnic market trolling idea. Vallarta has a great Cuban torta at the deli, nothing like Portos, but a lovely sandwich.

                    1. re: Jerome

                      I love Don Adrian, too, though when I posted about them last year, two frequent posters warned that they were unhappy about the bread there:


                      (A third poster was fine with it.)

                      Any updates?

                      1. re: Peripatetic

                        I was a regularl and frequent poster. I like their bread. I'm perfectly happy with them. They are tiny - if unhappy people stay away, makes it easier for me. I like it - the food, the service, the price.
                        have no idea why people wouldn't like it. To be fair, this is about the one on kester. the one on van nuys is good, was their once, and perfectly fine... much bigger and easier to sit and eat at.
                        CEMITAS POBLAMAS DON ADRIAN
                        6522 VAN NUYS BLVD
                        VAN NUYS
                        CEMITAS POBLANAS DON ADRIAN
                        14902 VICTORY BLVD (at Kester)
                        VAN NUYS

                2. Saturday at 3pm ZamZam market serves their mutton biryani, which is my favorite plate of food in LA. Saturday only. Right nearby is Mateo's ice cream, which has a lot of delicious and unusual Mexican flavors of ice cream/popsicles.