Because trends are so ‘last year,’ and sometimes you just need your gluttonous friend’s voice in your ear.
When it comes to creating an eatery guide to your new neck in the woods, the bad news is this: I lived on L.A.’s west side back in college, when terms like “online” and “email” and “meme” had not yet been coined. We were free of Facebook rants, Instagram-triggered FOMO, and TikTok nonsense … and we still bitched about everything because we were kids who had no clue how good we had it in perhaps the most underrated big city in the world, Los Angeles—which in Spanish means “the city everyone else loves to hate.”
But the good news is this: Yours truly had a pretty sophisticated palate even when he was young, dumb, and full of … come on now, let’s talk food. That high benchmark for what constitutes authentic cuisine and that low benchmark for how much cash I could spend back then is an effective recipe for finding eateries that are both delicious and affordable. And it turns out, delicious and affordable food tends to keep an eatery in business a quarter century later. So what follows are places I can vouch for, places that still exist, and places that are west of the 405 from Malibu in the North to Manhattan Beach in the South. In some cases they are either world-class under-the-radar establishments or easy-to-overlook pocketbook-friendly go-tos. It’s like Anthony Bourdain banged Rachel Ray and they had a listicle baby.
Bay Cities Importing—The parking sucks, the line is out the door, and there’s rarely a place to sit outside. But you’ll find your workarounds (like online ordering, which did not exist when I was in college; we had to pick up our poor boy sandwiches walking barefoot in the snow) and you’ll find the market has every import imaginable you can fill your basket with if you decide to wait in-store for your sandwich to be prepared.
The most important thing to do is take a ticket (the old fashioned kind) at the deli counter right when you walk in if you haven’t done the pre-order option. The second most important thing to do is order the “poor boy with the works.” The marinated peppers is a critical part of this sandwich. I like both the sweet and spicy options, but if heat is not your thing, their recipe has a modest punch you may want to avoid. I’m a big believer in a mustard and mayo swipe across the bread, too. If there is only one L.A. eatery I could save from catastophic end, this is it.
Versailles—There are three of these Cuban gems in all of L.A. so make sure you type in “near me” in that fancy tracking device the kids use nowadays. Nothing fancy once you arrive, but everything is authentic. I love the … whatever it’s called … the pulled pork that is marinated for like a day in citrus and garlic and onion, with white rice, black beans and plantains. A sangria washes it all down really well. Plates are easily big enough to split with someone and save room for a tres leches or similar Latin dessert. #BikiniShapeAllYear
Gladstones—You’d think Malibu would feel snobby given all the celebs and celeb-fuckers who live there. Although there may be snobs in “the Bu” it’s about as normal a beach town as it gets. Enter Gladstones For Fish, off Sunset Boulevard and PCH. It’s top-notch seafood right on the sea, but not annoyingly exclusive. There’s a small bar where you can grab a beer and a chowder, and there’s the regular dining area where just about every table has an ocean view. If it’s on the menu, it’s good. And try not to finish it so they can wrap up your leftovers in foil shaped into a sea creature. I know, it sounds so gimmicky, but Gladstones is anything but. It’s just plain cool.
Lamonicas—What do yours truly and Magic Johnson have in common? (You say HIV and I’ll smack you.) We both ate at Lamonicas pizzeria in Westwood on the same night at the same time. Imagine being a 20-something UCLA student hanging out at the local pizza joint with your friends after watching the Lakers on cable TV earlier that night. Now imagine the Lakers legendary point guard grab a pizza right in front of you on his way back home. Things like that are hardly common in the vast expanse of L.A., but things like that are sure to happen when you frequent quality places like Lamonicas. They make pizza the way it should be made, New York style, and they keep it simple and cheap. Westwood Village is a wonderful place to catch a movie at one of the classic one-screen theaters (the Fox and the Bruin). Nightcap it with a slice of pie.
Chin Chin—Don’t tell your server, but I shit you not “chin chin” is one way to say penis in Japanese. But you won’t get dicked around here, which is one reason why it’s not authentic at all. I’m a firm believer you haven’t had Chinese food until the server is rude to you. This small chain restaurant has a few locations in L.A. The one nearest you is in Brentwood, about half way between OJ and Nicole’s former homes (Yes, you can get from one house to the other in less than 15 minutes in L.A. when you’re driving after 10 o’clock at night.). Anyway, Chin Chin is one of the first Asian “fusion” menus I ever knew about. Not to knock P.F. Chang’s—I actually feel they do certain things very well—but Chin Chin does everything well. My favorite was their dish that was called “Anthony’s Noodles”—a sort of cilantro-sesame pesto with thin slices of chicken and a splash of lime. I’d get that and their classic Chinese chicken salad and split it with whomever was my company for that meal. Filling and light all at the same time.
Santa Monica Seafood—Hands down the best place to get the widest variety and freshest seafood in Los Angeles, outside of San Pedro. They now have an oyster bar, but they also used to do classic clam chowder and make a basic, fried-fish sandwich. They’ve completely redesigned the place since I used to frequent it, but it’s guaranteed to be awesome whatever they’ve done.
Burger joints SoCal style—One advantage to living in L.A. and not Frisco anymore is that in addition to now being able to wear Dodger gear (Dodger blue is far more flattering to your light brown hair and hazel-ish eyes), you can also partake in high-quality fast food cheeseburgers—namely In-n-Out Burger and Fatburger. Both establishments put the national brands to shame. And, both establishments go about their burger opposite from one another. I love them both, but if I had to save one, it’d be In-n-Out, with one caveat: always the double-double and never the single patty. In-n-Out has a very flavorful but rather thin patty. I need just a little more burger-to-bun ratio than the single provides. People rave about the grilled onions, and they are fantastic. But on a hot summer day, I like keeping the onion raw. Go for their special sauce, as mustard and ketchup are appropriate at other times on other burgers, but not this one. Their bun and the freshness of their lettuce and tomato put their offering over the top. They also make real milkshakes and excellent thin-cut fries. If nothing else, just admire the utter simplicity of their menu.
As for Fatburger, there’s just not any other fast food joint that can grill a thick patty the way your favorite pub would. Fatburger does. I keep it simple when I’m there and I partake in their thick-cut fries. Fatburger is the place you go when you’re ravenous and avoid when you just feel like a burger, because it’ll stick with you a while.
The Kettle—At some point in time you’ll be venturing south to enjoy all the other flat sand beaches of L.A.’s South Bay, from Manhattan and Hermosa to Redondo and Torrance. You’ll find both the daytime beach activities and the small town nightlife a refreshing twist to L.A.’s interior domains. In Manhattan Beach is a 24-hour diner with indoor and outdoor seating that has staved off many a hangover and capped off many a fun and/or disappointing night. The menu has everything and while it’s not going to win a Michelin star any time soon, I’ve never had anything mediocre there. The club sandwiches, the French Onion soup, the big-ass salads, etc. It’s all good, fairly priced and set in an atmosphere that doesn’t make you Denny’s depressed or 7-11 anxious. It’s the classy way to be casual—like much of West L.A.