Illustration by Bill Brown
My family recently returned from a trip to France. We began in the gorgeous city of Bordeaux, where our nephew, whom we raised, is wrapping up his junior year of college abroad. The wine was, of course, mind-blowing; the baguettes, beautiful (France is hell for the gluten sensitive); the cheeses, pungent and unpasteurized; the products from the farmers’ markets, as tantalizing as any we can buy here. Raised in Los Angeles, however, my nephew confessed that he was suffering from gastronomic monotony; too many croissants and jambon sandwiches bracketed his days. Passing by a Bordeaux restaurant called O Fajitas, he winced at the memory of a meal there. By the time we reached Paris at the end of our trip, I understood what he meant. The French have mastered the art of cooking but not of cheap eats. We did enjoy one unforgettable pastrami sandwich and some more than decent falafel in the historic Marais district, but it’s difficult to find good pizza, let alone acceptable Chinese food, in the world’s culinary capital. One evening we stopped for dinner at a packed Thai restaurant in the 4th arrondissement. We heard diners ooh-la-la-ing over their meals while we looked at each other and said, meh. The bill was in the three figures, and the food couldn’t compare with even the smallest hole-in-the-wall in East Hollywood’s Thai Town.
In so many American cities cheap eats are limited to Kentucky Fried Chicken or Burger King, but in L.A. a profusion of restaurants run by families steeped in the cooking traditions of their homelands—be it northwestern Azerbaijan or the Shaanxi province—overwhelms the chains. As a culinary adventure, France may be amazing, but ultimately it can be mapped out as predictably as a Rick Steves guidebook. The tiny ethnic restaurants, burger joints, and food trucks that dot our archipelago are harder to pinpoint. In this issue we highlight our favorites in “101 Cheap Eats.” I’m guessing you haven’t heard of many of the places—I sure hadn’t. Seeking out these dining experiences is one of the easiest, most economical ways to explore the city. Going to that Bolivian place in Van Nuys may nudge you not only into an unfamiliar cuisine but into a neighborhood you’ve never visited, which is almost always a good thing.
I know one person who’ll be using our list. After his first semester abroad, we picked up my nephew at Christmas from LAX. As we barreled down the Century Freeway, I called his favorite Mexican spot to order him a ginormous burrito. He ran inside and returned to the car, clutching it like a football and grinning like a little kid. In line in front of him, he said, was Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine. An awesome burrito and a rock star sighting, too. Man, was he ever glad to be home.