Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wow, what a deal!
We hit the streets to find the most delicious bargains around.
By Betty Hallock
Times Staff Writer

September 13, 2006

WHETHER it's saving $200 on the price of an airline ticket to the Mayan Riviera or snagging a pair of Christian Louboutin sandals priced to move on the last day of the Barneys Warehouse sale, there's something about finding a great deal that's supremely gratifying. And if it's three-star dim sum for the price of a paperback or a cold, frothy chocolate egg cream that's just 50 cents (in Beverly Hills, no less) — it's just that much more delicious.

So what tasty bargains await hungry Angelenos? The best fish taco in town, filled with crisply fried halibut, crunchy cabbage, salsa and crema for 99 cents. Two cocktails for the price of one in a swanky setting from a top mixologist. A steak dinner at the beach for less than $20. A three-course chef's tasting menu that might include impeccable yellowtail sashimi with bacon and preserved lemon, suckling pig confit with fresh garbanzo beans and blackberry gastrique, and coconut panna cotta with pistachio-cumin brittle — for only 30 bucks.

These are just a few of the 25 tasty bargains that Food section writers discovered after pounding the pavement, from Santa Monica to the Sunset Strip, from North Hollywood to Westminster, from Koreatown to Little Tokyo. Sometimes the delicious deal depends on knowing when to get what where — so step lively if you want that free bottle of wine or a blow-your-mind-but-not-bust-your-budget bento box lunch. Others, like a superior Vietnamese sandwich for $1.75 or a perfectly spiced samosa for 59 cents, are perennial steals. Here are our favorites.

1. Fish taco at Tacos Baja Ensenada, 99 cents on Wednesdays. Perfect Baja-style fish tacos with delicately battered, freshly fried, piping-hot hunks of halibut in soft, warm corn tortillas, dressed with crisp shredded cabbage, salsa, finely diced red onion, cilantro, a dollop of crema, a squirt of lime — these are what customers line up for at this East L.A. mecca. Every other day they're a well-priced $1.15 each, but come Wednesday, 99-cent fish taco day, the crowds are even thicker, and the line can extend past the ceviche counter and the trays of fresh radishes, limes and red-pepper-dusted yellow chiles — and sometimes out the door. Tacos Baja Ensenada, 5385 Whittier Blvd., L.A., (323) 887-1980, .

2. Egg cream at Barney Greengrass, in the Barneys New York store, 50 cents. Why are those ladies who lunch on the top floor of Barneys New York paying $3.75 for a small bottle of Norwegian Voss water when they could be having a frothy chocolate egg cream for just two quarters (and four pennies, including tax)? It's a good one too, made with a squeeze of Hershey's chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer water. Traditionally it's made with Fox's U-Bet, but hey, this is Beverly Hills, not Brooklyn! Barney Greengrass, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 777-5877.

3. Tri-tip special for six to eight people from Swinging Door, $56. Take home a feast of slow-cooked, wood-smoked barbecue for less per person than the price of a movie ticket. Swinging Door's wonderful barbecued meats are widely appreciated, and when they run out, there's no more till the next day, so order ahead. The tri-tip special, big enough for a family meal, includes a whole tri-tip, a slab of baby back ribs, three side dishes and a dozen of the cafe's addictive fresh garlic rolls. Swinging Door, 11018 Vanowen St., North Hollywood, (818) 763-8996, .

4. Barbecued pork banh mi and avocado smoothie at Top Baguette, $1.75 for banh mi, $2.50 for smoothie. After tasting more than a dozen banh mi, we can be sure Top Baguette is indeed top baguette. Its list of Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches includes beef sautéed in lemon grass, a combo of cold cuts and a veggie banh mi with vermicelli noodles and tofu spiked with coarsely ground black pepper. But the best is sweet, succulent barbecue pork. The freshly baked crispy-crusted-but-soft-inside baguettes hold handfuls of pickled carrots and daikon and slabs of crunchy cucumber, plenty of cilantro and a few slices of jalapeño. And lots of banh mi spots offer avocado smoothies, but the luscious one here is the best. Blended with a whole fresh avocado, a little sugar, half and half, milk and ice, it is cold, creamy and wonderful. Top Baguette, 9062 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 379-7726.

5. Three-course tasting menu at Opus Restaurant, $30. Tasting menus aren't just for those who can afford to drop more than $100 on a meal. Opus Restaurant's new chef, Josef Centeno, formerly of Meson G, offers three-course spontaneous tastings for less than you'd spend on a steak at many restaurants. First might come a sashimi of hamachi (yellowtail) with bacon and preserved lemon with shio konbu (salted kelp) and geoduck clam; then Four Story Hill Farm sweetbreads and veal cheeks with lobster béarnaise and corn pudding; and for dessert, maybe quince-pineapple pie with tarragon anglaise and crème fraîche ice cream. Opus Restaurant, 3760 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (213) 738-1600, .

6. Roasted-spices samosa at Bharat Bazaar & Samosa House, 59 cents small, $1.25 large. This Indian grocery has been the go-to market for more than 25 years for Westsiders cooking East Indian food. An outlet of a spice importing and distribution company, Bharat Bazaar roasts and grinds its spices on site (and packages some for sale). In January, it expanded to turn a makeshift back-of-the-store deli counter into an eat-in or takeout cafe. The samosas, fried up to order, are justifiably famous. The filling is traditional — potatoes and peas — but oh, the seasoning! Fresh roasted spices make the difference; the flavor is bold and full-bodied but not trendily hot. Each order comes with house-made mint and tamarind chutneys. Bharat Bazaar & Samosa House, 11510 W. Washington Blvd., L.A., (310) 398-6766.

7. Lychee ice cream cone at Fosselman's, $2.15. One taste of this flavor at Alhambra's famous shop and it's hard to imagine ordering any other. It's bright, tropical, creamy and not too sweet — altogether dreamy. In a sugar cone, please. Fosselman's, 1824 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 282-6533, .

8. Two-for-one cocktails at Norman's. Mixologist Peter Birmingham's drinks are inspired, and between 5:30 and 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, cocktails (as well as beer, sake and wines by the glass) are two for one. His signatures include a Furikake Martini with Hendrick's gin, "flash pickled" cucumbers and a little furikake, a Japanese dried-seaweed-and- rice-cracker seasoning, and a Mesquito, a sophisticated take on the mojito, made with Siete Leguas platino tequila, lime, Thai basil, simple syrup and soda water. Cheers. Norman's, 8570 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-2400, .

9. Big box of fries at Skooby's Hot Dogs, $3.70. Skooby's may be a hot dog joint, but it's the fries that are killer. A mix of thick strips and thin chips, twice-fried in peanut oil, sprinkled with Skooby's special spice mix, they're worth crossing town for. A Skooby's skoop of fries costs $2.31 but a big box provides double the fun. And nothing could be better than people-watching from a red-cushioned stool on a Hollywood Boulevard corner while dipping a crispy-brown Skooby's fry in house-made aioli. Skooby's Hot Dogs, 6654 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) HOT-DOGS; 502 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach, (310) 376-1292, .

10. Butter steak aux fines herbes at Chez Jay, $19. This Santa Monica steakhouse hangout just a stone's throw from the beach attracts local twentysomethings, families, couples on dates, bar regulars and an occasional pack of Australian lifeguards or Japanese tourists. You'll also find an excellent steak dinner for less than $20: 10 ounces of New York steak, a baked potato, sautéed vegetables and garlic bread. Tuck into a booth and enjoy the friendly, dark, boozy scene, with a jukebox that plays what would make a great CD compilation called "Just Good Rock." Chez Jay, 1657 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 395-1741, .

11. Bento box lunch at Izayoi, $9.50. Don't sleep on this deal: It's available only to the first 20 lunch customers who request it. A pretty lacquered bento box holds a panoply of beautiful Japanese specialties: fabulous grilled mackerel, perhaps; chawanmushi (a silky savory custard), shrimp and vegetable tempura, pristine sashimi, tangy pickled cabbage, and simmered daikon and bean curd. Plus there's miso soup, salad and rice. Izayoi, 132 S. Central Ave., L.A., (213) 613-9554.

12. Sheykh al-mehshi dinner special at Marouch, $10.99. Melt-in-your-mouth slices of eggplant filled with seasoned ground beef and pine nuts and baked in a light tomato sauce, served over a fluffy mound of rice, along with pickled turnip, olives, chiles and pita: This is just one of the tempting daily dinner specials that chef Sossi Brady turns out at this Lebanese cafe in Little Armenia. Others include her kebbeh labanieh, meatballs of browned beef and pine nuts wrapped in a crust of veal and cracked wheat, with delicious yogurt sauce. Marouch, 4905 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (323) 662-9325, .

13. Bottomless bean pot at Tacomiendo Mexican Grill, gratis. A steady word-of-mouth cult fave, this small, cheerful taquería that successfully straddles the line between roots cooking and up-to-datedness is well-loved for its house-made tortillas, hot off the griddle, filled with terrific carnitas, cabeza, asada, lengua or grilled veggies. $1.75 buys you a taco; tortas are $4.95. Fresh-squeezed vegetable juices ($2) and agua frescas ($1) are great too. But the kicker is the pot of rich, stewy pinto beans, part of a condiment bar that also includes salsas, lime wedges and radishes. Help yourself to a ladleful, or more if you like. Tacomiendo Mexican Grill, 4502 Inglewood Blvd., Culver City, (310) 915-0426; 11462 Gateway Blvd., West L.A., (310) 481-0804, .

14. Sesame bread with green onions at Mas' Islamic Chinese, $7.50. Would you like the sesame bread? Thick or thin? That's what your server wants to know the moment you sit down at Mas'. Each enormous round loaf is baked to order so they want to get yours popped into the oven right away. Say yes; it's incredibly delicious. The yeasted bread's top crust is crunchy, covered with tiny fragrant sesame seeds with just the right degree of toastiness. Inside, the flavorful interior has pockets of soft green-onion bits. An order is big enough for 10 generous pieces. Mas' Islamic Chinese, 601 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Anaheim, (714) 871-9166.

15. Wild mushroom pie at Pitfire Pizza Co., $8.25. Whoever said there's no great pizza in L.A. has never tried Pitfire's. The dough is allowed to rise one and a half to two days, and the pie is fired in a special ceramic-bottomed oven for a crust that's deeply flavorful, with wonderful, chewy-crisp texture, somewhere between Neapolitan and New York style. And the toppings are superb — you can't go wrong with field mushrooms, balsamic roasted onions, four cheeses and fresh herbs. But it's tough to choose — the white pizza with bitter greens (kale, dandelion, arugula and collard) frequently on special is fabulous, as is the classic tomato, basil and mozzarella. Pitfire Pizza Co., 5211 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 980-2949; 108 W. 2nd St., L.A., (213)808-1200; .

16. Dim sum at Triumphal Palace, about $17 per person. How can that perfectly roasted barbecue duck, with its crackling-crisp skin, cost just $5.98? Taste that pea tip and seafood dumpling — it's polished and perfect. Assemble a group and head to Alhambra for this three-star experience at a very nice price. Sticky rice in lotus is some of the best around; pan-fried turnip cakes with XO sauce are rich and creamy; barbecue pork belly is crisp on the outside, meltingly tender on the inside, amazingly flavorful. On weekends, be prepared to wait: The place is popular. Triumphal Palace, 500 W. Main St., #A, Alhambra; (626) 308-3222.

17. Rotisserie chicken dinner for four at TiGeorges' Chicken, $19.95. This is no jerk chicken, it's Haitian "poule kreole" — a whole fall-apart-tender bird that's been roasted over an avocado wood fire, marinated with black pepper, parsley, onion, paprika, key lime juice, salt and a few other key ingredients that TiGeorges himself isn't about to disclose. Dinner comes with rice and beans, a salad of greens and pikliz, a fresh, tangy cole slaw made with key lime juice. Don't skip the ti malis sauce (it'll cost an extra dollar, but it's so worth it) — lots of garlic and sour orange juice, some fermented habanero pepper, a little roasted thyme … the rest is another TiGeorges secret. TiGeorges' Chicken, 309 N. Glendale Blvd., L.A., (213) 353-9994, .

18. Sweet rice flour cake at Koo's Grill, $1. In front of California Market in Koreatown there's a bright, shiny cart that sells hot-from-the-grill, sweet, chewy rice flour pancakes filled with a little bit of honey syrup and a few nuts. Golden-brown and delicious, they're great street food, especially good after a game of darts and a couple of drinks at Frank 'n Hank's around the corner. Koo's Grill, at 450 S. Western Ave., L.A..

19. Chile verde burrito at Tacos Por Favor, $5.20. Tender chunks of pork long-cooked with green chile and folded into a big soft-flour tortilla with rice and refried beans: This is a burrito with just the right gestalt. It's big — make that huge — and it's mojado, meaning more chile verde is spooned over the top. Great with a bottle of Bohémia or a watermelon agua fresca. Tacos Por Favor, 1408 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 392-5768.

20. Buy one bottle of wine, take one home free on Wednesdays at Pastis. Warm goat cheese and artichoke tart, mussels marinière or a platter of charcuterie and pâté might put you in the mood for a bottle of wine — or two. And on Wednesdays, you can get that second bottle of wine free if you order a bottle at dinner from a select list that might include a nice Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or a Saint-Émilion. Pastis, 8114 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-8822, .

21. Fresh fruit bowl with freshly baked muffin at Square One, $6.50. It's not fussy or faux-exquisite, no doilies or little ruffles of gold leaf, but the simple fruit salad at this minimalist cafe is amazingly luxurious. The selection of fruits is seasonal to the moment, as if your own private chef had meandered through the market, selecting, for example, white-fleshed Sharlyn melon, perfectly ripe cantaloupe, sweet yellow-fleshed Ruby Grand nectarine, plum, fresh Black Mission fig and half a dozen incredibly sweet deep purple Kyoho grapes. Muffins change daily. Breakfast is served all day. Square One, 4854 Fountain Ave., L.A., (323) 661-1109.

22. Hot dog and soda at Costco, $1.50. What's better than a Dodger Dog and comes with a refillable 20-ounce drink? The parking-lot-concession-stand hot dog at Costco. Yes, Costco. It's a tasty Hebrew National dog (or Polish sausage) in a soft, fluffy bun, wrapped up in foil and smeared with your choice of dispenser toppings: ketchup, yellow mustard, relish and onions. (Sauerkraut is available upon request.) And you don't even need a Costco membership. Costco, 2901 Los Feliz Blvd., L.A., (323) 644-5220; 3560 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood, (310) 242-2777; 1051 Burbank Blvd., Burbank, (818) 557-3783; 13463 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey, (310) 754-2021; .

23. Chinese chicken salad at Tender Greens, $9. It's easy to find silly reinterpretations of this classic salad, but this Culver City salad spot gets it so right. Strips of flavorful, perfectly cooked organic chicken, pea sprouts, delicate julienned carrots, spicy baby lettuces, roasted peanuts, crispy wonton-skin chips and "popcorn sprouts" (pale yellow corn shoots with a lovely sweet-corn finish) are all tossed together with a dreamy sesame dressing. You may never want to go back to the classic. Tender Greens, 9523 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 842-8300, .

24. Soju or sake with hearty bar snacks for two at Sohoju, $29. They know what you're here for, so the friendly folks at Sohoju, a popular Little Tokyo spot for drinks and "Korean nomadic" food have a board list of tempting package deals for two that offer discounts on drink-food combinations. You can get two beers or hot sakes, for example, with an order of chicken and another of tempura for $19; but our favorite features soju or Taru sake (a cedar-aged junmai sake) plus popcorn chicken and "chillie shrimp." Ordered separately, it would set you back about $37, but it's a deal at $29. Sohoju, 104 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, (213) 621-2288.

25. Goat taco at Monte Alban, $3.75. You might not think "refined" when you hear the phrase "goat taco," but the version at this attractive West Side Oaxacan spot is just that. Tender, mild goat meat is combined with sautéed onions and cilantro and rolled up gently in a large and wonderful house-made corn tortilla. As served in the restaurant (don't get this one to go), the dish looks rather chichi nuevo Mexicano — it comes on an oblong plate with a bit of velvety black bean purée, a wedge of lime, a sprig of cilantro and a dose of zingy salsa verde. And it's a knockout. Monte Alban, 11927 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 444-7736.

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