Roy Choi isn’t known for restraint in his cooking, and his all-you-can-eat weekend lunch fried chicken feast is no exception. The $18 per person picnic includes crispy, thin-crust, buttermilk-brined dark meat alongside chile and garlic dipping sauces, sweet potato salad with pickled shallots and whole grain mustard vinaigrette, and an enlightening zucchini and cabbage cole slaw. Grab a seat at the communal table and throw in an extra $10 for bottomless pitchers of Hite lager.
This weekday-only retro burger counter has been serving the Valley since 1965. Husband-and-wife team Bill and Hiroko grill every burger (on a well-seasoned flattop) to order and their bacon cheeseburger ($5.30) could easily be the pin-up as the ultimate classic: A nicely seared patty, mayo, tomato, lettuce, crisp bacon strips and American cheese sandwiched between griddled buns, served with ridged potato chips on the side. Regulars drop in for lunch at the counter or back patio, and veterans know to add grilled onions to their orders.
Lu's Garden is SGV's go-to spot for Taiwanese cooking on the quick and cheap. Start with a rice—choose steamed or gruel-like congee, loaded with chunks of sweet potato. Then pick (or rather, point) and choose three to four items from the glass-display counter. Vegetable, fish and meat options are aplenty, such as sliced Chinese sausage, pickled mustard greens, spicy string beans with mushrooms and black beans, stewed tofu skin and crunchy radishes set ablaze with red chiles, seeds and all. Come by weekdays 11:30am to 4pm when $7.75 gets you three items and $9.75 upgrades you to four, with free refills on rice or congee for both. It's a hangover cure-all at its best.
Stop in for weekday lunch (Mon-Fri noon-5pm) and late-night dinner (Mon-Thu 10pm-midnight) at Pizzeria Mozza when the city's pizza juggernaut offers a can't-be-beat special at the bar: $20 scores each diner a choice of any pizza, any dessert and a glass of house red or white. The offer extends to the beloved squash blossom, tomato and burrata pizza that normally runs $24, and dolci including the famed butterscotch budino, which usually runs $10.
This Glendale mom-and-pop joint has been serving some of the best comfort food in Los Angeles—namely its flame-licked kebabs—since the ’70s. The wood grill imparts a glorious, smoky quality to any of its meat dishes, from lamb chops to lule (ground meat kebab). Each meal is under $15, but the best value is undoubtedly the quail. California’s state bird, which normally commands a premium at trendier restaurants, costs only $8.25 for a pair at Elena’s. The juicy whole birds come with toasted pita with garlic butter, a heaping pile of rice, grilled pepper and tomato, pickled vegetables and a bowl of hearty lentil soup or house salad.
Highland Park's Sycamore Grove Park is the Eastside's gathering place for alfresco birthday parties and family reunions, and also the site of the long-present sea blue El Mar Azul truck. Mexico City native Felipe "El Campeon" and El Paso native Rosie "The Texas Girl" Cejudo are the husband and wife team who sell five variations of the seafood tostada, including tostada mixtiada ($3)—a combination including pollack (of the cod family, but close to crab in taste and texture), shrimp, abalone and octopus. The seafood medley is arranged on a crispy corn tortilla and topped with creamy cole slaw, relish, a secret blend of spices and fresh avocado slices. Add some chile sauce and a squeeze of lime to perfect the light meal, best enjoyed at one of the park’s many picnic tables.
Karabagh is a market, deli and butcher shop that serves East Hollywood's Armenian community and in-the-know food (and bargain) hunters. Trays of lule, ground beef or chicken kebabs, are crafted in-house and on display. Order a kebab sandwich—juicy lule, parsley, red onion in between lavash—at the counter and take it to-go or dine in at the next door bakery, where you'll also find coffee and pastries. With each sandwich at $2 apiece, two sandwiches easily makes an under $5 lunch.
South of Koreatown, the Byzantine-Latino Quarter melds cultural hallmarks from both Greek and Latin communities. The neighborhood's culinary poster child might be Dino’s Burgers #2, a family-owned operation since 1968. The signature dish, Pollo Maniaco, aka maniacal chicken, is a $5.50 plate of grilled half chicken—its reddish-orange tinge attributed to a marinade of vinegar, garlic, chilies and secret mix of Greek spices. Short-order cooks serve the bird atop a plate of French fries and douse everything with more spicy red sauce. Add a container of crispy cole slaw and a stack of corn tortillas for makeshift tacos.
Some of the most authentic (and cheap) Thai food can be found in the SFV, specifically in a strip mall off Coldwater Canyon. Once seated inside the minimalist space, browse the menu's back page for rarely seen northern Thai specialties—owner Don Tamphoon's family hails from Chiang Rai—offered in small and large plates, both of generous portions. Dishes are prepared with fresh produce and cooked with an expert hand. A favorite option is Thai Spaghetti with Bay Leaf Stew (small, $3.50): Rice noodles are blanketed in chopped greens, cassia buds (the taste is similar to cinnamon) and a soupy, spicy curry broth. Pair with one other small plate for a hearty, spice-spiked lunch or dinner.