Intrepid LA diners don't earn their merit badges these days unless they're eating at secret places, knocking on chefs' apartment doors in search of the next secret dinner. But hovering just above the underground, still way below the mainstream, is a different kind of hush-hush eatery: Non-restaurants with utilitarian purposes that just happen to also serve engagingly good eats. With its endless tangles of road, this clandestine cuisine is something our colossal city enjoys in spades, placing the best tacos, best ice cream and best Thai food where you'd least expect to find them. Whether your plan is munching on Reuben panini in a gas station or perusing a feast of Russian pastries following service at an orthodox church in Hollywood, make sure you've got a handle on our guide to the best and most unexpected places to feast on LA's best dishes.
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Taking up just a sliver of a La Cienega liquor store, the kitchen from Dominican talent Ilonka Garcia serves up chef-driven, Caribbean cuisine. Flavor-forward dishes showcase authentic, home-style island classics such as mofongo, ropa vieja, arroz con pollo, mondongo (tripe), guisados (stews), golden empanadas and spice-laden fish served with fried cassava and plantains. Goat-meat seekers may have the most to gain—tear into Garcia's pure, stark expression of braised cabra ($10), its flavors straight from Monte Cristi, the island nation's capital of goat gastronomy.
This family-run furniture store puts its well-polished wares to work, serving luscious, vegan Thai curries, meat-free spicy mint noodles and fat, fresh spring rolls to diners seated on and around the merchandise. The table you're sitting at? It's teak, it's expensive, and it's for sale—though you might have to wait until your dining mates are done with their comforting, coconut milk massaman curry ($5), filled with soft tofu, peanuts and sweet kabocha, if you're planning to take it home.
Fill up on slow-cooked swine and a shine at this South Central car wash and auto parts shop that comes strapped with alambres (stir-fry of meats, peppers, onions and cheeses), tortas, tacos and the best carnitas in town. While whips get pimped, a big, bubbling steel cazo of pig parts simmers in lard, the source for pork-intensive tacos stuffed with fried rib, shoulder, skin, ear and head meats. Get cochon-concentrated with the weekend-only tacos surtidas ($1.25), a succulent amalgam of all of these cuts under one warm tortilla.
Good news: You won't have to sit through an Orthodox service in a language you can't comprehend to enjoy the feast that follows. As long as your money is green, these babushkas ringing the church's courtyard will take it. In return, you'll choose from a homemade spread of Russian pastries and snacks, including baked and fried meat-stuffed piroshkis ($2), sweet slices of Napoleon, and hot items such as pelmeni dumplings and blinis. The church's own kitchen churns out one massive pot of borscht ($3), offering worshippers and interlopers a true taste of Mother Russia to soothe their souls every Sunday.
How do you make an affordably priced day full of hot baths, cool soaks, salt and ice saunas, invigorating scrubs and steaming communal showers even more seductive? By offering a sizable selection of Korean dishes at a café in its co-ed jimjilbang. But if bulgogi (marinated beef) tacos seem a little heavy after your day of detoxing, come for the restorative powers of spicy ramen ($10), freshly squeezed juice and veggie bibimbap ($13) then get your butt back in the bulgama (clay room).
"From banana splits to wheelchairs" goes the motto at De Soto Pharmacy, opened in 1959 and recently given its close-up on True Blood. Tucked inside, the 27-year-old ice cream parlor and soda fountain is a sweet-toothed throwback to the Eisenhower era. The sturdy wood paneling, vintage Coke signs and Rockwell-perfect banana splits and sundaes—made with quality ice creams such as local Fosselman's, Oregon's Cascade and Lappert's from Hawaii—prove they really don't make them like they used to. If cherry malts, egg creams, and Kauai pies might spoil your appetite, there are sandwiches and salads, too. Just save room for the ice cream-aided soda float ($4.95) dramatically served in a cold, chocolate-dipped glass.
If atmosphere and adventure are on the agenda, you'll be hard-pressed to rival this gleaming white shrine to Venkateswara, impressively perched on a peak in the Santa Monica mountain range. Step inside the intricately-carved temple for solemn supplication that will be rewarded with a free taste of halvah. And if your appetite is more Vishnu-sized, opt for the vegetarian variety served in the temple's kitchen come weekends, including ambrosial tamarind rice and tropical dishes from the Subcontinent's southern state of Kerala.
A Mar Vista bowling alley that feels so legitimately Lebowski, you nearly expect to catch Jesus Quintana licking his ball in the lane next to you. You'd be better off rolling into Pepy's, the vintage in-house diner stocked with short-order dishes and a crowd of true Westside natives. Score a strike every time with the menu's sure standout: a plate of crisp, cheesy chilaquiles ($5.25)—this patchwork of gooey chips is glued together with red mole, Jack cheese and a liberal shower of cotija.
A well-stocked gas station is an oasis in this city’s asphalt desert. These SFV and Santa Monica Chevron stations take it far beyond Slim Jims and stale sandwiches, centering on a full-service deli toasting crusty panini ($7.25-$7.95) layered with combinations such as pork ribs with chipotle pesto, corned beef with Swiss and artichoke with blue cheese, along with soups ($3.99), salads ($5.99-$7.99), Jamaican beef patties ($1.79) and samosas ($.50). For dessert, the candy racks are upgraded with a considerable collection of Ritter's German chocolate bars (chocolate-covered cornflakes, anyone?) that should help sedate you for whatever freeway slog lies ahead.
These West LA supermarket shelves are stocked with enough pork, panko and Pocky for shoppers to stage their own Japanese blowouts. But the loudest buzz sounds from the food court, wedged between an anime toy store and the grocery's own cash registers. Crowded with counters slinging udon (slippery, fat wheat noodles), tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet), yakisoba (fried noodle) and donburi (rice bowls), the numerous options are realistically cast in plastic for your perusal. The best sellers—packing in crowds here every day of the week—include Santouka Ramen's outstanding $6.99-$9.49 bowls of pickled plum-topped shio (salt) ramen and Hannosuke's $8.95-$12.95 tendon (tempura on rice), piled high with golden-battered vegetables, oozing egg, and battered and fried, crunchy crustaceans.