AAA Magazines

Bargain Bites: 2022's best cheap eats in Southern California

Artisan in Fountain Valley offers a wide selection of sandwiches, fresh-baked pastries, brunch classics, and beverages. Photo courtesy Artisan/7 Leaves

Food prices seem to be steadily climbing, but in Southern California, a variety of budget-friendly options mean you can still eat out without feeling guilty. From a classic Italian deli in L.A.’s Chinatown to a Middle Eastern favorite in San Diego, here's our annual list of budget-friendly eats. These 21 affordable restaurants in the Southland pack a lot of flavor at bargain prices.

Affordable restaurants in Los Angeles

1. Falafel Inc, Westwood

Falafel Bowl

Falafel Bowl, za’atar fries, shawarma sandwich, and falafel sandwich at Falafel Inc in Westwood. Photo by Vanessa Stump

“Eat for Good.” That’s the slogan of popular Washington, D.C., chain Falafel Inc, which opened its first Southern California location last summer. Not only does it offer tasty fare, the company makes good on its name by donating money to help refugees through a partnership with the World Food Programme. And even if the food wasn’t ridiculously cheap, it’d still be worth seeking out.

Here you’ll find some of the freshest falafel around, with employees frying chickpea balls and making sammies only after you place your order. Spend the extra $1 to get the hummus, then experiment with the half dozen sauces you can drizzle on top. If you throw in a side of za’atar fries for $3, you’ll still get your meal for under $9. The restaurant also recently introduced a vegan shawarma bowl.

Bonus: It’s across the street from the second-best deal in Westwood—Diddy Riese, where a scoop of ice cream sandwiched between 2 cookies will set you back a mere $3.50.­ 

—Elina Shatkin

2. Holy Basil, Downtown L.A.

If you’re an indecisive person, you’ll have a hard time at Holy Basil, a Thai spot that specializes in Bangkok-style street food. It’s hard to know which noodle dish to choose, although you can’t really go wrong.

The pad kee mao ($16), with bird’s eye chiles and generous chunks of crisp pork belly atop a heap of smoked flat noodles, is stellar. The milder pad see ew ($16), featuring pork loin, Chinese broccoli, and house-made XO sauce, is also delicious. Then again, it’s hard to pass up the pad thai, which is among the best in the city. If you prefer a rice bowl, the gra pow neuh ($15) offers plenty of spicy ground beef and slivered long beans with purple rice that’s topped with a fried egg.

Most dishes are $15 to $17, and $10 boat noodle Wednesdays are reportedly “coming soon.” 

—Elina Shatkin

3. Eastside Italian Deli, Chinatown and Los Feliz

Eastside Italian Deli, which has been operating at its current location in the hills above Chinatown since 1929, is one of L.A.’s oldest eateries. Now, the owners have opened an outpost in the heart of Los Feliz.

At both spots, the Italian subs are large, meaty, and made with love. Whether you opt for a chicken Parmesan (breaded chicken cutlet drenched in tomato sauce) or a classic cold cuts hoagie (stacked with ham, capocollo, mortadella, salami, and provolone, and then drizzled with spicy giardiniera), each sandwich can easily feed 2 people. Torn between a meatball and a sausage sub? You don’t have to decide. You can get a sandwich with both fillings for $13.50.

Don’t sleep on the cannoli. The sweet cheese filling is light and fluffy, and at $2.50, this dessert is a steal. —Elina Shatkin

You may also like: Fun things to do in Los Angeles’ Chinatown

Affordable restaurants in the Valleys

4. Noodle Stars, Monrovia

Noodle Stars

(Clockwise from bottom left) Lumpia, chicken-filled fried wontons, crispy tofu, mushroom noodles, and chicken noodle at Noodle Stars in Monrovia. Photo by Vanessa Stump

Founded by a family that has operated restaurants in Jakarta, Noodle Stars is an authentic Indonesian eatery and market located in a San Gabriel Valley shopping center. Begin with lumpia ($5.50 for 3), massive chicken-filled fried wontons ($4 for 3), or a stuffed tofu ($7.25 for 2) whose deep-frying brings a new dimension to the custard-like staple. Addictive ketoprak consists of rice vermicelli with tofu and compressed rice cake (lontong) bathed in a mahogany-hued peanut sauce.

Make a meal out of the chicken mushroom noodle ($10.25), then cool off with a smoothie, perhaps one made from the pungent durian—a fruit that’s definitely an acquired taste.

Finish your meal with an avocado smoothie with chocolate syrup or an iced cendol with green rice flour jelly and coconut milk.

—Roger Grody

5. Valeu Espetos, Montrose

Valeu Espetos

A Korean-Brazilian food spread, including meat skewers, street food snacks, and condiments at Valeu Espetos in Montrose. Photo by Joann Hwang

Husband-and-wife restaurateurs Tony Park and Joyce Kim bring their Korean-Brazilian traditions from São Paulo to Montrose in a smartly appointed storefront, where the menu combines classic Korean and Brazilian cuisines.

Skewers ($9.50 each) of pork belly, linguica (sausage), or naturally chewy chicken gizzards are offered, but the tender, well-seasoned Korean-style bulgogi (marinated beef) is a better option. Beef empanadas ($4.50), shrimp croquettes ($4.75), and miniature waffles that are a clever riff on traditional Brazilian pão de queijo (cheese bread) round out the menu. Velvety, creamy flan is a nice finish. 

—Roger Grody

6. Uncle Bernie’s Delicatessen, Encino

In the world of comfort food, there’s nothing like a Jewish deli, and the mile-long menu at Uncle Bernie’s addresses every imaginable craving. Sharing is the way to go at this restaurant, named after the owner’s Brooklyn-born uncle. Roomy booths are available to accommodate families.

A sky-high pastrami sandwich ($17.45) stuffed with slaw on rye bread that is slathered with Russian dressing easily feeds 2 diners. Other shareable specialties include matzo ball soup ($7.25) and a giant platter of somewhat doughy potato latkes ($11.95).

Diverse offerings include burgers, fried chicken, and fish tacos. Breakfast includes everything from cheese blintzes to eggs Benedict.

The house-made chocolate éclair—the large size can satisfy a family of 4—is reason enough to stop in. 

—Roger Grody

Affordable restaurants on the Central Coast

7. The Good Plow, Carpinteria

The laid-back setting at The Good Plow makes it a natural fit for the beach town of Carpinteria. Owners Katie and Jason Lesh present a fresh and family-friendly menu that emphasizes vegetarian and vegan items made with organic ingredients from their own and other local farms.

The Buddha Bowl ($13) is a plant-based pleaser of roasted mushrooms, sweet potatoes, kale, fried garbanzo beans, and avocado with house yum sauce on quinoa or rice. 

Other standouts include fish tacos ($15) made with grilled Santa Barbara catch of the day on house-pressed corn tortillas, and a burger ($16) made with Rancho San Julian grass-fed beef. Don’t miss the crispy fries, which you’ll go home dreaming about. Beverages include organic wine and beer and kombucha on tap. 

A soft-serve window is a sweet ode to Fosters Freeze, the building’s former occupant. 

—Nancy Ransohoff

8. Depalo & Sons, Pismo Beach

For 38 years, devoted locals and travelers passing through Pismo Beach have made it a point to stop at this bustling gourmet market and deli in the Spyglass Village shopping center.

Owners Scott and Andrea Williams offer Italian specialties and a sandwich menu that includes the Louie’s Love ($12.99), piled with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, tomatoes, and roasted red peppers, and the Roma turkey ($12.99), made with roasted turkey breast with apricot-cranberry chutney. Lasagna, chicken Parmesan, and other prepared entrées in the deli case are available for takeout and can be eaten at an outdoor table. Finish with a fresh-baked cookie or sweet pastry.

Also pick up some of Dr. Tedone’s Fresh New York Style Mozzarella, made by Andrea’s father for more than 30 years and now made daily by Andrea and Scott. 

—Nancy Ransohoff

9. East Beach Tacos, Santa Barbara

With its location at the East Beach Batting Cages, it’s hard to resist saying this spot hits a home run with its fabulous tacos.

The best bet is the Triple Play: 3 classic tacos of your choice for $9.75. My go-to trio is the perfectly seasoned and battered cod with a crunch of cabbage, punched up with pico de gallo and aioli; spicy tempura shrimp with curly endive, pico de gallo, chipotle aioli, and lime vinaigrette; and tender carne asada with guacamole and queso fresco.

Owner Michael Anderson includes some non-taco items, such as the blackened chicken sandwich ($10); a cheeseburger ($9 with fries and a soft drink); fish-and-chips ($10); and the Beach Ball ($6), a seasoned rice ball filled with spicy ‘ahi tuna, scallion, and sesame seeds. 

—Nancy Ransohoff

You may also like: Celebrate Julia Child and Santa Barbara's culinary culture at a weekend festival

Affordable restaurants in the Inland Empire & the Desert

10. EAT Marketplace, Temecula

Hot Mess Burrito

Hot Mess Burrito and vegan yam and tahini burger at EAT Marketplace in Temecula. Photo by Rob Andrew

This casual eatery is proof that you don’t have to pay a steep price or visit an upscale restaurant to enjoy genuine farm-to-table dining. Here, locally sourced farm-fresh ingredients mark the foundation of every dish. The conundrum of whether to order breakfast or lunch will be your toughest decision, because all the mouthwatering menu items are available all day.

It’s hard to resist the vegan yam and tahini burger ($16.95), dressed up just right with zesty “spiky” mayo and slaw. Just as tempting is the selection of breakfast burritos (from $14.65). Or opt for the Hot Mess Bowl, with turkey chorizo, fontina cheese, a farm egg, potatoes, black beans, cashew crema, and smashed avocado ($16.95).

Round out your meal—and fuel up for the rest of the day—with a caffeine-fueled beverage from the espresso bar.

—Nick Rufca

You may also like: Things to do in Temecula

11. The Heyday, Palm Springs

Heyday Smash Burger

The signature smash-style burgers at The Heyday in Palm Springs. Photo courtesy The Heyday

It’s a good sign when you overhear patrons sharing the reason behind their visit to The Heyday, is to try “the best burger in town.” I would agree with that sentiment, but there’s another reason to visit: All items are under $19.

The kitchen’s signature dish is a smash-style burger ($9.75) with an emphasis on smash—seasoned beef patties, pressed thin on the grill and cooked until the edges are crispy, and topped with shredded lettuce, caramelized onions, cheese, and sauce. Packed into a butter-coated potato bun, this burger is absolute perfection. If you like your burgers a bit thicker, order the double patty ($12.75).

The equally delightful Fried Chicken Sando ($14.75) provides stiff competition as a fan favorite here. And the overflowing pile of crinkle fries ($5.75) is enough for at least 2 people to share. 

—Nick Rufca

You may also like: Palm Springs, new beginnings in the desert

12. Sanamluang, Claremont

The Thai dishes at this often-crowded eatery run the gamut from the familiar (a very good pad thai) to creative specialties (a deep-fried taro appetizer). The pad see ew ($10.25) noodles are expertly tossed with crunchy Chinese broccoli, egg, and a rich, flavorful soy sauce. The pra salid fried rice ($12.25) features slices of crackly, deep-fried fish for a delightful umami-bomb bite.

Plates of crispy chicken wings ($10.95) are popular and make a great accompaniment to anything you order. The hearty soup menu ($9.50–$16.95) includes a robust seafood soup and a spicy, coconut milk–based tom kha gai. Single orders are big enough to ladle out multiple servings—perfect for dates, groups, or as a satisfying, long-lasting meal for one. 

—Nick Rufca

Affordable restaurants in Orange County

13. Mogu Mogu, Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa is so rich with ramen shops that creative diners could actually come up with their own tour of Japan’s many ramen regions. But a steaming bowl of ramen is not the best choice on hot summer days.

Enter Mogu Mogu, which specializes in mazemen, a broth-less ramen noodle bowl. The Tokyo mazemen ($13.50) is full of flavor: thick, springy ramen noodles topped with spicy minced pork, a poached egg, green onions, seaweed, chives, minced garlic, and fish powder. 

Vigorously mix all the toppings together for maximum flavor. Curry mazemen ($14) is fortified with kale and adds a punch of Japanese curry powder. There’s even a vegan mazemen ($15.50) that uses plant-based ground meat and adds a garden of fresh vegetables.

—Miles Clements

You may also like: Carless in Costa Mesa, California

14. Artisan, Fountain Valley


Croffle with salted caramel, jam, and vanilla cream at Artisan in Fountain Valley. Photo courtesy Artisan/7 Leaves

Fountain Valley’s do-it-all café Artisan is a culinary power pairing. The flagship restaurant is a collaboration between 7 Leaves Café (the ever-expanding chain of tea shops that was born in Little Saigon) and Crema Café (Seal Beach’s famed bakery and wholesaler). Together, they’ve created a menu that has the makings of the perfect neighborhood hangout: brunch done with classic, artful flair and all manner of caffeinated beverages.

The cooking is loosely Parisian— perhaps a perfectly smooth omelet topped with sautéed mushrooms ($15) or a Benedict built on mini croissants ($13.50). But there’s also a Hawaiian-style mochiko chicken sandwich ($13.25) dressed with cabbage slaw and tonkatsu mayo, and the decidedly Californian avocado toast ($14) with arugula, radish, tomato, feta cheese, and lemon pesto.

To drink, you can sip a Spanish latte ($5), a jasmine green tea topped with a cloud of salted cream ($4.60), or a fruity strawberry-hibiscus rooibos tea ($4.60).

—Miles Clements

15. Délice Breton, San Juan Capistrano

In the shady confines of a San Juan Capistrano office park, Délice Breton serves up a taste of northwest France.

The cozy café is a fine place to while away an afternoon over Brittany-style buckwheat or wheat crepes. Delicate and earthy, the impossibly thin sheets fold over fillings such as creamed mushrooms and cheese ($13) or prosciutto and a sunny-side egg ($14).

The namesake Délice Breton crepe ($8) is a sweet treat served with salted caramel sauce. Sandwiches are picnic-ready creations loaded with Brie, apples, honey, and spring lettuces ($10) or prosciutto and a pat of French butter ($8).

Sip a coffee and finish with a pastry or two, perhaps an almond croissant ($4.50) or Brittany’s famed kouign-amann butter cake ($4.50). 

—Miles Clements

You may also like: Seeking the spirit of San Juan Capistrano, past and present

16. Flor De Oaxaca, Santa Ana

One of the best new Oaxacan restaurants in Orange County, Flor De Oaxaca fries up perfect quesadillas doradas ($8.99): empanada-size pockets of golden masa stuffed with creamy quesillo cheese and epazote leaves. A tamal Oaxaqueño ($6.59) or 2 is always a good idea. The silken masa is loaded with chicken drenched in inky-black mole negro. Naturally, there are many moles to choose from, including a brick-red mole coloradito ($14.99) ladled over chicken.

Many diners come here to tear into a tlayuda al gusto ($14.99), a crisp, oversize tortilla smeared with porky aciento, bean paste, chopped cabbage, quesillo, avocado, tomato, and your choice of meat, be it tasajo, cecina, or chorizo.

Agua de chilacayota ($3.50) is dessert in a glass: a sweet, refreshing fig leaf gourd (a type of melon) agua fresca that’s spiked with cinnamon.

—Miles Clements

You may also like: Murals in Santa Ana that celebrate Chicano culture

Affordable restaurants in San Diego County

17. Tuétano Taqueria, Old Town

Birria Taco

Birria taco with bone marrow at Tuétano Taqueria in Old Town San Diego. Photo by Rob Andrew

Founded by chef Priscilla Curiel, whose family runs well-established eateries in Tijuana and San Diego, this taqueria got its start in 2018 in the border town of San Ysidro, where it quickly earned acclaim, including recognition by the Michelin Guide.

In late 2021, Curiel moved Tuétano’s operations to Old Town, bringing her best-known specialty—Mexican birria—to the tourist district.

Anchoring the Old Town Urban Market, the walk-up counter features the slow-simmered beef, seasoned with chiles and warm spices. You can order it in tacos with fresh-pressed corn tortillas ($6) or melted with cheese between flour tortillas ($11). Either way, it is accompanied by the chef’s salsa macha, a chile crisp made with roasted garlic.

The menu’s most talked-about attraction is a taco topped with a roasted marrow bone ($11). Diners are invited to excavate its buttery depths to give the birria an ultra-rich filling. A steaming bowl of consommé ($10)—the flavorful stewing liquid—is often sipped alongside. 

—Candice Woo

18. Goi Cuon, Hillcrest

Though a variety of Vietnamese classics are offered, from bánh mì to noodle soups, the appetizers are the main events at this compact Southeast Asian restaurant, which does a brisk takeout business.

The spring rolls ($3.55) are filled with rice noodles, lettuce, mint, and cilantro and can be topped with items such as sugarcane shrimp, Vietnamese sausage, or tofu and avocado. Dip them into a spicy peanut sauce studded with whole peanuts and sesame seeds. The pho rolls ($3.75) are thick sheets of steamed rice paper coiled around grilled pork, chicken, or beef and served with a savory coconut sauce. And the egg roll wrappers ($3.35) are folded around shrimp and fried until crisp.

The best way to sample the menu is through the combos ($10.99), which come with an assortment of rolls, as well as vegetable soup and iced jasmine tea. 

—Candice Woo

19. Tahini, Kearny Mesa

Tahini organic spring mix salad

Organic spring mix salad at Tahini in Kearny Mesa. Photo courtesy Tahini LLC

A farmers market favorite long before launching its first brick-and-mortar in 2017, this casual restaurant’s fast-casual menu celebrates Middle Eastern street food, with build-your-own pita sandwiches (from $7), basmati rice bowls (from $10), and salads of organic spring mix (from $10.50) that can be customized with chicken shawarma, steak shawarma, or made-to-order falafel, along with a panoply of add-ons, from pickled turnips and toasted almonds to tahini sauces flavored with cilantro, garlic, or Sriracha.

Fresh pita, a traditional flatbread, can also be ordered in large quantities on the side. For a protein-packed option, try the hummus bowl (from $6) topped with spit-roasted chicken (add $4), steak (add $5), or fava bean fritters (add $3). And fried sticks of halloumi cheese ($9) paired with fig jam and cucumber yogurt sauce make a unique and tasty snack.

—Candice Woo

20. Market on 8th, National City

Market on 8th

Photo by Rob Andrew

Part of an ongoing effort to revitalize National City’s downtown district, Market on 8th is widening the spotlight on the area’s food culture. Housed in a renovated 1940s building, the new 9,000-square-foot market holds 12 food stalls, along with a culinary bookstore and a streetwear boutique.

Although the offerings are diverse, ranging from tacos to barbecue to poke, Asian cuisines make up most of the lineup. Pizza Kaiju, a pandemic pop-up turned brick-and-mortar, does accomplished New York– and Detroit-style slices and pies made with familiar toppings, but the sisig pizza ($5.50 per slice) that interprets the sizzling Filipino pork dish is a standout. The white pizza features roasted pork belly, mozzarella, calamansi cream, garlic, red onion, and shavings of pickled serrano peppers. Even the ranch dressing, a go-to pizza condiment, gets an Asian twist with black garlic and miso.

A descendant of a once-famous Indonesian restaurant in the Philippines, Café Indonesia serves up a menu that spans Filipino-inspired specialties, such as a fried-chicken sandwich ($13) glazed with a chile-and-vinegar–spiked red adobo sauce, and time-tested family recipes for Indo-Dutch favorites.

A luscious rendition of beef rendang ($14), a caramelized coconut beef curry, and juicy grilled skewers of chicken and pork satay ($13) are excellent anchors for combination plates that include nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) or jasmine rice, as well as pickled cucumber, shrimp chips, curried eggs, and sambal badjak (an Indonesian hot sauce).

Weapon Ramen

OG Tonkotsu ramen with pork bone broth, chashu, and wood ear mushroom at Weapon Ramen at Market on 8th. Photo by Rob Andrew

In the beer garden, sip on a mango or grapefruit IPA made by local brewery Novo Brazil and snack on surf and turf lumpia ($9) from the beer-friendly menu at Serbesa. Other don’t-miss dishes include fragrant northern Thai–style lemongrass sausage ($9.95) from Ping Yang; the invigoratingly spicy garlic and daikon noodles ($12.50) from Weapon Ramen, a Japanese noodle house; and MNGO’s OMG! dessert ($10.95) with fresh mango and sticky rice, mango pudding, and ice cream.

—Candice Woo

21. Cocina De Barrio, Point Loma and Hillcrest

Prickly pear–and-lime-cured striped bass ceviche

Prickly pear–and-lime-cured striped bass ceviche at Cocina De Barrio in San Diego. Photo courtesy Cocina De Barrio

The menu at Cocina De Barrio toggles between traditional Oaxacan dishes, modern-day Mexican fare, and recipes from Mexico’s coastal regions; all of the dishes are focused on bold flavors and unusual ingredients.

Diners will find a verdant prickly pear–and-lime-cured striped bass ceviche ($14.95) topped with fierce Fresnos; hand-pressed blue corn tacos stuffed with 10-hour-braised birria (3 for $13); and an increasingly robust plant-based selection, including a young coconut-meat aguachile ($14) and tostaditas de tinga ($11) made with umami-packed oyster mushrooms and a vegan cilantro-serrano aioli.

Cocina De Barrio’s brunch (served daily at the Point Loma location and daily except Monday at the Hillcrest location) has become legendary among locals, who come for decadent dishes like French toast ($15.95) stacked with cream-filled churros, fresh fruit, and house-made dulce de leche ice cream.

Lizbeth Scordo

You may also like:

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

AAA discounts

Seared scallops arranged on a plate

Dining & food discounts

Save at restaurants and on meal-kit delivery services.

Woman pumping gas

All AAA discounts

AAA membership unlocks savings on everyday purchases.

back to top icon