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Bargain Bites: 2024’s best cheap eats in Southern California

Looking to satisfy a big hunger without opening the wallet too wide? The Colossal Burger from Hawkins House of Burgers in Watts might solve that quandary. Photo by Vanessa Stump

Although inflation persists in many sectors, it’s still possible to dine out in Southern California for well under the cost of a tank of gas. In our annual Bargain Bites issue, Westways’ reviewers share their thoughts on where to find great tastes for less.

Jump to: Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Los Angeles | Orange County | San Diego | Valleys

Cheap eats on the Central Coast

1. Three Monkeys, Santa Barbara

Three Monkeys, located in the Santa Barbara Public Market, comes from the team behind market neighbor Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar.

In-the-know diners share a hearty bánh mì (pork, beef, chicken, or Chinese five-spice fried organic tofu) and a dish from the On the Grill menu section. Try grilled marinated Bangkok beef skewers served with house-made nam jim jaew (sweet-tart chile dipping sauce), or the hat yai fried chicken, a southern Thailand specialty with house-made nam jim gai (sweet chile sauce).

Hungry Box options, although slightly more expensive, are also a great value: Choose hat yai fried chicken or 3 barbecued skewers, both served with dipping sauce, jasmine white rice, and a side salad.

Info: Closed 2:30–4:30 p.m. (805) 869-2566.

—Nancy Ransohoff

2. Rincon Brewery, Carpinteria

Rincon Brewery chicken pesto panini with a side of chips.

A chicken pesto panini is on the menu at Rincon Brewery, which has locations in Ventura, Carpinteria, and Santa Barbara. Photo by Chuck Place

The food at Rincon Brewery stands out in a sudsy sea of brewpubs for its top-notch ingredients and hearty portions. Using fresh organic greens, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, and sustainably caught fish whenever possible, the family-owned eatery offers a menu that pairs well with the brewery’s rotating selection of specialty beers.

It’s a friendly, upbeat place to linger and watch a game while sharing chicken wings with a choice of dipping sauces and devouring burgers such as the barbecue version, featuring a beef or veggie patty, bacon, Rincon Brewery Stout barbecue sauce, crispy onion strings, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar. Or opt for the satisfying chicken pesto panini, or fish-and-chips made with the brewery’s Bates Blonde beer–battered cod.

A kids’ menu and a dog burger for Fido ensure there’s something for everyone. Indoor and outdoor seating is available.

Info: Locations in Santa Barbara (closed Tuesdays) and Ventura offer the same menu. (805) 684-6044.

—Nancy Ransohoff

3. Beach House Tacos, Ventura

It’s not often that good bargain eats come with spectacular ocean views, but that’s what you’ll find at Beach House Tacos. Located at the base of the Ventura Pier, this order-at-the-window spot has been a hit with locals and tourists since its 2010 opening.

You can’t go wrong with any of the generously heaped tacos for lunch or dinner. Standouts include the seared ‘ahi with soy-ginger lime cream, red pepper, cabbage, and avocado; and the Baja made with mahimahi or shrimp, grilled or fried.

Rounding out the menu are bowls and burritos, including the popular Marilu burrito with fried popcorn shrimp, chile-lime crema, cabbage, pico de gallo, queso fresco, and rice.

Info: Breakfast, served from 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays and Sundays, includes breakfast burritos, tacos, and churro French toast. (805) 648-3177.

—Nancy Ransohoff

Cheap eats in the Valleys

4. Hook'd Fish Grill, Chatsworth

A pair of Hook’d Fish Grill tacos with lemon wedges.

At Hook’d Fish Grill, grilled shrimp (top) and crispy fish are taco options. Other menu choices include salads, penne pasta with grilled shrimp, and fish that is grilled or fried. Photo by Vanessa Stump

An extensive menu of value-priced seafood dishes earns this San Fernando Valley mini-chain a loyal following.

Taco selections include crispy fried fish, calamari, and Cajun salmon, all wrapped in corn tortillas with cabbage, pico de gallo, and chipotle crema.

A bountiful portion of penne with grilled shrimp comes bathed in marinara or rich Alfredo sauce, and salads include one topped with seared ‘ahi tuna in a sesame-ginger dressing. Traditional cod fish-and-chips or cornmeal-battered fried catfish arrive hot from the fryer, while a refined garlic-butter sauce enhances grilled rainbow trout or mahimahi.

Reclaimed wood, subway tiles, and nautical-themed accessories add a nice touch.

Info: Chatsworth location: (818) 812-9556. Northridge location: (818) 960-2006.

—Roger Grody

5. La Cubana, Glendale

An institution in the local Cuban American community, La Cubana offers great value as well as full table service in an attractive little dining room.

Starters include ham croquetas and delicately battered papas rellenas—addictive deep-fried balls of buttery mashed potatoes with ground beef centers. Ropa vieja de cerdo, a pork version of a classic Cuban beef dish, comes with 2 sides (like sweet plantains and black beans) and is large enough to share.

The ultimate bargain bite is a pressed Cuban sandwich—the satisfying snack is layered with pork, ham, cheese, mustard, and pickles on Cuban bread. The medianoche version comes on a soft, sweet roll. Wash it all down with a tropical fruit–flavored batido (shake).

Info: Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. (818) 243-4398.

—Roger Grody

6. Luscious Dumplings, Monrovia

Few foods are as comforting as Chinese dumplings, and the San Gabriel Valley is filled with worthwhile options. Luscious Dumplings is one of several Southern California restaurants operated by a family hailing from a Chinese region famous for its dumpling culture, and Luscious maintains the ancient traditions.

Among the pan-fried dumplings are traditional pork pot stickers and a trio of empanada-size chive pockets stuffed with pork, egg, and glass noodles. Steamed dumplings include soft pillows filled with sole fillet and cabbage. Vegans will appreciate gently pan-fried dumplings encasing beautifully seasoned shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and cabbage.

Info: Closed Tuesdays. Monrovia location: (626) 821-0518. Anaheim location: (714) 392-1719.

—Roger Grody

Cheap eats in Los Angeles

7. La Troca Catracha, Koreatown

Halfway between a taco and a burrito, baleadas are the signature dish at La Troca Catracha, said to be L.A.’s only Honduran food truck. (Catracha is slang for “Honduran.”) It all starts with the tortilla, a large, fluffy, pliant circle of dough that’s tasty enough to eat on its own. It’s smeared with a creamy bean paste and sprinkled with crumbles of dried cheese and the tart, salty Honduran cream known as mantequilla rala.

A breakfast version comes with scrambled eggs and avocado. At lunch, get one with chicken, chorizo, or carne asada. Also try pastelitos—savory puff pastries filled with rice and ground beef and served with a salad of shredded cabbage, chopped tomatoes, and herbs. Married duo Armando Pérez and Glenda Rivera opened La Troca Catracha in 2019; it operates during the daytime on a busy Koreatown corner.

Info: Closed Sundays.

—Elina Shatkin

8. Hawkins House of Burgers, Watts

Whipper Burger, piled high with a patty, cheese, sausage, tomato, red onion, and lettuce.

In Watts, longtime L.A. fave Hawkins House of Burgers includes a hot link sausage on its Whipper Burger. Photo by Vanessa Stump

Not many restaurants have the staying power of Hawkins House of Burgers, one of L.A.’s longest-operating Black-owned businesses. Arkansas transplant James Henry Hawkins opened it as a malt shop in 1939. In 1982, his granddaughter, Cynthia, expanded it into a burger joint, which she now runs with her children and grandchildren.

These days, it’s Instagram-famous for its Leaning Tower of Watts, an $80 skyscraper built with bacon, hot links, pastrami, chili, eggs, and 3 burger patties.

Unless you’re a stunt-eater, stick with the more affordable Colossal Burger—a coarsely ground, char-kissed, half-pound beef patty heaped with curling strips of grilled pastrami and dressed with lettuce, red onions, pickles, ketchup, mustard, and mayo. Imagine the perfect backyard burger, amped up several notches. If that doesn’t sound hearty enough, the Whipper Burger adds a hot link to the pile.

A 2021 property dispute that imperiled the business seems to have been ironed out, so here’s to many more decades for this takeout burger joint.

Info: (323) 563-1129.

—Elina Shatkin

9. Zam Zam Market, Hawthorne

Founded by Fozia and Fahim Siddiqui, Zam Zam Market relocated from Culver City in 2014.

While the menu has expanded since the move, biryani remains the star. A mountain of fluffy basmati rice seasoned with tomato, ginger, garlic, turmeric, chile powder, fennel, cilantro, and other spices is the perfect bed for chunks of tender grilled lamb or chicken. Spicy, warm, filling, and delicious, this is comfort food at its finest. Drizzle it with tangy yogurt sauce to alleviate the heat.

Other great chicken options are tikka, kebab (boneless grilled chunks), and seekh kebab (ground up and infused with turmeric and other spices). Add garlic naan for $3.

Info: Closed Mondays. (310) 978-1927.

—Elina Shatkin

You may also like: Bargain Bites: 2023's best cheap eats in Southern California

Cheap eats in Orange County

10. Neighborhood Bento, Buena Park

Neighborhood Bento does a lot with a little. A sliver of a space squeezed into a strip mall, the restaurant delivers homey, filling, and affordable Japanese bento sets that satisfy on every level.

The salmon bento has it all: grilled marinated salmon, potato salad, fried fish cake, braised burdock root and carrots, cooked veggies like taro and lotus root, seaweed salad, a slice of tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), and a separate tray of rice. It’s not dainty—and the pork shogayaki (ginger pork) and chicken karaage bentos are even heartier.

Neighborhood Bento is equally beloved for its pork katsu curry, and its egg salad sandwich is as good as versions you’d find in a konbini (convenience store). There are onigiri (rice balls) and rice bowls, too, and even occasional chalkboard specials.

Info: Closed Sundays. (714) 333-6453.

—Miles Clements

11. Nok's Kitchen, Westminster

Bowls of papaya salad and mango sticky rice.

Lao offerings at Nok’s Kitchen in Westminster include, from left, papaya salad and mango sticky rice. Photo by Ron De Angelis

There’s long been a thriving Laotian restaurant community within Little Saigon’s sprawling shopping plazas. The area’s most popular kitchens cook from encyclopedic menus, tomes that serve as both a primer to newcomers and a lifeline to those hungry for home. Nok’s Kitchen, a Lao gem in Westminster, offers a more streamlined experience.

Here, the menu primarily focuses on 3 things: grilled meat plates, salads, and noodle soups. The restaurant’s Lao pork sausage combo pairs 2 fragrant sausages laced with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf with sticky rice, cucumber, and spicy-tangy jeow dipping sauce. The Wagyu beef skewer combo is just as good.

The papaya salad has a few customization options but always is garnished with crunchy pork rinds and slices of Vietnamese-style pork loaf.

Noodle soups are a bit more of a financial splurge. Consider instead Nok’s version of mango sticky rice—the coconut milk–drenched rice is stained green from floral pandan leaf.

Info: Closed Tuesdays. (714) 902-1338.

—Miles Clements

12. Taco Mesita, Tustin

Taco Mesita has the looks of a mid-mod Palm Springs hotel: white breeze-block walls, a minimalist neon logo, and a memorable all-orange bathroom like some kind of makeshift James Turrell installation. But Taco Mesita is no desert mirage. It’s the newest outpost of the Calderon family’s Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa empire, helmed by chef Ivan Calderon.

The menu is simple but delicious. The steak taco swaddles wood-fired skirt steak in a hand-pressed blue-corn tortilla; the al pastor taco tops marinated pork shoulder with a pineapple-and-cactus relish. Taco Mesita does so much with relatively little space: breakfast until 11 a.m., drive-through service, and even dessert by way of bite-size churros with dark chocolate ganache.

Info: (657) 293-4166.

—Miles Clements

Cheap eats in San Diego

13. Spicy Lao Kitchen, Kearny Mesa

The addictive flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine, from fiery chile to fragrant lemongrass, are on full display at this casual Laotian restaurant. Dishes default to mild, but spices and chiles are available to boost the heat.

Start with sai oua, an aromatic Lao sausage with a snappy pork casing dipped in a tomato- and chile-based sauce, or tom yum chicken wings, whose seasoning mix mirrors pungent hot and sour soup. Nam khao is a warm salad that tosses crunchy deep-fried rice balls with cured pork, red onions, shallots, coconut flakes, and peanuts.

The owners, who also run a popular beef jerky business, also showcase less frequently seen Lao specialties such as khao piek sen, a comforting soup filled with thick and chewy noodles along with shredded chicken, chicken feet, chicken skin, and mild, jelly-like cubes of cow blood.

Info: Closed Sundays. (858) 229-8146.

—Candice Woo

14. Ali's Chicken & Waffles, San Diego

Fried chicken served with a waffle.

Ali’s Chicken & Waffles provides a sweet-and-savory experience that features halal tenders available in several heat levels. Photo by Rob Andrew

What began as a humble outfit operating out of a City Heights doughnut shop has made its way to downtown San Diego, where area workers and residents flock to try a halal spin on soul food.

Chicken tenders, pounded flat and soaked in a buttermilk marinade, are fried until crisp and offered at varying degrees of heat, with the spiciest level getting a liberal dose of chile flakes. Ali’s namesake dish pairs fried chicken with a fluffy waffle served with a house-made coconut syrup that adds a tropical touch to the classic combo.

Fried chicken sandwiches are on the petite side: The “home” version features niter kibbeh (a spiced Ethiopian clarified butter) and an herb mayo spread. Ali’s hearty breakfast burrito has eggs, hash browns, beef bacon, cheese, and chipotle mayo; the “Cluckfast” version adds a chicken tender.

Info: Downtown San Diego location: (619) 510-3847. City Heights location: (619) 635-1269.

—Candice Woo

15. Tita's Kitchenette, National City

For more than 30 years, diners have lined up morning and night at this modest, cafeteria-style restaurant whose steam trays are kept filled with a rotating roster of Filipino cuisine.

Plentiful portions of rice or pancit (stir-fried rice noodles) anchor clamshell containers piled high with traditional dishes such as chicken adobo, tomato-stewed pork menudo, and bistek Tagalog (thinly sliced beef and onions cooked in soy sauce and calamansi juice) that can also be heaped into party trays for family events and gatherings.

Don’t miss the juicy skewers of barbecued pork, and (when freshly fried) the slender pork lumpia and jackfruit-filled turon. Pop into the pint-size bakery next door for some plush pandesal (bread rolls) or sweet and salty cheese balls.

Info: (619) 434-3879.

—Candice Woo

Cheap eats in the Inland Empire & the Desert

16. Rui's Shanghai Bistro, Redlands

A comfortably spacious dining room, prompt service, and a vast selection of well-portioned Chinese dishes make this spot ideal for family-style dining.

Shanghai-style fried pork buns and flaky scallion pancake beef rolls are tasty options to open any meal. Spicy, saucy Sichuan-style dan dan noodles layer pork belly between thick, chewy noodles. Mapo tofu, with sautéed cubed tofu and optional ground beef, is a must-try. Orange chicken is exactly as you’d hope, addictively crunchy and sweet.

A wide array of vegetable dishes, from basil spicy eggplant to fried pumpkin with salted egg yolk, complement the many protein offerings on hand.

Info: (909) 335-6770.

—Nick Rufca

17. Peruvian Fuego, Palm Springs

Nestled within a strip mall, this cozy Peruvian café is well worth finding. Amid the smoky aroma of spit-fired rotisserie chicken, you’ll find a crowd of mostly locals savoring reasonably priced Peruvian entrées.

The chicken is served to golden-crisped perfection—the ¼-chicken plate with 2 sides is a filling, satisfying meal. The scrumptious sandwich de pollo a la brasa piles that same delicious chicken onto a sesame roll with lettuce, tomato, and crema de rocato (a pepper sauce).

And the showstopping pan con chicharrón sandwich, stacked with delectable fried pork belly, crispy sweet potato, and pickled red onion, may very well have you planning your return visit before you’ve even paid the check.

Info: Closed Tuesdays. (760) 323-9244.

—Nick Rufca

18. El Camión, Cathedral City

El Camión Yucatán stuffed brioche French toast.

Yucatán stuffed brioche French toast could be a weekend brunch possibility at the El Camión truck inside Cathedral City’s Luchador Brewing Company. Photo by Rob Andrew

Luchador Brewing Company has everything you need in a pub: an expansive indoor-outdoor space suitable for large groups, sports on big-screen TVs, and a robust menu of Mexican fare with nothing priced over $15, courtesy of the decorative El Camión “food truck” parked permanently inside.

The Mexi-Cali Cheesesteak smothers shaved rib eye with grilled onions and peppers and a zesty queso sauce, and stuffs it all inside a toasted roll. Street tacos are priced under $3: They include a taco al pastor that combines succulent pork with sweet pineapple.

Weekend brunch offerings are equally excellent, from the crunchy chilaquiles con huevos (topped with runny fried eggs) to the Yucatán stuffed French toast made with brioche, sweet and creamy mascarpone cheese, and toasted macadamia nuts.

Info: Cathedral City location: (760) 797-2337. Chino Hills location: No brunch. (909) 970-2337.

—Nick Rufca

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