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Bargain Bites: 2023's best cheap eats in Southern California

The Vermicelli Boat from Bone & Broth includes noodles, grilled meat and shrimp, veggies, and egg rolls. Photo by Rob Andrew

With today’s high inflation, dining out can be expensive. Thankfully, Southern California is blessed with an amazing selection of scrumptious food that won’t break the bank. Westways’ food critics recently set out to find the best meals for less than $15. Here's our annual list of delicious, budget-friendly places to eat in Southern California.

Cheap eats in Los Angeles

1. Evil Cooks, El Sereno and downtown L.A.

Once you try Evil Cooks’ flan taco—a rectangular slab of creamy, citrus-tinged flan topped with coconut and crushed polvorones (Mexican wedding cookies) on a crepe-like hybrid corn and flour tortilla—you’ll wonder why no one thought of it sooner. That’s one of the many innovative delights that await you at this death metal–tinged pop-up.

As true rockeros should, founders Alex Garcia and Elvia Huerta have chucked restraint into the inferno of the damned.

Why is their al pastor black? Because it’s been steeped in recado negro, a smoky Yucatecan paste made of dried chiles, burnt cacao, and other spices. The dark hue extends to the vegan trompo, a pile of eggplant, portobello mushrooms, and cabbage slathered in the same sauce.

The McSatan is basically a bacon cheeseburger in a tortilla, while the Poseidon tops grilled pulpo (octopus) with roasted tomato salsa, guacamole, pineapple, and pickled onions. You only live once.

—Elina Shatkin

2. The Win-Dow, Venice and Silver Lake

Two burgers and a serving of fries in a cardboard tray

Smashburgers from The Win-Dow. Photo by Vanessa Stump

Yes, even in Los Angeles, you can still find an excellent double cheeseburger that costs less than $7 and doesn’t come from a fast-food chain.

A fried chicken sandwich

The Win-Dow's fried chicken sandwich. Photo by Vanessa Stump

As its name suggests, The Win-Dow is a takeout operation. It specializes in smashburgers—thin patties, pressed flat on a griddle, topped with grilled onions and melted American cheese. It also makes a fine fried chicken sandwich, a chunky hunk of deep-fried bird dressed with vinegary slaw and served on a potato roll. If you’re hankering for something more healthy, try the Impossible Burger or the kale salad with pine nuts, pecorino, and a tart, lemony dressing.

Although the Silver Lake and Ocean Front Walk (Venice) locations don't offer much in the way of ambience, the Rose Avenue (Venice) spot has has a large and lovely patio where you can linger.

—Elina Shatkin

You may also like: Where to find outstanding burgers in Southern California

3. Marugame Udon, West L.A.

When it comes to Japanese noodles, Sawtelle Boulevard is an embarrassment of riches. Amid all the ramen shops and soba spots, Marugame Udon stands out. Since landing in West L.A. in 2017, the popular Japanese chain has dished out thick, house-made noodles (they make the dough every day) in lightly sweet dashi  alongside crisp, freshly fried tempura. The bowls are big; even a “regular” could feed 2 people. Broth and flavoring options include curry, vegan, and tonkotsu.

You can’t go wrong with the signature nikutama bowl, which is topped with shredded beef, a jammy soft-boiled egg, and shaved green onions. Throw in a shrimp tempura and you’re still under $15. Since Marugame is cafeteria-style, you’ll typically spend little time waiting.

—Elina Shatkin

Cheap eats in the Valleys

4. Galley at Fish King, Glendale

Skewers with teriyaki swordfish served on a bed of rice

Teriyaki swordfish skewers from the Galley at Fish King. Photo by Vanessa Stump

For 75 years, serious cooks and acclaimed restaurants have relied on Fish King for its fresh-caught bounty. Off to the side of the retail space is the Galley, a quick-service eatery offering high-quality yet bargain-priced seafood.

Totorritos, burrito-sized sushi rolls

The Totorritos from the Galley at Fish King are named after founder Hank “Toto” Kagawa. Photo by Vanessa Stump

The expansive menu ranges from fried oysters to charbroiled teriyaki swordfish skewers served with fried shrimp, vegetable tempura, cucumber salad, and rice. Velvety lobster bisque and New England clam chowder are seriously scrumptious, while a bowl of cioppino is large enough to share. The fried fish taco is as awesome as it is affordable, and hefty “Totorritos”—a cross-cultural L.A. snack named after still-active founder Hank “Toto” Kagawa—are burrito-inspired sushi rolls wrapped in soy paper.

—Roger Grody

5. Mercado Buenos Aires, Van Nuys, Granada Hills, and Northridge

This trio of Argentine market-cafés isn’t entirely bargain-priced, with some customers splurging on steaks, but those with limited budgets appreciate the flaky empanadas, the best of which ooze molten cheese or are filled with unctuous Argentine chorizo. Sandwiches include the choripán with grilled sausage and chimichurri, and the milanesa (pounded-thin beef, breaded and fried) stuffed into crusty rolls, both favorites on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Unexpected values include an individual pizza and even a 6-ounce filet mignon with chimichurri butter and fries. As the name suggests, the restaurant doubles as a market, offering imported packaged goods and bottles of malbec. The Van Nuys location features muraled walls, fútbol memorabilia, and deli cases stocked with fresh-baked sweets and Argentina’s renowned beef.

Roger Grody

You may also like: Bargain Bites: 2022's best cheap eats in Southern California

6. CRFT Burger, Glendora

Another burger joint may not sound exciting, but one that executes this quintessential American favorite with particular skill is worth discovering. CRFT Burger builds its sandwiches from hormone-free, grass- and carrot-fed California beef; cures its bacon in-house; and deploys rolls from respected L.A. bakeries.

The juicy, well-seasoned Classic features American cheese, house-made pickles, red onions, and a tangy proprietary sauce layered onto a sesame bun, each component perfectly proportioned.

Other options include a vegetarian-friendly portobello burger, a grilled cheese in Parmesan-crusted shokupan (Japanese milk bread), and a crispy free-range chicken sandwich on a brioche bun with yuzu kosho aioli and a dusting of lively togarashi spice blend. Alternatively, creamy kale-cabbage slaw cools the heat of a Nashville hot chicken sandwich.

—Roger Grody

Cheap eats on the Central Coast

7. Shalhoob’s Funk Zone Patio, Santa Barbara

Shalhoob's Funk Zone Patio

Photo by Chuck Place

Striking just the right note in Santa Barbara’s buzzy Funk Zone is Shalhoob’s Funk Zone Patio, which offers a fun, casual vibe and straightforward, delicious food in an open-air setting.

Cross section of a tri-tip sandwich

Tri-tip sandwich from Shallhoob Funk Zone Patio. Photo by Chuck Place

The Shalhoob family has owned and operated its eponymous Santa Barbara–based meat company since 1973, so it’s no surprise that the oak-smoked tri-tip sandwich and the barbecue trays are expertly done, but the Baja fish tacos made with fresh local catch are also winners.

Pair of fish tacos served with lime wedges

Fish tacos from Shallhoob Funk Zone Patio. Photo by Chuck Place

Sit at picnic-style tables for lunch, dinner, or happy hour, and share an order of the zesty street corn, featuring kernels cut off the cob combined with chipotle aioli, Parmesan, chile, and lime. It all pairs well with Shalhoob’s Funk Zone brews.

—Nancy Ransohoff

8. Tasty China, Ventura

Owner Sunny Yang opened this unassuming spot in 2018, offering an extensive menu of authentic Sichuan specialties and dim sum for lunch and dinner. She quickly developed a loyal following and a robust takeout business.

Tasty China’s don’t-miss dish is the made-to-order xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, with pork, shrimp, vegetable, red bean, or sweet taro fillings. But everything we’ve tried is, well, tasty and fresh, from the cilantro-flecked beef onion pancake to the dan dan noodle with a nice balance of savory spice. Chile fried fish ($16.99) is just beyond our “bargain bites” price limit, but it’s a great dish to share.

Portions are generous, and Sunny and her small staff are friendly and helpful. Table service is available at the few tables inside, and there is outdoor seating for takeout.

—Nancy Ransohoff

You may also like: Bargain Bites: 2019's best cheap eats in Southern California

9. La Fuente, Ojai

Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall, this no-frills family-owned restaurant sees a steady stream of locals who start coming in early for hearty breakfast burritos and chilaquiles. The entire large menu of à la carte items, burritos, and combos is available all day, with menudo and pozole specials added on weekends.

A blend of generational recipes is used to craft dishes such as corn tamales, made fresh daily; handmade tortilla tacos; and chiles rellenos. A satisfying carne asada with grilled onions and nopales ($15.99), at the pricier end of the menu, is enough to share if you’re feeling generous.

Sit in the dining room near the house-made salsa bar or at the few sidewalk tables and sip aguas frescas. Bonus: In a town that closes up early, La Fuente is open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

—Nancy Ransohoff

You may also like: 10 fun things to do on a day trip to Ojai

Cheap eats in the Inland Empire & the Desert

10. Gabino’s Creperie, Palm Springs

Down an alleyway and hidden from the street is the takeout window for Gabino’s Creperie, a newish addition to the Palm Springs culinary scene. Already, the made-to-order crepes are beloved by locals and sought out by tourists.

After you place your order, you can gaze through the window to get an up-close peek at the batter as it’s delicately poured over sizzling griddles. The crispy-edged crepes are served in convenient, handheld cups for eating on the go.

These crepes have a uniquely American approach to flavor. The scrumptious barbecue chicken crepe is filled with tender chicken, corn kernels, and crunchy onion strips. There’s also a memorable turkey cheddar crepe that’s served with a zesty chimichurri sauce. A Nutella banana crepe is available for those looking to satisfy their sweet tooth.

—Nick Rufca

You may also like: 5 quirky outdoor art attractions near Palm Springs

11. Bone & Broth, Ontario

For restaurant-goers exhausted from sticker shock (a.k.a. all of us), it’s a welcome respite to come across an eatery where almost every item falls under $15. This Vietnamese café is perfect for takeout (mobile orders are handled efficiently and with care) but it also has a charming interior well suited for a relaxing, sit-down meal.

Pho topped with carrots, broccoli, and fried tofu

Bone & Broth's tofu pho is loaded with veggies. Photo by Rob Andrew

Are you here for the pho? It’s wonderful, with a flavor-packed broth that you can tell has been perfected over many years and many slurps. The Ontario combination pho gets beef in your bowl in numerous incarnations—as brisket, meatball, tendon, and tripe. Whew! On the flip side, the tofu pho packs a veggie wallop, with layers of broccoli, carrots, and napa cabbage alongside sturdy triangles of fried tofu.

Vermicelli Boat with grilled meat and shrimp, egg rolls, sliced veggies, and peanuts over a bed of noodles

Vermicelli Boat from Bone & Broth. Photo by Rob Andrew

The non-pho portion of the menu is extensive, including a báhn mì on a super-crunchy baguette and a winning Vermicelli Boat that’s packed with noodles swirled around grilled meat, grilled shrimp, cold veggies, and steaming-hot egg rolls.

Nick Rufca

12. Cheesewalla, Redlands

This Redlands grilled cheese sandwich shop is the embodiment of comfort food, and who couldn’t use a bit more comfort these days?

The menu contains so many creative combinations, you might do a double take when scanning the selections. Loaded baked potato. Samosa. Margherita pizza. What are merely entrée choices at other restaurants become delectable sandwiches here.

The BBQ Mac aims to satisfy big appetites with cheddar, grilled onions, and shredded beef all tightly layered with mac-n-cheese between toasted sourdough. What I expected to be a too-messy behemoth ended up working quite nicely as a handheld sandwich, with minimal napkins required. The jalapeño popper successfully replicates the popular appetizer with fiery roasted jalapeño, bacon, and jalapeño cream cheese oozing between buttery slices of jalapeño bread.

For those feeling less experimental, the traditional grilled cheese with cheddar, provolone, and Swiss, ordered alongside the creamy tomato bisque soup, deeply satisfies.

—Nick Rufca

Cheap eats in Orange County

13. Forn Al Hara, Anaheim

Anaheim’s Little Arabia recently received an official municipal designation, formally cementing the enclave as one of Orange County’s richest and most diverse destinations. Within a few square miles are cafés and restaurants representing Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and more. Still, after 20 years, Lebanese bakery Forn Al Hara remains at the community’s center.

The bakery’s signature is its manakish, a Levantine flatbread billowing and blistered at its edges and traditionally topped with a dusting of za’atar. Versions with soujouk sausage and cheese or ground beef and pomegranate molasses can easily comprise most of a meal. There are wraps and other savory items, too, but it’s best to save room for a couple of date-stuffed ma’mool cookies.

—Miles Clements

14. Rice & Noodle, Tustin

Beyond Rice & Noodle’s seemingly generic name is a unique appeal: The Tustin restaurant is one of Orange County’s few purveyors of Indonesian cooking.

There are parallel menus of Thai and Indonesian classics, placing pad see ew alongside mie tek tek (stir-fried egg noodles with chicken, eggs, cabbage, and greens). Sayur asem is a palate-puckering soup of beef, chayote, zucchini, string beans, cabbage, and carrot in a tart tamarind broth. Nasi rames is one of the best primers on Indonesian flavors, a combination plate of fried turmeric chicken, braised coconut beef rendang, fried noodles, and garlic string beans.

—Miles Clements

15. Sofra Urbana, Fountain Valley

Sofra Urbana pizza topped with arugula and Suho Meso (Bosnian beef prosciutto)

Sofra Urbana's namesake pizza. Photo by Julee Ho Media

Pizza is what draws the crowds at Fountain Valley’s Sofra Urbana. The restaurant’s Balkan-style pie with suho (thinly shaved smoked beef) and sudzuka (a smoked beef sausage) is reason enough to visit. But if that particular taste of Bosnia is out of budget, there are a handful of other Bosnian specialties to try.

Burek, the flaky phyllo pastry that here is coiled into a tight spiral, can be stuffed with spinach and cheese, potato, or hearty beef. Ćevapi are miniature beef sausages stuffed into a fluffy, pita-sized bread called somun and served with kajmak cheese and ajvar, a roasted red pepper sauce. 

Sofra Urbana's Bosnian Burger

Bosnian Burger from Sofra Urbana. Photo by Julee Ho Media

The Bosnian Burger takes that same formula and Americanizes it with a beef patty, lettuce, tomato, kajmak, and ajvar. 

—Miles Clements

Cheap eats in San Diego County

16. Silvia’s Pupusería, National City

This restaurant’s small dining room is often filled with families gathered around homey Salvadoran dishes, particularly an ancient foodstuff now known as El Salvador’s national dish, the pupusa. The griddled cakes made of corn flour, or masa, come with a variety of savory fillings, from chorizo to chicken, cactus, or mushrooms.

Mix and match 2 or 3 pupusas for a hearty lunch; especially satisfying are the revuelta (stuffed with chicharrónes, beans, and cheese) and the loroco, an edible flower found in Central America whose vegetal flavor pairs well with the earthy masa. They’re served with curtido, a tangy slaw of cabbage, red onion, and carrot that’s a traditional accompaniment, and a thin but punchy tomato salsa.

Though there are larger plates, including stewed chicken, fish soup, and grilled steak, the snacks are the standouts. Try Salvadoran tamales with corn or pork, steamed in plantain leaves and more softly textured than their Mexican cousins, and the empanadas de plátano, sugar-coated fried dumplings of ripe, mashed plantains that encase a delicate milk custard.

—Candice Woo

17. Tenkatori, San Diego

Fried chicken in the Japanese tradition is the focus here at one of the 4 Southern California outposts of an acclaimed karaage restaurant that’s been operating for almost 70 years on the island of Kyushu, Japan. Each piece of marinated chicken, coated judiciously in potato starch, is fried to order, making this not exactly fast food but worth the average 10-minute wait.

Fried chicken wings and thighs served with coleslaw

A mixed bento from Tenkatori. Photo by Rob Andrew

Offered à la carte in various quantities, the chicken also anchors an array of bento box meals, which include steamed rice, mashed potatoes, and shredded cabbage salad. The mixed bento contains chicken wings and boneless, skin-on chicken thighs, while the nanban bento is a tasty example of yoshoku, or Western-style food that has been adapted for Japanese tastes, with the fried chicken lightly napped in a soy-based sauce and a house-made tartar sauce.

French fries topped with fried chicken

Umami Fries from Tenkatori. Photo by Rob Andrew

Tenkatori’s proprietary sauces are worth trying, particularly the zingy aioli made with yuzu, a Japanese citrus that makes a great dipper for a pile of pleasantly toothsome fried gizzards or crisp, umami-laden fries dusted with seaweed salt.

—Candice Woo

18. A-Chau, San Diego

A fixture in San Diego’s Little Saigon district, this cash-only Vietnamese deli is known for its addictive rice paper–wrapped egg rolls, fried to pleasant crunch and filled generously with ground pork. Though prices have crept up over the years, each piece is still an affordable $1.25, making them a frequent after-school snack for local students and a popular party food that’s sold by the tray.

The takeout counter is laden with prepared snacks and desserts, from salad rolls to sour sausages and chewy, sticky rice flour sweets. The deli’s to-go menu extends to some of the city’s best bánh mì and a selection of bun, or rice vermicelli noodles, dressed with nuoc mam (sweet-spicy dipping sauce) and topped with sugarcane shrimp and char-grilled pork.

Their take on a bánh mì dac biet (the classic combo), liberally piles ham, Vietnamese pork roll, daikon, pickled carrots, fresh cilantro, and jalapeño in a crackling, airy baguette spread with mayonnaise and pork liver pâté.

—Candice Woo

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