UCLA students don’t have the most refined palates, to say the least. Our go-tos range from cup noodles to Trader Joe’s microwavable meals.
We need to take a tip from the Los Angeles Times’ restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and see what else is out there. Yet, when Gold releases his annual 101 Best Restaurants in LA list, I roll my eyes, expecting Beverly Hills hotels offering unaffordable dishes that contain things like candied pansies and caramelized carrots. Maybe USC students can indulge in this year’s top three – Vespertine, Providence and Spago – but I want to find something more fitting for a typical college budget.
Instead of wading through waiters and wine, I decided to visit a few options on the LA Times’ “14 budget-friendly places to eat on Jonathan Gold's 101 best restaurants list.” Whether you’re looking to impress a Tinder date or treat yourself to a roomie dinner, how affordable are these so-called cheap eats for college kids?
Kogi Taqueria 3500 Overland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90034
Among the best-known food trucks in LA, Kogi BBQ made Gold’s list for being “unmistakably from Los Angeles,” as its Korean-Mexican cuisine draws inspiration from two prevalent cultures in the city. The Kogi BBQ food trucks posts their schedules online and visit everywhere from Woodland Hills to Downtown LA. Instead of searching for the food trucks, I drove to the taqueria, a permanent taco stand co-founded by famed chef Roy Choi. The Palms restaurant hides in an orange strip mall. One interior wall is painted to look like a food truck, including a spray-painted image of the flaming Kogi logo. The kitchen and counter are both gleaming silver, also recreating the food truck experience.
Though the fusion cuisine is most apparent in menu items such as the kimchi quesadilla, the “main eats” are the fabulous street tacos. Both Gold and the menu agree the short rib taco is the prime dish, hailed as “world famous” and tasting “like home,” whatever the heck that means.
After trying the short rib taco, I agree it’s spectacular. Priced at 50 cents more than all the other $2.50 tacos, the short rib taco features grilled, fatty beef under a bed of creamy lettuce – all with a saucy kick. The carnitas taco was loaded with dense, almost soggy pork with classic chopped onions and green salsa – it wasn’t the best I’ve had. Kogi’s pollo asado taco was my least favorite of the three; the spicy, scarlet juices overflowed onto the paper plate with every bite, and the first few bites tasted strongly of cilantro, which unbalanced the taco.
But the fabulous short rib taco brought Kogi to another level – when I go back, I’m skipping the other tacos and just ordering three of those. At $9 for three short rib tacos, Taqueria is definitely a cheap place to taste the most popular fusion food in the city, but the dining experience doesn’t make for a nice night out. Plastic tubs full of brown paper napkins sit on the tabletops, an indication that eating the dripping tacos, hot wings or Kogi dog will leave you with a sizzling mouth and stained red hands. Let’s just say it’s not an ideal date spot. Kogi is, however, an affordable way to try some of the best food this city has to offer.
Attari Sandwich Shop 1388 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024
I bet you don’t know this place exists. Shockingly, one of Gold’s most affordable restaurants lies in UCLA’s backyard. Attari Sandwich Shop is tucked right around the corner from Westwood Boulevard, south of Wilshire Boulevard. Chances are you’ve stopped for some orange blossom Persian ice cream at Saffron & Rose, but didn’t know this hidden Persian sandwich and kabob shop was across the street.
At night, its outdoor courtyard is dimly lit, bathed in the red glow of the cursive shop sign. A fountain trickled over the sound of families softly speaking and eating loobia rice or osh soup.
Though the beef tongue sandwich is a popular item, with its thick meat rested in a baguette, I opted for an $11.50 koobideh kabob made from ground meat, served with rice for $1 more. Aside from appetizers, sandwiches comprise some of the least expensive items at about $9 a sandwich. The kabob dishes can go for as much as $21.95 – not exactly doable for a college budget.
My two kabobs were juicy and well-seasoned, complemented by the simple flavors of a whole roasted tomato, raw onion slices and plain rice with a bit of saffron. The large elements aren’t spread evenly throughout the dish, meaning diners must eat them separately or purposefully cut off a bit of each before picking up a forkful.
The flavorful koobideh kabob felt hearty, although it was more expensive than the $5 rice bowls you can get at other places in Westwood. What’s impressive about Attari Sandwich Shop is the atmospheric vibe that is somehow both edgy and homey. Its red lighting creates a mystical ambience, and the nooklike courtyard makes for a cozy spot to take your parents. Attari Sandwich Shop isn’t trying to be trendy or upscale: It’s comfortable being a reasonably priced and authentic home of Persian cuisine.
Grand Central Market 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013
First of all, I feel like Gold is cheating by listing Grand Central Market as one restaurant when it contains 38 different vendors. Your experience at Grand Central will no doubt depend on which stall you choose. Dare to wait in line at Eggslut or order vegan ramen at Ramen Hood. Or follow my lead and try the $9 grilled cheese sandwich at DTLA Cheese and Kitchen – add avocado, a fried egg or bacon for $2 each.
Unfortunately there wasn’t, like, $8 of Jarlsberg in there (the standard by which all grilled cheeses are measured), but there was a hefty serving of three-cheese blend melted between two thick pieces of brioche. My two halves of just-the-right-amount-of-greasy grilled cheese came with pickles and garnishes that were unnecessary – I was already satisfied. The chefs put cheese on the grill before placing the sandwich on top to achieve a delicious, crunchy caramelized cheese on the crust.
Don’t forget, this is only one dish at one vendor – DTLA Cheese and Kitchen alone also offers a gooey mac and cheese, creamy tomato soups and cheese plates. The other three dozen or so restaurants serve numerous types of food, from Berlin Currywurst to McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams.
Should a grilled cheese ever cost $9? Probably not, but it wasn’t an outrageous price for indulgent comfort food at an iconic landmark – at least according to “La La Land.” Go for the experience of perusing the darkened downtown market, lined with neon signs and stalls.
Gold listing 38 stands as one restaurant in the top 101 is sneaky, but justified. $10 gets you a solid meal of your choice, and that’s the beauty of it. You can find whatever you’re craving at one bustling market.
Bludso’s Bar & Que 609 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036
Melrose Avenue might be known for the pink wall and all kinds of hipster juiceries, but the Hollywood street is also home to some classic Texan barbecue.
Gold put Bludso’s on his list in 2016 and, though the original Compton restaurant has permanently closed, I could still find mastermind Kevin Bludso's spicy, sweet meats near La Brea, now the only location in the United States – the other is in Melbourne, Australia.
The name Bludso’s Bar & Que hints at more than just barbecue – indeed, there is a bar lining one wall. I counted 11 televisions playing hockey and basketball in the darkened room filled with wooden tables, and rolls of paper towels atop each table. My friend said it was like eating in a cave, but I said it would have been the perfect Super Bowl venue.
I was looking forward to the lunch special, which is $12 for a sandwich, two small sides and a drink, only to find they don’t serve sandwiches on weekends. There goes my college budget.
Instead, diners can mark their barbecue orders on a piece of paper, checking whether they want a quarter-, a half- or one pound of brisket, lean brisket, pulled pork or rib tips. You guessed it – this is no place for Melrose vegans.
One chicken link costs a whopping $6; the moist pink sausage is filled with oozing cheese and chopped jalapenos that add the right amount of punch. My quarter-pound of brisket for $7 was served as two large slabs of melt-in-your-mouth beef with a balance of fat, tender meat and charred flavor. The meal came on a metal tray with small cups of tangy barbecue sauce, the epitome of what all barbecue sauce should be. We asked for more to take home.
To complete the Southern experience, you can order sides like mac and cheese, coleslaw or collard greens, for $5 per half pint or $8 a pint, the latter of which is a full serving on its own. The macaroni noodles were coated in thick melted cheddar – this mac and cheese wasn’t creamy at all, but thick and sharp. Though I prefer a bit more liquid in my mac, Bludso’s still provides the filling satisfaction of comfort food. You can top it all off with a $6 slice of chocolate chess pie, which resembles a light brownie batter pie.
The entire restaurant faintly smelled of smoke and spices, giving it an authentic, cabinlike feel. As for the quality and taste of the meat, I have no complaints – I felt like I was Remy in “Ratatouille” experiencing a symphony of vibrant, salty flavors. However, as someone who rarely eats red meat, I admit it’s a bit overwhelming to receive so much in one sitting. This barbecue is certainly not the place for kale lovers.
Bludso’s Bar & Que also isn’t exactly cheap. Customers can easily spend more than $20 per meal with sides. Maybe if you come during the week and snag the sandwich combo, it’s more cost-effective. But if the carnivore in you is really craving some Texan barbecue, I can’t imagine a more picture-perfect spot.