Welcome back, me! As both my readers know, I haven’t written anything in a while. One thing I’ve been trying to do add new features to the site. Please enjoy my new, annoying pop ups! I apologize for them, but I’ve learned they are a necessary evil in the blogging business. (And if you haven’t done so yet, please sign up!)
I’ve also travelled a bit since my last post, but mostly I’ve just been flaking out. And eating.
Which brings us to the subject of this post! I’ve enjoyed some truly marvelous food since the beginning of the year, and for some reason, I feel compelled to share my good fortune. That’s one of the reasons I created these pages.
So, without any further ado, here are my top five inexpensive dishes so far in 2017. Don’t get it twisted, though–“cheap” doesn’t mean “cheap.” All the plates below come in at under $20, but each is masterfully crafted with skill and distinction. All these creations rework familiar favorites–guacamole, pasta, fried chicken–in surprising ways. And all soar above the mundane at a price still accessible to those living a beautifully simple life.
5. Guacamole at Bizarra Capital
It’s hard to mess up guacamole. Mashing a fresh avocado until it’s smooth and creamy, then adding a splash of lemon and a hint of spice will usually result in happiness. But you can always improve on the excellent. Chef Ricardo Diaz, who owns several outstanding Mexican restaurants in the Southland, trusts the avocado more than most. His guac isn’t over-pulverized or over-seasoned. Instead, you’ll find generous clumps of the fruit, with just enough chopped tomato and citrus to enhance its rich flavor. No less than Jonathan Gold, greatest food critic on earth, has named it the best guacamole in town.
4. Mother Clucker at Grizzly’s
Fried chicken and biscuit sandwiches are apparently a thing now. You’ll find them at places all over L.A. And I haven’t yet tried them all, although I will give it my best effort. But I can tell you that the chicken and biscuit sandwich at Grizzly’s, on the eastern edge of the county in gorgeous, tree-lined Claremont, is worth the trip.
It’s all about the fried chicken here. Each piece is fried to order right in front of you, and honey mustard sauce provides a spicy/sweet counterpoint to the saltiness of the meat. The biscuits are made from scratch in small batches.
So each component of this amazing dish is excellent, and the whole is even greater than the sum of the parts.
3. Roasted Chicken at Side Chick
This tiny food stand in the middle of an Arcadia mall is easy to overlook. Don’t. Chef Jonny Lee has worked at some of the best restaurants in L.A., both great and small (Rivera, Sticky Rice, Eggslut.) He can now boast he serves the best yardbird in L.A. Side Chick specializes in Hainan chicken rice, a delicacy of Singapore, where rice is cooked in chicken stock, along with ginger and garlic, resulting in an oily, flavorful masterpiece.
I prefer the Roasted Chicken to his famed Hainan Chicken, because of its tantalizingly crispy skin. A soy honey glaze adds a barely noticeable kiss of sweetness. The rich, aromatic Hainan rice accompanies the chicken, along with superb seasoned cucumbers, a sweet soy sauce and ginger purée. All for $10.95. Here’s hoping this restaurant multiplies like rabbits.
2. Almond French Toast at Odys and Penelope
The Good Lord created many marvels, but maple syrup has to at the top of His greatest hits list. The amber sap of a Vermont maple, fragrant and rich, provides sensory pleasures beyond description.
So when I say that a dish tastes better without maple syrup, you know it’s got to be good. Such is the case with the Almond French Toast at Odys and Penelope.
Odys and Penelope is probably best known for its massive, open wood-fired grill. But if you’re fortunate enough to visit, please don’t let the fireworks distract you from trying the lovely French toast.
It’s difficult to describe what makes this dish so good. Is it the crunchy, caramelized, crust? The soft, buttery brioche? The sweet nuttiness of the almond topping? Yes to all of the above. The toast is so delectable that adding maple syrup would be like dressing Michelangelo’s David in an Armani suit. It would defeat the purpose.
1. Ragu at Baroo
Baroo is no place for the faint of heart. Most of the dishes contain ingredients that you’ve never heard of. For example, a grain entrée named Noorook is made of Job’s tears, Kamut, roasted koji beet cream, concentrated kombu dashi, fingerlime and rose onion pickle. I didn’t know Job’s tears had been preserved until now, but evidently he wept deliciously.
Usually, you’ll find these kinds of exotic ingredients only at high-end, stuffy joints. Baroo shares a wall with a 7-11, and no plate costs over $15. That’s about what you’d pay the valet at a fancy restaurant.
But, make no mistake, Baroo’s cuisine is second to none. No less than Bon Appetit magazine named Baroo one of the five best new restaurants in America. Each plate is so beautiful it seems a shame to have to eat it. Then again, with food this marvelous, it would be a shame not to. It somehow tastes like nothing you’ve ever had, and everything you’ve ever loved. It’s original, yet familiar.
To me, the dish that most embodies this concept is the ragu. On one hand, it’s a simple plate of homemade pasta. On the other, it’s kinda weird. There are “puff tendons” on top, which look like pork rinds but taste way better. You’ll find traditional pasta staples like aged Parmigiano and tomatoes accompanied by something called gremolata and krout powder. Yet, all these ingredients, both familiar and otherworldly, harmonize so beautifully they’d put the Philharmonic to shame.
The mad genius behind this marvel is a chef named Kwang Uh. He intended Baroo to be an experiment, and he says he may keep it open for only one year. If you’re fortunate enough to live in the L.A. area, please rush down there and convince him otherwise. The world needs more Baroo’s.
Do you agree with my list? Probably not! What are the best cheap meals you’ve had this year? Please leave me a comment!