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College Tours: Where to Eat Near UCLA

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20120910-ucla.jpgUCLA students are both blessed and cursed. On one hand, Los Angeles is a magnet for delicious, diverse food. We boast some of the best Korean barbecue outside Korea, and the taco trucks draw heated debates among even the most lukewarm of taco fans. On the other hand, step into Westwood Village just south of the UCLA campus, and good food is not easy to find. Sure, the sign above that restaurant alleges to have pan-Asian cuisine but any self-respecting eater knows that the real-deal is only a car ride away.

But this guide is made with the car-less student in mind. I'm here to prove that decent, even great, food can be found mere steps from campus. At times, this takes creative imagination and relaxed standards. But you'll be surprised to find that Westwood has some of the best espresso, pizza, and sandwiches around.

Of course, if there's one thing all Angelenos have, it's an opinion. If you think this guide misses the mark (or if you simply agree that tacos are awesome), let me know in the comments!

Pizza

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[Photograph: Sarah Woo ]

For New York-style pizza, go to Lamonica's. Many a student organization meeting has been fueled with boxes of Lamonica's delivery, but the best way to order this pizza is by walking into the place and ordering it by the slice. The slice will head into the oven for a few minutes so that the crust is crispy and hot when you bite into it. Lamonica's orders its dough from New York City, claiming it's all about the water. Does it work? I'll leave it up to you East Coasters to decide.

While Lamonica's is decent, the best pizza in the village is the made-to-order Neapolitan pizzas at 800 Degrees. If you play it simple and don't pile on the ingredients, the price is reasonable and the quality is high. Assembly line production means you don't wait forever for your pizza. The list of ingredients is long, though you can never go wrong with broccolini and a farm fresh egg.

Burger

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We could try every burger in Westwood and make a complicated chart comparing everything from patties to buns. We could, but what's the point? The battle comes down to In-N-Out versus Five Guys. In-N-Out fans swear by the secret menu, and I like the crisp lettuce and fresh tomato. Five Guys lets you customize your burger, and their fries put the limp specimens at In-N-Out to shame. But comparing the two is like choosing between apples and oranges, so I'm playing the California card and siding with In-N-Out.

Sandwiches

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[Photograph: Sarah Woo ]

If you're looking for variety and speed in your daily lunchtime fare, there's Sandbag's Gourmet Sandwiches.

But here's the secret: Step outside the village and head straight toward Fundamental LA. Inside this minimalist space, amazing things are being done with the sandwich. Take the chicken torta: Two slices of soft bolillo bread and shredded chicken, along with tomatillo salsa, cotija cheese, crema, iceberg lettuce, guacamole and jalapeno. I opened the sandwich several times to decipher the flavor, but there's no trick about the food at Fundamental. This is comfort food made by people who appreciate their ingredients and know how to take things to the next level. If you're looking for a side to go with your sandwich, order the pee wee potatoes and consider them a french fries alternative. The small potatoes are flattened to maximize the crispy edges, and the accompanying smoked creme fraiche chive dressing is addicting.

Falafel

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[Photograph: Sarah Woo ]

The falafel at Bella Pita is molded and fried only after you order. While the pita isn't memorable, the falafel is crispy and hot, as well as bright green inside. Customize your pita at the condiments bar. I like a combination of cucumbers and tomato along with a drizzle of tahini, hot sauce, and lemon dressing.

Coffee

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[Photograph: Sarah Woo ]

You won't find any drip coffee at Espresso Profeta, but this place has excellent espresso, maybe even some of the best in Los Angeles. The bar is tiny, though it seems there are always four or more baristas behind the counter. Many come here for the fancy latte art, but the flat white here is even better. The milk is velvety, and the additional shot of espresso means this cup packs a punch. Take yours outside and sit in the patio garden for a break from driving.

Bakery

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[Photograph: Sarah Woo ]

You can find a little bit of everything at Elysee Bakery, from biscotti and turnovers to eclairs and tiramisu. They even offer brunch, if you're hungry for a meal. But don't miss Stan's Donuts. In a neighborhood with a high business turnover, Stan's has been going strong since the 1960s. The donuts aren't the cheapest around, but they're worth a try. The chocolate with peanut butter donut, named The Huell (after Huell Howser), is love at first bite for peanut butter fans. But if you're used to donuts with a lighter texture, be prepared to find yourself fighting to unstick your jaws to get down those last few bites.

Ice Cream

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[Photograph: Sarah Woo ]

You can't last at UCLA for more than a week without trying an ice cream sandwich from Diddy Riese. For $1.75, you get two cookies of your choice and a giant scoop of ice cream sandwiched in the middle. But if you're looking for something a little more special, take a few steps south of Wilshire and visit Saffron and Rose. They make Persian ice cream, which tastes like a lighter yet equally creamy version of gelato. The flavors here are outstanding, from ginger and cantaloupe to the popular saffron and pistachio. The key is using fresh fruit as an ingredient instead of artificial flavoring. Order the ice cream in a cup or as a sandwich between two thin wafers. Take it to go, or do as locals do and pull up a chair on the sidewalk, watching cars drive by.

Brunch

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[Photograph: Sarah Woo ]

If the parents are in town, an easy option is Le Pain Quotidien. The chain has something for everyone. Mom can order the smoked salmon omelet and you can have your tartine with avocado, roasted turkey, and whole grain mustard.

But sometimes all you want is a heaping plate of cheap food, and fast. If this describes you, go to Headlines Diner & Press Club. It's a notch above Denny's but just as affordable and generous. Order the Bruin's Special: two pancakes, three eggs, two slices of bacon, two sausage links, and a pile of hash browns. The eggs are likely not organic, and the pancakes remind me of Bisquick. But breakfast here is served all day, which means no one is going to judge you for rolling out of bed at 3 p.m.

Dive Bar

The first rule of bars in Westwood: You will be inundated with drunken undergraduates. The second rule of bars in Westwood: Do not be picky. There's O'Hara's, where the floors are sticky and the air smells of stale beer and frat boys. Barney's Beanery is significantly cleaner and brighter, moving this place up the scale to a veritable sports bar with decent food. Finally, if you want to drink in a spacious setting, and possibly sing karaoke while you're at it, head to Westwood Brewing Company.

Happy Hour

You won't find craft cocktails in Westwood, but you have your choice of solid happy hour deals. The cranberry mojito and pomegranate margarita at Palomino are cheap and strong, and they go well with the Tuscan white bean dip and happy hour pizza. The ambiance is just right, whether you're in college or working nearby.

Across the street at Napa Valley Grille, the atmosphere is a little formal and stuffy, and you're usually better off coming here when the parents are in town. But if you're tired of Palomino's and are looking for a quieter place, the happy hour menu at Napa's offers more options, like the Elderflower Cucumber Sangria and black truffle flatbread.

If You Have a Car

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[Photograph: Sarah Woo ]

While this guide promised to be for the carless, let's face it. Sooner or later, it's going to be midnight, and you're going to experience a serious taco craving. It doesn't matter if you've never in your life tasted a taco that wasn't from Taco Bell. Stay in LA long enough, and you, too, will dream of seasoned meat on hot corn tortillas. If you have a car at your disposal, you're in luck. El Palador Oaxaqueno offers some of the best tacos around, and at $1.25 a pop, they're kind to any college budget. The best part? They're open late.

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