If you've never been to the University of Southern California, you'll likely be surprised at what I'm about to say: USC is not in a nice neighborhood. Well, it's not bad, necessarily, but Tommy Trojan's campus environment is certainly lacking in an abundance of collegiate charm.
Affectionately dubbed the South Figueroa Corridor, the thin strip of wide streets that hug the Harbor Freeway heading south from downtown don't exactly inspire the sort of leafy walks and moonlight handholding you might have expected from one of the country's most notoriously pricey colleges.
Instead, USC is stuck looking north at the shadows of downtown skyscrapers, and south at the often-troubled neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles. There is still off-campus money here, particularly in the historic West Adams district, and the recently opened Expo Line offers light rail opportunities to Culver City, Union Station and connections well beyond Pasadena. As a result, the city at large becomes a playground for USC students.
Rather than being hemmed in by geographical boundaries or a dearth of options, students can grab their bikes or hop in a car to delicious destinations in any direction they choose. Still, it's nice to have reliable options close to home.
What you get from all of these disparities is a college community in flux. Popular take-out chains command long lines around the student housing pockets while long-time neighborhood standard bearers get passed down to each new generation of freshmen. Plenty of places come and go without much notice, but the mix of Korean, Mexican, Central American, Armenian and African-American cultures means there's always something delicious waiting to be discovered.
Here are a few of our favorites. (Or, if you're rooting for the Bruins instead and missed our UCLA guide, here you go.)
If you're looking for walkable pizza options, it's pretty slim pickings around campus. The best and brightest option is Margarita Pizza Bar, a relative newcomer just north of campus. The pizzas are by no means gourmet but offer plenty of options for finicky eaters and anyone looking to split pies over a study session. The best part is their liquor license, a surprisingly rare thing around campus.
If you're looking for real deal deliciousness, take the Expo Line into downtown and find your way to Urbano Pizza Bar on 6th. There, the Cali-Neapolitan pies are served up by a deft hand with inventive toppings and fantastic old standbys. For the best example of a well-executed pizza, try the Selvatica, a pesto-Burrata take that will instantly make you glad you came.
Running a few blocks north of the main campus, University Village is the sprawling home to many chain restaurants and bad ethnic food. If you can manage to find your way past the food court and that one terrible Brazilian place, you'll be rewarded with Sandwich Island, a daily deli sandwich spot with a prescient name. The stacked sub sandwiches won't blow your flat-brimmed hat off your tousled hair, but your next best walking option is Subway.
If you're willing to make the drive with a few friends, Mike's Deli on Slauson is the sort of neighborhood sandwich joint that USC deserves. It's a couple miles westward towards Culver City, but making the trip means you'll be rewarded with delicious sandwiches on an assortment of freshly baked breads. Hot options like the Reuben melt magically in your mouth, and homemade soda breads and cookies round out a meal worth the drive.
If you've got the time to sit and enjoy yourself, there is no better place than Jacks N Joe, a pancake diner serving all-day breakfast. They open early and start slinging their signature pancakes as soon as the sign is flipped, from the Roo's Favorite chocolate chip stacks to the WTF?!, a pile of six oddly-shaped 'cakes topped with sweet cream cheese and berries. Regular egg dishes and quick sandwiches are also popular, as is the strong morning coffee.
If you just need something quick and delicious, Armando's taco truck has you covered. As the last truck standing inside the USC campus border, the lonchero parks daily in the Facilities Management lot along McClintock Avenue. There are plenty of takeaway breakfast sandwich options, including some off-menu items reserved for members of the Trojans football team, but the sausage breakfast burrito is the way to go. Griddled sausage, boiled potatoes and a smoky salsa roja will either energize your morning or fill you up and send you right back to bed. While we're on the topic, check out these 10 favorite breakfast burritos in Los Angeles.
If you're looking for decanted coffees or bubbling bean scientists, you'll have to point your way north. But any new student wanting to grab a cup of college go-juice before class in the morning need only to follow the crowds to Ground Zero Coffee, the on-campus café run by the school. Warm cups of strong basic joe are served until midnight every day of the week, while improv shows and quintessential open mic nights occupy the corner stage. Otherwise, the Starbucks on Hoover Street just north of campus opens at 5 a.m., but quickly gets overrun with groggy students and rushed faculty members.
If you're craving something a little more substantial between two buns, USC has finally got you covered. A few blocks southwest of the Coliseum is Master Burger, a mini-chain of no nonsense burger shacks that do nothing but serve up tasty meals. Loose packed patties are hand-formed and come just as cheesy and greasy as you please, for exactly the sort of hangover help you'll likely be needing.
If you're able to see straight from the night before, you might also consider making the short freeway drive to Hawkin's House of Burgers, a Watts burger institution that is among the best in all of Los Angeles. It also says something wonderful about USC when the nearest In-N-Out is three miles away but there's a late-night Fatburger across the street.
Take Your Parents
USC certainly knows who pays the bills, so they've offered up a couple of on-campus dining options sure to impress the parents. If you want an unpretentious meal in a clean, trendy environment, corral the 'rents across Figueroa to The Lab Gastropub. The ambiance is inviting and the extensive beer and wine list, impressive.
If the sub-$20-a-plate joints just won't suit your fancy folks, Moreton Fig is the place for you. Located across the path from Tommy Trojan himself (in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center), this tiny eatery is back in full-dinner mode now that school is in session. The wood accents and perfect plating will certainly wow the family, and you can stick them with the bill for your pricey night out.
There's any neighborhood in Los Angeles, collegiate or otherwise, that can survive long without a decent Mexican restaurant. Thankfully, USC has several. Tops among them is La Taquiza, a longtime Figueroa destination for people in the neighborhood craving cheap, delicious eats. The sit-down spot is known most famously for their mulitas, a sort of mini take on the quesadilla where two corn tortillas are stuffed with the meat of your choice, plus a pile of cheese and dab of guacamole, then griddled.
On the weekends, it should be mandatory for every student to crawl their way over to Tacos Los Guichos, the parking lot trailer currently serving the best carnitas in town. Students can even buy their cooked meats by the pound to store in their mini fridges during the week.
If you're looking to drink close to campus, there's really not much to choose from, unfortunately. As a result, USC has a big house party culture, for better or worse. But, with late-night weekend hours on the Expo Line, you won't need to get behind the wheel to find one of dozens of drinking dens in downtown's exploding scene.
If you need to stay close to the dorms, there's always Traditions, the on campus bar with the cheesy name that all those coming-of-age movies warned you about. There are pool tables, high bar seats, plenty of lounge seating, and at least one person you know inside at all times. A word of warning: as one of the only games in town, the place gets predictably packed on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays.
Assuming you've made it safely back to campus, there are a couple of decent late-night options to cure your cravings. The best, of course, is Chano's, a small box walk-up with a drive-thru on Figueroa just north of campus. The cheesy nacho plates and late-night burritos have proven so popular with, well...everyone... that they opened up a second location just south of campus. If you do enough business that you can support two identical eateries maybe 200 yards from each other, you must be doing something right.
If all that tuition has left you a little hard-pressed for cash, there are plenty of taco trucks circling the campus 24 hours a day to fill you up for the price of a Subway footlong. But if you need something a touch more permanent, head northeast to the Mercado La Paloma on Grand. The daily market and food stall spot has spawned plenty of great food favorites in the past, including the much-heralded Peruvian spot Mo-Chica, which recently sought nicer digs downtown. Not to worry, there are still a handful of mom and pop burger and taco operations running inside the market, as well as Chichen Itza, a Yucatan favorite that will pile together a cochinita pibil torta for around $6.
If you can scrounge for the gas (or don't mind a ten minute walk from the La Cienega Expo Line stop), be sure to try JNJ's Burger & BBQ Shack. If the term 'shack' is in the name, you know the owners must not be embarrassed at this ramshackle hut along Adams Blvd. There are two different ordering windows: one for burgers and one for BBQ, although they share a kitchen and corrugated steel patio area. For $6.50, you can walk away with a full lunch of smoky, spicy burnt ends, two slices of white bread and a whole pile of potato salad. And if you're looking for real value, hit up the other window for the Four Fingers Burger, a stack of beef, cheese, bacon, sliced hotdogs hotdogs and a fried egg that you and all your poor college buddies can happily split.