Los Angeles in 3 Days: The 25 Best Bites in LA for $20 and Under

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Cue: The Mission Impossible theme.

The Plot: Eat non-stop over the course of two and a half days to develop a list of must-eat items in the Los Angeles area.

The Catch: Nothing could cost over $20. This of course eliminated many fantastic restaurants and equally fantastic dishes, but at least it gave us a fighting chance of actually doing what we set out to do.

The Cast: J. (for James) Kenji López-Alt and Ed Levine (playing themselves) and our insanely knowledgable LA guides: Midtown Lunch founder Zach Brooks; Everybody Loves Raymond creator, restaurant investor, and insanely passionate serious eater Phil Rosenthal; former Serious Eats Taco Correspondent Farley Elliot; LA taco whisperer Bill Esparza; and Mozza chef-restaurateur Nancy Silverton and her significant other, novelist and crime reporter Michael Krikorian.

The fact is, you can't do this kind of thing smartly or even semi-successfully without a lot of intel from folks who have been eating their way through LA for many years. There are so many interesting characters in our circle of LA food friends that we should have called this story Game of Scones.

With over 40 restaurants on our agenda, Kenji and I decided to hit the ground in LA, eating every step of the way, from touchdown on Thursday at noon to departure at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning. An impossible task, you say! Maybe, but we decided to go for it.

The Final List

Here are our 25 best bites, in the order that we tasted them.

Read on for the blow-by-blow.

Day 1

Bites 1 and 2: Coni' Seafood's Pescado Zarandeado and Tacos de Marlin

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Coni' Seafood, a Sinaloan Mexican restaurant, is the definition of an unassuming joint in a nondescript strip mall in Inglewood, and it serves up two seriously delicious items every passionate eater should try. The first is a butterflied, marinated snook that you make tacos out of called Pescado Zarandeado. The fish is grilled perfectly, and once you pick out some meat with your fingers and cradle it in a tortilla with some sauce (it tastes like it has some soy sauce and caramelized onions in it), you get a paradigmatic fish taco.

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Another must-have item there are the crisply griddled tacos stuffed with smoked marlin. If my Jewish grandmother had grown up in Sinoloa, this is what she would have served at Sunday brunch.

Bonus Bite: If you have the room, the fiery raw shrimp aguachiles flavored with citrus and chilies will have you rethinking your stance on eating raw shellfish. It's that good.

Bites 3 and 4: Huckleberry's Chocolate Pudding and the Coconut Caramel Pie

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Zoe Nathan's Huckleberry has been a Serious Eats fave for a number of years now. Kenji was slightly taken aback by my initial order: chocolate pudding, blueberry corn cake, coconut caramel pie, farmer's market flatbread, a brisket sandwich, and an egg sandwich. It was our second stop of the day, and we still had a lot of eating to do, but when Kenji excused himself to hit the john, I sprung into further ordering action: Like a teenager sneaking a cigarette, I ordered a salted caramel square and a lemon posset. I had my eye on the mini chocolate cupcake when he came out and caught me red handed with the caramel square in my hands.

It was too late in the day to order the famous breakfast items, like green eggs and ham, but I've had them before, and they make a great breakfast.

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But the truth of the matter is the sweets at Huckleberry are the strong suit. If, unlike us, you were limited to one thing at Huckleberry, I would probably opt for the chocolate pudding or maybe the coconut caramel pie. The savories were a disappointment, except for the crunchy-chewy farmers market flatbread.

Bite 5: Odys + Penelope's Maple-Glazed St. Louis-cut Spare Ribs

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Odys + Penelope is a self-described Brazilian churrascaria, replete with a blazing open fire cooking hearth. After a short wait we were seated at a counter facing the flames. Though everyone was raving about the out-of-our-price-range short rib, there were many items on the menu that fit our criteria. St. Louis-cut spare ribs (a special that night) with a maple glaze were juicy and tender with a definite taste of wood smoke. The chicken thighs wrapped in bacon, also in our price range, were as moist as can be. Shrimp cooked in their shells were also great.

Day 2

Bites 6 and 7: Sycamore Kitchen's Babka Sticky Bun and the Chorizo, Swiss, Onion Salsa, and Egg Sandwich

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Karen Hatfield's Sycamore Kitchen is probably the single best place to eat breakfast in LA in my experience. Hatfield also happens to be the wife of Quinn, the chef at Odys + Penelope.

The single best thing there is the babka sticky bun. How good is it? We sent half of it home with Zach Brooks, who immediately texted us, "Holy S&*t, that sticky bun."

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If you need a protein fix early in the morning, opt for the chorizo, Swiss cheese, onion salsa, and egg sandwich on buttered, grilled pain de mie. As breakfast sandwich freaks, Kenji and I marveled at how each component was perfectly executed, and how well they came together. The rye pancakes were swell as well, and the buttercup, a sort of deconstructed kouign amann crossed with a croissant, was also awesome. About the only thing Hatfield hasn't mastered is the doughnut. Our chocolate variety's icing was too sweet, and the yeast doughnut itself was neither light nor crispy.

Bites 8 and 9: Loteria's Huevos Rancheros Morritos and a Plain Cake Donut at Bob's Donuts

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Our friend Phil Rosenthal had very clear instructions about Loteria in at the Farmers Market: order the huevos rancheros morritos (don't make the mistake of ordering the regular huevos rancheros) with softly fried eggs, great spicy salsa, buttery smashed potatoes, grated Cotija cheese, and mighty tasty black beans that came with a side of handmade corn tortillas.

While sitting in the market waiting for our rancheros morritos, Kenji to score some donuts from the legendary Bob's Donuts at the other end of the market. He came back with a yeast doughnut, which was fine if ordinary, but sitcom writer Eddie Gorodetsky went back to Bob's and came back with the connoisseur's choice: the cake doughnut, which is crisp, tender, light, and expertly fried, with more than a hint of vanilla.

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There are literally a hundred independent donut shops in LA, and to honestly say which is best would require a much deeper donut dive than we had time for. LA Times critic Jonathan Gold swears by the Donut Man in Glendora, where they split a cake or yeast doughnut and fill it with fresh strawberries in season. Next time, on a longer trip, we'll hit them up.

Bite 10: Guisados Taco Sampler Platter

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We hit Guisados on our way to the San Gabriel Valley, sort of a Mexican amuse bouche to our upcoming Asian food feast. A fastidiously clean, unassuming storefront, Guisados turns out to be the neighborhood taqueria we all wished we had in our midst. Tender, handmade tortillas hold many different delicious fillings. Mole Poblano and the chuleta are great, as are shrimp and fish tacos. Plus, they make it easy to sample a lot of tacos even if you're by yourself with their cute little sampler platter of six two-bite tacos. Fish and shrimp tacos are not included in the sampler options, but are worth ordering separately if you're hungry.

Side Bites: A 5-Stop Tour of the San Gabriel Valley

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From Guisados, we jumped back into our rental car and headed out for a two hour, five-stop tour of the San Gabriel Valley, including what Kenji described as the finest Sichuan meal he's ever had outside of Sichuan at the Rosemead branch of Chengdu Taste, some excellent juicy sheng jian bao from the Kang Kang Food Court, juicy-as-can-be Hainan chicken rice from Savoy Kitchen, beef rolls from 101 Noodle Express, and some banh mi that will make you rethink everything you though you knew about the Vietnamese sandwich.

Why aren't we including them in this list of essential bites? Because they were so good we decided they needed a dedicated tour of their own. Check out Kenji's terrific guide to these essential San Gabriel Valley bites. Mini-mall by mini-mall, it may the finest place to eat Chinese food anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

Bite 11: Petit Trois's Omelette with Peppered Boursin

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When Nancy Silverton told us we had to go to Ludo Lefevbre's Petit Trois located diagonally across from the Mozza complex to try the omelette, we had to go. Why? Because I think Nancy is one of the few people that walk this earth who has perfect food pitch. Nancy simply knows what good is, sweet or savory. A tiny space located in the parking lot of a gas station, Petit Trois is essentially a French luncheonette counter. As usual, Nancy was right.

There's a reason that chefs test the skill of potential cooks by having them prepare an omelet. It takes practice and finesse to nail that creamy interior texture wrapped in a barely-set golden skin of cooked egg in a perfect torpedo shape. Petit Trois' omelet, filled with peppered Boursin cheese (that's right, the packaged stuff straight from the supermarket—and it really works) is executed flawlessly, and shows you what egg cookery is really all about.

Bite 12: Chi Spacca's Focaccia di Recca

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Though eating at meat-centric Chi Spacca, the third restaurant to open in the Mozza complex, can be a pricy though seriously delicious proposition, I was thrilled to discover that one of the greatest things I've eaten in the past few years, the Foccacia di Recca there, clocked in at $18. Sheets of unleavened, olive oil-infused dough are stretched over a copper pie plate, then sandwiched with hand-pulled straciatella cheese. After a short but intense bake in the pizza oven, it comes out like the lightest, crispest, most blistered and delicious matzo you can imagine, if matzo came stuffed with cheese and joy.

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Okay, so maybe it's impossible to score a reservation at Chi Spacca and sit down only to order the focaccia di recca, but I couldn't help myself from including it in this lineup. It's that damn good.

Bites 13 and 14: Pizzeria Mozza's Sausage Pie and Butterscotch Budino

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Though LA has become a much better pizza town of late, to my taste it only has one great pizzeria, Pizzeria Mozza. The pizza at Mozza has a thicker crust than, say, Chris Bianco's in Phoenix, but it is still remarkably light, chewy, and crunchy on the outside, and tender on the inside. In other words, it's paradigmatic pizza. The sausage pie had big chunks of spicy fennel sausage and mercifully not too much cheese.

No other pizza comes close to Mozza's in LA in my experience. And because Mozza is the brainchild of Nancy Silverton, dessert is a must there. Silverton protege Dahlia Narvaez makes the creamiest, intensely flavored, but not too sweet butterscotch pudding, here called a budino. It comes served with rosemary-pinenut shortbread cookies that I wish I could order on their own, they're that good.

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We were full from a second big day of eating, but not so full that we couldn't join Phil and his friend Josh Rosenstein (the creator of the refreshingly drinkable Hoxie Spritzer) for one last meal at a popular Thai restaurant that didn't quite make the cut. (Like I said, we had over 40 restaurants on our agenda, and only 25 slots to fill. Tough calls had to be made).

Day 3

Bite 15: Harry's Strawberries at the the Organic Farmer's Market in Santa Monica

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For breakfast we met up with Serious Eater Eva Woods for yet another meal at a popular resturant that didn't quite live up to the hype (what's with two-inch-thick slices of toast?), but it left us with plenty of time to get an early crack at the Saturday Farmers Market in Santa Monica.

We had a few good strawberries as we grazed our way down a row of stands, but then as we passed Harry's Berries, we decided to do an instant, not very scientific A-B test. I was reminded once again that for whatever reason, Harry's grows the best damn strawberries I've ever tasted in America. They're sweet, juicy, and insanely delicious. A little pricier than the competition, but worth the extra buck or two per pint. These strawberries even convinced Kenji that it was worth the mad dash rush to get to the Farmers Market on time. (The great citrus all over the market also helped my cause. )

Bite 16: Du-par's Plain Pancakes with Drawn Butter

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I've been eating slices of Du-par's pies for almost 40 years now. It turns out I was eating the wrong thing there for all that time. The pies are solid (I'm partial to the gooseberry), but it's the plain pancakes that I should have been eating. Fluffy, hubcap-sized, and golden brown, Du-par's pancakes are fine examples of diner-style pancakes. But as Kenji pointed out, the true genius of Dupar's hotcakes are the cups of drawn butter they are served with.

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Why doesn't every pancake palace serve their speciality with drawn butter? I can't think of a single good reason.

Bites 17 and 18: Crème Brûlée Bombolini and an Oatmeal Raisin Cookie at Republique

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Phil sent us to to Republique for its much heralded burger, but alas it was overcooked. But that didn't stop us from finding a couple of insanely delicious things in the beautiful space previously occupied by Campanile and the original incarnation of the La Brea Bakery. There was obvious good baked good karma left over, because the oatmeal-raisin cookie here was as good as an oatmeal raisin cookie can get: crisp edges, chewy center, and loaded with brown sugar and butter with a toffee-like flavor. And because we were on the line with our man Farley Elliot, he hipped us to the crème brûlée bombolini, a bit of miniature donut perfection. A burnished caramelized sugar dome gave way to a lovely mix of doughnut dough and an eggy, creamy filling.

Bite 19: Sapp Coffee's Noodles

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You don't expect to find amazing Thai food in a coffee shop, but that's exactly what you get at Sapp, a no-nonsense, sit-down-with-your-order-ready-style establishment. That's easy, because there's really only two things you need to know about: the beef boat noodles and the jade noodles. The former comes with an intensely sticky and spicy broth loaded with braised beef, beef balls, sliced beef, and pork rinds, while the latter is a tangle of green noodles loaded with duck, crab, peanuts, scallions, cilantro, lime, and chilies. Both of them would be right at home in a Bangkok street market.

Bite 20: Ricky's Fish Tacos

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Trying to find a parking space near Ricky's Fish Taco truck is not easy. There's no shortage of parking spaces nearby, but they all have signs that tell you not to park there if you're eating at Ricky's. So grab a spot at the big box store parking lot across the street, sidle up to the truck, and order one of each: a fish taco and a shrimp taco. They come with crisply fried fish or shrimp, super well-seasoned, like the fish taco equivalent of a piece of Popeye's chicken, with a big pile of pico de gallo and shredded cabbage on top drizzled with crema. We ate our tacos while the taco whisperer Bill Esparza started making arrangements for our next stop. Overhearing his conversation on the phone, we decided to take one more bite each then hold off. We didn't know exactly what was coming our way, but it was something big.

Bite 21: El Momo's Whole Hog Tacos

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Finding El Momo on a Saturday afternoon is no easy task, even with the taco whisperer Bill Esparza having the cell phone number of El Momo's master carnitas maker Romulo Acosta's son Juan, or Billy as he's known to his friends. On Saturdays from 9 to 3, the Acostas locate their moveable taco feast at 51st and Avalon, but it was 2:45 before we left Ricky's. Esparza had called ahead and Billy assured us they would save us some tacos and stay open until we arrived. Now that's what I call pull. (Otherwise, Bill said, we were going to have to go to the Acostas' house.)

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We drove around East LA and finally hit the corner where El Momo was supposed to be. There was nothing there, but 50 yards up the street we saw signs of taco life on a concrete patio of a residence, with tarpaulins supplying the shade. Romulo Acosta asked us if we all wanted "Aporkalypse" tacos. We weren't quite sure what that meant, but we said yes, we wanted all of it. Turns out it's tacos stuffed with pork stomach, shoulder, belly, and skin, all stewed in lard. Whole hog tacos in all their East LA glory. While we waited for our tacos to be assembled, Billy told us his dad wakes up at 2:30 every morning to cook the pig. The results were worth it. Even though the tortillas were not made by the Acostas, the filling was so porky and multi-textured we each had two, and we weren't really that hungry at that point.

Billy left us with a parting gift: a massive sandwich of the same chopped pork meat piled onto a split jalapeño-cheddar pretzel roll. I don't think this is on the menu, because if it was they'd have to rent out hammock space on their porch.

This just in: Billy Acosta informed me that since our visit, they have started to make their own tortillas.

Bite 22: Mariscos Jalisco's Shrimp Tacos Dorados

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The shrimp tacos dorados are a decidedly humble food. They're made with shrimp paste which tastes, well, a little pasty, but when you surround that pastiness with a crunchy fried tortilla shell and you add all the appropriate condiments—that's sliced avocado and a fresh tomato and chili salsa—you end up with a shrimp taco for the ages. There's a shortage of seating on the street the Marisco Jalisco truck is parked on, so be prepared to join the regulars and sit on a ledge opposite the truck's window. (P.S.: Skip the ceviche here.)

Bite 23: Jeon Ju's Bibimbap

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Located like so many other notable LA eateries in an unassuming strip mall in the city's large Korea Town, Jeon Ju is a small, brightly lit restaurant that I would kill to have in New York. Two or three Korean women seem to do it all: seat you, take your order, cook the food, and bring it to your table. And oh what they bring: a parade of banchan before the meal starts. A terrific seafood pancake with lovely crunchy edges and a light, puffy texture.

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And a classic bibimbop with lots of veggies, a runny fried egg, and most importantly, plenty of crispy morsels of browned rice on the bottom of the stone dolsot they cook it and serve it in. All the bibimbop needs is a squirt of gochujang hot sauce.

Bite 24: Pollo Alla Brasa

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When someone like Nancy Silverton tells you that her last supper would include some rotisserie chicken from Polla alla Brasa, you don't ask any more questions. You just go. The place turned out to be a shack on a dark, nondescript corner. The billowing smoke coming out of the shack is the first clue that we might be in for something special. The chicken, marinated in a secret blend of herbs and spices like KFC, is then rotisseried into something beautiful, fired completely by hardwood.

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The skin was packed with smoky flavor, the green sauce it came with packed a serious jalapeño punch, and even the white meat was plenty moist. What more can you ask for from your rotisserie chicken? Nothing. (The grilled beef heart skewers are equally delicious, if beef hearts are you thing.)

Bite 25: Al Pastor Tacos From the Street

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We were winding down our night, but no Saturday night in LA is complete without a few tiny tacos from one of the al pastor vendors who sets up shop in the evening and into the wee hours of the morning. Leo's is a favorite.

You'll know you've gotten to Leo's when you spot the line for them in the parking lot of a gas station on the corner of Pico and Highland. While you're waiting you'll notice the huge hunk of spit-roasted pork moistened by the whole pineapple dripping its juices atop the trompo. The line moves fast, which you'll be happy about when you finally take a bite. The pork is a little lean but still very tasty, the tortillas are good enough, and the condiments fetched from the table next to the truck were great.

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Kenji had noticed another place on Pico and Tremaine with the same set-up, so while I waited on line he went and got a couple of tacos there. He says they were better, and the one bite he saved me had that promise, but the results of our on-the-spot taste test were hardly definitive. According to our friend Zach, these tacos stands come and go so frequently that it would take a team of detectives working in shifts to keep track of their comings and goings. In my experience, so long as there's a line, it's hard to go wrong.

Mission Accomplished

The tape doesn't disintegrate like in Mission Impossible, but our stomachs were in definite disarray. We admit this list is hardly definitive. We didn't get to many places on our lovingly compiled list: mezze at Carousel, burgers at Hawkins House of Burgers and Ledlow, pastrami sandwiches at Langer's or the new pastrami kid in town, the cheffy Wexler's (in fact we must admit to committing perhaps the unforgivable sin of not going to Wexler's or anywhere else for that matter at the newly revived food destination Grand Central Market in downtown LA). And there was no room on this list for Rose Creamery's excellent ice cream and sundaes. Or any of Roy Choi's sublime and inexpensive dishes at Pot or Chego, like his kimchi fried rice or his sweet chicken chile rice bowls.

But like Arnold Schwarzenegger, "We'll Be Back." And we're fairly confident that if you do find yourself in LA trying to figure out where to eat, you'll find enough food to keep you busy for at least a couple days.