EAT LIKE A LOCAL
Although this collection of suburbs in search of a city has been sprucing itself up quite a bit in recent years (through redevelopment of the historic Hollywood district, a newly expanded metro rail system, and new museum complexes like the jawdropping Getty Center), the old song still has it right: "L.A. is a great big freeway." So it comes as no surprise that Angeleno culinary treats, too, are spaced driving miles apart. But the actors and artists who pinch pennies while living from job to job (not to mention the enormous ethnic communities) keep alive a tasty smorgasbord of inexpensive eats amid the sprawl. Here's a native's inside scoop on nine top choices for full meals (two courses and a drink) in visitor-popular areas - even the likes of hip Sunset Boulevard and swanky Santa Monica. And remember: Always keep your eyes peeled for celebrities. They're everywhere you turn, and every once in a while they like to save a buck or two on dinner, too!
El Coyote 7312 Beverly Blvd., between Fairfax and La Brea Aves., Los Angeles, 323/939-2255. A quintessential southern California Mexican cantina slinging hearty combos for $5.25.
In a city that practically lives on tacos and burritos, this is an unpretentious smash, full of cheerful locals who love the Tijuana-tacky decor of faux stucco walls, chili-shaped Christmas lights, shell-frame mirrors, and waitresses dolled up in full, extravagant flamenco dresses - not to mention the large, rocket-fueled $5.35 margaritas and overflowing baskets of salty tortilla chips for 80: in the front bar. The food is hearty, tasty, and unbeatably priced - the $5.25 combo plates come with choice of taco, enchilada, tamale, or chile relleno, served with rice and beans or Mexican-style spaghetti. Add another taco or enchilada for a buck, or a plate of two low-fat ostrich tacos for $5. Still hungry? Opt for the ridiculously priced $2.75 hamburger, or a pint of albondigas (meatball soup) for $2.45. And like mama always said, there's always room for flan ($1.75).
The Griddle Cafe 7916 Sunset Blvd., near Fairfax Ave. at the start of trendy Sunset Strip, Hollywood, 323/874-037). A star-studded pancake palace with tall flapjack stacks for $5.95 and 28 varieties of meal-size chili for $6.25.
Arrive early at this breakfast-and-lunch-only cafe, especially on weekends, when Hollywood types (including heartthrobs like Leo DiCaprio) queue up with their cell phones and cigarettes, drooling for sumptuous pancakes and gargantuan $6.95 omelettes. There's an amusing array of flapjacks with names like "Banana Nana" (brown-sugared bananas cooked inside buttermilk batter, $5.95) and "Barry Yellow" (filled with raspberry and lemon, $6.25). "Chili My Soul," a gourmet low-fat chili cooked 30 to 50 hours, comes in an amazing 28 flavors on a sliding scale of spiciness (your waiter will happily offer you free samples). A large cup is a meal at $6.25 and comes with a choice of toppings (even, er, chocolate chips), and corn bread or tortilla chips.
Birds 5925 Franklin St., near the 101 freeway, Hollywood, 323/465-0175. A short jaunt from downtown Hollywood, it's trendy yet friendly, with gigantic combination platters for $10.25.
Nestled under the hills near the Hollywood sign, this eight-year-old spot is fast becoming a favorite among L.A.'s perpetually out-of-work actor/writer/artist crowd. Alfred Hitchcock flanked by crows peers from the wall as the chatty patrons dig into impossible-to-finish portions of homemade chicken meat loaf topped with marinara sauce, served with garlic mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables for $10.25. Chicken pot pie ($4.95) and generous soups like corn chowder ($4.50) spill out of 12-ounce cups; soak them up with hunks of moist corn bread. Stuffed Mediterranean roll-ups of chicken and shrimp in lavosh bread start at $6.25, including a side dish of your choice. Dine under candlelight, sit up at the bar and cheer on the local teams on TV, or enjoy sidewalk tables on Franklin, lined with 1920s buildings. And valet parking for an eatery this cheap? Only in El-Lay.
Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles 1514 N. Gower St., between Hollywood and Sunset Blvds., near the 101 freeway, Hollywood, 323/466-7453. This down-home southern diner serves its eponymous specialties in filling combinations from $6.90.
The first thing that strikes you is the line of customers snaking out the door. Day or night, hungry people of all races and classes patiently sit on sidewalk chairs for their chance inside this madly popular eatery that may look a little dingy, but has the warm feel of eating over at the neighbors' house. Most first-timers order the old (and satisfying) standard "1 Succulent Breast, 1 Delicious Waffle" deal for $6.90 (yes, served together on the same plate). Or $8.50 will get you a quarter of a bird smothered with gravy and onions, plus two of those hot, cakelike waffles. Or really go all out, with the heaping half-chicken (in four pieces) and two waffles for a stunning $9.95. For the adventurous, Roscoe's also serves up fresh chicken-liver omelettes with french fries for $7.75; another 20: buys giblets and rice with gravy and onions, complete with fluffy oven-fresh biscuits. Napkins are mandatory!