Los Angeles

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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!

Duke's  8909 Sunset Blvd., at San Vicente Ave., Hollywood, 310/652-3100. In the heart of the nightclub district of the Sunset Strip, here's a no-frills "rock-'n'-roll coffee shop" where musicians gorge on monster salads from $6.95.

A coffee shop institution on Sunset, a stone's throw from legendary live music clubs like the Whisky A-Go-Go and the Viper Room, Duke's is a very Hollywood experience, with communal cafeteria-style tables filled with bleary-eyed musicians waking up from last night's gig and a waitstaff that runs from older ladies with bleached hair to Goth Gen-Xers grinning beneath black hair and pallid skin. Long-forgotten album covers adorn the walls, and of course there's a large gallery of actors' headshots on the walls, crying out for a job. L.A. is America's salad capital, and if you think you can't fill up on one, try Bobby's Salad for $6.95 - a heaping platter of fresh spinach, greens, mushrooms, crumbled bacon, and Parmesan cheese, served with garlic toast. The Cobb salad ($8.25) with turkey, blue cheese, and avocado is an even higher pile of greens. The omelettes ($4.95-$7.95) come in Chinese, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, and kosher styles, and are served with cottage fries or cottage cheese, and bagels or toast.

Canter's 419 N. Fairfax Ave., near Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, 323/651-2030. At this Jewish deli/coffee shop extraordinaire, free music plus multiple courses and a drink for $9.95 at lunch, $10.75 at dinner.

The 24-hour gastronomical anchor of the traditional Jewish district of Fairfax for over 70 years, its atmosphere - plastic booths, fluorescent lighting, elderly waitresses, the Jewish-history mural outside - has barely changed since the day it opened. And oy, such a deal is it: Senior couples, yuppie families, and young partygoers all swoon over the chicken matzo ball soup with bagel chips for $3.65, potato or meat knishes for $3.75, and cheese tortellini with oven-roasted turkey and green onions in cream sauce for $4.50. The entrees are even better deals: a roast brisket of beef, potato pancake, vegetables, soup, bread and butter, choice of dessert, and coffee or tea will run just $10.75 ($9.95 at lunch). Top it all off with bakery goodies like to-die-for rugelach at 35[cents] apiece. A free bonus: The live rock and blues music in the adjoining Kibbitz Room has caught on with L.A.'s hipster crowd.

Mao's Kitchen 1512 Pacific Ave., a block from the sand, Venice, 310/581-8305. A retro-communist cafeteria serving up ample Chinese fare to the local proletariat: $8 for entree, salad, and tea.

Venice is currently experiencing a renaissance after a long fall from its '60s heyday, and this is a good example of it, housed in a neoclassical building with baroque columns, saved from years of neglect and painted in garish colors. Local beach residents sit at wooden picnic tables under old commie propaganda posters framed on brick walls. The food is savory Chinese country-style peasant fare and comes in portions nearly big enough for two people. For $6, try the mapo tofu with pork, chicken, or beef in a Sichuan spicy sauce and jasmine rice, or the vegetarian "Long March camp-fry" of Chinese cabbage, snow peas, and white mushrooms in a white sauce, served with jasmine rice. Add a lettuce-and-cucumber salad with a sweet-and-light vinegar dressing for a buck. Swish it down with traditional tea made from toasted grains, also for an imperialist dollar.

Van Go's Ear 796 Main St., at Brooks Ave., Venice, 310/396-1987. A funky caffeine and food dispensary with generous meal combos - many vegetarian-around $8 to $9.

A Venice tradition open until 3 a.m., it brims with espresso-fueled artists and alternative types munching away on large, healthy sandwiches and omelettes. Setting: a converted two-story abode with mismatched chairs, chessboards, upstairs and downstairs patios, and a mural of Vincent with neon earring. The menu names, meanwhile, mine pop culture. Try the $5.95 "Tonya Harding omelette" (four "bludgeoned and scrambled" egg whites with tomato, basil, and garlic, served with potatoes, toast, and cigarettes) and add a good-size portion of baked yams for $2.25. The "Free Willy Clinton" squash casserole of veggies and baked cheese comes with a generous salad, all for $8.95. Break your diet on the "creamy, masochistic masterpiece" desserts, $3.50 to $4.50.

Toi 1120 Wilshire Blvd., at 12th St., Santa Monica, 310/394-7804. A fun, splashy Thai eatery with meal-size salads from $7 and entrées plus salad from $8.

The "Rockin' Thai Food" here is appreciated by a fun, young crowd that drives out of its way to experience the sassy waitstaff, pop/rock art climbing up to the high ceilings, and video monitors playing cheesy movies from the '60s and '70s (sound thankfully turned down). Toi's $6.95 bowl of wonton soup (made extra spicy upon request) is a meal in itself; or try the barbecue "naked shrimp" salad with chili, mint, and curry sauce for $7.95. Another mouthwatering $7.95 deal: half a charbroiled chicken in Thai sauce with a side salad. Slather any dish with peanut sauce for an extra $1.

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