Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a new bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats restaurants—often obscure, ethnic, unsung spots—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Have a place she just must taste? Drop us a line.
Shortly after graduating from college on the East Coast, I moved to Hawaii where a friend of mine had landed a stint teaching grammar school. Though I’d imagined myself waitressing poolside or serving up Mai Tais a la Tom Cruise in Cocktail, I traded in those sundrenched dreams for a job as an office temp and spent my days bundled up in cardigans typing away in hyper-air-conditioned Honolulu high rises. The silver lining was, no matter the office, come noontime my fellow workers were always able to lead me to the best local food trucks and hole-in-the-wall spots where I quickly discovered the joy of plate lunch, those delicious platters of steamed white rice, macaroni salad, and a sauced-up protein served in Styrofoam containers. To satisfy my recent craving for good (and non-chain) plate lunch, I landed at Rutt's Café in Culver City.
Outside, the awning disguised in hula grass and canary yellow exterior walls scream aloha, but inside the place feels like an old fashioned lunch box. Think solid wood diner-style counter, red vinyl stools and booths, and wood-paneled walls. Of course, legally, a restaurant serving up Hawaiian dishes has to have at least a couple of token touches, and in this case there are signs that read "surfer girls only," and "gecko crossing," in addition to a surfboard hanging over a doorway and the restaurant's name floating weightlessly over the ocean as part of a wall mural.
There's more than just plate lunch here, with seven varieties of fried saimin noodle dishes; a long list of Rutt's Bowls served with broccoli, carrots, and rice; and a breakfast menu of eggs paired with just about every meat imaginable available all day. Like Hawaiian food itself, Rutt's infuses multiple cuisines into its menu, with offerings of everything from classic kalua pork to teriyaki tacos to club sandwiches. Same is true for the condiments -- bottles of soy sauce, hot sauce, teriyaki sauce, fresh pico de gallo, and Aunt Jemima syrup all fight for space on my tiny table.
My server tells me Rutt's Famous Royales (invented by the previous owner), are the restaurant's most popular dishes, especially with regulars. The concoctions start with an open-faced omelette served over white rice with a side of onions and bean sprouts. And while the original version is chock full of the international combination of Portugese sausage and Chinese barbeque pork, there are a dozen choices, including teriyaki beef or seafood in three different sizes. The smallest, dubbed a "junior," starts with two eggs and one scoop of rice and shoots up from there depending on how long it's been since you've last eaten.
But I'm here for plate lunch, and though chicken katsu (breaded and deep-fried chicken breast) is my go-to choice, there's no deep-fryer at this location, and therefore no katsu. The owner, Paul Wahba, has opened a second location in West Covina, which is blessed with the artery clogging kitchen machine. Though there are other chicken offerings including a marinated breast and Hawaiian BBQ chicken, I go for the breaded Mahi-Mahi, a large piece of moist fish that arrives with a crispy, golden-crust. The thick and creamy macaroni salad laced with shredded carrots and diced celery is exactly what I was looking for (especially after being served a sad and runny mess at a different restaurant recently). I end up with a bonus side of tsukemono (pickles) I wasn't expecting (this is officially a ton of food for $6.95), but find it a little weak. Though if Rutt's is looking to make a little extra cash, I'd suggest bottling the homemade teriyaki sauce. Not overly sweet, its soy sauce-esque texture helps it melt right into my steamed rice.
I like Rutt's, with its casual vibe and mix of customers. On a recent weekday there were lots of single diners on lunch breaks, a few guys in mechanics' uniforms, hipsters in hoodies and ironic T-shirts, and an elderly couple at the counter. Manny, who doesn't want to call himself the manager but has been working here for years and known the current owner for more two decades, says the restaurant's bread and butter is its regular breakfast and lunch crowd, who show up for the same dishes Rutt's has been serving since it opened in the '70s (recipes the original owner shared with Wahba when he bought the place nearly 10 years ago). Rutt's doesn't mess with the menu much, Manny says, and customers aren't shy about sharing when they don't like something. Luckily, that's not too often.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner items: $2.95 to $8.95