Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a 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.
After a change of plans, my husband and I get to the restaurant closer to 5:30pm, which means not only are we in no danger of closing the place down, but we also have it mostly to ourselves, giving us the chance to chat a little with Little Belize's owners. Jose, who used to assemble rail cars, and his wife, Dorothy, who's had a catering business for 10 years, just bought the restaurant six weeks ago. Dorothy's cousin is our server since she's helping out until Jose's sister moves down from Northern California to work with Dorothy in the kitchen. Yes, it's a family affair, and the whole family couldn't be friendlier — especially after hearing we've visited Belize several times and love it there.
Despite my multiple trips to Belize, it's still tricky to concisely explain the country’s cuisine, with its hodgepodge of international influences. Think Caribbean with a bit of Creole and Mexican thrown in, heavy on seafood and chicken dishes, and tons of spices.
Little Belize's menu may be short (five appetizers and five entrees), but with nearly all of the appetizers priced at $1.50 or under (yep, seriously) it's hard not to over-order. And so we do.
Every bargain starter we try is truly delicious with layers of fresh flavors, starting with the Garnaches (two for a dollar, just like in Belize!) piled with black beans, diced onion and dusted with queso fresco atop light and bubbly fried masa tortillas. Panades also come two to an order and are kind of like a version of empanadas, stuffed with ground tuna and served with a fiery chutney-esque side of diced onion, cabbage, and habanero peppers. The pair of Salbutes starts with the same crispy tortillas as the Garnaches, and are instead layered with spicy shredded chicken, lettuce, hunks of jalapeno, and sprigs of cilantro on top. That dish alone is really enough for a lunch, and at $1.50 it would be one of the cheapest meals in town that doesn't involve a drive-through.
Yes we've eaten a lot, but we've still got two entrees coming. I get the whole fried tilapia (red snapper is offered sometimes too) and despite the fact I'm a big fan of saucy dishes, it's wonderful and moist as-is with its flavorful crispy skin. I choose separate sides of rice and stewed beans, which turn out to be a heaping portion of white rice bursting with coconut flavor and a giant bowl of thick red beans. And the food keeps coming. My entree is accompanied by a couple of pan-fried plantains and a fresh, mayo-less coleslaw of finely shredded cabbage and red onion beneath a sprinkling of diced tomato. My husband's stewed chicken plate comes piled with three pieces of tender chicken on the bone in a dark, savory sauce spiked with bell peppers, and served with a rich and slightly sweet scoop of potato salad, along with the plantains. He's opted for the mixed rice and beans and it's the single item of the night I find a little bland. Separate's the way to go in my book.
It's clear I'm already in love with Little Belize, but the fact it serves Belize's homegrown Belikin Beer and the country's famous Marie Sharp's hot sauce puts it over the top.
Jose says they're doing well and that he gets a mix of neighborhood folks and members of L.A.'s Belizean community who seek the place out. The breakfast crowd shows up for authentic Fryjacks and Johnnycakes and patrons are always stopping in for desserts to go. He's not kidding. The dessert case is empty the night we're there. They sold out early that day, Jose says, so no potato pound pudding for us. And really, after this meal, that's probably for the best.
Breakfast entrees: $4.99-$6.99; Appetizers $1-$3; Lunch and Dinner Entrees: $7.99-$11.99