Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.
I'm slowing things down at Lu's Garden. The bustling Taiwanese restaurant in San Gabriel clearly doesn't have time for the likes me, studying each item carefully from behind the glass that separates customers from the bounty of colorful vegetables and sauce-soaked meats and seafood. There are dozens of choices from golden bamboo shoots and emerald-skin cucumbers to glazed chicken wings and finely ground pork. The party in front of my husband and me orders at lightning speed, so suddenly it's our turn and I'm far from ready. The family behind us tries to help out with a few friendly recommendations, but I eventually let them go ahead. Everyone here but us, it seems, has the ordering process down to mere seconds. After finally making a decision and placing our order at the counter, we're shown to a booth in the well-lit, no-frills dining room with mostly bare walls, Tiffany lamps hanging from the ceiling, and dark wood tables and chairs . A pot of tea, cups, and bowls are already on the table when we sit down, and moments later, in sticking with the restaurant's speedy theme, our four dishes arrive, along with a pot of simple, hearty porridge dotted with yam quarters soft enough for mashing. It's a nice change from steamed rice.
When I ask what kind of sauce the eggplant is in (the menu calls it "chef's sauce"), our waitress says its soy sauce. And what about the string beans? Soy sauce. Anything else? Just soy sauce. The squid? Soy sauce. I don't ask about the chicken we've ordered, since it's dubbed "chicken marinated in soy sauce."
Thankfully, I don't think she gave us the whole story as the flavors in all of the dishes are too complex to be just soy. The melt-in-your-mouth eggplant, with its stewed-down texture and slightly sweet flavor, is my favorite. It's so tender my chopsticks cut right through the chunky pieces. The puckered sautéed green beans aren't doused in sauce, so the vegetable's fresh flavor really shines through, accented with crispy minced garlic and flecks of red chile peppers. My husband loves the tender, glazed chicken, mostly dark meat on the bone, and tries to overlook the fact that it's sitting in a bowl of oil. I remind him we're not here to lose weight.
We've also ordered the pan-fried squid, which at $7.95, is the most expensive item on the dinner menu. Served whole, with the cartilage "backbone" still inside and all, the squid is perfectly cooked and I love the dark sauce's smoky flavor, but my attempt at pulling out the hard inner cartilage is time consuming and messy. And while eight bucks is a fine price for the dozen or so squid we get, there's no way we can eat it all. And I just know I'm not going to be in the mood to dig into leftover squid tomorrow.
Which brings me to my next point. Looking around on this Sunday night, the restaurant is packed mostly with families, which is clearly the way to dine here in order to try several things and stay on a budget. The dinner portions are large and we end up spending about $30 before tip for four dishes (granted, the squid was a couple of bucks more than the other items). Even if our group doubled in size, I think just one to two more dishes would be plenty and our cost-per-person would drop quite a bit.
Lunch is a different story and a real deal. A flier advertises three smaller-portion items for $6.95 or four for $8 with free porridge thrown in.
And I can only imagine how fast those customers on their lunch breaks move.
Lunch Specials: $6.95-$8.00
Dinner items: $2.95 to $7.95