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Govinda’s Natural Foods in Palms

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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’ve never been a big fan of buffets. Maybe it’s because I tend to overindulge. Or because I value a plate’s presentation. Or because I don’t ever remember walking away from a buffet meal thinking, “Wow, that was amazing!” But this time I’m willing to put my buffet prejudices aside for the chance at a cheap lunch in an interesting venue, Govinda’s Natural Foods, run by the adjacent Hare Krishna temple just off Venice Boulevard in the Palms. Govinda’s website bills the buffet as “affordable vegetarian and vegan dining under a spiritual atmosphere” and says it charges just $7 for all you can eat. The first thing I discover, however, when I walk through the doors beneath the words “The International Society for Krishna Consciousness” and into the pale-pink stucco building, is that Hare Krishnas have been hit by the down economy just like the rest of us. A month ago they raised the buffet price to $8 and shut down the restaurant’s sandwich and pizza bar. Still, the place has a good crowd of customers during a weekday lunch (dinner begins at 5pm for the same price).

The sari-clad cashier explains that the restaurant is staffed with volunteers from the temple, along with a handful of paid workers, and that the chef changes the menu daily but follows a basic format: There’s always a variety of salad bar items and ever-changing hot dishes --- including a soup, two types of rice, dal, steamed vegetables, a pasta, and an Indian vegetable dish along with a dessert. The restaurant’s mission, she tells me, is to give diners everything they need for a balanced meal via vegetarian and vegan offerings.

The interior dining room could pass for the inside of a diner with vinyl booths and wooden tables, but the framed Krishna artwork and statues along with the tambourine-tinged music piping through the speakers reminds customers where they are. The salad bar is stocked with the colorful basics and I pile shredded carrots, beets, chickpeas, kidney beans, and peas on top of mixed greens with a dash of sunflower seed dressing and a scoop of tofu-black olive salad. As for the hot items, I pass on the corkscrew pasta with tomato sauce in favor of jasmine rice, mung bean dal, and South Indian veggies with buttermilk sauce, topping off the dish with a scoop of maple walnut halvah dessert (though seeing my dessert on the same plate as the rest of the meal is a bit reminiscent of a TV dinner; I’ll remember to go ahead and use another dish next time). I take a seat out front on the sunny patio, where most of the tables are taken up with small groups, some in Krishna garb, some not.

The salad is crunchy and fresh and the sunflower dressing gives it a zing from the lemon and cilantro. I don’t, however, care for the oily tofu and olive combo, nor for the tomato barley soup, which is overpowered by the taste of dried herbs. But the advantage of an all-you-can buffet, I’m realizing, is that you can ostensibly leave what you don’t like and go back for more of what you do. I’m happy to report that the rest of my meal is divine (no pun intended). The basmati is perfectly cooked and amazingly fragrant, better than any I’ve had during recent visits to Indian restaurants, and the pale green dal is delicate and lovely over the rice. The carrots, string beans, zucchini and peas are still bright and a touch crisp beneath the creamy and faintly sweet buttermilk sauce.

I’m also wowed by, of all things, the dessert here. The halvah (the spelling of this Indian dessert seems to vary) looks a bit like moist brown sugar, but has a softer consistency and isn’t nearly as sweet as it looks. It's made form Farina cereal, butter, maple syrup, and walnuts. I’m tempted to grab more, but I promised myself I wouldn’t go buffet overboard this time. Just as the woman at the counter predicted when I first got here: I’ve gotten all I need.
Lunch and dinner buffet: $8
310-836-1269; website
—Lizbeth Scordo

Govinda's

3764 Watseka Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90034

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