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.
Those who judge a restaurant by the size of its crowd would most likely walk on by Ackee Bamboo, a Jamaican eatery in Lemeirt Park, which has no lunch customers when I visit around noon on a recent weekday. Besides owner Marlene and a couple of employees scurrying between Ackee and a sister café recently opened next door, it's just me and a TV blaring breaking news from Egypt. There may not be any people-watching to speak of, but I still enjoy the atmosphere at the bright and spotless restaurant. I take in its tropical green walls, faux flower garland hanging over the giant windows, an outdoor courtyard full of tables with umbrellas, and a pillow-covered couch fit for a loungey coffee shop. Marlene says she serves more dinners than lunches most days, and since the place has been in business seven years, I figure it must be doing something right. Turns out that something is selling heaping portions of flavorful food with tons of sides for a good price.
I go with the day's special, brown stew tilapia, though the most popular dishes, Marlene says, are on the regular menu — jerk chicken and curry shrimp. Oxtail, curry goat, and BBQ beef ribs are also on offer, all for around eight or nine bucks. But you'll have to pay more than that, $15 actually, to sample what the restaurant is named after, ackee, Jamaica's national fruit, which is paired with salt cod to create one of the country's most famous dishes, ackee & saltfish. I pass this time.
There's so much food on my plate, some of it creeps off the edge. No delicate filet of fish with a hint of lemon here. The tilapia is covered in a thick layer of a peppery herb-and-spice crust and doused in a decadent reddish brown sauce with a jab of sweetness. I ask Marlene about some of the ingredients, but don't get much in the way of answers besides "spices" and fresh basil and thyme. The plantains are cooked enough to give them a hint of syrupiness, but they still keep their structure and starchy texture. I swear the heaping portion of steamed veggies tastes like it's got some sweet and sour going on, but Marlene insists she just uses a bit of butter and anything else I'm picking up is just spillover from the tilapia's sauce. Whatever it is, I love it. The cabbage, pepper strips, and chunky carrots still have a slight crunch and balance out the dish's heavier components nicely. The traditional side of "rice and peas," is actually rice and kidney beans cooked with coconut milk, Marlene says. Sorry, but all I get is pepper, no coconut at all.
And finally, I try the festival bread, a puffy deep fried ball that looks like a cross like a hush puppy and the Italian zeppoles I grew up eating in New Jersey. With a bready inside made of sugar-laced cornmeal, it's the perfect surely high-calorie topper to an already huge lunch. All this and I avoided the crowds.
Lunch and Dinner Items: $5 to $18
— Lizbeth Scordo