Welcome to a new installment of Dining On A Dime a feature in which Eater 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 want us to go next? Do share.
Old Country Cafe is a Taiwanese-style restaurant that has been on the same Southeastern corner of Valley Boulevard and Garfield Avenue, in the city of Alhambra, for over 20 years. It's one of the few restaurants in all of SGV that has remained in the same location, and under the same name, for the entire period. While ownership has changed during the residency, little else has. On any given day, a plate of simply dressed fried tofu can be had for $2.50. Long before Anthony Bourdain discovered Singapore's street food scene, Old County was serving pork blood sticky rice cake on a stick for, again, the absurdly low price of $2.30
The get-up here is a typical diner, connected to a ridiculously nonsensical comic book reading room. For the last 10 years, this plot hasn't changed. During peak hours, it's not uncommon to spot the cooks running into the reading room (where bigger parties are often relegated) for a chunk of pork or a bag of spinach. After all, the mis en place sits in fridges next to the ancient book cases full of comics. The decrepit vinyl on the front windows glass says this restaurant opens at 10 a.m., but no one will be there to cook, nor will the doors be unlocked, that early in the morning. Try 11 a.m. instead. On the flip side, the diner doesn't close until 11:59 p.m., which gives everyone twelve hours and 59 minutes to discover the odd charm that is Old Country Cafe.
The cafe's piece de resistance is the fried pork chop on rice. It's a milanesa-style bone-in pork chop bigger than a hand, coated in a secret, untraditional, blend of slurry starch, then fried to a golden crisp. This pork chop is so thin, it carries the consistency of moo dad deaw, a Thai dish of dried pork fried jerky. What sets it apart from other Taiwanese pork chops are the light five-spice marinade, the pale crust (which differs from the typical pimply crust of sweet potato starch) and a decent fat ratio that makes every bite unctuous instead of dry. It's possible to eat the dish with only chopsticks, but most patrons use a combination of left fingers and right chopsticks. Others go ape with all 10 digits. The waitresses will secretly label you a prodigal character if you don't clear the meat off the bone. Accompanying this piece of pork are wee piles of vegetable trimmings meant to keep the health conscious shoulder angel at bay. Below the chop sits a generous pile of al dente rice. The cost? $6.25.
Many single members of the Taiwanese diaspora stop in, late in the evening, just for the pork chop. They arrive silently from the back entrance connected to the parking lot, eyes immediately glued to the Taiwanese variety show (it's always the Taiwanese variety show), and casually orders the pai gu fan with the counter waitress even before sitting down on an annoying high — by Asian standards — stool. But those desiring a broader study of the best street foods in Far East Asia should approach the menu differently: order the "special fried bean curb" stinky tofu ($5.95), the pork blood sticky rice cake, an bowl of Jiayi-style shredded chicken rice ($3.95), and a bowl of "meat stew" pork pottage soup ($3.95) to finish off.
If you happen to be not single, and need to feed another curious and willing participant, add an order of chicken cold noodle salad ($4.95) as an app, the poached chitterling ($3.95), and finish with an order of mango shaved iced ($4.50 - seasonal) for dessert. Total: $29.75 for two. Alternative: $800 round trip flight to Taipei, endless hours spent in taxis traveling to and from Shida night market.
Under the "dimsum snacks" menu at Old Country Cafe are some of the quintessential dishes of street snacking, found in the Shilin Night Market, prior to the '02 demolition. There is very little culinary gaudiness in the sticky rice stuffed sausage (think: Taiwanese boudin blanc), the braised pigs feet, the soy braised bean curds, nor the bamboo steamed five spiced sticky rice with minced pork. Not all are hits: the meatball might be too stiff and dry, while the fried Taiwanese sausages are literally right out of a supermarket package.
pork pottage ("meat stew") soup
However, all the minutiae disappears when one realizes it is possible to assemble a hundred variations of nose-to-tail pig dinner for $20.(10) — pork belly rice, chitlin' rice vermicelli, braised pork hock, pig blood cake, and pork liver soup.
Long before cold-presseries blossomed in Venice, Old Country Cafe was already a leader in juicing, featuring current Westside darlings such as sugarcane water since the '90s and exotics such as papaya. Here, the mixed vegetable and fruit juice runs $2.50, though expect simple syrup unless you instruct otherwise. Perhaps it's better to stick to the shaved ice churned out from a geriatric Japanese "Swan" shaver, and topped with all kinds of Chinesey goodness such as black agar, mochi dumplings, and sweet boiled peanuts.
Pro tips: The entrance to the parking lot is on Valley Boulevard, immediately East of Garfield Ave. The shaved ice is available with $0.50 refills. The milk tea drinks come with one free refill. While boba milk tea is obviously Taiwan's most infamous beverage export, try substiting boba a for pudding for that extra degree of splurping difficulty.