And now, an especially miserly $10 a day dining challenge in Los Angeles for Cheap Eats Week. Gear up, and get hungry.
When I first heard about trying to eat in Los Angeles for under $10 for an entire day, I wasn't very happy about the prospects. Yes, Los Angeles has a pretty great array of cheap food, but budgeting an average of $3.33 for each meal was not very exciting. I'm not particularly envious of my colleagues in New York who are attempting to eat on $10 a day for an entire week. Sure, they have $1 slices of pizza and we have our $1 tacos, but life is more than about pizza and tacos! (or is it?) It's part of the reason why we've been doing $20-a-day pieces specific to certain neighborhoods or parts of town. But I took it upon by myself to attempt the challenge. And yes, and the end of the day I made it.
Breakfast: Maple long john donut at Big Mama's | Price: $.90 | Remaining cash: $9.10
Time: 9:30 a.m.
Address: 5409 N Figueroa Street
Hunger level afterwards (10 being most hungry, 1 being fully satiated): 7
This is my super secret Eastside donut spot that has some of the best, affordable donuts I've had in town. Yes, they're not going to blow you away like Sidecar (which I'd argue are the best in the entire country. Yes, I said it!). Big Mama's is comically more about the lottery tickets and scratchers than the donuts.
But for 90 fantastic cents, I got a nearly perfect maple bar, plush, fresh, with a thick layer of glaze that required more than a few napkins to wipe up. I dodged the scratchers aficionados and went on my way, satiated and happy. People stand in line for all hours (like even until 3 a.m.) for fun, decorated fried dough at California Donuts in Koreatown, but I'd rather come to Big Mama's in Highland Park for cheap fritters any day.
Lunch #1: Tostada de jaiva at El Mar Azul | Price: $1.50 | Remaining cash: $7.60
Time: 12:30 p.m.
Address: 4702 N Figueroa Street
Hunger level afterwards : 5
I've been hitting up this humble seafood truck in Highland Park for years after my friend Josh turned me onto the place. I've always gotten the shrimp tostadas (two please) and occasionally the seafood cocktails. They're not the best you've ever had, but they're darn near close, and they're dirt cheap. By dirt cheap, I mean $2 for most tostadas, and a mere $1.50 for a fully loaded "jaiva" or crab tostada. Here's the problem: the crab here isn't the real stuff. It's the pink imitation pollack "crab" meat you'd find inside a California roll.
Still, with a creamy sauce as the base, slices of avocado, and a perfect squirt of hot sauce and fresh lime, it's a pretty satisfying snack. But seriously, if you have more money to spend, get the pulpo (octopus) or shrimp tostadas and you won't be disappointed. Being forced (in a sense) to buy a $1.50 fake crab tostada didn't make me very happy, especially since I knew that for fifty cents more I could've gotten something real, and truly delicious.
Lunch #2: Banh mi at Buu Dien | Price: $2.25 | Remaining cash: $5.35
Time: 1:15 p.m.
Address: 642 N Broadway, Chinatown
Hunger level afterwards: 1
Since I was still hungry, I schlepped over to Chinatown for what Jonathan Gold often considers to be his favorite banh mi in town. I tend to prefer the more compact, but flavorful, sandwiches at Saigon Bakery and Tip Top, but I've learned to appreciate the funk-filled version at this dingy spot in Chinatown. Buu Dien is a little bit tough to find, mostly because its address is listed on Broadway, but the actual spot is right off New High Street (one block over). Thankfully, you can enter the tight parking lot and leave your car there for free instead of battling on the meters (remember to validate!).
Buu Dien is a humble mom and pop shop with all the hilarious mores of a typical Asian restaurant. Loud TV tuned to some Vietnamese channel blaring the news, a motley setup inside of vinyl-backed chairs and cheap wobbly tables. The menus just feel gross, like they haven't been replaced in a decade. But the $2.25 banh mi is pretty fantastic, mostly because of the small details.
First, the bread is nicely warmed up. Second, the baguette is fresh enough that your first few bites aren't going to scratch up your hard palate. Third, there's just the right amount of livery pate slathered on the base of the interior to give you that extra umami punch. As for meats? It comes with steamed pork (which reminds me more of Oscar Meyer turkey lunch meat) and some chewy pieces of what the gentleman behind the counter calls "ham". Throw in the requisite cilantro, pickled veggies, and jalapeno, and you have a dense banh mi that killed any semblance of hunger. I didn't even finish the darn sandwich.
Afternoon coffee break: Cup of joe at Philippe the Original | Price: $0.49 | Remaining cash: $4.86
Time: 1:40 p.m.
Address: 1001 N Alameda St
Hunger level afterwards: 3
Am I the only person ever to walk into Philippe's just to get a ridiculously cheap cup of coffee during lunch hour? Probably not. And that's why they have that special line at the end of the bustling counter areas just for drinks and maybe a dessert if you can convince them. Philippe's is known for their ultra cheap coffee, though they had an unreasonable 500% price hike from 9 cents (!?) to 45 cents a few years ago.
It's now 49 cents, a nearly 9% price hike, and putting it close to 7-11 territory. Still, I'm glad that Philippe's has the graciousness to give me the luxury of a "damn fine" cup of coffee (especially with plenty of creamer) for less than a John F. Kennedy coin. Oh, and if you're wondering why my hunger level actually went up, I see coffee as a digestif, so my stomach was telling me to eat more. I didn't until about 8 hours later (thanks to a long Sunday siesta).
Pre-Dinner Snack: Corn on the cob at the Lincoln Heights Corn Man | $1.50 | Remaining cash: $3.36
Time: 9:30 p.m.
Address: Nearby Workman and Broadway, Lincoln Heights
Hunger level afterwards: 5
We've covered the Corn Man unabashedly now for a while. Yes, it's technically not legal. I've also seen multiple cop cars pass by it while more than 30 people were waiting in line. In case you haven't heard, this gentleman has been making simple street elote for years, close to 28 years in fact.
I was 2 years old when Timoteo Flor de Nopal started hawking this excellent, and incredibly affordable, corn on the street. So who am I to question its greatness? Well, it's possible to have better street corn than this, especially in Mexico, which offers non-GMO heritage corn varietals and grilled specimens as compared to the steamed/boiled version at Timoteo's spot. But we're not in Mexico. We're on a sleepy block in Lincoln Heights!
I ordered up a corn on the cob, loaded up with mayo, liquid butter (probably some off brand Parkay-like stuff), cheese, and chile de arbol, which gives the whole thing a terrific spicy kick. I took a quick snap, whereupon line-waiters made fun of me for being a weirdo, and started chomping on the cob. It's a mess, and I have to use all available napkins to make sure I don't come out looking like a total slob. It's fruitless. I own it, and just let the spice line my cheeks. For $1.50, you couldn't do much better in the city of Los Angeles than this street elote.
Dinner: Tacos al pastor at Tacos Tamix | Price: $3 | Remaining cash: $0.36
Time: 10:15 p.m.
Address: South Tremaine Avenue & Pico Blvd, Mid-City
Hunger level afterwards: 2
Everyone loves Tacos Leo and for good reason. It's a fantastic taco truck on Venice and La Brea with some of the best tacos al pastor in town. Here's my problem with it: their $1 tacos are really thin in the portion department, and their outdoor spit is only available on weekends. Throw in the ridiculous lines, and you have enough deterrents to steer me to something else (I still end up at Leo's because I love it).
Ever since I found Tacos Tamix, I feel like I'm the guy who knows the secret place that no one knows about. Sadly, that is not true, because Tacos Tamix is certainly popular in its own right, as it should be. First, the al pastor trompo here is well attended to and nicely constructed. It's not the best al pastor I've had recently (that would go to Tacos El Franc in Tijuana) but for a mere $1, you get nicely textured, generously portioned taco straight from the trompo. Top it with all the salsas (though not too much!) and enjoy the best $3 meal in Los Angeles.
I'm thankful that there are vendors and places around the city that offer food at prices this low
I was still kind of hungry and REALLY wanted to cheat with Tamix's fantastic gringa, which is a flour tortilla (don't hate the flour tortilla!) stuffed with cheese, al pastor meat, pineapple, and a slice of ham, then cut into quadrants for a mere $4, but I was near the end of my budget. I'll get the gringa another night.
As I was driving home, I was thinking about why eating on $10 was important in L.A. I felt like a petulant spoiled child complaining that I had to hamstring my budget, despite the fact that there are people all around me that go hungry because they can't afford to eat. I'm thankful that there are vendors and places around the city that offer food at prices this low. They're doing a service not just for me and this post, but for countless residents who get the joy of eating a delicious bite for a mere dollar or two. For that, I'm thankful that people work hard to cook this food, whether on the street, on a truck, or in a humble shop in Chinatown. It's a reminder that Los Angeles truly is the best place to eat in the entire world.