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Hands reaching in to share a variety of dishes on a table.
Sundays bring an array of vendors to Smorgasburg L.A. in Row DTLA.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

14 of the most affordable picks from the 101 Best Restaurants in L.A. list

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As you set your 2024 spending goals, know that there are plenty of ways to have an outstanding, soul-satisfying meal in Los Angeles without compromising your bank account (or booking reservations weeks in advance). These 14 picks from the 2023 101 Best Restaurants serve as proof and are far from one-note — find Korean banchan that’s perfect for grabbing on the go, breakfast bagels worth waiting in line for and one of the city’s most beloved mariscos stands.

101 best restaurants, hall of fame, best drinks and more: This guide is essential to dining in Los Angeles.

Dec. 19, 2023

Bookmark and return to this list anytime you’re craving delicious food on a budget, including Oaxacan tlayudas, Syrian shawarma, Salvadoran pupusas, stewed tofu and more.

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Two halves of a bagel, topped with smoked salmon, dill and roe, in a cardboard dish
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Courage Bagels

East Hollywood Bagels $
Arielle Skye Moss began selling her compact, smoky-crisp bagels from the back of a bicycle nearly seven years ago. She expanded to the Silver Lake farmers market, and then in October 2020 she and her now-husband, Chris Moss, moved into the Virgil Village space previously occupied by Super Pan bakery. The fever around Courage Bagels didn’t rise overnight, but its popularity bloomed into a phenomenon with legendary lines. I tend to come on the early side of weekend mornings, when the wait to order usually isn’t longer than 10 minutes, and I find a seat under an umbrella at one of the tables set up along the sidewalk. My carton, when a staffer rushes out calling my name, will contain Summer in Sardinia — a sandwich layered with sardines, tomatoes, scallion-dill cream cheese, lemon and capers — or its winter equal minus the tomatoes. I’ll finish with half of a purposely burnt bagel pounded with everything seasoning and draped with smoked salmon. They are worth the wait.
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A hand pours a sauce onto a plate of food on a colorfully striped tablecloth
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

La Diosa de los Moles

Bell Gardens Mexican $
Rocío Camacho earned her nickname as “la diosa de los moles” working in local kitchens and partnering on projects in Sun Valley and Paramount over the last 20 years, but the restaurant she opened in Bell Gardens in 2015, which until this year she called Rocío’s Mexican Kitchen, is currently her sole professional home. The handwritten menu above the kitchen window lists the dozen moles she assembles daily with the detailed precision of a watchmaker. Her earthy, spicy-sweet mole Oaxaque?o is the Rolex among them, a shiny feat of elegance. The menu presents seven meats and seafoods to pair with moles: Try chicken with the smooth, almost fluffy pistachio and mint mole, or pork as a canvas for smoky manchamanteles with notes of pineapple and chipotle. Eggs and chilaquiles prove equally ideal foils for Camacho’s masterworks, as I’ve learned from savoring them during the restaurant’s quiet breakfast service.
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Empanadas filled with custard and pastelitos de pollo at La Papusa Urban Eatery.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

La Pupusa Urban Eatery

Pico-Union Salvadoran $
Los Angeles County is home to more than 400,000 people of Salvadoran descent; multitudes of restaurants and street vendors sell their distinct versions of plush, griddled pupusas. You can debate the one be-all-end-all pick of the bunch while I settle into a table at Stephanie Figueroa and Juan Saravia’s Pico-Union restaurant, content that theirs is an excellent starting point from which opinions may fly. They balance density and crisp-soft ratios; fillings span traditional blends of cheese and refried beans to more elaborate additions of shrimp or chorizo. The requisite curtido (pickled cabbage relish) twangs and crunches appropriately. Pupusas comprise the heart of Figueroa and Saravia’s menu, but the couple also affectionately rework some other fundamentals of Salvadoran cooking. Breakfast dishes are particularly strong, including La Ma?anera, a cheese-filled pupusa mounded with eggs, salsa ranchera and curtido, and a burrito anchored by plantains and casamiento, a pilaf-like merger of rice and beans.
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Shrimp taco and the Poseidon from Mariscos Jalisco on separate white paper plates
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Mariscos Jalisco

Boyle Heights Mexican $
Sometimes I worry that it’s redundant to declare a visit to Raul Ortega’s white lonchera in Boyle Heights to be a worthy first meal in Los Angeles. It’s been asserted, by me and other critics, for years. But then I am surprised time and again by the number of people who’ve never heard of Mariscos Jalisco. So I will repeat the magic words: tacos dorados de camarón. Picture corn tortillas that grip a mixture of spiced, minced shrimp. Ortega and his team don’t quite seal the tortilla, so in the fryer the filling sizzles around its edges while the interior becomes improbably creamy. The first bite will be lava-hot, but garnishes of sliced avocado and thin red salsa bring a flood of cooling relief. It’s the textural equivalent of your life flashing before your eyes: It’s every possible experience all at once.

Ortega operates three additional outposts, including a counter restaurant in Pomona, with the same menu, and a lonchera on the Westside. If none of them quite reaches the pinnacles of the Boyle Heights truck, it still might be the most amazing seafood taco you’ve ever had, and a fast-track entry into the city’s culinary culture.
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White bowls filled with various Vietnamese dishes.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Ngu Binh

Westminster Vietnamese $
Orange County’s Little Saigon — straddling Westminster and Garden Grove, and encompassing one of the U.S.’ largest Vietnamese populations — needs its own roster of 101 best restaurants. Previous recommendations in this guide have included Brodard Chateau, with its tapered nem nuong and its sweeping menu; Pho 79, where long-simmered oxtail meat is a key addition to the oniony spiced broth; and Kristin Nguyen’s Garlic & Chives, for caramelized catfish over sticky rice and fried crab buried under garlic bits with the rustling crunch of autumn leaves.

Also on my short list: Ngu Binh, with locations in Westminster and Fountain Valley, where Mai Tran and her family present dishes from Thua Thien Hue, a province in central Vietnam famous for its royal cuisine. Bún bò Hue dac biet (spicy noodle soup crowded with several cuts of pork and beef), bánh bèo (slippery rice cakes textured with minced shrimp and crunchy pork skin) and bánh ít kep bánh ram (two-tiered dumplings of glutinous rice dough filled with shrimp and pork and then set on discs of lacy fried dough) are key immersions into Tran’s regional specialties. The menus are the same at both restaurants, though the Fountain Valley space is roomier and prettier.
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Cod dosirak on rice, left, and gimbap from Perilla LA
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Perilla L.A.

Chinatown Korean $
Los Angeles food obsessives have long deliberated over which Koreatown restaurants serve the finest spreads of banchan. When Jihee Kim began her Perilla L.A. pop-up project in summer 2020, she reminded many of us to savor banchan as the meal itself. In her hands it was a given that this class of dishes, so full of geometries and colors and so urgent in flavor, commanded center stage. Three years later, she has at last launched her daytime restaurant and takeout shop. Expect straight-from-the-farmers-market produce prepared in intuitive gradations of freshness and fermentation — summer squash animated by garlic-chile oil; fiery, complex kimchi made from collard greens or daikon — and perennials like her stunning seaweed-rolled omelet cut into circles with hypnotic, spiraling centers. Small portions of the day’s banchan selection also come over rice as part of a dosirak, the Korean lunch box that is an analogue to the Japanese bento, served in the shop’s early days with warm doenjang-marinated chicken or cod.

Locating Perilla can feel like a treasure hunt on the first visit: Follow GPS to the Victor Heights address at the edge of Echo Park and look for the peachy-orange buildings. Turn the corner at Heavy Water Coffee and follow the row of tables shaded with umbrellas to Perilla’s tiny gabled home in a converted garage.
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A tlayuda filled with chorizo, with a side of blood sausage seasoned with mint grown in the garden, on yellow paper.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Poncho’s Tlayudas

Historic South-Central Mexican $
Home to the largest Oaxacan population outside Mexico, Los Angeles knows tlayudas: Our restaurants usually serve them as open-faced discs, their foot-wide tortillas showered with quesillo and crumbled chorizo, and often sliced avocado and nopales arranged in spirals like nautilus shells. Alfonso “Poncho” Martínez grew up eating tlayudas grilled and folded by cooks in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys, where he was raised, so that’s how he and his cooks prepare his version at his Friday night pop-up in South L.A. He begins by painting his masa canvas with asiento, a toasted lard he renders himself, before spreading over frijoles refritos, cheese pulled into short strings and shredded cabbage. Choose among three meats, which can be combined: chorizo; tasajo, a thin cut of flank steak salt-cured for a few hours before grilling; and moronga, a billowy, herb-laced blood sausage made from a recipe that was a wedding gift to Martinez from the father of his wife and business partner, Odilia Romero. (She co-founded the organization Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, or CIELO, which hosts the pop-up on its front lawn.) Warmed over mesquite, Martínez’s tlayuda is astounding with its density of tastes and textures — and one of our city’s defining dishes.
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A square dish with a scoop of rice and dishes in a dark brown sauce and a fiery orange sauce.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Sabores Oaxaque?os

Koreatown Oaxacan $
The pink-and-orange sign emblazoned with Sabores Oaxaque?os’ name stretches half of a Koreatown block. It sets an uplifting mood for the saturation of colors that await on walls and plates inside. Brothers Germán Granja and Valentín Granja run their business in the space that formerly housed the original Guelaguetza, where their chef Dominga Rodriguez also previously worked. She oversees an extensive menu; I concentrate on her exemplary Oaxacan classics. Moles bear her unique fingerprints. Try her amarillo, a soupy rendition with chicken and vegetables that leaves an aura of cumin and cloves around the palate. Satisfying versions of goat and lamb barbacoa, both swaddled in avocado leaves as they cook, arrive in chile-stained broths that warm with spice without inflicting heart-pounding chile heat. Crackery tlayudas and plush, oval memelas show off masa’s sustaining goodness in contrasting textures. The restaurant opens at 8 a.m. daily for eggs that are scrambled with chorizo or made into an omelet and submerged in salsa verde.
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Chicken shawarma plate with fries from Sincerely Syria
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Sincerely Syria

Sherman Oaks Syrian $
The story of Adham Kamal’s narrow, handsomely spare Sherman Oaks restaurant, one of the businesses wedged into a dense commercial block of Ventura Boulevard near Van Nuys Boulevard, begins on another crowded urban corner: Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. In late 2021 he took over Hollywood Shawarma, a tiny stand with a handful of sidewalk tables. Kamal grew up in southwestern Syria and has been making shawarma since he was a teenager. His version is the best I’ve tasted in Southern California. Sincerely Syria’s two shawarma options, deeply marinated and stacked on vertical rotating spits, loom among gleaming steel equipment. Their forms resemble overgrown pine cones: One is a mix of lamb and beef, referred to as lahme in Arabic, and the other is lemony chicken, or djej. Each has its own canon sauce: tahini-based tarator for lahme, toum (whipped garlic sauce) for djej. Choose between hand-held wraps, or 12- and 24-inch “combo” versions that come with extra pickles and fine-enough fries. The larger variations are made using a familiar Los Angeles staff of life — big, thin flour tortillas. They admirably stand in for khubz, the traditional papery bread. I’d suggest starting small, though, by asking for a wrap made with one side of a pita. The thinner layer superbly intensifies the wrap’s ratios. It’s a common request that Kamal receives with a nod and a knowing smile.
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Halved sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, lobster and more
(Annie Noelker / For The Times)

Smorgasburg L.A.

Downtown L.A. Eclectic $$
At face value, Smorgasburg L.A. is a weekly open-air event, one in a network of Smorgasburg vendor markets across the U.S., which congregates food trucks and other culinary businesses on Sundays in Row DTLA’s back lot. I can’t speak to what goes on elsewhere, but for Los Angeles, under the direction of general manager Zach Brooks, the gathering has grown into a vital incubator and connector of talent. As one wonderful instance: Juan Garcia and Ivan Flores run a pop-up they call Goat Mafia, serving a deeply spiced, Jalisco-style goat birria based on Garcia’s father’s recipe. Rhea Patel Michel and Marcel Michel established Saucy Chick Rotisserie, a pop-up featuring rotisserie chicken and sides that express flavors honoring Marcel’s Mexican roots and Rhea’s Gujarati lineage. Both are Smorgasburg regulars. They joined forces recently to open a restaurant in East Pasadena that — win, win — serves their respective specialties under one roof.

The pleasure of attending Smorgasburg in its eighth year is revisiting vendors that have gained citywide followings, while also scouting out newcomers. A recent Sunday tour included a breakfast burrito from Jonathan Perez’s Macheen, lamb barbacoa flautas from Steven Orozco Torres’ Los Dorados, and a green chorizo torta from Evil Cooks. For dessert? Velvety scoops of sour cherry and orange blossom-pistachio ice creams from Kinrose Creamery, which landed official vendor status in September.
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Burrito 2.0 with grilled steak on a square orange plate, draped with a grilled scallion
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Sonoratown

Downtown L.A. Mexican $
The magnificence of Teodoro Díaz Rodriguez Jr. and Jennifer Feltham’s taqueria rests first on the flour tortillas cranked out by their master tortilla maker, Julia Guerrero. Their thinness belies their durability, and like the best pie crusts they manage to be at once flaky and buttery. Nearly translucent and handsomely pocked from the griddle, it is the flour tortilla against which to judge all others in Los Angeles. I am quick to recommend Sonoratown’s famous Burrito 2.0, swollen with pinto beans, mashed guacamole, Monterey Jack and sharply spicy chiltepin salsa; among meat options that include grilled chicken, tripe and chorizo, the standout choice is costilla, a mix of boneless short rib and chuck robed in mesquite smoke. Lately my order also has included at least one chivichanga, mini-bundles swaddling shredded chicken or beef cooked down in a thick guisado of tomatoes, Anaheim chiles, cheddar and Monterey Jack. They are deeply comforting, and they’re equally excellent at the couple’s second, larger store in Mid-City.
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A selection of seafood and vegetable dishes.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Surawon Tofu House

Koreatown Korean
Even through a constant barrage of bad news, when Beverly Soon Tofu announced it was closing in September 2020, the loss of such a community anchor felt freshly jarring. Monica Lee opened the Koreatown restaurant in 1986, breaking new ground as a specialist in soondubu jjigae. Nothing (or no one) ever quite replaces a loss, but if you’re in need of the comfort of soft tofu stew, eating at Surawon Tofu House is good medicine. The restaurant makes its own tofu, and the menu presents over a dozen options for customization, including additions of vegetarian dumplings, kimchi, ox bone, oysters, intestines and an assorted mix of beef or pork with seafood. Choose among five levels of heat, from “plain” to “extra spicy”; I find “spicy” to be pulse-quickening but not brutal. The cauldron of stew arrives, boiling volcanically. You can pretty much intuit the moment when the jjigae is cool enough to sip. The chile stings your lips. The tofu melts on the tongue. And soon the bowl is empty.
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Chorreada and Torito from Tacos La Carreta
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Tacos La Carreta

Long Beach Mexican $
The partner of a food critic, as you might imagine, eats scores of meals out a year. I don’t expect mine to keep track of details, which naturally go fuzzy; it isn’t his job. But his reaction was striking when we drove to the Tacos La Carreta food truck in Long Beach this fall. We ordered a torito — sirloin carne asada grilled over mesquite, roasted Anaheim chile, minced cabbage, thin tomato salsa and melting cheese lightly binding a flour tortilla — and after the first bite he exclaimed, “Oh, this taco!” We’d first tried it in May at L.A. Taco’s annual Taco Madness event and, no surprise, its meaty, balanced brilliance snared an award. Since 2020, José Manuel Morales Bernal has been forging a distinct, umami-blaring taco style from his family’s Sinaloan recipes. The 10-item menu dips into straightforward tacos and quesadillas, but most customers rightly gravitate to the torito and also the chorreada: two corn tortillas buckled and crisped over heat and spread with a bit of rendered fat to amplify the carne asada’s beefiness. Bernal also serves tripe, which melds equally with his glossy avocado and chunky tomato salsas. The steak, though, is unforgettable.
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Hands split a taco to show its fillings, including guacamole.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Villa's Tacos

Highland Park Mexican $
“Tacos estilo Los Angeles” is the motto Victor Villa adopted for his Highland Park business. At the pop-ups he ran starting in 2018, the words blazed across banners hung from tented stands; they beam now from a neon sign in the back of his first taqueria, which opened in February. Villa’s style epitomizes the L.A. dreamer, the go-getter. His queso taco — large and lavish with griddled cheese, layers of cotija, squiggled-on crema and dolloped guacamole — is deftly engineered chaos that practically takes two hands to wield. It’s a taco built on charisma. One has no choice but to be all in. Among choices of meat, I savor the nubbly beef and chorizo but take particular pleasure in the rich, hashed chicken leg that absorbs mesquite smoke. Villa is thoughtful about vegan options too, leaning into satisfying texture contrasts such as half-pureed black beans scattered with cactus salad. The tacos’ generous construction invites a more-is-more approach with salsas. While peering at the variety — all shades of green and red, save for the pop of cubed mango paired with habanero — don’t overlook the fire starter labeled “jiquilpan.” Based on a recipe that Villa’s father learned in Michoacán, it’s riddled with smoked chiles that echo the flavors of the grill.
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