Personal Favorites Around the South Bay

Several affordable restaurants offering quality above their price.

Over the years working in the South Bay, I’ve made a number of places frequent stops for dinner or lunch.

Here’s some of my personal picks I’d like to share.

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Shrimp on the barbie at the California Fish Grill.

California Fish Grill

Where else can you get swordfish for $11.99 with two sides? You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere offering such a dish for under $20, but California Fish Grill (a short drive east on Artesia Boulevard from the campus) offers that and other tasty seafood for reasonable prices.

The swordfish steaks and other grilled fish selections come with optional cajun, olive oil, chimichurri or garlic glaze.

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Swordfish steaks in cajun glaze, french fries and brussel sprouts. 

Keep in mind the excellent clam chowder, not too greasy fish and chips ($8.99) and consider spending an extra $1.50 for a side of brussel sprouts doused in a tasty vinegarette.

California Fish Grill has numerous locations in Southern California. The closest to campus is 1425 W. Artesia Blvd. in Gardena. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Phone: (310) 225-2777.  Online: cafishgrill.com.

 

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A Habit charburger with bacon, lettuce and cheese. Charburgers start at the $3 range.

The Habit

Forget the greasy Five Guys burgers and consider In-&-Out’s offerings flavorless and overrated compared to The Habit’s charbroiled creations.

While it is more than what you would pay for at In-&-Out, The Habit is much cheaper than Five Guys and other gourmet burger joints in the South Bay.

If you want something a bit fancier for the price, consider ordering the Santa Barbara Char, which has avocado and numerous other toppings on grilled sourdough.

And don’t forget the onion rings. Crisp, not too messy, not oily and a better order than french fries. Have a lemonade or mocha shake and you’ve got an excellent burger outing.

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Onion rings go great with honey mustard dipping sauce.

The Habit has restaurants across Southern California. The nearest to the campus is at 3829 Torrance Blvd. in Torrance. It is open 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Phone: (310) 406-3063. Website: habitburger.com.

 

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A combination plate of ground beef enchiladas, rice and beans from Zacatecas in Hawthorne. Price: $9.25

Zacatecas

This literal hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall in Hawthorne is a hidden gem of a Mexican family restaurant, and within reasonable distance from the college.

It is almost always busy and loud with Spanish sports on the TV, but the food can be ordered to go with complimentary chips and salsa, or can be enjoyed in the establishment with a margarita, Michelada or various beers.

Breakfast, seafood, and a variety of burritos (try Tom’s, with carne asada, beans, guacamole, sour cream, onions and spicy green sauce) round out the menu, and weekends offer menudo.

The best thing is that this isn’t a joint that piles on spices and sauces to mask poor-quality meat. It’s mild done right, with the option of adding more fire if you desire.

It’s highly likely the friendly staff will offer you deliciously cold flan on the house, but it might be a challenge to eat it as the amount of food will put you at the bursting point.

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The chips and salsa is where the gluttony begins at Zacatecas.

Zacatecas is located at 13737 Inglewood Ave. in Hawthorne. It is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Phone: (310) 679-5161. Take out is available.

 

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A mountain of food awaits at #1 Buffet in Hawthorne. Egg rolls, potstickers, chicken skewers, fried rice and various meats, along with a Chinese donut barely fit on the plate.

#1 Buffet

Offering lunch on the weekdays for under $10 and dinners and weekend prices for $13 a person, this Chinese buffet in Lawndale is just a short drive from the campus.

The establishment offers a change of dishes from its lunch and dinner options. Lunchtime eaters should make a beeline for the Chinese barbecue pork, while weekend and dinner visitors should make room for giant crab legs.

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Chinese barbecue pork (aka char siu) is the star of the lunch menu at #1 Buffet in Lawndale, and brings back memories of $1 Chinese take out joints in the ’90s (the pleasant ones).

However, the place excels in its appetizers, from wontons, sushi, fried shrimp and chicken wings and skewers. It is likely you will have a plate of appetizers, rice and some variations of meat dishes, and if room allows, a third plate for dessert or fruits.

#1 Buffet is located at 14418 Hawthorne Blvd. in Lawndale. Open from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Phone: (310) 644-4007. Take out is available. 

 

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Put as many toppings as you want at Pizza Rev: Above is a pie with pineapple, pepperoni, sausage, cilantro and sun-dried tomatoes.

Pizza Rev

The concept of Taco Tuesday seems to be ripped off by Pizza Rev’s special — $6 personal pies, all day on Tuesday.

The chain pizzeria, which operates like a Subway but serving thin-crust pizza, allows for as much meat, veggies and other toppings as you like for that price. That’s right: no extra charge for more pepperoni or adding more flavor to a Hawaiian-style (or is that Canadian?) ham and pineapple.

Along with specials offered on smartphones, this should be a consideration for a student’s wallet. Pies generally cost under $9 the rest of the week.

The only minus is location; the nearest one to El Camino College is in El Segundo, in the shadows of the city’s skyline on the always-busy Sepulveda Boulevard. There is ample free parking in the midst of the offices, at least.

Pizza Rev has numerous locations in Southern California. The nearest location to El Camino College is located at 460 N. Sepulveda Blvd. in El Segundo. It is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Phone: (310) 426-6320. Take out and online ordering are available, and the chain offers deals and rewards via smartphone. Website: pizzarev.com.

The All You Can Eat Chronicles: Little Trouble in Big Wok

Enough sizzling meat and vegetables to satisfy a horde.

Note: Part of an occasional series on local AYCE restaurants near campus.

In the 2007 film “Mongol,” Genghis Khan, enjoying a barbecue with the wife and kids before annihilating a city in China, talks about wanting to spread his language across the world, starting with the word for meat.

In the more civilized 21st century, he probably could do a good job in doing so with opening a chain of restaurants similar to Big Wok Mongolian BBQ in Manhattan Beach.

A bit of a drive from El Camino College — travel west down Artesia Boulevard and turn right on Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach, Big Wok will be on your passenger side as you descend the first hill.

While you won’t learn the Mongolian word for meat, you’ll have plenty of it — frozen chicken, beef, pork, turkey, lamb, tofu and more spread on a buffet line among a mass of noodles and vegetables, which are then seared on a hot stone and served in minutes.

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Consider two bowls on a trip to the buffet line; one for noodles and vegetables, the other for meats, such as lamb pictured here. Curry sauce optional.
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Noodles, vegetables and meats dance on the cooking stone.
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Pictured here are noodles, lamb, a small bit of beef and chicken, water chestnuts, cilantro, pineapple, cabbage, mushrooms and scallions in a curry sauce.

Upon returning to your seat there should be a drink waiting for you along with complimentary rice and toasted sesame seed buns. It’s best to probably make a trip to the restroom to wash your hands just in case from using the tongs to pick up raw frozen meat. This also allows for a chance to let the food and bread cool.

A dispenser for hand sanitizer is located near the buffet as well in case the restrooms are occupied or you don’t want to make the trek across the building.

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Delicious bread, but it tends to be pretty hot to handle. Also, a bit sharp on the gums.

About that bread: it’s fresh and goes well with the meal, but it can have searing hot pockets of air trapped in and the exterior can be crisp and sharp enough to cut your gums. Be careful.

So we’ve discussed the journey. How does the arrival fare when this food goes into your mouth?

The meats are lean, noodles are just right in texture and the produce is fresh.

There’s a variety of sauces at the end of the buffet line that can add more spice. The curry sauce is particularly enjoyable; it’s hot enough to make one cough, salty enough to forget about the table salt, adds a nice punch to the meats and veggies and pairs well with pineapple chunks and crisp water chestnuts.

As for price, it’s not cheap (dinner and a drink reaches close to $20 a person), so if you’re watching the wallet it’s advisable to try to make the lunch sessions. There’s a no leftover policy here for dining in, but food can be taken out and weighed if you’re on the go.

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Take out rules and prices at Big Wok.

This place is not a quiet one. Aside from the scrapes and clanks from the cooking area, it’s generally busy inside and two large screen TVs usually have a sporting event on them with the volume up considerably.

There’s a few issues with Big Wok — you might be queasy about handling raw meat on a buffet line, the overeating risk and the dangerous sesame bread — but at its price and taste, it’s worth it.

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Big Wok Mongolian BBQ is located at 250 N. Sepulveda Blvd. in Manhattan Beach and is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 9:30 p.m. weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Phone: (310) 798-1155. Website: http://www.bigwok-mongolian-barbq.com/.

The All-You-Can-Eat Chronicles: The Mystery at the Inca Gourmet

What the hell did I eat?

Note: Part of an occasional series on local A.Y.C.E. restaurants near campus.

There should be a law for buffets to label all their dishes offered.

Accurately, too.

That was the case when I went to the Inca Gourmet buffet in Lawndale for dinner.

With the exception of a few dishes— most notably, the watermelon and pineapple chunks — nothing was labeled. Even so, who knows if the sticky notes were above the right item, as some appeared to have been blown around by the winds.

Not being an expert on Peruvian food, I had no idea what I was getting, other than what I could tell from experience: rice, fried bananas, chicken, potatoes. A lot of chicken and potato dishes. What’s the difference between them aside from a sauce color? Can’t tell.

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To this day, I have no clue what this is, other than rice, potatoes, assorted vegetables and chicken.

This was a first for me, almost flying blind in a restaurant. I’ve been to a number of chaotic buffets where things may be hastily labeled. And I’ve been to exotic restaurants offering Eastern European, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Tibetan and Middle Eastern dishes that had some sort of English description of what the dishes were.

I could tell there were a number of stews offering fish and tripe. I didn’t get a chance to try any lomo saltado, a late discovery I made when I moved a few old sticky notes around, but it looked like there was barely any steak bits in the bin.

It was a noisy joint by the way. CNN in Spanish was on full-blast, and the tables were alive with conversations. Combine the TV, the hectic atmosphere of the place, the wait staff’s poor English and my bad Spanish, there was probably no chance at identifying much of anything. Checking up photos of items and sticky notes on Google and Wikipedia didn’t always pan out. An online menu for take-out orders didn’t help either.

Eating at the Inca Gourmet gave a feeling of being stranded in a foreign country with no idea what you’re doing; just waiting for the pick-up and grabbing whatever the local fare is.

Another thing I noticed was it wasn’t all Peruvian fare. Chinese buffets tend to have the odd habit of throwing a pizza, french fries and other non-Chinese foods onto the buffet trays. I still chuckle at the memory of a Chinese buffet in Riverside County that put Oreos in the dessert section under a heat lamp. But it makes sense when consider small children and the no-frills steak and potatoes crowd.

Inca Gourmet did the same, only putting Chinese fried wontons along with fries — which actually, after reading up, are typical sides for lomo saltado. I think I recognized chow mein in one bin. When I came home to Google through my notes and pictures to identify dishes, I noticed the restaurant boasted “Peruvian-style Chinese food.” Hm. Well, the fried rice I scooped up on a second trip to the buffet was good.

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Chocolate cake for sure on top (and tasty, too). Possibly flan on the right and almond cake on the left.

The food wasn’t bad. It was decent for $12 and change for the buffet and a soda. But aside from the enigma of the dishes, nothing really stood out.

Basically it comes down to sentences like this: “The potatoes and chicken in the green sauce was better than the potatoes and chicken in the red sauce.”

Should you eat at the Inca Gourmet? Ask yourself if you want to take a $12 gamble and find out.

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Inca Gourmet is located at 15651 Hawthorne Blvd. in Lawndale. Open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

 

Burger City Grill: Messy and expensive (like city life)

This is one of those reviews where I want to give a better grade, but there are too many intangibles to do so.

There are so many right things about Burger City Grill’s burgers, yet so many things went wrong when I tried them.

I’d recommend a trip for the burger lovers and foodies, but with cautions, especially to those on a budget.

Here’s the lowdown.

My first trip to a Burger City Grill was a few years ago at the restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway in Lomita. Indigestion marred what was a tasty bacon cheeseburger and fries before meeting up with an old friend.

When the chain recently opened up a restaurant just a mile south of the campus on Artesia Boulevard, I decided to give it a second chance.

No heartburn from a bacon cheeseburger and chili cheese fries as the double-down dare. And despite a flinch from the receipt, it was a good experience to say, “hey, let’s review this place for the upcoming blog, with one more trip for photos, a shake and a wild-card burger.”

The third trip, however, was a disaster. And I think it best illustrates the highs and lows of this gourmet burger joint.

I decided to take risks with my custom-made burger in terms of budget and toppings: a single patty with lettuce, cheddar cheese, pineapple and pastrami, no sauce.

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Behold, the item my doctor will point at as the cause of my arteries being clogged.

That pastrami was the mistake of the outing.

It tasted great. It could have starred in a sandwich or masqueraded as good corned beef on its own.

But it was also greasy, and too much for the “signature bun” of Burger City Grill. It turned to mush from the grease of the meats, and the pineapple and pieces of beef fell to the paper and plastic basket, which already had a pool of oil that formed while I took photos of the food. I ended up using a fork to eat the final bits of hamburger, bread, cheese, lettuce, bacon, pineapple and pastrami strewn across the paper. I digress — are there burger Nazis who freak out over eating these things with forks, like some folks do over slices of pizza?

By the way, someone take note: this is probably a good cholesterol, er, casserole recipe.

I would’ve taken a picture of this horror, but I didn’t want to grease up a school camera, nor risk spending minutes cleaning burger gunk off my cell phone. Bad enough some of that grease leaked out onto my white mock turtleneck when I picked up the sandwich basket and took it to my table.

The ride home on the freeway, my car smelled like a delicatessen. Not a bad thing, other than reminding me that I shouldn’t wear white.

And I can’t say the burger wasn’t bad. Hell, it tasted great even as mush on my fingers.

But the real downside for the El Camino College crowd is this — price.

A B.C.G. (whoa, letters) single, offering pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, onions and spread is $4.35 — without cheese. Cheese is 70 cents more and additional toppings cost $1.60 each. So my single-patty bacon cheeseburger with pineapple and pastrami ($2.75 extra) and the $5 shake (OK, $4.95, but I had John Travolta’s $5 milkshake lines from Pulp Fiction going through my mind when I looked at the receipt) was just a few dollars under $20 when the cashier totaled it up.

Not good for the budget, especially when a McDonald’s is within walking distance of the campus and a Jack in the Box is a good hike away, offering far cheaper fare.

In price and quality, Burger City Grill occupies the tier with Five Guys, Smashburger and The Counter. On its own merits among this crowd, it was better tasting than Smashburger (which was far messier — I’ve never seen a thin burger patty fall apart after a bite, and their fries were annoyingly spaghetti-thin shoestrings that left crumbs all over the place) and quicker, less pretentious and expensive than The Counter, which came in above the price tag of Burger City Grill. And I went to The Counter with a freaking coupon.

However, I will defend The Counter on one item: it had the best shake I’ve ever had, a mocha and vanilla combination that had the flavor atoms in such proportion they didn’t cancel the other one out. Burger City Grill’s shake didn’t come close, nor did I have the same closing line as Travolta when Uma Thurman let him sample the $5 milkshake from Jack Rabbit Slim’s. The basic offerings of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate are tame, and the vanilla oddly had the same flavor and texture as Yoplait yogurt; not a bad thing, just weird.

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It didn’t taste like bitter Greek yogurt, which was my first impression from the texture.

In short: Burger City Grill is messy and expensive, like city life. You can visit this city and enjoy it, but you don’t want to live there.

Eat here as a celebration burger. You aced the midterm or got an A on your project, eat your heart out.

In the meantime, stick to McDonald’s and Jack in the Box for your wallet’s sake, or do a roadie to In-N-Out or The Habit — the latter being my personal favorite and the happy medium between fast food burgers and gourmet hamburger joints such as Burger City Grill.

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Burger City Grill is located at 3605 Artesia Blvd. in Torrance. To look up its menu and learn more, go to burgercitygrill.com.