So, you go to school at USC or UCLA. Which means you go to school in Los Angeles. Which means you go to school in one of the greatest cities in the world. You have all the culture, nightlife, and reality TV star-spotting you could ever want all in your backyard. You also have excellent restaurants. Excellent, and very expensive restaurants.
But luckily there’s a lot more to eating in LA than $200 omakase sushi and The Ivy (if you don’t know what that is, you’re a better person than us). There are plenty of affordable, and even straight-up cheap, places too. Here are the LA spots you can (and should) try on a college budget.
Without question, the best fish tacos in Los Angeles. These are made by Ricky himself (who might also be god) out of a truck parked permanently on something in between a sidewalk and a driveway on the border of Los Feliz, Silverlake, and East Hollywood. You’ll be more than satisfied by two tacos, but our move is always to split a third.
Do you like gyros? Do you like Santa? If you answered yes to either or both of these questions, direct yourself to Papa Cristo, where you will find some of the best Greek food in the city often served by Papa Cristo himself, aka Greek Santa. It’s also one of the few very good spots in the very-near-USC vicinity. Come for a big group dinner or to pick up a solid weekend lunch.
You might not have known you needed more Filipino comfort food in your life, but we’re here to tell you that you absolutely need more Rice Bar in your life. Think rice bowls covered with sausage and eggs and pickled veggies, and think about getting yourself here for a quick, easy, cheap DTLA lunch immediately.
Yes, Grand Central Market is for tourists. But it’s also for you. Because a) unless you’re a local or a senior, you’re definitely still kind of a tourist, b) the food options here are unparalleled and c) you can get away with not spending much at almost every vendor here. This place is absolutely essential to the LA eating experience - if you go to USC, consider yourself lucky that popping by Eggslut for breakfast or Madcapra for hummus or Wexler’s for pastrami is only a quick Uber away. For the full rundown check out our Grand Central Market guide.
In case you haven’t been out in LA much yet, here’s what you need to know: Sugarfish is the unequivocal sushi empire of this city - and for good reason. They have the high-quality fresh fish for highly-cheap prices thing down to a science. And that formula is rock solid at Kazu Nori, their hand-roll-only spot downtown where you order a 3 to 6-roll ($12 - $23) set menu.
Whether you love French Dips or you’ve never eaten one, Phillipe’s should be at the top of your mental I-need-awesome-food-and-I-need-it-for-cheap list. This place is the (supposed) creator of the sandwich, and has been around for over 100 years - so it’s not just a place for a killer lunch, it’s a true LA institution.
Another classic LA institution (open since 1925), another unbelievably good sandwich. This is a world-class Italian deli, and while anything you order behind the counter is going to be worth the trip, you need to get your mouth around one thing in particular: The Godmother. If you go to UCLA, the short trip to Bay Cities should be just as much a part of your weekly routine as your Science GE - and way more enjoyable.
So you’ve decided to venture off campus for brunch. But you want something healthy, your friend wants a sandwich, and your roommate wants eggs. Everyone can get what they want (and pay a reasonable amount for it) at Sycamore Kitchen, which might just be LA’s best affordable daytime cafe. If the line is crazy long (as it usually is)? Just relax, know this food plus this patio is worth it, do some people watching, and be grateful you go to school in a place that makes this kind of Saturday possible.
After a day in Santa Monica, you can’t do much better for much cheaper than Cha Cha Chicken. This is authentic Carribbean food, eaten out on a colorful patio that makes you forget you’re in LA, and it’s truly glorious. And it also happens to be BYOB.
Texas’ greatest invention - and one of the all-time greatest food inventions - is without a doubt the breakfast taco. And Homestate is without a doubt the best place to find them in LA. Don’t leave without also adding a Topo Chico and a side of queso to your order.
Sometimes you want sushi because you’re looking for a light meal. But other times, you’re looking to take down a lot of rice and raw fish. And for those times, Noshi is here to provide some of the cheapest high-quality sushi in the city. Everything here is good - we suggest coming in a group and ordering a feast’s worth. Just note: it’s cash only.
Next time you’re craving noodles or curry, head to Thai Patio to get your fix. Not only is the Thai food here excellent, it’s also ridiculously affordable. And should that craving hit at midnight, this place is also open till 1am on weekdays and 3am on weekends.
Eating lunch at Joan’s on Third regularly is basically a graduation requirement. This gourmet market and cafe is where you go for classic sandwiches and salads (the club and Chinese chicken salad are our go-to’s), pastries, people watching, and the 3rd Street shopping that awaits you after your meal.
Lucky for you, you go to school in the poke capital of the continental U.S. There are a lot of places around town where you can get a beautiful, fresh bowl of chopped raw fish over rice - but our go-to is Mainland.
The ultimate affordable chirashi bowl can be found at Murakami. If you’re on a strict budget, stick to one of the options on the menu (instead of building your own, which can add up). The mixed bowl is the standout bargain, at $12 for servings of tuna, salmon, albacore, yellowtail, and shrimp.
Have you heard? LA is a taco town. And even better news for you, tacos are cheap. We could tell you to go to about 127 taco spots - but we’ll tell you to go to Guisado’s first. These are the gold standard, and if you go to USC you don’t even have to go too far to get them (the original location is in Boyle Heights, but there’s a second in Silver Lake).
You’ll deal with the crazy wait here because the ramen is worth it, and because it’s just a quick drive away from USC. It’s also open until midnight, so go for a late-night noodle study break or to avoid the long waits.
Looking for a little more action out of your dinner experience? If ideal “action” to you is watching Ms. Pac-Man eat all of the ghosts, then head to Button Mash. This is a restaurant/bar/arcade, and the bar food happens to be excellent. There’s everything from crispy tofu balls to chicken wings to one of LA’s best under-the-radar burgers, and you want all of it.
In case you’ve been dropped into LA from somewhere far away - or you’ve been living under a rock since you arrived - allow us to educate you about Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, a true Los Angeles treasure. Eating the #13 “Carol C. Special” - a waffle and some perfectly-fried chicken breast - sometime around 2am on at least one ocassion is an absolute requirement for calling yourself an LA local.
Only a few (OK, somewhere around eight) years ago, Wurstkuche was one of the first places USC students dared to venture outside the bounds of campus. Fast forward, and there may be lots of newer, shinier spots all over DTLA - but Wurstkuche remains an excellent place to eat well on the cheap. Your only options here are sausage and beer, but this is some good sausage and beer.
Are you from Texas? Is barbecue the real true love of your life? Then get yourself to Bludso’s, which is easily some of LA’s very best BBQ and sneakily a great place for a cheap meal. Come with a group and go family-style - your trays might remind you of EVK, but your food couldn’t be farther from it.
While there are constantly new DTLA spots opening up, Bar Ama is still one of the best places for a casual meal that still feels like a fun night out. Across the board, the Tex-Mex here is great - you can’t go wrong as long as queso (if you don’t know what that is, ask your friend from Texas) and the off-menu puffy tacos are on your table.
So, you’ve probably heard about how Sqirl is, like, the coolest restaurant in LA. You might be wondering if a stupid rice bowl is really worthy of your attention (and the drive off campus). We are here to tell you that the answer is yes and yes. This place is truly amazing. We suggest you do something productive with one of those days you don’t have class until 1pm and come to Sqirl (plus, the wait’s way less bad on weekdays).
And while you’re already in Silver Lake, you might as well stick around for dinner. Especially if it’s dinner at Pine & Crane, an excellent Chinese spot. The setup is order-at-the-counter-and-compete-for-a-seat, so it’s best if you don’t have ten people with you.
Find yourself out and about in LA late night? Fred 62 in Los Feliz is your move. This place is a 50s diner meets a 90s punk band and it’s open 24 hours. Get the frosted flake french toast.
You will find the best tacos closest to USC at a food truck parked in the Arts District. The menu changes constantly, so just go with an open mind (and mouth), and you will be rewarded. Check their website before heading out to make sure you know exactly where they’re located.
Open since 1924, and probably serving USC’s hungry students for almost just as long. This place is a no-nonsense, 24-hour, cash-only diner. Use it accordingly (aka very late nights and very hangry mornings).
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