Dining on a budget: Hop Li Seafood in Arcadia

By Evelyn Barge, Staff Writer

Once I was a chronically picky eater, but now my taste buds have taken a turn for the adventurous.

I call it the San Gabriel Valley Effect. There’s so much delicious food – particularly ethnic cuisine – packed into our Valley that I just had to branch out from my boring meat-and-potatoes-eating ways.

The evolution has led to some of the best meals of my life, and I recently added Hop Li Seafood Restaurant in Arcadia to my list of favorites.

Hop Li is actually a chain of eateries with additional locations in Chinatown, Westwood and West Los Angeles, but the Arcadia restaurant is the only one with late-night hours. Open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day, it’s perfect for sating my frequent nighttime hunger.

The menu at Hop Li is expansive, so on a recent visit, my companion and I decided to sample a couple different specialties.

Our first choice was the deep-fried squab ($11.75) – something I’d tried to order at other Chinese restaurants in the past, but it had sadly always been out of stock.

It was an exciting find, but probably my least favorite part of the entire meal. The squab, which is a young domestic pigeon, was prepared simply with little added flavors or garnish. As you might expect with a pigeon, there’s not a whole lot of meat to be had. But where there was meat, it was gamy and fairly tender.

I also found the whole squab difficult to carve up and eat, which is more a mark of my inexperience than anything else. Next time, I think I’ll order the minced squab with bamboo shoots and lettuce to save myself the trouble.

The highlight of the meal was a plate of squid with garlic and black bean sauce ($5.99). It figures that a seafood restaurant would excel at serving up creatures of the deep, and Hop Li was right on the money. The sauce was a perfect, savory match to the firm texture of the squid.

An order of sliced chicken with straw mushrooms ($4.50) rounded out our more exotic selections, and the flavor combination on this dish was perhaps the best of all three.

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Overall, we barely scratched the surface of what’s available on the Hop Li menu. I also had my eye on a variety of hot pots (they take about 30 minutes to prepare) and the more unusual seafood items – frog, jellyfish and abalone – that were tempting the curious side of my palate.

While some of these rarer dishes will send your bill into triple figures, most items on the menu fall squarely within the $7.95 to $12.99 range. Lunchtime and late-night diners get even sweeter deals with a special menu that features plates as low as $4.50.

Hop Li Seafood is a world away from the food I was raised on – Italian on one side with a heavy dose of Southern cooking on the other – and that’s just another reason why I know I’ll be going back for seconds.

Hop Li Seafood Restaurant, 855 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 445-3188

www.hoplirestaurant.com

Dining on a budget: Old World Deli in West Covina

By Claudia Palma, Staff Writer

WEST COVINA – We have so many choices to get a fresh sandwich nowadays – Subway, Quizno’s, and even Vons – but I still like giving the little family deli shops a try.

I’ve seen the Old World Delicatessen hidden in the expansive Eastland Shopping Center in West Covina before and thought I would see what they had to offer.

The old-Italian style storefront nicely welcomes you into the shop, which offers both a sit-down and take-out restaurant and a deli shop where you can buy your own meats and cheeses to take home and cook with.

As much as I would have loved to stay in and enjoy the fresh and tasty-looking all-you-can-eat salad bar, I needed to get back to the office and ordered to go instead.

The menu features a variety of cold and hot sandwiches, New York-style hot dogs, soups, broasted chicken meals, pizza, and pasta dinner combos.

I chose the Brooklyn Bridge Grinder cold sandwich. It has a combination of Italian cuts – mortadella, coppocolla, dry salami – with provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, bell peppers, and topped with a special blend of Italian dressing, on a six-inch Italian roll.

 

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The sandwich alone is $6.85, but I made my order a combo with a drink and a side order of potato salad for a couple bucks more.

Everything in the sandwich tasted fresh and cold, the way it’s supposed to be. The meats were not too salty and had a nice kick of spices of their own.

The dressing was perfectly seasoned, not too overwhelming, and covered the vegetables in the sandwich enough to make them a little soft.

The potato salad definitely had to be freshly homemade and not the mass-produced buckets you can get at the supermarket. It had just the right amount of mayonnaise and seasonings. I even detected a little mustard which I usually don’t like but it blended in well. 

The size of potatoes varied from small to large round slices and had the right amount of pickles thrown in.

The shop, which has been in the deli business since 1969, offers daily dinner specials and catering. They also have another location in Upland.

Old World Delicatessen is at 2649 E. Workman Ave. in West Covina, (626) 967-6307; and 281 S. Mountain Ave. in Upland, (909) 608-0418. The deli’s Web site is www.owdeli.com.

Dining on a budget: Senor Baja, aka Taco Nazo in B.P.

By Emma Gallegos, Staff Writer

It’s not even fair – some restaurants have me right out of the gate. When I walked into Senor Baja, I could immediately smell the grease. It was the smell of so many flaky fish fillets being freshly but lightly batter-fried to a golden brown.

The sign out front still says El Taco Nazo, which is a familiar chain throughout Southern California.

I haven’t eaten at any of the other locations, but in Baldwin Park it is blissfully apparent that no one ever asked a focus group for their opinion. There is a shelf of model cars, gigantic close-ups of shrimp cocktails framed on the walls and a picture of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The specials are hand-written on those pre-printed cardboard signs you see at garage sales or used car lots.

From the smell of grease to the eclectic decor, the message here is clear: it’s all about the food. Who needs to worry about the subconscious signals you’re sending with decor, when you can lure people – especially in this economy – with the thrill of 99-cent tacos every Monday and Wednesday? (And if the economy has really got you down, on any day of the week there’s a well-stocked refrigerator of cold beer – domestic and Mexican – behind the counter for $3.75 each.)

The only hint of a focus group on the horizon is the name change in the works. The sign on the outside still says El Taco Nazo, but the eatery’s Web site said the name will be changed to Senor Baja, so that people will more readily associate their restaurant with Baja California. The Web site also notes that they will be remodeling their stores and going through a “re-imaging” process. We’ll see if Zapata – who isn’t from Baja – will survive the focus group.

There are few things about the restaurant I’d like to see changed. The whole restaurants hums with energy and efficiency. Waiters sailed around the corner to music that sounded like ABBA from warmer climes. A few waiters sang along. A sign on the sneeze guard suggests kindly that you take only what you’re going to eat. And by the time I got my utensils, a straw and napkins, they called my number. I’ve waited longer for Happy Meals.

I opted for the fish taco combo, which came with beans and rice and a drink ($6.49). I splurged with some flan for dessert ($2.31), but even with all that, I only broke $10 by two pennies because they tacked on an extra 50 cents for using my debit card.

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Fish tacos are their specialty and they hit it out of the park. The fish was hot, fresh, golden and not that greasy. The cabbage was crunchy, the tomatoes ripe, the cilantro fragrant and there was just enough sour cream to keep the taco from being dry. The flan wasn’t made on site, but it was creamy and had absorbed the not-too-sweet caramel sauce. The only true disappointments were the rice and beans, which were probably made en masse early on in the day and were cold and bland by the time I got there.

It’s best to forgo the combo. Opt for a few 99-cent fish tacos on Mondays and Wednesdays, you might even be able to get a beer without breaking $10.

Senor Baja is at 14343 Ramona Blvd., Baldwin Park, and can be reached at (626) 338-6420.

www.senorbajarestaurant.com 

Dining on a budget: Starlight Express in Monrovia

By Lafayette C. Hight, Jr., Staff Writer

MONROVIA – I’ve been to Starlight Express on several occasions and one of the things I like most about this establishment is that the food seems like it just came out of the wok.

Which is a difficult thing for some of the “express” -styled Chinese restaurants that offer a dozen or so dishes for lunch and dinner served either under heat lamps or over boiling water.

The teriyaki chicken is always tender and juicy. And most importantly, it’s not overly-sweet like it’s been doused in a ton of sugar. I have to admit, whether I’m going to order it or not, I usually try a sample of it.

I also really love their vegetable egg rolls. My only complaint is that I wish they were bigger – more toward the hot dog side of things, rather than the vienna sausage end of the scale. 

But on my last visit I decided to try something new: Black pepper chicken and broccoli beef with steamed rice and chow mein.

The spices used in the chicken dish reminded me of flavors used in cajun cooking. It wasn’t too spicy, but the blend had a little bit of heat with a touch of citrus somewhere in the mix.

The broccoli beef wasn’t flavored as interestingly as the chicken, but it was good.

On the day I went they didn’t have the lemon chicken I once had, and I hope it isn’t gone from the menu. Starlight also has egg drop soup, and hot and sour soup, which I’m looking forward to trying in the future.

I typically opt for one of their one-item, two-item, or three-item combination meals, which, at $4.29, $5.29 and $6.29 respectively, makes lunch or dinner a pretty inexpensive prospect. Drinks are somewhere around a buck, and two egg rolls can be had for around the same price. 

Another reason I like this restaurant is that it’s one of the few Chinese restaurants I know of that happens to be open on Sundays.