When I first met my editor, John Birdsall, he admitted to eating lots of sandwiches. "It's my shame." I only bring it up because we see eye to eye on sandwiches. I like them all: deli counter, Southern fried, Vietnamese funky. Like Old Yeller, sandwiches are dependable: They hit you the right way every time.
Lately I've been trying to shed my sandwich goggles and break the lull of my afternoon meals. I admit 4/20 had me thinking about bowls, which is why I have plunged into the world of lunch bowls, specifically rice or noodle ones. Like a sandwich, a lunch bowl is self-contained. You get the same satisfaction in finishing a bowl as you do taking that last bite of crust, but bowls give you a spectrum of textures and flavors that sandwiches don’t. And bowls are usually cheap, hearty, and filling, the three things that make up my lunch code.
If I'm in the San Fernando Valley visiting my parents, I'll swing by Sushi Don, an unassuming strip-mall spot off Laurel Canyon Boulevard. There is no sushi bar inside, and they do plenty of takeout. Don’t raise the red warning flags yet: It shares the same owner as its high-end Westside cousin, Sasabune, so its credibility is in check. I always opt for the yellowtail donburi, a large bowl of warm rice topped with crisp, julienned cucumbers, mildly tart pickled eggplant, and sashimi slices. The color scheme is something to behold, and you get a nice balance of texture and temperature levels: buttery and crunchy, cool and warm. They may include a tad too much rice, but for $10.50 it's still a bargain.
If you're heading east from the Valley into Hollywood's Thai Town, you'll have many choices, including those delicious salty turnip pancakes from Ruen Pair.
But for lunch, I head straight to the source, Sapp Coffee Shop, for a bowl of beautiful jade noodles, which regularly top Los Angeles cheap eats lists. The noodles are a mellow green color, piled high with barbecue pork, roasted duck, crabmeat, broccoli stems, and chives. It packs a ton of flavor, and has a nice oiliness without being flimsy or damp. You get sweetness from the pinch of sugar, spice from the pepper flakes, and a cooling acid from the lime and/or lemon. Eight bucks, cash only.
East of Thai Town and closer to Sunset Junction is Pine & Crane, a month-old Taiwanese/Chinese tea and noodle house. At least twice a week I go in for their minced pork on rice ($6). It is deceivingly filling, a combination of Kurobuta pork belly, shoulder, and fried red shallots paired with a soy-braised egg. You'll taste hints of cinnamon, which plays off the soy sauce nicely, and to cleanse your palate between bites, try the pickled daikon to the side of your bowl. The daikon is a real treat, and luckily you can buy more at the counter to take home.
For ultimate bang for my buck, I head to Roy Choi’s Chego in Chinatown. The $9 Sour Cream Hen House is like a 2-for-1 meal. And while I prefer the brioche toast with jam above anything else at Sqirl, their rice bowls with sorrel pesto, French sheep’s-milk feta, paper-thin sliced watermelon radishes, and a poached egg are refined and tasty and only $7.50.
Photos of Sushi Don's yellowtail donburi (top), Sapp Coffee Shop's jade noodles (middle), and Pine & Crane's minced pork on rice (bottom) by Justin Bolois