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Eating For Cheap

January 10, 1988| Compiled by Kathie Jenkins

The holidays are over, the money is all spent, the credit cards are at their limits and you still want to eat out. Here are some restaurants reviewed recently where you can eat for $5 or less.

AL FRESCO, CAFE ITALIANO (524 S. Occidental Blvd., Los Angeles,(213) 382-8003). The word fresco means fresh and all of the salads, with fresh mixed greens and a combination of meats and cheese, live right up to their name. Portions are generous and prices are very low. A seafood salad with medium-sized, herbed shrimp is $5.10, while the saffron-colored cold shredded chicken is $4.75. Try the pastas and pizzas, made to order and laden with fine quality cheese and sauce. Individual pizzas start at $3.50. Full dinners may be had in the $6 range. The desserts are good--the creme caramel is very rich, the chocolate mousse thick, sweet and very large. This small place gets crowded in the wink of an eye. Open for lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. Cash only. No liquor. Shopping center parking.

ASTROBURGER RESTAURANT (5601 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, (213) 469-1924). This fast-food joint turns up a few surprises. Consider a three-egg Greek omelet filled with the best imported feta cheese, fresh tomato and onion. The hash browns, made with fresh potatoes, are non-greasy, lightly crisped. The omelet also comes with toast, any kind you want. All this for only $2.85. The beef tostada, which includes a lot of meat, is $3.25. You might also consider the meat loaf sandwich, only $2.75. The Greek salad, which is large enough for a light lunch, is only $2.25. This is an independent operation, separate in menu and management from other Astroburgers around town. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Cash only. No liquor. Parking lot in back.

BENNY'S BEVERLY HILLS (240 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 278-0209). Benny's is a bright, sunny, skylit room at the far end of which is a table groaning under the weight of large bowls of food. Standing in front of about a dozen bowls of equally tempting concoctions--three kinds of chicken salad, pasta salads, pilafs and so on--is akin to standing before the ice creams vats at Double Rainbow. Should you, for instance, have chicken salad that's dark red with chili, cumin and ginger, or do you want the sesame chicken or the tangy light chicken salad dressed with lemon and accented with crunchy pea pods? Should you have brown rice or lentils? Or should you go with pasta, say, spinach and cheese tortellini? And on and on. The tab is $4.95 at lunch or dinner for a selection of three. At that price, you can afford to try them all. Benny also serves espresso and cappuccino and such desserts as a chocolate meringue or apple caramel cakes, at $3 a serving. Lunch and dinner, Mon.-Sat. Cash only. Beer and wine only. Parking lots nearby.

THE GRILL TABLE (103 East 9th St., Los Angeles (213) 622-3343). The menu here is mostly Israeli but there are also some Iranian specialties, chiefly wonderful tangy grilled chicken that is marinated for 48 hours in lemon juice, onion, garlic and other seasonings. Big spenders willing to pay $3.60 for a complete falafel plate get the falafel, hummus, a large serving of rice, two salads, pickles, a Middle Eastern-style eggplant mixture and a pita bread. Small spenders can have falafel and salad in a pita for $2.25. The top price at the Grill Table is $3.95 for the chicken grill and shawarma (meat grilled on a vertical spit) plates. Lunch only, Mon.-Fri. Cash only. Lot parking nearby.

MANDARIN DELI (9351 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (818) 993-0122). Start with ice-cold seaweed salad--julienne strips of crunchy sea plant--slightly sweet and sour, hot with slivers of raw garlic and utterly delightful. Cold dishes, in fact, are all wonderful here. So are the noodle dishes, especially the "special" noodles, which are wheaty linguine-type made fresh at the restaurant each day. Try them with shredded pork and pungent Chinese pickled cabbage in a lighter pork broth. But save room for the savory pork-stuffed pot-stickers--they are the quintessence of fried food: crisp, flat and slightly burned on the surface that's touched the hot pan, soft and rounded underneath, seemingly greaseless but bursting with the flavor of hot oil. At $3.75 for an order of pot stickers, this is great value. Lunch and dinner, Wed.-Mon. MasterCard and Visa accepted, with $15 minimum. Beer only. Parking in rear.

PAPATURRO (4109 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 660-4363). This inexpensive little dive has absolutely delicious food. Try the pupusas , corn pancakes stuffed with melted cheese ($1.30), or the chile relleno, a large mild pepper stuffed with a mixture of pork and vegetables before being battered and fried salad, a sort of Salvadoran coleslaw. Other more exotic dishes include fried bananas with cream and beans and pasteles-- little deep-fried meat pies (three for $2.10). This isn't exactly a fancy neighborhood and the room itself is fairly sparse. But the prices are low (nothing in the restaurant is over $6), portions are big, the restaurant is friendly and the food's a treat. Lunch and dinner, Wed.-Mon. Cash only. Beer and wine. Street parking.

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