Some people seek wealth, some, love and some, inner peace. And some of us just need a good cheap place to eat lunch.
And so we at hometown-pasadena.com have been on a quest to find good spots for a bargain lunch. We’re starting the series with the greatest challenge: the $5 Lunch. We’re not talking chain fast food, or sit-in-the-parking-lot burger joints. We’re talking a proper place to sit, with real plates, and a chance to relax for a few minutes over something fresh and tasty to eat.
We’ve found nine places in and around Pasadena (including Alhambra, La Crescenta, South Pas and Monrovia) that will feed you surprisingly well for $5. If you have favorites we missed, please let us know in Comments. And stayed tuned for parts two (the $7 Lunch) and three (the $10 Lunch).
101 Noodle Express
Forget the noodles — everyone comes for the massive beef scallion rolls, which cost $6.75 but are big enough for two (or three). A crisp yet seductively oily pancake is wrapped around stewed beef, scallions, cilantro and a hoisin-like bean paste, and the result is two foot-long burrito-like creations that will have you eating way more than you should. Dip the roll in chili oil and vinegar to spark it up even more. This is a basic table-service café, small, clean and utilitarian.
1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, 626.300.8654. L & D daily. Cash only.
Sopes vary a lot in size at Mexican cafés, from snack size to meal size, and the one here is meal-size for all but the most serious lunchtime trenchermen. A fat, crisp-crusted, soft-inside masa cake is topped with a smear of beans, delicious stewy chicken, a heap of shredded cabbage, cojito cheese and a squeeze of crema. It’s a fine lunch for just $4.95. And if you really want a treat, note that the excellent small margaritas are a mere $1.50 to $2.50, depending on the day.
577 S. Arroyo Pkwy., Pasadena, 626.449.2999, dona-rosa.com. B, L & D daily. AE, MC, V.
A godsend for under-served Lake Avenue office workers, this café is nicer than your typical Mexican order-at-the-counter joint: tableclothed, umbrella-shaded sidewalk seating, real plates and silverware, an attractive dining room and a very sweet staff. It’s easy to keep it to $5 if you order a couple of à la carte tacos, sopes or enchiladas, but consider splurging on the $6.99 lunch special — it includes a fountain drink, and the specials are always homemade and huge (the other day it was two fat gorditas with a stewy filling of carnitas and nopales (cactus), romaine salad, rice and beans).
12 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena, 626.229.0706. B & L daily, D Mon.-Sat. MC, V.
El Taquito Mexicano
You have to try to spend more than $5 at this sweet order-at-the-counter café, which is a cheery yellow on the outside and shabby inside. Very nice women cook everything from scratch, and the sopes, tacos and quesadillas are excellent. Two tacos or sopes and a horchata won’t cost more than $5. At night their good food is served out of the taco truck parked in the Nishikawa lot on Fair Oaks.
467 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena, 626.577.3918, eltaquitomexicano.com. B & L daily. MC, V.
Mamma’s Brick Oven Pizza
This is proper New York-style pizza, sold by the large, floppy slice, with a flavorful sauce and the right amount of cheese. On weekdays the lunch special gives you a free drink with an order of two slices, and two slices of plain cheese comes in at exactly $5. So with the drink thrown in, it’s a great deal. No-frills but fine seating inside and out.
710 S. Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena, 626.799.1344, mammasbrickoven.com. L & D daily. MC, V.
Yeah, it’s a chain, and the bread’s not going to put Euro Pane out of business, but you have to admit that the chicken noodle soup in a bread bowl for $4.95 is a great deal, tasty and hearty but not too heavy. Add free WiFi and the deal gets even better.
3521 E. Foothill Bllvd., East Pasadena, 626.351.8272
300 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, 818.265.0700
panerabread.com. B & L daily. AE, MC, V.
Teri & Yaki
For $5, you get a plate heaped with white or brown rice, soy-sauce noodles and plenty of addictively sweet-savory teriyaki chicken. You order at the counter, but there are plenty of wooden tables, and they’ll bring your food to you — and not on a paper plate, either.
319 S. Arroyo Pkwy., Pasadena, 626.683.9865
106 S. Myrtle Ave., Monrovia, 626.256.6705
teriandyaki.com. L & D Mon.-Sat. AE, MC, V.
My teenage daughter gave up vegetarianism for Vince’s turkey and provolone on a soft french roll. That’s how beloved this sandwich shop in the Vons center across from Huntington Hospital is. Fresh, generous sandwiches are just $3.50 to $5 (you can spend as much as $6 on a jumbo super sub, but few do). Nothing is amazing, but it’s a very good lunch for the price, especially if you can snag one of the tables outside.
111 W. California Blvd., Pasadena, 626.792.7149. L Mon.-Sat. MC, V.
Wow Bento & Roll
This five-branch SoCal chain café has cheap but not-very-good sushi and some decent bento boxes for less than $7, but the real bargain is the chicken and tempura bowl, a fine lunch for $4.16. It combines steamed rice, chicken teriyaki and a few pieces of shrimp and vegetable tempura. Besides the Pasadena and La Crescenta cafés, there’s a branch in the food court at the Glendale Galleria.
910 E. Union St., Pasadena, 626.796.3636
3231 Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta, 818.957.3636
wowbento.net. L & D daily. MC, V.