Taking a food walk on the west side

The west side of campus has an unfair reputation as a shady, unsafe area. Perhaps that is why it is largely ignored by Trojans. Although Figueroa Street teems with USC students licking green and pink Yogurtland spoons, Vermont Avenue on the west of campus is forlorn and gray.

Big meals, big flavor · The eateries on Vermont Avenue feature generous portions of a wide variety of cuisines — from Chinese to Mexican — offering meals at low prices and making them perfect for students. - Photos by Sophia Lee, design by Laurel Van Patten | Daily Trojan

That is most unfortunate because within a half-mile stretch from campus, Vermont houses several hidden gems that, despite many years of residence, have largely been passed unnoticed by students — or selfishly kept secret by others.

Start walking north on Vermont past Smart & Final and the post office, and within a 10-minute stroll you’ll find at least four eateries, all relatively close to each other. Keep your eyes peeled because they are so inconspicuous and unremarkable that you can walk pass them without noticing a thing.

The worn orange sign of Manas Indian Cuisine will be the first place you’ll come across. It is actually one of the better-known eateries in this area but still doesn’t garner the acknowledgment it deserves to be, even though it offers the best Indian grub within a mile radius of campus.

Indian cuisine is a collection of diverse ethnic and cultural tastes, and Manas offers popular dishes of various regional cuisines, from the rice and seafood-heavy South to the bread and meat-heavy North. It even includes some Indo-Chinese dishes as well as Thali dishes for those who want a platter of bites from different regions.

Depending on the dish, you get a choice of mild, medium and spicy. Unless you crunch on chili peppers as a snack, stick to the mild or medium version, as Manas is not shy with its spices. Even the medium version is searing hot if not consumed with liberal mounds of rice or bread, so order “spicy” at the risk of tears and hours of digestive relief.

Otherwise, Manas is a friendly place to explore Indian cuisine. It offers many vegetarian choices, such as palak paneer (cubes of mild cheese smothered in rich, spicy spinach gravy) and baighan bharta, a healthy Indian version of eggplant parmesan, minus the fat and cheese.

But whether you crave meat, seafood or vegetables, don’t forget the carbs — Manas serves a mean selection of hot, delicious tandoori-baked flatbreads called naan.

This leavened bread staple has an amazing texture that stays elastic and chewy even when pulled apart and drenched in rich curry, thus serving as the perfect edible utensil.

If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll love the peshawari naan, which comes stuffed with raisins, cherries, nuts and neon-pink coconut powder. If not, the simple garlic naan sprinkled with pungent minced garlic will also chase away any study blues.

Next in line is Celaya bakery on the right side of the street. Look for a tall blue sign and colorful murals in Spanish.

This 40-year-old bakery is dingy and strangely garish with bright signs and antiquated decorations, but my eyes were drawn first to the glass case in the middle of the store showcasing rows of colorful, sweet-smelling baked goods — cookies, muffins, cakelets, croissants and rolls ranging from 25 cents to $1.50.

The bakery serves a great selection of takeout meals as well. Though the menu is in Spanish, the cashiers are extremely friendly and patient when translating the menu.

But recognizing good food needs no translation. All the ingredients at Celaya are cooked and served on the spot; they even fresh chop the lettuce by hand instead of pre-shredding the vegetables and letting them sit out for hours.

Despite the freshness, the prices are dirt-cheap: Four chicken enchiladas, covered in spicy red sauce and served with salad, rice and refried beans, are only $5.50. A fat torta spilling with meat, avocado, lettuce and tomatoes is just $4.50.

Don’t forget dessert either; in addition to the pretty, baked goods, Celaya also sells a churro and hot chocolate set for $3.

Right across  the street from Celaya you’ll see another battered store with a yellow sign that reads “Olympian Burgers,” aptly named for its humongous portions.

Olympian Burgers is your classic diner with familiar American items such as pastrami melts and breakfast omelets, as well as Mexican favorites such as taquitos and fajitas.

Service is fast, friendly and efficient, and you get to see the cooks grill burgers and deep-fry potatoes right behind the counter while you wait. The quality is as fresh as diner fare can get at an affordable price; giant quarter-pound burgers range from $2.75 to $4.50, depending on the level of toppings, and a foot-long carne asada burrito, stuffed generously with smoky steak and spices, costs less than $5.

The pastrami chili cheese fries, a mouth-watering mountain of cheese, grease, meat and starch, is a meal in itself.

Hong Kong Express, less than a five-minute walk from Ralphs grocery store, also dishes up ridiculously huge portions at equally cheap prices.

It offers a special combo price for students: At $3.80, you get a hefty dollop of chow mein and fried rice, plus two additional dishes of your choice. You can also upgrade your combo with a seafood dish or additional entrée for $4.70.

As long as you don’t expect authentic Chinese cuisine, you’ll be impressed by the taste and quality of the food, which is just as good, if not better, than Panda Express. It serves up the usual American-Chinese fare such as broccoli chicken and kung pao shrimp, and it isn’t stingy about giving you a few extra pieces of tender meat or seafood.

The west side of USC might not be the most recognizable, but there is no reason why it should be shunned completely. It is time for these humble eateries to be given due credit for their years of quiet, patient servitude to the USC community.

At the very least, stop by and grab a bite for takeout — who knows, you might just become a regular.

Sophia Lee is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “That’s What She Ate,” runs Mondays.

3 replies
  1. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    I second Rudy’s comment, the food at Hong Kong is disgusting. I legitimately was hungover after eating a meal at that place.

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