Fancier dining for those on a budget

For much of the semester, this column has covered the somewhat unsavory details of our never-ending relationship with food: misguided legislature, booming obesity rates, the ethics of meat consumption — the list goes on.

These issues, though potentially confusing, divisive and frustrating, are still significant. After all, food is an integral aspect of life.

But eating is also about pure, uninhibited pleasure. There is something to be said for simply kicking back and indulging our cravings.

There’s a catch, though: How can we eat luxuriously on a college budget?

The answer lies in finding the right places at the right times. Some of Los Angeles’ hottest and most luxurious restaurants can be accessed without wrecking your bank account. Though it probably won’t be as cheap as another night of Panda Express, eating some of the best food in the city can be a value-friendly experience.

Take, for instance, Wolfgang Puck’s newest restaurant, WP24. It sits on the 24th floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel at L.A. Live, giving diners both fantastic Asian fusion cuisine and one of the most gorgeous and expansive views of the L.A. skyline.

It was one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants in America in 2010. It garnered three stars from the Los Angeles Times. In short, it’s a foodie’s delight.

With dinner going for $75 for three courses, however, WP24 seems out of reach for the average college student.

But it turns out you can eat spectacularly here for less than half the price of the prix-fixe dinner. Two words: lounge menu.

The lounge menu features both Chinese-influenced dishes as well as sushi, both of which are exceedingly tasty. The baby pork belly “bao buns,” for example, are nearly flawless: The pork is tender and unctuous and the bun is likely the best you’ve ever had.

The sushi is astonishingly good and better than a lot of the fusion sushi in this city. The hamachi crunch roll is a must — the fish is delicate and buttery and the chili aioli painted within knocks it out of the park.

Nearly all of these menu options are less than $20, with more expensive options being generally larger.

There are other affordable dining options, too. Much has been written (and raved) about owner Michael Cardenas and Chef Josef Centeno’s restaurant Lazy Ox Canteen in Little Tokyo.

If you haven’t heard of it, it’s about high time you did, because Centeno’s food is fearlessly tasty, with flavors quite unlike anything else around town. And with most dishes less than $20, he’s value-minded as well.

One caveat: Dinner, especially on Friday or Saturday evenings, can be a mad rush of people all looking for a table. But snagging a reservation is worth it, especially with the kitchen pumping out inventive and constantly evolving dishes.

If this is a hassle, though, try brunch. It’s still tasty, still inventive and you can still get Centeno’s lights-out Lazy Ox burger ($14), served juicy on a house-made bun with a mean green peppercorn mustard and fat, crisp fries on the side.

And finally, how could we talk about well-priced, luxurious food in Los Angeles without mentioning The Big One: Bottega Louie?

Ever since it’s conception, Bottega Louie has been one of Downtown’s dining jewels, seemingly always full of happy customers.

The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, and crowds grow to deafening, mosh-pit-like mobs Friday evenings, pushing wait times to an hour or more.

Like Lazy Ox Canteen, the dinner menu can be worth it, especially when considering the pastas and special entrées.

But if you don’t want to deal with the punishing crowds and noise inside (it’s very, very loud), brunch is again a very good option.

Lemon Ricotta pancakes? Yes, please. Slather those delicately scented and fluffy cakes with butter and drizzle with blueberry syrup and you get perfection for only $12.

And don’t forget the great egg dishes, such as the eye-popping pancetta and burrata scramble ($12). Who doesn’t love caramelized pork and explosively creamy cheese on a lazy Sunday morning?

All of these restaurants can’t be defined as “cheap,” but when done right, eating great can be a splurge, not a bankruptcy.

Los Angeles is, without a doubt, a dining destination. USC students might as well take advantage of it.

Food shouldn’t just make us full. It should delight, excite and make us crave the next great dish.

So put down the frozen chicken breast tonight and throw on some nice digs. Los Angeles is your oyster — in this case, a very tasty one.

Eddie Kim is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Food As Life,” runs Thursdays.