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Bailout Cuisine: Modestly Priced Local Eateries:

In hard times, people eat out less – unless they know about restaurants that are inexpensive and good. Some of these places don’t look fashionable and may not be located in the high-rent districts, but serve great food nonetheless. Here are a few restaurants that this Mirror writer has been fond of for some time.

At the east end of Santa Monica, Lares (2911 Pico Boulevard, 310.829.4550) is everyone’s favorite Mexican restaurant. Inside this modest-looking two story building, the décor is Old Mission, and the atmosphere is down-home Mexican, with guitar music at night and colorful paintings by owner Marta Lares on the walls. One litmus test of a Mexican restaurant’s cuisine is its salsa. Lares’ salsa is orange-red, thick, and spicy/sour, a unique taste. Lares makes a wonderful mole sauce, dark, satiny, slightly sweet. Other highlights of the menu include breakfast specialties like huevos rancheros and chilaquiles, a variety of torta sandwiches, ceviche, and lengua (tongue) topped with either red or green chile or mole sauce. And don’t forget the margaritas -– they will transport you!

It is possible to have a light meal at Lares for about ten dollars -– dinner for two with drinks can run to $50, still a reasonable tab for a full, hearty meal.

Sham (716 Santa Monica Boulevard, 310.393.2913) is another very unassuming-looking place. A mere storefront exterior, inside it’s all the flavors of the Middle East. One of their unique dishes, when available, is quail. You get three small whole birds marinated in a garlic sauce and grilled to crispness. Entrees are enormous, especially at dinner, and include shawarma plates, kabobs, and combos. If you want just a falafel, you can choose a regular or Arabic style (flat) falafel, or a falafel special with salad and hummus. Also don’t miss the Mouhummara, a tantalizing red pepper dip. It’s easy to have a full meal here for less than $15 per person, especially at lunchtime.

Dhaba (2104 Main Street, 310.399.9452) has been serving Indian food at its Ocean Park location for more than 30 years. Again, the one-story building may look ordinary, but inside, there’s the ambience of sitar music (or Bollywood pop) and there’s a romantic flower-covered patio for warm weather. A complete dinner at Dhaba can be had for between $20-$30 dollars and includes a kachumbar salad, chappati bread, dahl (bean soup), rice, and a veggie or meat entrée. Dhaba works culinary magic with those vegetables that often seem inedible (like cauliflower), turning them into savory curries. For dessert, there’s mango ice cream and Indian-style rice pudding.

A stone’s throw from Dhaba is Cha Cha Chicken (1906 Ocean Avenue, 310.581.1684), the place to eat if you’re near the beach, in a hurry, and don’t want junky fast food. Cha Cha is strictly an outdoor venue, where you dine on a patio decorated with plants and a mural of a nudist colony! The tropical setting puts you in the mood for dishes like Ropa Vieja (shredded seasoned beef), Ropa Nueva (the same, with chicken), Jerk Chicken Enchiladas, Spicy Black Pepper Shrimp, and Coconut Fried Chicken. There are also Jamaican sodas, aguas frescas (fruit punches), and ginger beer that soothes the tingle of the spicy food. Most entrees are less than $10, but still leave the diner feeling more than satisfied.

With a little exploration, you can find many restaurants in Santa Monica that will satisfy your taste buds without taxing your wallet. Of course, you may want to keep them secret; otherwise it will be like that restaurant that Yogi Berra once described: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

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