We LOVE restaurant lists. Any time we’re waiting in line at the grocery store and we see a magazine with a “Top Ten ________ Restaurants” or “Fifty __________ Restaurants You Should Try” or “75 Hidden Gems” or whatnot, it automatically goes in our shopping basket. Why do we love lists so much? Because we love crossing things off. Because it provides some order to the often chaotic process of choosing where to eat. And because many times it opens our eyes to places we wouldn’t have otherwise chosen.
A few weeks ago, we nabbed an issue of LA Magazine uncovering “101 Cheap Eats” in the city. This was a particularly appropriate get for us, as we are currently in money-saving mode (although, in these times, aren’t we all?). On a rare weekday off, as I perused the list for lunch options, my eye fell upon family-run Flavors of Belize, just a short drive away from our place.
It's easy to miss the restaurant, tucked away on the ground floor of the Relax Inn (Relaxin’!) on La Brea near San Vincente. In the broad counter, the board announcing the lunch specials, and little booths, you can see echoes of the former coffee shop that Flavors of Belize replaced. But the tiny restaurant claims the space as its own with touches from Belize, including tropical-themed wood carvings and Mayan-inspired paneling. On the day of our visit, a lone gentleman oversees the front of the house. Service is incredibly friendly, but languid, very much in line with my limited experience with Central American dining.
A basket of thick and crispy tortilla chips and a bowl of slightly spicy and addictive bean dip hits our table soon after we’re seated. They go quickly and are graciously replaced by our host for the meal. A Jamaican ginger beer fills the gaps between bites.
Narrowing down our choices is difficult – we’re not familiar with Belizean cuisine and want to try just about everything. First up, a thick fritter studded with conch. It’s good on its own, but is even better slathered with the satisfyingly fiery bright orange habañero sauce that’s brought to our table with the food.
Next up, a couple of panades, fried maize shells with your choice of filling. Well, not exactly your choice. We attempt to order our panades stuffed with chicken as listed on the menu, but our host patiently explains that the cook doesn’t like to make them with chicken – too greasy. We shrug and give in, and the bean-filled shells are nice enough that we don’t mind. Think extra thick empanadas. Again, the panades are a good delivery system for the habañero sauce, although they are also good with a little of the chopped onion that comes with each order.
We move on to the ridiculously inexpensive lunch specials. Mark orders a plate heaped with coconut milk-tinged rice and beans topped with a hearty spiced beef stew. While the meat itself is not mindblowing, it is remarkably flavorful and tender for a $7 lunch entrée. And if generous portions of rice, beans and meat don’t fill you up, you still have a scoop of Belizean potato salad – lighter than and not as mayonnaise-y as American/German potato salad – and a sweet fried ripe plantain to devour.
Our friend gets the same plate, subbing in crisp chicken instead of beef. He proclaims it the best protein of the meal, though the rest of the meal is good enough that we aren’t complaining. Still, at only $5, it seems as though he has won the ordering lottery.
Nevertheless, I am perfectly content with my $7 selection: gelatinous pigtails, braised until falling apart, served with a thick, starchy stew of split peas and plenty of coconut milk-flavored white rice.
We probably wouldn't have ever visited Flavors of Belize without having seen in on the Cheap Eats list, yet here we sit, stuffed, satisfied and almost disbelieving when our $27 check comes. Flavors of Belize definitely earns its place on LA Magazine’s list.