The Country Kitchen

Lately I’ve really been falling in love with Malibu. This beach town that seems isolated from the rest of LA, easy to dismiss as an enclave of affluence and snobbery, truly offers more than meets the eye. Of course it is an absolutely beautiful place to be, and when I drive up the PCH, each time I turn a corner and see a breathtaking vista of hills and ocean, I am reminded that yes, there is some natural beauty to be found in this sprawling, smoggy city. I know we are very lucky to live in a place with perfect year-round weather and a long stretch of Pacific coastline, but I do think it’s easy to forget how lovely this city can be when you’re driving back and forth to Hollywood or Downtown every day, staring at taillights on the 10 or construction on La Brea. The drive up to Malibu is free, and it’s really a welcome retreat. Another thing I love about Malibu is that it’s actually quite eclectic. Certainly, Malibu is home to Nobu and Geoffrey’s and the swank Malibu Country Mart, the most luxurious mall I’ve ever visited. But Malibu is also home to Cholada Thai and Malibu Seafood, two wonderful casual dining spots with beach shack vibes and relatively cheap, delicious eats. I love that over the span of one lazy afternoon spent lounging, reading, surreptitiously people watching outside of the excellent Cafecito Organico, one will probably spot at least two celebs, most likely sipping a juice or a smoothie from the popular health food spot Sun Life Organics, followed by a bunch of shoeless teenagers eating breakfast burritos from Lily’s, followed by a couple of crazy people screaming about the day's headlines. You will probably witness someone trying to get his or her script to one of the celebs, and a really hot, expensively swathed mom striking up a conversation and planning to meet up later with a young aspiring model guy. I have had a couple of delightfully strange afternoons eating my dragon bowl from Sun Life and watching it all go down.

But this is a blog about cheap eats, and I am not going to suggest that you shell out $10 or more for a Sun Life smoothie (even though I do think they’re worth it). Instead, I have a Malibu offering that will never break the bank and always over-deliver. Country Kitchen is a roadside walk-up counter under a blue awning that serves breakfast burritos all day, and you will be blown away by the deliciousness of these $5 burritos. On my first venture to Country Kitchen I ordered the burrito with egg, cheese and potatoes, and added avocado and salsa. Boy did I get a pleasant surprise when I bit into my burrito to find that the potatoes were in fact some sort of hash brown incorporated into the filling. The result was a salty, slightly spicy, eggy, cheesy, crunchy, savory breakfast of the Gods. The salsa is perhaps not spicy enough for my fiery tastes, but it is flavorful and chunky and the big pieces of tomato add a needed freshness to the burrito. The creamy avocado is the perfect foil to the crunchy potato.

There is something respectable, I think, about the fact that this place is selling coffee that is considerably worse than anything I have had off the free beverage cart on an airplane. I wouldn’t recommend buying the coffee, but I like that Country Kitchen does not have one bit of snobbishness about it. It is a legit beach shack with some old school, homestyle eats. They also offer burgers, grilled cheeses, etc. It may stick to your ribs, and you may want to wait until after you hit the beach to hit Country Kitchen. But some things are just worth a calorie splurge. And for $5, you will be full and happy for quite some time.

Incidentally, it was a student who originally suggested Country Kitchen to me, and when my husband first tasted his breakfast burrito there, he proclaimed that whoever told me about this place should get his Golden Aleph (a prize we award students with much ado when they learn every letter and vowel in the Hebrew alphabet). That’s an endorsement! Egg, cheese and potato breakfast burrito

Cha Cha Chicken

I have to admit that my first experience with this casual beach shack serving "eclectic Caribbean" was not especially favorable, so when Michael Symon chose their coconut fried chicken as one of the “Best Things [he] Ever Ate,” I had my misgivings. Cha Cha Chicken is within walking distance from my apartment, so it was with great disappointment that I noted their staple jerk chicken to be decidedly lacking in flavor, moisture, and general presentation. I found the service lagging, the décor odd. I've since discovered that to some extent, I just needed to adjust my expectations—the kitschy outdoor-only dining area, outfitted with patio tables and slightly sticky, mismatched chairs, and adorned with colorful lanterns hanging from a floral vinyl awning has its charms, especially at night, when a second round of dinner patrons forms a snaking line down the sidewalk, everyone taking full advantage of the BYO policy. Every hand clutches a beer, while ex-frat boys push tables together to accommodate large, festive groups, drinking and dining on spicy, sweet, sloppy Island food. There is a quirky cuteness to the scene.

I also just needed to adjust my order. A couple of the offerings are misses, and the jerk chicken is not the way to go here. Chef Symon was absolutely right about the coconut fried chicken, however—it is a delight. The thick, sweet, salty, crunchy crust breaks off in chunks as you bite into the chicken pieces, and those fallen morsels of chicken skin make your sides of dirty rice and red cabbage slaw so much better. The dipping sauces are so-so; the pineapple sauce is a little too goopy and sweet for me, and the jerk sauce is spicy enough, but the flavor doesn’t excite me. The fried chicken is all you really need. The sides, two of which are included in most orders, are clearly afterthoughts, dumped haphazardly on the plate. The beans in the dirty rice are often unevenly cooked and the fried plantains are starchy, unattractive brown chunks of room-temperature cardboard. The chicken gumbo is bland, the sweet potatoes overcooked.

But don't be discouraged. There are gems to be found here. Do go for the salmon, it’s really nicely cooked and spiced with a sort of dry rub version of the jerk sauce. Do go for the jerk chicken enchiladas, I find them surprisingly flavorful. I actually do enjoy that red cabbage slaw, though it isn’t so much a slaw as a mound of chopped red cabbage lightly dressed with jerk sauce. It’s nothing special on its own, but with some bits of coconut fried chicken skin or a bite of spicy grilled salmon, it’s a nice crunchy component.

Honestly, as I survey the scene from beneath a heat lamp on the enclosed Cha Cha Chicken patio, nothing but the presence of purple beans and rice is remotely reminiscent of anywhere I've been in Cuba. But the air is relaxed, the food satisfying, and I am enjoying a funky, authentically Santa Monica evening.