BY NATALIE HAUGHTON >FOOD EDITOR


When you're looking for a casual spot to grab a bite to eat, but you want terrific food, head to Joan's on Third. It's a cozy, friendly gem you'll treasure.

We landed here on a recent Saturday evening, and it turned out to be an ideal fast dinner choice. You order from the paper or blackboard menu at any counter, are given a number to display on your table, and the food is delivered in a timely fashion.

The marketplace menu runs the gamut from salads, sandwiches and soups to sweets that include cookies, cupcakes, cakes and pies. Also available are prepared food items out of the cold case (grilled vegetables, fresh deli salads, etc.) that change daily and are influenced by seasonality and availability.

The shop opened 10 years ago in a small, cramped, narrow space, offering food items to take away. Luckily, Joan's has recently expanded (in the same location) and tripled its space. Sporting a pleasant, inviting white decor with a touch of black, it offers cafe-style dining on the premises inside or out on small tables, or at the large communal table with food shelves nearby packed with upscale ingredients like olive oils, tapenades, vinegars, crackers, chocolates, wines and much more. It's a happening place - and always hopping with people eating and shopping.

We opted for tomato orange soup - and it came piping hot in a large bowl ($3.

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50) - a hefty portion and a good value. It was wonderful, with lots of tomato flavor and a subtle hint of orange. The other choice this night - a fresh corn soup - was equally flavorful and delicious.

It was difficult selecting a salad, as so many on the menu sounded appealing, among them tarragon chicken, a salad trio (from the daily specials in the cold case), a Southwest salad, and a nicoise salad with house-cured ahi tuna. We settled on the chopped salad ($12), which turned out be more like a Cobb. Although the ingredients were in larger pieces than customary for this style salad, the mixture contained top-notch grilled chicken breast, bacon, blue cheese, hard-cooked egg, tomato and iceberg lettuce with a creamy dressing. The salad tasted fabulous - much better than it looked. The sherry vinaigrette was a just-right blend that made the salad sing.

The sandwich choices number more than 20 - and many are substantial, like Joan's turkey meatloaf with chili aioli, roast beef with horseradish creme fraiche, prosciutto di parma, mozzarella and roasted peppers, and apricot glazed ham and brie with mustard caper sauce. A variety of breads are available, among them house-baked rustic roll, wheat, country white or French baguette. All are served with yummy sweet and crunchy pickle slices, which reminded me of my grandmother's vinegared cucumbers.

The fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwich ($8.75) was a winner, the country bread drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, cracked pepper and sea salt, and piled with layers of ultra-fresh cheese, tomatoes and strips of fresh basil.

The pressed chicken, bacon and brie with caramelized onions on a French baguette ($10.75) was a slight disappointment. The bread seemed a bit overcooked and hard, and the flavors didn't jibe this night, perhaps because the sandwich arrived cold, not hot.

For dessert, a chocolate coconut cupcake ($2.75) was dense, rich and moist, topped with vanilla frosting and sprinkled with lots of coconut. It was much better than some sampled at various cupcake shops around town. As we we were departing, some of the bar cookies in the case caught our eye. Don't miss the awesome pecan bars ($1.75 per large square) and raspberry bars ($1.75 each). The peanut-butter-filled chocolate cupcakes ($3 each) are rave-worthy, too.

The place can be crowded, but it's easy to navigate once you know the routine.

Joan's fills a niche and knows how to please the palate - if you like flavorful, seasonal, quality ingredients prepared with flair and interesting twists. If you're in the neighborhood and want to grab a bite on a moment's notice, give it a whirl.

At its best: A casual place for breakfast, lunch or dinner where you can grab a quick bite of wonderfully flavorful creations using quality seasonal foods.

Could be better: At busy times, it can be difficult to snag a table - and the frenetic pace and wait to order at the counter may not appeal to some. Parking is sometimes difficult to come by.
Natalie Haughton, (818) 713-3692 natalie.haughton@dailynews.com

Address: 8350 West Third St., Los Angeles
Cross Street: void
Phone: 323.655.2285
Phone: 323.655.2285
Hours: Monday through Saturday 8 am-8 pm, Sunday 8 am-6 pm
Cost: $$ $7.50- $20 per person
Parking: Available in back of restaurant