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Hidden and underrated eats around the USC campus from scones to octopus balls

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Takoyaki at JJ’s Tea House

For students and faculty on the go, there often isn’t a lot of time to stop and check out what’s new or different around campus.

Finding comfort in familiarity is often the easy way to go when you’re thinking about class, politics or, in the case of 2020, a pandemic.

While there are many staples that have fueled students and professionals in the USC area for years, there’s also some hidden gems.

Scones and Specials at Immaculate Consumption (933 Main St.)

Immac, as it's known, has been a staple for years, pouring coffee and slinging sandwiches for university students and government staff. While lunch time at Immac can get slammed, devout Immac eaters know that breakfast is equally satisfying.

One of the things that makes Immac such a standout in the morning is the lineup of daily baked goods. While there’s a plethora of muffins and cookies to choose from, easily the best items on offer are the large, luxurious scones.

A good scone has the perfect combination of a crispy exterior and soft, fluffy interior. Immac captures both, while also managing to create a light airiness that makes consuming two a very real possibility.

Lunch is just as good, and a big part of that are the daily lunch specials. Whether it’s a banh mi sandwich, turkey dog with a cilantro lime slaw or other sandwich creations, Immac always manages to come up with a winner that balances texture and flavor.

The turkey dog, for instance, doesn’t sound like a standout on paper, but the ultra snappy, well-seasoned dog is perfectly cut by the crispy, tart slaw.

Breakfast at Family Fresh Mex (1200 Main St.)

Latin food may be the most underrated when it comes to breakfast. While breakfast burritos have picked up some steam, the cuisine in general is often mostly associated with lunch and dinner.

Family Fresh Mex offers downtowners an opportunity to make up for lost time, opening its doors at 7 a.m. for piping hot egg and chorizo tacos, crispy quesadillas and big egg, chorizo and bean burritos.

Best of all though are the chilaquiles, which feature crispy corn tortillas cooked in salsa and covered in queso fresco.

For an ultimately simple dish, there’s a lot going on — from the still lightly crispy bits of tortilla to the soaked and softened pieces that provide wonderful contrast in textures. Beans and eggs help make the dish hugely fulfilling for a long day in the classroom or at the office.

Takoyaki and General Tso’s at JJ’s Tea House (601 Main St., Suite D)

JJ’s Tea House is admittedly both hard to spot and hard to know about, especially for campus goers who don’t pass by the Adesso building, or locals who don’t work in the area. Hidden in its own world is a restaurant that provides a taste of home to many East Asian students looking for a quick, reliable meal near campus.

Since JJ’s Tea House has an expansive menu, it makes it easy to not notice a few specials it’s started this year. Best of all may be the takoyaki, the Japanese street food featuring succulent octopus that’s chopped and covered in a batter before being pan-fried in a special circular grill to form individual balls.

The takoyaki is slightly crispy on the outside, warm and soft in the center, with tender bits of octopus. Topped with a sweet, thick drizzle of takoyaki sauce, kewpie mayo and bonito flakes, the snack is built with layer after layer of umami.

Even though it might seem alien to some when looking at the dancing bonito flakes and the drenching of sauces over the perfectly-shaped spheres, a couple of bites is all it takes to cement this as a craveable comfort food.

General Tso’s may seem like an odd off-the-menu recommendation. It’s a Chinese takeout staple. But it’s only a recent addition to the selections at JJ’s, pinned loosely to a board on the wall.

Turns out, it’s some of the best General Tso’s in town, keeping the chicken hugely crispy while drenching it in sweet, sticky sauce with pops of chili throughout.

Biscuits a Dozen Ways at College Grounds Cafe (1217 College St.)

Columbia doesn’t want for biscuits, but it’s actually shockingly hard to find one in the USC area outside of fast food.

College Grounds is here to save the day. It’s easy to pass by the cafe and label it as a place that you might try one day, but breakfast there is the real deal. Whether it’s a classic bacon, egg and cheese or an upscale take on the classic with provolone and local fig and onion jam, College Grounds offers a lot of ways to dress up biscuit in the morning.

The cafe also specializes in vegetarian options. The daily specials find clever ways to make meatless eating a little more interesting.

The biscuit with plant-based sausage gravy is soul-satisfying, with a rich, thick gravy that’s just as savory and salty as any Southern restaurant in town. The Ranchero biscuit, covered with a fried egg, cheddar, black beans, salsa and avocado, offers a quirky take on huevos rancheros.

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