Everyone except Middle Eastern potentates sitting on large oil reserves gets strapped for cash once in a while. Recently, not through choice, I was forced to ponder the problem of finding really cheap eats in this town. If all you've got are hunger pangs, a five-dollar bill and a yearning to eat outside your own four walls, I wondered, are you doomed to Happy Meal McNourishment or a run-from-the-border taco combo?
Not necessarily, but it took a criminal insight to point me in the right direction. Willie Sutton used to rob banks, he said, because that's where the money is. So I turned that observation inside out. Where do cheap restaurants flourish? In student neighborhoods, because that's where the money isn't.
So, armed with an appetite and a handful of singles, I peered into restaurant storefronts around ASU, looking for low-cost places that didn't have secret sauce, 59-cent burros or franchises in Moscow.
One that caught my eye was Saigon Healthy Cuisine. It's definitely not your run-of-the-Mill Avenue fast-food stop. It's an immigrant-family-run operation that, except for the plastic silverware, may remind you of mealtime at home. Signs read, "Please bus your own table." The room is airy and spiffily clean, with whitewashed walls adorned with mirrors and Asian-looking lacquered wall plaques. If you listen hard, you can detect the faint strains of non-Western music in the background.
Line up at the "Order Here" window and look over the menu. It has two striking features. First, there are plenty of choices: more than 50 options. Second, almost every item goes for under five bucks.
One that doesn't (it's $5.25) is the meal-in-a-bowl golden noodle soup. It's perfect for our crisp Valley autumn, when the thermometer may stall out at a bracing 80 degrees. This mild broth is filled with thin-sliced roast pork, shrimp, scallions, broccoli and a heap of sesame-wheat noodles. Cilantro, a Vietnamese staple, garnishes this and every other dish here. The woman behind the counter advised me to pour in some of the viciously hot chile sauce that sits at each table. It's tasty advice, as long as you don't get carried away.
The aptly named spicy-tangy vegetable soup is one belly-filler that requires no extra goosing of chile. It's exceptionally hearty, thickly stocked with tofu, straw mushrooms, peas and rice vermicelli, all freshened with mint and cilantro. And there's enough chile floating in the liquid to clear your snout for several hours.
If you can scrape up an extra dollar's worth of loose change from under your sofa cushions, spend it on the magnificent spring roll. Saigon Healthy Cuisine's model is as good as any in the Valley. Filled with pork, papaya and sea vegetables, it's got a memorable, offbeat flavor and a right-out-of-the-fryer crunch. Big spenders can nibble on the same ingredients stuffed inside the slightly costlier steamed bun. The main dishes come fashioned four ways: spooned over steamed jasmine rice, brown rice, rice vermicelli or sesame noodles. Unlike most cheap fast food, they're light on grease and heavy on fresh seasonings and vegetables. Take number 40, the spicy peanut sauce. Broccoli, cabbage and carrot sit on a pile of sesame noodles, surrounded by small mounds of rib-sticking peanut sauce that don't taste anything at all like what comes out of a jar of Skippy. Eat this for lunch, and you won't need an afternoon snack to make it until dinner.
Vegetable pineapple stew is a particularly fragrant item. Veggies, tofu and pineapple, flecked with crushed nuts and sesame seeds, come bathed in an easygoing coconut-milk sauce, over a big portion of rice noodles. Baked ginger chicken also provides a pleasant scent, especially if you enjoy unstinting amounts of ginger. Try this with brown rice. Tender Saigon charbroiled pork, marinated in sherry, sesame oil and garlic, gets a top score. So do the garlicky braised shrimp, once you douse them with nuoc mam, the salty fish sauce the Vietnamese use on almost everything. Untrained Occidental palates may take a while to adjust to it--maybe that's why the restaurant keeps it behind the counter. If you want some, you have to ask. You can't point to too many benefits from the French colonization of Southeast Asia. One positive legacy, however, was the introduction of good bread. Saigon Healthy Cuisine makes some excellent subs, aided by a first-rate bread supplier and sandwich fillings you can't get at the sub chains. The savory marinated chicken and pork are luscious. One quibble, though: The bread-meat ratio is a bit out of whack. More meat, please.
And if you've got a mild sense of adventure and a sweet tooth that must be satisfied, the tapioca pudding should do the job. But I prefer the wonderful homemade honey lemonade, which lets you have your sugar and drink it, too. It may not be dinner at Christopher's followed by a performance of The Phantom of the Opera. But a meal at Saigon Healthy Cuisine and a stroll along Mill Avenue is an entertaining poor man's alternative, offering its own sort of genuine value.
Sahara, 808 South Mill, Tempe, 966-1971. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m.
Not even geographically illiterate ASU students would place the Middle East next to Vietnam. But that's how it is in Tempe--at least when it comes to restaurants. The Sahara is one storefront down from Saigon Healthy Cuisine. The place looks a bit too nice to be serving budget meals, but looks can be deceiving. Most entrees are around six bucks, and filling sandwiches are in the three-dollar range.
The room features the usual Middle Eastern touches: beaded window curtains, rugs hanging from the wall and music that you won't be hearing on any Valley radio stations.
What it doesn't have is just as appealing. There's no "Order Here" window. Instead, you sit down at a linen-draped table, where at peak hours you'll wait for an incredibly overworked waitress to stop by and take your order. If you order right, Sahara can furnish a lot of taste for just a little cash. That means skipping the hummus, a dip of mashed chickpeas blended with lemon juice, sesame paste and garlic that's strictly routine. It also means avoiding another common Middle Eastern starter, baba ghanouj. It's a pur‚ed eggplant dip, usually one of my favorites. But the model here is strong almost to the point of bitterness. If you must have something to slather on some fresh pita bread, check out labni with zaatar. Something you don't find at every Middle Eastern restaurant, it's a thick yogurt paste, topped with sesame seeds and spices, and moistened with a dollop of olive oil.
If you hit the right day, you can also dunk your pita into a first-rate turnip soup. Americans generally don't have much use for this Old World vegetable, but it really gives a soup character.
Sahara's proprietors have a broad view of the Middle East. Several dishes take their cues from India and Iran, and for the most part, they're the most interesting things here. I haven't run across kuku sabzi since the Ayatollah cut short my stay in Iran. It's a lightly fried blend of eggs, onions and chopped greenery, sort of a Middle Eastern omelet. Stuffed in pita bread, it's not the kind of sandwich that's ever likely to have "Mc" in front of its name. Sahara's vegetable sanbusek, an occasional special, clearly sports an Indian touch. Often stuffed with cheese, here it's more like a samosa, a crisply fried turnover stuffed with potatoes and peas, seasoned with lots of cumin and sporting an unusual spicy kick for a Middle Eastern dish. Both the kuku and sanbusek make good vegetarian alternatives for the tofu-and-sprouts crowd. Chicken tikka ought to please lovers of animal protein who shy away from red meat. It's marinated chunks of juicy white meat, fragrantly scented with regional spices. Just as good is the skewer of shish kebab, a mix of ground lamb and beef not too aggressively seasoned, blended with parsley and onions. One bonus of ordering the chicken tikka or shish kebab as an entree instead of sandwich is the accompanying salad. Sure, it's mostly iceberg lettuce, but the greens are redeemed by a peppy yogurt dressing sprinkled with sumac, a tart purple spice.
But keep away from the shawarma. Anyone expecting juicy strips of sizzling lamb and beef cut from a slow-spinning rotisserie--the authentic form--will be disappointed. Here you just get dull strips of grilled meat. The best thing here? Probably the kuzi, a weekend special featuring luscious hunks of tender, marinated leg of lamb. At $8.95, you'll have to reach for a bunch of singles to go with a five-dollar bill, but you won't regret it. The meat comes on an ample mound of rice, tastily studded with pi¤on nuts. And if, like most cash-strapped folks, you've got more time than money, you can profitably spend it sipping some excellent, cardamom-tinged Arabic coffee.
Okay, so you're not the Sultan of Brunei. But at least Saigon Healthy Cuisine and Sahara can let you plausibly pretend.