My natural instinct is to haul ass on the highway, but lately I've been hyper-miling in my econo-car. Around my neighborhood, I've been riding my beach cruiser. Several of my coolest new wardrobe additions have come from the Goodwill. And instead of resorting to air-conditioning my house just yet, I've grown fond of ceiling fans and open windows in the evening.
Yeah, the economy sucks, but I'm taking it in stride. I figure if I hope to buck the nesting trend and take a summer vacation, it's going to take as much thriftiness as I can manage.
So when I heard about the budget-minded theme for this year's New Times Summer Guide, I signed right up to share some of my favorite haunts. Who says you need big bucks to live large in this town? Some of the area's best culinary finds happen to be as easy on the wallet as they are on the taste buds.
Da Vang is the first place that comes to mind when I think of cheap eats. How can you beat a banh mi for two bucks? I can't tell you how many times I've scrounged up pocket change to get one of these scrumptious Vietnamese sandwiches. My favorite, banh mi thit nuong, is stuffed with tangy-sweet barbecued pork, carrots, onions, cucumber, and cilantro. Pho Avina, across from ASU West, also makes a mean pork banh mi ($2.99). And down in Chandler, Lee's Sandwiches offers the best selection of all, with 13 Asian-style baguette sandwiches and 15 Euro-style croissant sammies. Everything's $3.95 or less.
It's no secret that you can stretch your dollar quite a bit at local Mexican restaurants. The variety's so good, in fact, that I've found a destination for every different craving that hits me. If it involves tortillas, well, Carolina's Mexican Food is a no-brainer. Honestly, I could just munch on a bag of fresh tortillas and be happy, but I mostly stick to burros like the Oaxaca Special ($3.30), filled with beef chorizo, potatoes, beans, and cheese. On a naughty day, it might be a shredded-beef chimichanga with sour cream and guacamole ($5.80). Rito's Market and Mexican Takeout — so low-key there's not even a sign out front — serves excellent burros as well ($4.45). The red chili, full of tender chunks of beef, has lots of kick, while the green chili, packed with melt-in-your-mouth pork, is the best in town.
I can't blow every paycheck on sushi, but I can easily swing ceviche at Phoenix Ranch Market. After I grab a drink at the aguas frescas counter, I zip past the produce section and hang a right, heading to the seafood department. Two tostadas with shrimp ceviche is an almost gluttonous amount of fresh seafood — for about five bucks. That's about what I'd spend at Tortas El Güero, too, for an enormous Mexican torta on soft telera bread. The cochinita (tangy pulled pork) and pastor (pork in spicy chile sauce) are a couple of my old standbys. The kitchen doesn't skimp on fresh avocado or jalapeños, either.
Middle Eastern restaurants also give plenty of bang for the buck. I'm a big fan of Al-Hana at Baiz Market, where a falafel sandwich sets me back $2.99. Usually, I go for the shish taook, grilled chicken slathered with delicious garlic sauce. It's $3.99 on a pita stuffed with pickles and onions, while a two-skewer plate, with hummus, is only $7.99. Another great discount dining destination is Haji Baba in Tempe. The mouthwatering chicken shawarma plate ($7.49) is a full-on feast, with rice, hummus, tabbouleh, and pita.
In the way of more unusual ethnic eateries, it doesn't get any more unique than Chino Bandido Takee Outee. The menu at this super-casual, family-friendly spot is an intriguing fusion of Chinese and Mexican, with some Jamaican thrown in for good measure. Sign me up for their take on sweet and sour chicken, the Jade Red Chicken burrito ($3.50), or perhaps a green onion and ginger-tinged Emerald Chicken quesadilla ($4.50).
The Fry Bread House offers authentic Native American home cooking at bargain prices, from a bowl of hominy stew ($3.55) to a fry bread taco filled with red or green chili, cheese, and lettuce ($5.99). You might think a taco is a tiny two-bite snack, but here, it's a caloric splurge that requires two hands and a big appetite. Same goes with the huge pasties (baked English meat pies) at Cornish Pasty Co. in Tempe. The Oggie ($6.50) is a traditional pasty stuffed with steak, potatoes, onions, and rutabaga, and served with a side of red wine gravy. A fancier version, with fillings such as bangers and mash or lamb and mint, will set you back an extra dollar.
My stomach could globetrot all day, but there's plenty of good ol' fashioned American food to be had, too. It's always fun to stop by the Welcome Diner for a juicy homemade cheeseburger ($4.50), a side of hot, hand-cut french fries ($2), and some good company. Whether it's a chat with the proprietors or a friendly conversation with your fellow diners — this place seats only a handful of people, after all — it makes for a cheap, enjoyable lunch.
Meanwhile, what makes me smile at Stacy's Smokehouse is the sloppy-good pulled pork sandwich ($4.50), or maybe some crispy, cornmeal-crusted fried catfish ($1.99). At prices like that, a slice of sweet potato pie ($2.50) is hard to pass up. And at Bertha's Café, I usually feel justified indulging in a thick, moist brownie ($2.00) because the sandwiches are such a good deal. I'm often tossed up between the asparagus and Havarti panini ($5.50), with mozzarella, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and fresh basil, and the roast beef sandwich ($6.00), topped with blue cheese, arugula, and mayo.
The cost of a gallon of gas might be skyrocketing into an unknown future, but in times like these, it's comforting to know that some menu prices are still set in the 20th century.
Da Vang 4538 N. 19th Ave. 602-242-3575
Pho Avina 4920 W. Thunderbird Rd., Suite 110, Glendale 602-439-2547 www.phoavina.com
Lee's Sandwiches 1901 W. Warner Rd., Chandler 480-855-1778 www.leessandwiches.com
Carolina's Mexican Food 1202 E. Mohave St.602-252-1503www.carolinasmex.com
Rito's Market & Mexican Takeout 907 N. 14th St. 602-262-9842
Phoenix Ranch Market 2518 N. 16th St. (with additional Valley locations)602-252-9228
Al-Hana at Baiz Market 523 N. 20th St. 602-252-8996
Haji Baba 1513 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe 480-894-1905
Chino Bandido Takee Outee 15414 N. 19th Ave. (second location in Chandler) 602-375-3639 www.chinobandido.com
The Fry Bread House 4140 N. 7th Ave. 602-351-2345
Cornish Pasty Co. 960 W. University Dr., Tempe 480-894-6261 www.cornishpastyco.com
Welcome Diner 924 E. Roosevelt St. 602-495-1111
Stacy's Smokehouse 1650 E. Indian School Rd. 602-230-6724
Bertha's Café 2916 N. 40th St. 602-955-1022 www.berthascafe.com