20 for $20
The $100 meal may be chic, but it's not for everyone. One Andrew Jackson - with some change back - still buys a great dinner. We asked the chefs of tomorrow from local culinary schools where they eat when money's tight.
Just $11 gets you Picco's haddock tacos topped with avocado vinaigrette. (Photo / Heath Robbins)
1. BASTA PASTA TRATTORIA
"You just can't beat their pasta," says one student. It's all made from scratch in-house, and most of the dishes are under $10. "Nothing comes out of a can," he says. His favorite is chicken with ziti, and there are basic meat sauces and pizza, and seafood on Fridays. But some of the offerings are fancier, such as risotto with prosciutto, goat cheese, and thyme, or fusilli with chicken, Gorgonzola cheese, and walnuts. "It's run by two really friendly guys," the student says. "Best of all, they deliver!"
319 WESTERN AVENUE
2. BREAKFAST CLUB
They have great omelets at the Breakfast Club, but the name refers to the movie, not the meal. The Breakfast Club theme extends to posters, T-shirts, '80s music, and coffee mugs. Here you'll find "people having a good time eating breakfast," one student says, but the typical diner menu also offers lunch items such as a "good cheeseburger and steak." Come not just for the food but for the "fun people, nice waitresses, and cool staff." And did we mention the great omelets?
270 WESTERN AVENUE
3. CAFE KIRAZ
At Cafe Kiraz, one student says, "they do really good sandwiches," but make sure you leave room for dessert. Not only are the servings of frozen yogurt gigantic, you can also mix in anything from Kit Kats to Cracklin' Oat Bran. This neighborhood spot is bare bones when it comes to decor - "It's like a sub shop; they have a couple of tables" - but it's just what a hungry passerby needs at lunchtime. Don't miss the falafel wrap with hummus.
119 HAMPSHIRE STREET
4. CAFE POLONIA
Immerse yourself in another culture that's hard to find around these parts at Cafe Polonia in South Boston, where Polish cuisine is celebrated. "Giant beers," says a student. And don't overlook the "phenomenal borscht and scintillating potato pancakes." The place does wonders with the staples of its home region: potatoes, cabbage, and beets. This is also the spot for kielbasa and pierogi and for dark Eastern European breads.
611 DORCHESTER AVENUE
5. CHICKEN BONE SALOON
Even wing eaters get the blues at this raucous place, where the dozen flavors of chicken wings are "awesome," says one student - "anything from burn-your-tongue-hot to Caesar," which is called "Roman" on the menu. The wings are under a buck apiece and are available with or without the bone. For those who like to nod while they gnaw, the saloon draws such bands as Boston Blues Express, Groove Authority, and Out of the Blue.
358 WAVERLY STREET
6. CHINA PEARL
Just the mention of dim sum got a few students involved in a heated debate: China Pearl or Hei La Moon? Since our challenge was to find cheap dinnertime food, Hei La Moon was disqualified, because it serves dim sum only until 3 p.m., while China Pearl will serve it on request until 11 p.m. At either spot, "you can go far for $20," one said, to which another student replied: "I've never spent more than $10!" You wait (not long) for a circling cart, look, sniff, and point at this shrimp or pork dumpling or that fried sesame ball, and inhale it from the little steaming basket that shows up on your table. "It could be animal, vegetable, or mineral," said one student, "but it's always tasty."
9 TYLER STREET
This bright little two-year-old Korean place is among the best in the corridor of Asian restaurants in the Porter Exchange building, and one student called it "really authentic Korean food, much better than most other places in Boston." She raves about the bibimbap ("not perfect like my mother's, but not bad") and the "really hot and very comforting" yuk gae jang, a spicy broth with shredded beef and noodles. "Their broth has depth to it," she says, and that's saying something when it's this cheap.
1815 MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE
8. DELUXE CAFE
When Boston restaurants still welcomed smokers, you entered the tiny haze-filled Deluxe Cafe in the South End to eat Didi Emmons's food. Emmons has since moved on (to Haley House Bakery Cafe) and so have the smokers, but Deluxe remains as popular as ever. "Everything is incredible. It's happy-hour food made by a real chef. The white bean puree tastes like you made it yourself. A terrific mac and cheese," says a student.
100 CHANDLER STREET
9. EAGLE'S DELI
This Cleveland Circle eatery is a hangout for Boston College students with big appetites. Very big appetites. One of our students says he usually orders the King Kong burger (1/2 pound of meat, 1/2 pound of fries) and adds: "You're getting change back from your $10." (He's right; the combo is $7.25.) If that's not enough for you, there's the Godzilla burger - 1 pound of meat, 1 pound of fries. "If you go away hungry," he says, "it's your own fault."
1918 BEACON STREET
10. FELIPE'S TAQUERIA
If you're in Harvard Square and looking for a late-night bite, Felipe's Taqueria is the place to go, students say. It's open daily until midnight and on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays until 2 a.m. You can "grab a burrito on your way home or you can sit down," one student says. The veggie burrito - described by one as "a bunch of grilled vegetables, cheese, homemade salsa, and guacamole" - is a favorite, and "everything is made there by hand," so it doesn't feel like just another taqueria.
83 MT. AUBURN STREET
Oxtail with rice and peas is a favorite at this casual Caribbean restaurant in the heart of Mattapan. "The oxtail falls right off the bone. Flames is the bomb," one student says. The curried chicken, curried goat, and roti are all outstanding, and be sure and try the coco bread, patty, and cheese. One of our students says this is how dinner tastes back home in Trinidad, and that's good enough for us.
663 MORTON STREET
12. INTERNATIONAL BUFFET
There is something for everyone at this big, brightly lit place crammed with long steam tables of almost everything a diner could imagine. Chinese dishes from beef and broccoli to Peking dumplings are available - on weekends, families throng the buffet lines. But there's also sushi, Jell-O, and more - for one $14 all-you-can-eat fee. One of our students goes for the crab legs: "You can sit down and have six plates of those." If you pick and choose the seafood and some of the Chinese dishes carefully, the food is not only amazingly cheap but also surprisingly good.
237 QUINCY AVENUE
13. MI PUEBLITO
Latino themes and music are part of the experience at Mi Pueblito, a Salvadoran-Mexican restaurant in East Boston. "They've got great authentic food: tripe, great tamales," raves one of our experts. "I was working with a couple of guys a couple of years back," one student says, "and they would eat it every day, and I just got hooked." A major part of the addiction: burritos.
333 BORDER STREET
14. O'HARA'S FOOD & SPIRITS
One of the older students in our group, a 50-year-old Aussie, started off talking about how hard it is to find good cheap food around Greater Boston, but then rattled off her favorite pubs, with O'Hara's at the top of the list. "It's cheaper than cooking at home," she said. Her dish of choice: salmon with two vegetables. "Salmon and a glass of wine. That's me." She also praised the fish and chips, shepherd's pie, even the nachos, and loves the family-friendly atmosphere, which draws folks from ages 3 to 90.
1185 WALNUT STREET
Even students on a budget need a date place. Picco has a chic South End location, a revolving menu of sandwiches, thin-crust designer pizzas, and great ice cream. "Romantic but cheap," says one student. She and her boyfriend recently spent in the mid-$30 range and had fish tacos, crab cakes, a salad, and a glass of wine each. The ice cream is a little pricey, but worth the splurge.
513 TREMONT STREET
16. PUNJABI DHABA
Indian road food is served to a background of Indian pop music at Inman Square's Punjabi Dhaba. You need patience to eat here, because there are always lines. The tandoori chicken is more moist than you've ever had it, the lamb curry is good, too, and our students insist that the veggie balls - nuggets of crisp vegetables eaten with basmati rice - are well worth the wait.
225 HAMPSHIRE STREET
At Rami's, Israeli street food comes to life as all manner of crunchy salad vegetables, grilled meat, and one of the world's best foods - falafel, or deep-fried chickpea balls - are stuffed into very fresh pita bread. Get the hot sauce to go with it, say our students. But beware: "The hot sauce is very hot." Just remember, this Coolidge Corner favorite closes early on Friday and all day Saturday for the Jewish Sabbath.
324 HARVARD STREET
18. RIVER GODS
This is jazzed-up pub food for the modern-day pub crawler. "They have this one steak sandwich I love," says one student. "It's a really good hunk of steak, cut into thin slices, served with caramelized onions and homemade fries." He's also a fan of the funky atmosphere in this small spot outside Central Square, with its gothic touches, Guinness on tap, and theme nights featuring live DJs, trivia games, and more. On weekends, the din can be deafening, and it's not exactly the place for a relaxing meal, but it's a blast nonetheless.
125 RIVER STREET
Sometimes, it just takes one dish for diners to swoon in droves, and at Simco's, as one of our students says with a long sigh, it's the fish and chips. Light batter, fresh fish, and crisp, greaseless fries bring patrons from all directions to this little takeout stand. But if fish is not your thing, the chili cheese dog on a toasted buttered bun is out-of-this-world good.
679 CANTERBURY STREET
20. SUPER 88 FOOD COURT
If you're not sure what you want but you know you're hungry, head to the surprising and delicious food court at Super 88 in Allston, the Asian grocery store where you can choose from Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Indian foods. If you have to pick only one, go with the Indian stand, the students say, which offers fine samosas that taste great with spinach or lentil dishes. The meal --is nicely seasoned and, of course, filling, and you'll feel as if you're back in college, surrounded on all sides by other hungry students.
1 BRIGHTON AVENUE
BOSTON'S BEST STREET FOR CHEAP EATS
Dinnertime. Money's tight, and the fridge is barren, so head to "Restaurant Row." The Fenway's Peterborough Street, between Kilmarnock and Jersey streets, boasts five solid cheap-eats options, all with outdoor seating and takeout. Some deliver.
Sorento's (86 Peterborough, 617-424-7070) serves filling salads, terrific spinach calzones, huge dishes of rigatoni, tortellini, and lasagna, and some of the best pizza in Boston.
At Umi Japanese Cuisine & Sushi Bar (90 Peterborough, 617-536-6688), the sushi is fresh, the teriyaki tasty, and the tempura crisp. There are also unique options - like the Red Sox Maki, a roll of sweet potato wrapped with baked eel and avocado.
One door down is El Pelon Taqueria (92 Peterborough, 617-262-9090), where you'll want to devour the piping-hot plantains and where the burritos are huge and delicious. Even better, the highly touted fish tacos live up to their billing.
If you're looking for spicy soups or curries, chicken satays, tasty veggie specials, or just a heaping plate of pad Thai, you'll leave Rod Dee II (94 Peterborough, 617-859-0969) happy.
And at Thornton's Fenway Grille (100 Peterborough, 617-421-0104), the salads are huge and the chicken sandwiches good and hearty.
Our list was compiled through interviews with people who care deeply about food but usually have little money to spend on it: student chefs. They are Valentine H. Howell Jr., Akeisha Hayde, Angela Gonthier, Charles Whittall, and Stephen Sullivan from Newbury College's culinary arts program; Wayne Pozzar, Rachel Nason, Lynn Clark, Susan Hook, and Eunice Feller from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts; Kristina Nies and Sabrina Small from Boston University's Metropolitan College gastronomy program; Erin Byrne, Jamal Massie, Bekah Angoff, and Daniel O'Mara from the New England Culinary Institute; and Michael Costantini and Michelle Jaeger from Boston University's culinary arts program.