Fast, Cheap, Great

Is there anyplace to get a great, cheap meal in this town anymore? Boy howdy, is there—here are six

Bombay 2 Deli
1840 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612.788.4571

Shish Mediterranean Grill & Café
1668 Grand Ave., St. Paul
651.690.2212
www.shishcafe.net

Rice Paper
2726 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis
612.926.8650
www.ricepaperrestaurant.com

Taqueria La Hacienda #2
La Hacienda Plaza, 334 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
612.822.2715

Punch Neapolitan Pizza
210 E. Hennepin Ave.
612.623.8114

Pizza Nea
1221 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
612.767.3600
www.pizzanea.com

Recently I received a sad and plaintive email from a doctor's wife. She wanted to use my bank account to free a Nigerian fortune worth, if you can believe it, hundreds of millions of dollars. And she chose me! As I crowbarred my neighbors' windows in search of additional Social Security numbers, I wondered why she picked me, and then I realized: All the big restaurants I've reviewed lately have been expensive, and more expensive. Of course she would think that the Twin Cities was a land of nothing but millionaires: The price of an average glass of wine seems to have zoomed from $6 to $9, and as far as the dinner entrees, $23 seems to be the new $12.

Hey, aren't we supposed to be the land of family values, not family rip-offs? Then I remembered that there are a number of bargain hotspots that have opened or significantly expanded lately, places that I couldn't quite justify reviewing in full, but can offer in a bakers' half-dozen of penny-pinching delights. Enjoy! (PS: If you want in on the Nigerian fortune, I just need a few thousand more dollars to bribe officials. Even though I sold my house, I'm still not quite there, meaning it's a great time to get in on the ground floor! Call me.)

 

Bombay 2 Deli

I hadn't realized it, but one thing the Twin Cities has been sadly deficient in is vegetarian Gujarati offerings—but no more! Perennial City Pages Best Indian Market award winner Asia Imports has opened a small restaurant and takeout counter, which serves homemade vegetarian curries, breads, samosas, and other treats. Everything I've had from the bright, spic-and-span counter has been nothing short of fabulous.

The Cholle, a chickpea curry, was a thunder of deep cinnamon woodsmoke; the crisp okra curry was fresh, springy, and redolent with the fire of chili peppers and the perk of black mustard seeds. Paneer makhani—Indian cheese in a thick, gingery sauce—hit that satisfying sweet spot where rich, creamy, and spicy balance one another in ideal harmony. Kadhi, a sweet, light yogurt curry, was swimming with curry leaves and lots of whole spices, and smelled so good I wished it were a candle, a bath, or just any kind of thing I could breathe all day.

Samosas, when available, are heavenly: They're filled with slightly sweet, slightly fiery mashed potatoes blended with green peas; the fried crust is as crisp and rich as the remembered cake doughnuts of your youth. Prices? Hold on to your hats: $1.50 for a samosa, $5.49 for a plate mounded with a few curries, fresh and simple cumin rice, and maybe even a freshly made wheat roti. The place is nothing short of a gem: The food couldn't be any better, the women behind the counter couldn't be any sweeter, the prices couldn't be any lower. They're closed Mondays and Tuesdays, but the rest of the week: Count your lucky stars, and your saved pennies.

 

Shish Mediterranean Grill & Café

Why are hummus and tabouli like politicians? Because you can't tell a damn thing about them by their looks. Not enough? Okay, they all benefit from a little sprinkle of good olive oil. No? Well, I give up. You try saying something new about hummus, a thing that really does have the unfortunate characteristic of looking exactly like all the other hummuses, regardless of quality. The stuff at Shish, however, really is estimable.

Shish is a little counter-service Mediterranean restaurant that has opened in the heart of Macalester's part of Grand Avenue, and it's another bargain-hunter's delight. While the kabobs, salads, and such are all ordered at the counter, they're delivered to your gold-topped table on real plates, and you can consume them while seated on real furniture-quality chairs, and finish your meal with Turkish coffee served from a pretty hammered-copper pot and poured into gold-rimmed demitasse cups and saucers.

My favorite offering is the giant mixed platter of all of Shish's appetizers, the Shish Maza plate ($7.95). Here you get the restaurant's beautiful hummus, a weighty, toasty, thickly creamy rendition served glossed with olive oil and sprinkled with good paprika; a scoop of brightly minty and lively tabouli; freshly shredded baba ghanoush; and a trio of roasty falafel balls, made a little nutty by a falafel batter made with a good number of sesame seeds which crisp beautifully on the outside. The plate is further loaded up with squares of feta cheese, good olives, tomatoes, and lettuce, and served with a big basket of pita bread. It makes a hearty appetizer for two, or dinner for one.

Another must-order item is the spinach pies ($2.95), which are three delicate, phyllo-wrapped triangles stuffed with good, fresh spinach and light amounts of feta; they're so very light they almost seem to float from their little bed of torn lettuce. Needless to say, the place works brilliantly for takeout, so if you live in the neighborhood, please know that you now have greater options than the salad bar at Whole Foods—and if you take a double order of Shish's tabbouli or hummus as your next pot-luck contribution, folks will be chattering at how much better yours is than any other they've had. Take the credit or spread it around, depending on your political stomach.

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