Fast, Cheap, Great

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

I found out the next time I visited: There was a line out the door; we ended up squeezed in the middle of a big shared table, our every plate an incursion on our neighbors' space; our big order came out haphazardly, first pizzas, then drinks, then appetizers last; and finally, a forgotten salad was presented as we were putting on our coats. It was so loud we couldn't hear ourselves talk, and we were pushed and jostled the whole meal through as other diners tried to come and go, get their own pizzas, silverware, water, forgotten salads, and so on. I'm sure if I had been in a train station in Milan it would have been charming, but when I'm on my own turf? Not so much.

That said, if you can hire a psychic and get to Punch when it's empty, you'll find one of the best cheap meals in town: The plain Margherita is $5.95, though of course I can never resist fancier pizzas like the Vesuvio ($8.85), made with good saracene olives and slices of spiced salami. Of course, when I was at the big shared table, I got to overhear two separate couples discussing what they thought of this whole unpleasant situation of Punch opening their newest spot a scant block from similar Neapolitan pizza joint Pizza Nea. The internet is similarly aflame with Punch partisans and Nea loyalists arguing which is better. Which side do I fall on? I like them both, but I don't like dining hurriedly in chaos. I prefer paying a bit more, in terms of leaving a tip (which one is encouraged to do at Punch anyway, but in a jar at the counter), in order to have my own little official place and someone responsible for seeing that the appetizers come out first. However, this is obviously as personal a choice as liking long coats for warmth or short ones for ease of getting out of the car, and so you'll have to pick your own coat, and your own pizza. But if you get your own pizza on your own coat, don't come crying to me, I wear a poncho fashioned from vinyl tablecloths for just that reason.

Pizza Nea

Nordeast treasure: The very good, very affordable samosas at Bombay 2 Deli
Daniel Corrigan
Nordeast treasure: The very good, very affordable samosas at Bombay 2 Deli

Location Info

Map

Taqueria La Hacienda

334 E. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Powderhorn

Punch Neapolitan Pizza

210 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Restaurant > Pizza

Region: University

Speaking of Pizza Nea, you Uptowners better use it or lose it. I know you're swimming in pizza places, but I have it on good authority that Pizza Nea's Lake Street location is hanging on by a thread, which is terrifically bad news for everyone who loves good food but isn't a millionaire. Pizza Nea makes beautiful pizzas in the Neapolitan tradition, which is to say in a very hot oven from the most elementally satisfying dough, adorned with the highest quality, simplest ingredients, like San Marzano tomatoes and various olives, cheeses, and salamis fit to make the snobbiest Italophile sigh. Prices start at $6.50, though you can get a slightly smaller "pizzette" during the daily happy hour from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., for $4.50, as well as some incredibly cheap drinks and half-price appetizers. Nea also has gorgeous wines, including the pretty, smooth, and strawberry-evoking Bodegas Las Lanos Tempranillo Reserva, for $6 a glass or $26 a bottle.

On weekends, they offer what has to be the most urbane experience to be had right now in all of Uptown: A Pizza Bianca con Uovo and a Bloody Mary for $12.95. A Pizza Bianca con Uovo is a white, tomato-free pizza topped with raw eggs and cooked in the oven, but before you run screaming squeamishly, please know that what arrives at your table is much like "eggs in a hat," that classic of a piece of bread with a hole cut in it, eggs inserted, and the whole thing fried—it's plain, hangover killing, and good. Actually, everything I've ever had from Pizza Nea has been good, but when I heard of their dire circumstances, I went back to see if I was missing some fatal flaw, some dragon breathing fire in the middle of the dining room. Nope, not that I could see, everything was right as rain.

The artichoke dip ($7.95) remains the best in the metro, with roasty leaves of good, not canned tasting, artichokes blended with a frothy cream and baked hard so that the Parmesan crisps and crackles deliciously. The pizzas, like the good looking Rucola ($9.95), in which fresh arugula and thinly sliced prosciutto are placed on the pizza after cooking so that they maintain their delicacy, was as good as ever, the fresh, hot dough and crisp char making the peppery greens and salty sweet ham stand up and sing. The Margherita ($7.50) was as plain and lovable as a teddy bear.

The only problem? There wasn't another table occupied in the whole restaurant. A tragedy. If I had a dollar from every Uptown resident who's written to me decrying the way the neighborhood is turning into nothing but a suburban-friendly drinking destination, with nothing targeted at the locals, why, I'd have enough money to go back to Nea a dozen more times. And I would, and I'd save you all from yourselves, and your appalling lack of self-interest when it comes to neighborhood bargains. Or wait—maybe you don't need bargains, because you're coming into Nigerian millions, too?

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