Cheap eats around the Twin Cities

At just $7, Lucia's comforting pesto tomato grilled cheese sandwich is much cheaper than therapy. • TOUR: Lucia's Restaurant •  
    TOUR: Tanpopo Noodle Shop
At just $7, Lucia's comforting pesto tomato grilled cheese sandwich is much cheaper than therapy. • TOUR: Lucia's RestaurantTOUR: Tanpopo Noodle Shop
Benjamin Carter Grimes

Though I much prefer grocery shopping to clothes shopping, when I do have to look for new jeans or a party dress, I tend to gravitate toward the clearance rack. It's inescapable: I come from a long line of thrifters, garage salers, and vintage enthusiasts, the kind of people who wait until Tuesdays to make a trip to Goodwill so they can score their tchotchkes at a 20 percent discount. Did you know there's a Goodwill outlet? There is, and I've been there, and it's crazy. Though I pride myself on chasing down a deal, it took years to realize that my habit of buying four $20 items that I might wear once or twice instead of one $80 item I would wear again and again wasn't really as sensible as I'd thought. Sometimes it's worth investing a little more in a piece that will go the distance, whose quality is evident in its craftsmanship. However, I don't believe the same "get what you pay for" rule is necessarily true when it comes to eating out. The degree of pleasure you take in a dish is not directly proportional to how much it costs. You don't necessarily get more mileage out of a sandwich that is served on a white china plate than from one in a red plastic basket.

Disagree? Then I'd encourage you to eat your way through the list below and see if you feel differently. Some of these dishes come from old standbys that have been around forever. A handful are from newbies that just made their way onto the scene this year. But they are all exceptional eats that prove the best things in life are (practically) free.

Ipotli's spicy dosa ($4.49)

For all its charms and convenience, the Minneapolis skyway system has been somewhat lacking in the Indian food department. That is, until this year. Ipotli is the Indian equivalent of Chipotle — familiar favorites from a particular ethnic cuisine, dressed simply and delivered quickly. Available as a breakfast item, Ipotli's spicy dosa is worth waking up early for. The dosa is essentially two paper-thin crepes made with a lentil-based batter, layered with a spicy smear of chiles, tomato paste, and warm Indian spices. The bright green dipping sauce served on the side is a must. (601 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis; 612.605.8242)

Black Sea's kofte kebab sandwich ($4.95)

A lot of Twin Citians already have their own little go-to spot for falafel, gyros, and shawarma. I respect that, but the prices and portions at Black Sea are pretty hard to beat. Five bucks will get you a warm, lopped-off pita pocket stuffed with four robustly spiced grilled meatballs, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a zippy Turkish version of tzatziki. As if that weren't enough, the $4.95 price tag includes a mound of rice, a pile of fries, or a simple salad on the side of this substantial sandwich. (737 N. Snelling Ave., St. Paul; 651.917.8832)

Tanpopo Noodle Shop's kitsune soba bowl ($9.50)

If you frequent Lowertown St. Paul and still haven't visited Tanpopo Noodle Shop, you're missing out on a local paragon of Japanese cuisine. Though you can get any of Tanpopo's soothing, filling, soul-satisfying noodle soups with udon noodles (thick, chewy, and made mostly of wheat flour), I prefer the soba noodle option, which not only has a unique pale licorice color but also has more complex texture and flavor thanks to the buckwheat. The portion is mammoth, the seaweed and shiitake mushrooms are earthy and silken, and the fried tofu somehow retains its crispness even when submerged in a deeply umami broth. (308 Prince St., St. Paul; 651.209.6527)

Fika's pork belly plate ($7)

So elegant. So rich. So beautifully composed. Chef Michael Fitzgerald offers a scaled-down version of an upscale dinner in this plate of crispy pork belly with bitter wilted spinach and a perfect poached egg. It's not a huge amount of food, but remember: You're basically eating a huge slab of bacon. But don't let that stop you either, because this dish truly does melt in your mouth. (American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis; 612.871.4907)

Trotter's Bakery & Cafe's veggie pie in potato crust ($7.75)

This is available only at breakfast, but I'd eat this twist on quiche for just about any meal of the day. The selection of veggies that go into the egg and cheese base of the pie changes regularly, but it's the mashed potato crust that makes this dish so substantial and rich. If you have an extra dollar or two, be sure to get a big ol' lemon bar for later. (232 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul; 651.645.8950)

Marina Grill & Deli's half rotisserie chicken ($7.99)

If you aren't staying in for the fantastic buffet (fresh tabbouleh salad, smoky baba ganoush, succulent lamb shanks, and a menagerie of phyllo-wrapped desserts), then opt for the half rotisserie chicken. It yields enough meat to make a perfect light dinner for two, since it comes with rice, a whole deli container of creamy hummus, a bag of pita bread, and a green salad dressed with a tangy homemade vinaigrette. Grab a bottle of wine or a six-pack at nearby River Liquors and have a delightful little make-your-own-sandwich floor picnic at home. (2424 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis; 612.788.0461)

Catalina's casamiento ($7.95)

This comforting dish of piquant and garlicky rice, black beans, tender shredded chicken, and bell peppers is homestyle Latin American food at its best. It makes for a super-filling meal on its own, but spooning it into warm flour tortillas with a dollop or two of Catalina's kicky red or green salsa takes it one step closer to cheap-eats greatness. (2301 37th Ave. NE, Columbia Heights; 763.788.0299)

Devil's Advocate's meatball slider ($3)

If there's a cheaper, more satisfying little bar snack in the Nicollet Mall area, I haven't had it. Stick with the basics here and order either the beef or pork meatball with the pomodoro sauce or the Sunday gravy. Sip a draught beer and mix 'n' match a couple of these tasty little sliders, and you can still ring up under 10 bucks at the register. Happy hour indeed. (89 S. 10th St., Minneapolis; 612.843.2260)

Mosaic Cafe's farmers market salad ($6.75)

I know it's not easy to get all worked up about a salad, but this one is a lunchtime gem. It's also a mystery how Mosaic manages to keep the cost so low on a salad that includes decadent and delicious components like dried apricots, goat cheese, and maple-glazed pecans, and at least a half clamshell of mixed spring greens — no filler lettuces here. If you need a little protein, add some Ferndale Farms turkey for just $3 more. (3019 Minnehaha Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.746.1504)

Lucia's to Go's pesto tomato grilled cheese sandwich ($6.95)

How ingenious is Lucia's to Go? A few years ago, at the behest of ravenous customers, Lucia Watson created a menu of easy, family-style meals and make-ahead sandwiches for busy weeknights and quick lunch breaks. The combination of fragrant pesto, gooey strings of cheese, and a few slices of summer tomato makes for a high degree of harmony in such a simple sandwich. As an added bonus, it comes on Lucia's crusty cottage bread, which toasts to a buttery golden brown and doesn't disintegrate, even under the weight of an extra-juicy tomato. (1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis; 612.825.1572)

Sonora Grill's caramelos ($2.50-$2.75)

The only bad part about hitting up Sonora Grill at the Midtown Global Market is trying to decide which caramelos to order. Will it be the spicy, tempura-fried shrimp ones with cilantro aioli? Maybe the tender skirt steak caramelos with handmade tortillas, melty Chihuahua cheese, and salsa verde? Luckily, each and every one is a winner — even the version stuffed with eggplant — and you can easily order three or four of them without breaking the bank. (920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.871.1900 )

Krungthep Thai's vegetable green curry ($8)

One of this year's popular and critical darlings, Eat Street's Krungthep Thai brings together favorites from beloved Bangkok Thai Deli in St. Paul and fish dishes from Seafood Palace, its building's former resident. While some items like stir-fried soft-shell crab in yellow curry or whole walleye fillet tip into the double digits in price, dozens of other knockout dishes are available for nine bucks or less. My favorite is the sweet and hot green curry, rich with coconut milk and swimming with hunks of bell pepper, jalapeño, eggplant, and a ton of fresh basil. (2523 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612.874.7721)

Tanpopo’s hefty kitsune soba bowl is a steal for $9.50
Antonio Rodriguez
Use Current Location

Related Locations

Black Sea

737 Snelling Ave. N.
St. Paul, MN 55104


Tanpopo Noodle Shop
Ipotli Indian Grill

601 Marquette Ave. S
Minneapolis, MN 55402


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