Cheap after-work eats aplenty at Azia, Saffron, Pop!!, and more

The very, very happy hour at Pop!! in St. Paul

The very, very happy hour at Pop!! in St. Paul

"In these trying economic times" is a phrase used so frequently lately that it's becoming trite, but however you want to word it, many of us are looking for ways to cut back on spending right now. Eating out is often the first casualty of belt-tightening, but that need not be the case: At many of the Twin Cities' most critically lauded restaurants, you can get your dinner at a discount by showing up early (or sometimes late). Happy hours are good for more than just after-work commiserating with co-workers. They're a great way to preview a restaurant you've never been to: You can try it out before making a reservation for that big dinner. They're also perfect for inexpensive and conveniently time-limited first dates. Here are eight of the best places to dine on reduced-price fare during certain time slots, beginning with those that start first—sneak out of work early and enjoy.

3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday (also 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.)

Otho offers a welcome posh option in the still-overlooked Elliot Park neighborhood. Serving a creative pan-Asian menu and staying open late, the restaurant has a steely, industrial look with purple lighting accents and occasional warmer, orange notes. During happy hour, you can perch at a high table next to floor-to-ceiling windows in the rotunda-style lounge off the bar and watch street traffic as you sample starters, soups, and salads, all at $2 off, and sip two-for-one rail cocktails or generous pours of house wine for $3 a glass. (There are also discounted beers, plus drink specials that change nightly.) One good appetizer choice is the sesame chèvre croquettes, served with fried wontons that make the dish sort of an inside-out cream-cheese puff with a twist; the roasted beet relish on the side provides a perfect tangy foil to the warm, creamy chèvre. Also recommended are the rice paper rolls: spring rolls with mixed greens, mint, carrot, and rice noodles, plus your choice of four fillings. The prosciutto and asparagus version was an interesting variation with pleasingly salty and earthy results. (949 Portland Ave., Minneapolis, 612.455.1516;

3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily (also 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.)

Eat Street's most upscale Asian restaurant offers a lot of choices: There's the large dining room, the main bar area, the Caterpillar Lounge in the back where DJs play later at night, and the adjacent Anemoni Sushi Lounge (plus outdoor tables when weather permits). And then there's owner Thom Pham's far-ranging Asian fusion/American menu, with everything from pork tenderloin with sweet potatoes to Vietnamese coconut curry. Happy hour can help narrow your options, when for $4.95 each you can sample the sushi (spicy tuna or Philadelphia roll, always flavorful and high-quality); chicken, pork, or veggie pot stickers; shrimp and chicken fresh herb rolls served with a particularly good peanut dipping sauce; Azia's signature cranberry-cream-cheese puffs; and four varieties of wings. Many wines and sakes are half-price, certain tap beers are $3 (including a Summit seasonal variety), and a select few of the house cocktails are discounted to $7, including the fruity La Femme Nikita and the bitter but refreshing Korea Soju Martini with cucumber and basil. (2550 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, 612.813.1200;

4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday

The new companion to northeast Minneapolis's Pop!, St. Paul's Pop!! (with extra punctuation) recently took over the large space on Wabasha that last housed Fhima's. With an over-the-top pop-art sensibility—all bright oranges, yellows, and reds, with such art accents as a framed picture of a can of Spam—it's now gotta be the most brightly colored restaurant in town. If this is another attempt to inject some pizzazz into staid downtown St. Paul, it's working. The Latin-American-inspired menu continues the warming trend started by the decor, and with $3 small plates, happy hour is indeed cheery. Tasty black bean, shrimp, and green onion fritters come with two sauces, guasaca (a variation of guacamole with a vinegar kick) and a chipotle sour cream with a spiciness that overpowers its cooling properties. Ham croquettes with potato and Manchego cheese are accompanied by a delectably sweet quince dipping sauce. There are empanadas with spicy ground beef, and, in a nod to Scandinavian tradition, Swedish meatballs, made of pork and beef and served with a lingonberry sauce that tastes like Christmas. Well drinks, tap beers, and some wines by the glass are $3 each. Specialty drinks are discounted to $5 apiece—the tasty Basil Pineapple Smash adds an herbal touch to a fruity vodka cocktail. Or try the Pop!!tail, which combines cava with a ginger-orange-pomegranate syrup; garnished with candied ginger, it's a sweet, sparkling delight. (6 W. Sixth St., St. Paul; 651.228.1002)

4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday (also 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday)

Saffron's brick-and-gold color scheme gives this spacious Warehouse District room a warm, inviting feel, and its upscale Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare is still a rarity in the Twin Cities. The kitchen does wonderful work here with a menu full of intriguing flavors and combinations, and happy hour is a great time to check it out: Six small plates are available for a paltry $3.50 apiece. Among them are the very charming charmoula burgers, seasoned ground beef and lamb freshened up with a tangy cucumber-yogurt sauce, accompanied by pickled onions. The mini-lamb "BLT" bore little resemblance to its namesake visually, but the diminutive sandwiches with ground lamb, tomato jam, and arugula got the salty-fresh balance just right. Vegetable paella croquettes were fried rice balls, crispy on the outside and served with spicy marinated peppers that made a perfect complement. Even the French fries, nicely browned and dusted with fresh parsley, had a novel note: a rich feta "fondue" sauce for dipping. There are wine and beer price reductions, but don't miss the thoughtfully crafted, meticulously executed specialty cocktails, a great bargain at five bucks apiece. The Cuban in the Middle East adds mango and ginger beer to the mojito and doesn't skimp on the mint, making for a lively, refreshingly delicious concoction; and there's even a nod to The Big Lebowski with The Dude, a variation on that character's beloved "Caucasian," here with cardamom milk and vanilla Stoli. (123 N. Third St., Minneapolis, 612.746.5533;

4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday

Vincent's fancy French fare is highly regarded and priced accordingly. But in the less formal yet still sophisticated bar next to the austere dining room, early birds can feast like kings without blowing the castle mortgage payment. Eight dollars might not seem like a bargain for a hamburger, but when the burger in question is Vincent's famed short-rib-and-gouda-stuffed version, it's a hell of a deal. Select small plates are on offer for only $4, including fish tempura with ginger-basil sauce and a tasty, toasty flatbread with smoked chicken, caramelized onions, blue cheese, and red grapes. And champagne cocktails for five dollars each can add a celebratory air to any early evening. Santé! (1100 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612.630.1189;

5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily

Minneapolis's original great Japanese restaurant is still top-notch, and Origami's happy hour is an excellent place to get high-quality sushi at a bargain. Served in the restaurant's sleek second-floor lounge, the nightly specials here draw a diverse crowd—professionals unwinding, colleagues rehashing, couples flirting. It's easy to switch from working to relaxing while enjoying a Chu-Hi, a mixed drink with Japanese vodka, club soda or tea, and your choice of fruit-flavored liqueurs (the mango is quite good). House wines are $3 a glass, and there are beer and sake specials as well. But the happy-hour food menu is the real draw here. A $6.75 combo comes with three pieces of chef's choice sashimi, plus your choice of spicy tuna, yellowtail, or salmon roll—no way to make a wrong decision there. Non-sushi options include chicken gyoza (pot stickers) and ebi shumai (large steamed shrimp dumplings), both delicious and $3.75 apiece. For the same price, a more adventurous and equally palate-pleasing option is the tako sensai, octopus salad with sweet rice vinegar. (30 N. First St., Minneapolis, 612.333.8430;

5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Another old-school Twin Cities sushi place still holding its own, Saji Ya has a bar area that's comfortably dark and serene, with lots of black and dark red, plus gold-accented purple wall art. It's a welcome contrast to the ever-chipper vibe of Grand Avenue, from which the restaurant is set back a bit as if to disassociate itself from the bustling shoppers and packs of roaming college kids. The sushi chefs here turn out perfect rolls, and you can try a variety for a pittance during happy hour. Some of the offerings for $5 each include California and Dynamite rolls, while simpler rolls go for even lower prices, like the tasty $3.50 tuna rolls. Bar discounts include $5 glasses of wine, sake specials, and $3 rail cocktails. (695 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, 651.292.0444;

8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday

Decidedly lower-brow than all the preceding, the Nook, near the College of St. Catherine, looks like a dive bar but cooks up some of the best burgers in town. And on Monday nights from 8:30 to 10, you can get one for only a buck. A slightly smaller than usual but still meal-size burger is cooked to a perfect char on the outside but moist within, topped with American cheese, and served on a pillowy bun. Another dollar gets you a basket of thick-cut (but not too thick), skin-on, crisp, seasoned fries, making for a very cheap meal indeed. Wash it down with an ice-cold domestic beer (always reasonably priced here), and between visits with the friendly staff be sure to take a gander at some of the many photos crammed onto the bar's walls, from team pictures of neighborhood buddies to signed portraits of celebrities like the guy who played Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver. (492 Hamline Ave. S., St Paul; 651.698.4347)