Even in flush times — remember those? — everyone loves a bargain, a steal, a deal. But “cheap” means something different to each person — one man’s cheap is another man’s splurge — so for this guide, rather than focus on a specific price point, we adhered to one simple directive: A worthwhile cheap eat is one that hits the mysterious sweet spot where deliciousness meets value.
Bargains abound in Philly in surprising places — even the most expensive restaurants are offering at least one prix-fixe meal deal right now, for example—so we let out our belts (even as we metaphorically tightened them) and ate our way through hundreds of budget offerings in the city and suburbs. We discovered plenty of options from the four basic cheap-eats food groups — pizza, sandwiches, pho and food trucks — plus found dozens of brick-and-mortar restaurants that still, in the era of the $8 “tater tot,” offer great bang for your buck without sacrificing taste.
Sure, you can get a 99-cent Styrofoam cup full of ramen, or a dirty-water dog for a dollar, but would you eat them if you had a wallet full of cash and could dine wherever you wanted? Of course not. The cheap eats that made our cut are places we, as food lovers, would go even if we had billions to burn.
CENTER CITY WEST
Almaz Café Flip past the run-of-the-mill sandwich menu at this tiny storefront and embrace the Ethiopian specialties like dorowat (peppery stewed chicken), zilzil tibs (beef strips sautéed with traditional herbs), and colorful vegetarian stews (get the four-dish combo). The entrées ($8.95 to $13.50) arrive on one massive plate lined with enjera, a crepe-like bread made for scooping and sharing. 140 South 20th Street, 215-557-0108, almazcafe.com.
Bubby’s Brisket & Bugsy’s Weiners Barely three people can fit inside, but the huge, juicy brisket sandwich ($5.95; also available in a half-size portion), $1 snappy, spicy hot dog and $1.50 fresh-squeezed lemonade help Bubby’s stand apart from the food carts lining the streets near City Hall — plus we were in and out with a piping-hot lunch in two minutes flat. 103 North 15th Street, 215-569-0184, bubbysbrisket.com.
Butcher & Singer’s burger A classic steakhouse burger: ground sirloin, broiled to char-kissed perfection, atop Parc’s house-made brioche bun, topped with melted English cheddar and sweet sautéed onions, for just $9.95. We’d be willing to pay much, much … wait, never mind. (Burger served at lunch only.) 1500 Walnut Street, 215-732-4444, butcherandsinger.com.
Coventry Deli oatmeal Top a 10-ounce portion of Coventry’s double-boiled creamy wonder with fresh fruit and nuts of your choosing for an extra 25 cents a pop. We like the sugar-free version with fresh strawberries, blackberries and crushed walnuts ($2.75) for a healthy start to the day. 2000 Market Street, 215-972-8310, coventrydeli.com.
Day By Day You’ll have to search to find anything over $10 at this venerable quasi-deli — “quasi” because your basic deli doesn’t serve excellent chicken salad on black bread with bacon and avocado, or offer clever twists on classics, like a BLT with horseradish mayo. Weekend brunches bring potato pancakes Benedict and stuffed challah French toast; the house-made sweets — cinnamon rolls, cookies, pies — are amazing. 2101 Sansom Street, 215-564-5540, daybydayinc.com.