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.
The Fruit Lady Cart The fruit lady is the opposite of Wawa. There’s no impersonal screen to touch, just her smiling face and the sweet smell of fresh-cut pineapple in the air. Smile back and say “Large” ($4) or “Small” ($3). But it’s worth saying, instead, “A large with no oranges or grapes and extra honeydew, please,” and she’ll make it up to-order for you right there — a mountain of impeccably fresh strawberries and melon (and more), topped off with a gratis banana. 18th and Chestnut streets.
Giwa Little, modern, and ripe for duplicating, this businessperson’s standby will happily pack up a hearty seafood pancake ($8.50) and a bottle of homemade hot sauce ($4.95) to take back to the office. Still, what you really ought to do is eat in, so you can dive into a stone bowl of dol sot bibimbap ($9.50 to $11.50 at lunchtime) — a sizzling, self-spiced salad wherein all the ingredients get crispy and the rice forms a lip-smackingly tasty crust. 1608 Sansom Street, 215-557-9830.
Mama’s Vegetarian The lunchtime lines at Mama’s are legendary. But they move fast, and it’s all worth it once you dig into Mama’s Platter — an oversize $8 helping of hummus and tahini, cucumbers, tomatoes and slaw, pita, and eight balls of the beloved falafel. Or our favorite, the special $6 avocado sandwich. (Get it “spicy.”) Add the BOP-winning fries and a soda for just $2.50 more. 18 South 20th Street, 215-751-0477, mamasvegetarian.com.
Mémé’s fried chicken Three, make that four, words: fried chicken, biscuit, beer. For $11. For lunch on Thursdays only. See you there. 2201 Spruce Street, 215-735-4900, memerestaurant.com.
Oyster House happy hours Shellfish rarely goes on sale (and do you even want it to?), but this seafood spot’s Monday-through-Friday buck-a-shuck happy hour ($1 select oysters, $3 select draft beer, from 5 to 7 p.m.) is a great way to get your mollusk fix. Even better: They offer the same deal on Saturday nights — the elusive weekend happy hour! — from 9 to 11 p.m. 1516 Sansom Street, 215-567-7683, oysterhousephilly.com.
Rachael’s Nosheri Less shiny than the competing Famous Fourth Street’s 19th Street outpost, this stalwart Rittenhouse deli has nonetheless maintained its following, thanks to snappy cafeteria-style service, cure-all chicken noodle soup ($3.50), a delightfully sloppy turkey Reuben ($7.50), and sweet Rachael herself, posted at the end of the counter to collect on your modest bill and remind you to help yourself to the free pickled tomatoes. 120 South 19th Street, 215-568-9565, rachaelsnosheri.com.
Snow White A fried egg sandwich for $1.50. A $2.70 Texas Tommy, just like Mom used to make. A shiny counter to sit at and watch while the busy cooks and busier waitresses dish up sammies: Taylor pork roll and cheese ($2.75), egg salad mashed up before your eyes ($2.75), a respectable cheesesteak ($3.35) accompanied by too-hot-to-eat, fresh-from-the-fryer fries ($1.60). Don’t miss the real, honest-to-goodness milkshakes ($3) poured from a silver shaker. 1901 Chestnut Street, 215-569-0909.
Su Xing House Vegetarian spot Su Xing is exactly like your favorite neighborhood Chinese joint (or maybe it is your neighborhood Chinese joint!), only here, your General Tso chicken is General Tso tofu. You don’t miss the meat — sauces are plenty rich and flavorful. Lunch specials offer Brobdingnagian portions of your choice of 38 entrées (kung pao tofu is delish), plus a pint of soup and a side dish, for $6.50 to $8.25. 1508 Sansom Street, 215-564-1419, suxinghouse.com.
Vic Sushi “Cheap” and “sushi” aren’t usually two words you want paired, but this tiny BYO is an exception. The friendly staff masterfully presents everything made-to-order, most notably the $10.95 three-roll special (think shrimp tempura, spicy salmon, Philly rolls). This spot only sits about eight people (and not comfortably) at one short bar counter, so get yours to go. 2035 Sansom Street, 215-564-4339, vic-sushi.com.
CENTER CITY EAST
Chifa express lunch It’s hard to get out of a Garces restaurant without dropping significant dinero, but at Chifa you can order a first- and second-course option from the lunch menu for $12.50. Best part: It’s offered Monday through Saturday. 707 Chestnut Street, 215-925-5555, chifarestaurant.com.
Maru Global Japanese comfort food takoyaki (crepe batter balls) takes on a Philly flavor at this Gayborhood spot. A small serving of eight bite-size cheesesteak takoyaki ($5.32) is a good snack, or mix and match multiple flavors for a full meal. But the real treat here is the hot chocolate chip Maru balls: They’re fluffy, buttery orbs of chocolate chip-laced delight. 255 South 10th Street, 267-273-0567, maruphilly.com.
McGillin’s Olde Ale House It’s old — 150 years old, to be exact — but there’s a reason it’s been around this long: free soup! You’ll have to order something — a drink, a sandwich (we like the straightforward and substantial turkey club) — to access the free soup (at lunch only), but any way you ladle it, it’s easy for two people to get out of this classic Irish pub for less than $20. 1310 Drury Street, 215-735-5562, mcgillins.com.
Morimoto happy hour The Iron Chef’s sushi is the city’s best — and priciest. Hit up the futuristic upstairs lounge Sunday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. for “signature hour” to try it for less. Six-dollar spicy salmon maki, a $6 Morimoto martini and $7 apps like “angry wings” are a great deal anywhere, but especially here. 723 Chestnut Street, 215-413-9070, morimotorestaurant.com.
Reading Terminal Market Got $10 in your pocket? You can stuff yourself silly at one of the country’s best city markets and still have $2 left for the bus home. Dozens of vendors offer $7 meal deals at lunch, including chicken, collard greens, rice and cornbread from the Oprah-sanctioned Delilah’s Southern Cuisine. The ridiculously affordable (think: French toast for less than $4) Dutch Eating Place is also a player, and carb junkies shouldn’t skip Miller’s Twist, where you get a free buttery pretzel with the purchase of a medium milkshake ($3.95). Visit the under-sung cafeteria-style counter at Little Thai Market for crab dumplings whose simplicity belies their addictive power ($5.50), and the sweet BBQ chicken on a stick ($2.50) — probably the best-value snack in the Terminal. 12th and Arch streets, 215-922-2317, readingterminalmarket.org.
Xochitl The Head House Square Mexican spot has revamped its food and decor, but thankfully kept its Thursday-night tradition of offering the entire menu at half-price from 10 p.m. to midnight. You may have to stay up late on a weeknight, but a stiff $5 margarita from the accompanying late-night happy hour will help ease the pain. 408 South 2nd Street, 215-238-7280, xochitlphilly.com.
Dim Sum Garden The grim view is of the 11th Street tunnel, but inside, you’ll find the best soup dumplings ($5.25) in town. Sticky-rice-filled sui mai dumplings ($3.50) are another must, as are the homemade noodles and veggie sides ranging from cilantro-tossed cucumber ($3.30) to Chinese broccoli ($4.25). Bonus: The food comes to the table in a flash — it has to, for anxious travelers catching rides at the bus depot down the street. 59 North 11th Street, 215-627-0218.
Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodles It pays to have the table closest to the bathroom at this closet-sized establishment — it gives the best view of the dough masters swinging noodles through the air in the kitchen. The savory soup broths, rock-bottom prices, and a hostess who’s been known to coo to babies so their parents can drain their bowls inspire cult loyalty here. Whether you get duck noodle soup ($5.75) or dry noodles with pork and soy sauce ($4.75), it’s all about the noodles. 927 Race Street, 215-923-1550.
Sakura Mandarin From Szechuan double-cooked pork ($8.95) to sushi rolls ($3 to $13) to fresh fruit smoothies ($3), Sakura does a broad range of things ably. The standout is the scallion pancake that puts the crispy yin and doughy yang into perfect balance ($2.50). Discounted lunch specials pack the tables at midday. 1038 Race Street, 215-873-8338.
Ting Wong It takes two menus to list all the dishes on offer, but stick to roasted meats and you can’t go wrong. The soy sauce chicken ($6.50) is rightly renowned as some of the moistest breast meat around, but the showstopper is the roast pig ($6.50) — not to be confused with the sweeter, skinless roast pork ($6.50) — whose lean meat sports a crackling skin without equal. 138 North 10th Street, 215-928-1883, phillychinatown.com/tingwong.htm.
Café con Chocolate The city’s most authentic Mexican is served deep in South Philly, far west of the Italian Market’s taqueria stronghold, where the menu lists teppanyaki alongside tamales. Surprising, yes, but one taste of chef/owner Yoshiko Yamasaki’s addicting chilaquiles made with homemade fried corn tortillas and a bright salsa verde ($8.50), or everything-but-the-kitchen-sink veggie tacos ($7.50), is all the convincing you’ll need. 2100 South Norwood Street, 267-639-4506, cafeconchocolate.com.
Mr. Joe’s Café Run by the Termini family (yes, the bakery folks), this adorable old-school luncheonette serves enormous plates of homestyle Nonna-inspired cooking — think minestrone, pasta fagiole, ravioli — at reasonable prices ($10 to $14). Order an entrée, and you’ll land a free dessert (cannoli, one hopes) from Termini’s across the street (and maybe even a complimentary glass of vino). 1514 South 8th Street, 215-334-1414.
Villa di Roma Don’t be surprised when you hear your waitress get into a screaming match in the kitchen — or when she returns to your table with a casual “Ready to order, hon?” It’s all part of this no-frills Italian joint’s charm. Because when you’re at Villa, you’re part of the family — and you’ll be treated and fed accordingly. Which means butter-and-cheese-crusted garlic bread ($3.50), deep-fried asparagus atop a butter-laden scampi sauce ($7.95), and platters of spaghetti and the perfect meatballs ($13.95). 936 South 9th Street, 215-592-1295.
Honey’s Sit ‘N’ Eat Make a pre-work visit to Honey’s any weekday (8 a.m. to 10 a.m. only) for the $3.95 breakfast special: two free-range eggs cooked your way, with potato latke, grits or home fries; toast or biscuit; and bottomless coffee. It may cost almost as much as your entire meal, but splurge on the $3 fresh-squeezed orange juice. 800 North 4th Street, 215-925-1150, honeys-restaurant.com.
UNIVERSITY CITY/ WEST PHILLY
Desi Chaat House They’re typically served as street snacks in India, but there’s nothing wrong with making a full meal out of chaats, especially when the most expensive ones here cost $6. A favorite is the papri chaat ($5), a combination of crunchy, crispy fried dough pieces, cilantro, chickpeas, mango, chilies, tamarind sauce, yogurt and masala spice, all tossed together into a filling treat. 501 South 42nd Street, 215-386-1999, desichaathouse.com.
Kabobeesh It’s not a particularly pretty spot — and the huge TV blaring Middle Eastern soap operas doesn’t help — but don’t let that keep you from the vast $10.50 platters of fantastic Pakistani kebabs — the boneless lamb and chicken versions are best — served with fresh naan, veggie sides, a pile of rice, and an addictively spicy yogurt-chili sauce. 4201 Chestnut Street, 215-386-8081, kabobeesh.com.
Pod All-you-can-eat sushi at a Starr restaurant, $25 per person, Tuesday nights after 9 p.m. What else do you need to know, other than reservations are highly recommended? 3636 Sansom Street, 215-387-1803, podrestaurant.com.
Vietnam The Vietnamese food you crave — crispy spring rolls, char-grilled lemongrass chicken, beef-stuffed grape leaves, tender pork meatballs, with fish sauce and lettuce- and rice-paper-wrap fixings — and that’s just the $25.95 barbecue platter. Then there’s the coconut-spiked pork clay pot ($12.95), fried rice to dream about ($9.95) … are you hungry yet? 221 North 11th Street, 215-592-1163, and 816 South 47th Street, 215-729-0260; eatatvietnam.com.
Iron Hill Brewery For pizza and craft-beer fans (and who isn’t a fan of one or the other?), Iron Hill offers quite a deal: two personal pizzas and a growler (four pints) of the brewpub’s beer for $25, available to-go only. Just call in your order by 10 p.m. seven days a week, at any of the restaurant’s eight locations, and swing by to pick it up. Multiple locations; ironhillbrewery.com.
Three Little Pigs A deli that offers gourmet sandwiches, served on house-baked bread, with swanky ingredients at totally not-swanky prices? We’re sold, especially round these parts. Take the High Street: honey ham, brie and spicy mustard ($6.75). 131 North High Street, West Chester, 610-918-1272, threelittlepigswc.com.
Charlie’s Old Original Hamburgers It’s just $2.50 for a griddled old-school burger (with the works) at this bare-bones shack. Stay in and wolf it down at the counter, or grab a sack — thriftily packaged in the repurposed plastic bag the hamburger rolls come in — and get affordable beefy bliss to go. 336 Kedron Avenue, Folsom, 610-461-4228.
Hank’s Place It’s as bucolic a diner as we’ve ever seen, but what else would you expect in picturesque Chadds Ford? The bargain prices — $8.95 for a three-egg omelet stuffed with Kennett Square mushrooms, or, for a real belly bomb, the $4.95 creamed chipped beef — are what’s really unexpected. Make like a Wyeth and stop in on your way to the local museums. Routes 1 and 100, Chadds Ford, 610-388-7061, hanks-place.net.
H Mart Food Court Take the escalator up to the second floor of the H Mart Asian grocery store, and at the top you’ll find sub-$10 sushi-and-sashimi combos, giant $8 Korean rice or noodle bowls, $9 beef teriyaki with dumplings, and plenty of bubble tea. But you’ll have to stake out a table, because this place is always jammed with regulars who know a good deal — and good food — when they see it. 7050 Terminal Square, second floor, Upper Darby, 610-734-1001, hmart.com.
The Original Clam Tavern Don’t even try and show up at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night without a reservation at this near-50-year-old neighborhood seafood house, when loyal followers pile in for $6 Beefeater martinis served in shakers, and lots of clams — baked, steamed, half-shelled or casino’d. Each January, owner Tony Blanche rolls back some of the prices to match the old menus hanging on the wall. Don’t miss the 99-cent clam chowder and $1.99 bowl of mussels. 339 East Broadway Avenue, Clifton Heights, 610-623-5070, clamtavern.net.
Pica’s Restaurant Sometime in the 1940s, Frank Pica opened a tiny pizza shop in West Philly and started selling 75-cent thin-crust square pies instead of the thicker round pizzas that were the status quo. Today, Pica’s is a sprawling family-friendly Italian restaurant, where Frank Jr. is still selling his pop’s pizzas. For $9.45, you get a small plain, which, accompanied by a large $9.95 Greek salad, is all two hungry people need. 7803 West Chester Pike, Upper Darby, 610-789-7770, picas-restaurant.com.
Shere-E-Punjab Indian was never well represented in this part of Delco until this BYOB opened behind the Drexeline Shopping Center. The lunchtime buffet is better than most (hope they have the lamb vindaloo when you visit), and it’s only $9.95 during the week and $10.95 on weekends. If your kids don’t require chicken fingers, they can eat all they want for half that. Supplement with a basket of crispy flatbread-like papadum ($1.50) or garlic naan ($2.50). 5059 State Road, Drexel Hill, 484-452-8140, shereepunjab.com.
Chung Sing When eastern Main Liners say they’re heading to the China Diner, they’re actually talking about this Ardmore mainstay for cheap Chinese fare. It’s housed in an old silver train-car diner, but instead of omelets and meatloaf, you’ll get giant plates of well-prepared Chinese staples. One young family of four we know eats dinner here every other week for $20. Including tip. Be sure to munch on the complimentary pickled vegetables while you wait. 210 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-8115.
Milkboy Coffee Part live music venue, part community coffee hang, these Main Line cafes serve up a variety of eats with an impressively broad selection of vegan options, like a spicy $6.95 seitan cheese-steak wrap, plus multiple breakfast sandwiches made with organic eggs and meats, to go with your morning joe. Even better — they’re very kid-friendly. 2 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-645-5269, and 824 West Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, 610-527-0690; milkboycoffee.com.
Nudy’s A cross between the classic American diner and a country cafe, this regional mini-chain offers actual meals at the elusive $10-and-under price point. For lunch, salads like country apple with blue cheese and marinated chicken ($7.95) and hearty sandwiches like the oven-roasted turkey melt, topped with (mmmmm) stuffing and cranberry mayo ($7.95), satisfy. Breakfast is busy for good reason: to-die-for gingerbread pancakes ($6.95). 292 East Conestoga Road, Wayne, 610-687-1345, and six other area locations.
Great Burger For $3.99, you get a bigger, badder version of your favorite fast-food chain’s rinky-dink cheeseburger: fresh-ground, hand-formed patty; toasted sesame-seed bun; and your choice of free fixin’s (lettuce, tomato and onion, maybe, or salsa and jalapeños). 3616 Welsh Road, Willow Grove, 215-657-6100, greatburger.net.
Han Dynasty Adventurous diners won’t want to miss the Royersford location’s $25 multi-course tasting feast, offered the second Tuesday of every month. Owner Han Chiang feeds you whatever Szechuan specialties he wants, at communal tables, and you eat them, happily. (Feast at the Center City location on the first and third Mondays of the month.) 70 Buckwalter Road, Royersford, 610-792-9600, Exton Plaza, 260 North Pottstown Pike, Exton, 610-524-4002, and 108 Chestnut Street, 215-922-1888; handynasty.net.
NEW HOPE/ LAMBERTVILLE
Dilly’s Corner What is that posse of leather-clad bikers doing at the corner of 263 and 32 on the first warm day of spring? They’re waiting for the epic, french-fry-topped Dilly dogs ($6.50), creamy soft-serve (from $1.25) and juicy backyard Dilly burgers ($5.50), just like everyone else at this popular 25-year-old spot. Cash only. Routes 263 and 32, New Hope, 215-862-5333.
Ennis Gourmet delicatessen Earlier this year, original owner Karen Walshe bought back her sandwich shop, restoring the mouthwatering Dagwoodian sandwiches and howdy-’do vibe. Wolf down French toast stuffed with raspberry jam and cream cheese for under $6, or devour one of the dozen-plus specialty sandwiches (all $6.95), like grilled lemon chicken with warm brie on a doughy Portuguese roll. 5 North Union Street, Lambertville, 609-397-0009.
The British Chip Shop Longing for authentic British Isles fare and all of its attendant silly names — bangers, pasties, crumpets? Head to this new Haddonfield spot for crisp Cornish pasties with salad ($7) and genuine fish-and-chips ($10 for a queen-size) at prices that, thankfully, aren’t in pounds. Don’t miss scones with real clotted cream for $3 at the affordable afternoon tea, or the deep-fried Mars bar ($4). 146 Kings Highway East, Haddonfield, 856-354-0204.
Maple Shade Custard Stand Where to go for icy, thick frozen custard, just the way you remember it, year-round. You can coat it with any of 20 toppings (or have them blended in). But we like to stick with a small classic vanilla ($2.10), sprinkled with a generous coating of jimmies for just 50 cents more. 340 West Main Street, Maple Shade, 856-663-1351.
Weber’s Root Beer It’s about as retro as you can get, decor-wise (’50s-style signage), service-wise (it’s a drive-in) and price-wise (nothing over $5). Pull up in your convertible Caddy, er, hybrid, and order up a hot dog ($1.95), a frosty mug of house root beer ($1.29) and a free serving of nostalgia. 6019 Lexington Avenue, Pennsauken, 856-662-6632.
Edited by: Kirsten Henri
Contributors: Michael Callahan, Victor Fiorillo, Timothy Haas, Sandy Hingston, Lauren McCutcheon, Erica Palan, Bridget Salmons, Christine Speer, Janine White and Valerie Yeager