Chefs’ Top Cheap Eats
Helvetia Tavern Hillsboro, Oregon
Recommended by: Jenn Louis Lincoln, Portland, Oregon
Just off of Highway 26, this old-school tavern is popular with bike riders, motorcyclists and other beach-bound Portlanders in need of a beer-and-burger pit stop. At Helvetia the patties are cooked on a griddle (“The meat takes on the flavor of the griddle, in a good way,” says Louis’s husband, David Welch). Louis and Welch get their burgers topped with yellow American cheese, then eat them on the fabulous patio overlooking rolling hills. The tab: $4.50 per person. Though Helvetia has a good list of local microbrews, the couple usually orders Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Kasa Indian Restaurant San Francisco
Recommended by: Jamie Lauren Absinthe, San Francisco
Lauren, a contestant on Season 5 of Bravo’s Top Chef, lives just around the corner from her favorite cheap restaurant, Kasa. She loves the homestyle Indian food, including a handful of curries and especially the kathi rolls—she calls them India’s version of burritos. Lauren’s favorite roll has a turkey-kebab filling made with ground free-range turkey flavored with garlic, then grilled, smashed and wrapped in buttery roti (pita-like bread). Even with raita and lemony salad on the side, it still costs less than $5.
Pike Street Fish Fry Seattle
Recommended by: Rachel Yang Joule, Seattle
Year-old Pike Street Fish Fry in the Capitol Hill district specializes in fried-fish sandwiches made with a daily changing selection of fresh seafood. Yang and her husband, Seif Chirchi, are partial to the smelt sandwich ($5), which is topped with house-pickled cabbage and crispy lemon slices that are fried in the same batter as the fish. “The place is open until 2 a.m., so we can go after work,” says Yang, adding, “It’s set in between two nightclubs, so the people-watching is great.”
Hale & Hearty Soups New York City
Recommended by: Daniel Boulud DBGB, New York City
Now that Daniel Boulud is busy with his new DBGB in downtown Manhattan (in addition to restaurants like his flagship, Daniel), he’s not eating out very often. Hale & Hearty Soups, the New York–based chain, is his take-out standby. “At midday, there’s not much in the way of cooked food at Daniel,” says Boulud. “Hale & Hearty is a great fix.” He favors the lentil chili, made with brown, green and red lentils and a bit of cumin and paprika; a large container is $5.40.
The Victory Brooklyn, NY
Recommended by: Gabe Thompson L’Artusi, New York City
This tiny café covered in stainless steel shines on a quiet corner in Boerum Hill. Gabe Thompson of Manhattan’s L’Artusi might stop by for a cup of the excellent coffee (brewed with beans from Ancora in Madison, Wisconsin). At lunchtime he opts for the soppressata sandwich ($9), made with dry-cured meat from Brooklyn pork specialist G. Esposito & Sons. Thompson also recommends the crisp-chewy oatmeal cookies baked by owner Patrick Downey’s wife, Alison. Secret ingredient: maple syrup.
El Hidalguense Houston
Recommended by: James Silk Feast, Houston
“El Hidalguense serves the best Mexican food in a town full of Mexican food,” says Silk, who eats there with co-chef Richard Knight. “On Sundays, there’s a lunatic mariachi band; it feels completely authentic.” The chefs at nose-to-tail Feast favor the whole roasted goat and the barbecued lamb. Silk’s favorite dish is the chile-spiced goat’s head ($6), braised in the oven until it’s falling-apart tender.
Top Notch Beefburgers Chicago
Recommended by: Ryan Poli Perennial, Chicago
Poli has been eating at 67-year-old Top Notch Beefburgers since he was a teenager; the pictures of Marilyn Monroe inside have been there longer. While most burger places buy preformed patties, the cooks at Top Notch grind their own beef daily. Plus, they lightly butter the sesame-seed rolls before toasting them, so they’re crisp and ever-so-slightly greasy. Poli invariably gets the double cheeseburger ($7.55) and a chocolate malt, served with the leftovers in a giant steel milk shake cup.
El Carmen Los Angeles
Recommended by: John Cuevas Montage, Beverly Hills
El Carmen might be best known around Los Angeles for its vast selection of tequilas and the Mexican wrestler masks decorating its walls, but Cuevas goes there for the amazingly fresh and simple Mexican food. He usually orders the cheese enchiladas ($6 for three). Says Cuevas, “They use really thick corn tortillas and cook them just until the cheese inside starts to melt—it’s not a soupy mess, like it is at all the other Mexican places in town. Those enchiladas are unreal.”