Your Guide to The Country’s Best Cheap Food
For me, food IS travel. Half the reason I go to new places and foreign countries is to feast upon their local delicacies (while the other half is because I’m always trying to catch that dastardly Carmen Sandiego). There’s no reason, however, for these meals to break the bank.
I’ve cobbled together a zig-zagging circuit of some of my favorite, inexpensive regional specialties from across the US, although you might quickly realize that I could drop the word inexpensive and it wouldn’t change the list. Because the best local food in America is often the cheapest (with the possible exception of Trenton, New Jersey’s famous fifty cent gravel and wool burger).
1. Maine Lobster Roll
A pretty classy start to our list, if I do say so myself. Wait, Nick, you’ll exclaim, isn’t lobster expensive? To which I reply – don’t you dare interrupt me. Sure you can pay twenty five dollars to eat a lobster roll in an upscale restaurant, but why would you when there are hundreds of waterside shacks (like the fantastic Red’s in Wiscasset) that serve delicious rolls for a fraction of the cost. It’s toasted bread, a fistful of fresh lobster meat, and clarified butter (or, in some cases, a dollop of mayo) – a place with linen tablecloths isn’t going to improve on that.
2. New York Pizza
Take the Q train to Avenue J, wait in line for two hours, and get a slice of Di Fara’s pizza. Do it right now. Domenico DeMarco, the owner and sole cook, is in his late 70s and not getting any younger. It’s the best slice of pizza in America, and even with subway fare it’s less than ten bucks.
3. Philadelphia Cheesesteak
If you’re a true Philadelphian, when you step up to the counter at Geno’s or Tony Luke’s, you order your cheesesteak with Whiz (as in Cheese Whiz). Doubtful? Take one bite and you’ll see that the “processed cheese spread” was invented for a reason (ok, two reasons – it also patches Navy warship hulls).
4. Southern BBQ
As a Southern boy, I love BBQ in all of its variations – mustard-based, vinegar-based, ketchup-based, ribs, pulled pork, brisket, you name it. And here’s a little secret to picking a great BBQ joint: is there a sign of a pig out front doing something a pig was never meant to do? Say lounging at the beach or flying a helicopter? Then you’ve found a keeper. But even at Sweatman’s in South Carolina, my favorite BBQ in the country, the ‘cue is still served buffet style on disposable plates with free refills.
5. New Orleans…Honestly Everything
New Orleans has got it figured out. Women go topless for beads, they play jazz in the streets at your funeral, and almost every supermarket, truck stop, and dive bar still serves fantastic food. Gumbo, jambalaya, andouille sausage, crawfish etouffee, muffulettas, po-boys, oysters rockafeller, pralines, beignets – they’re all delicious, dirt cheap, and hard to find at that quality anywhere else in America. Try Mother’s on Poydras to sample as many as possible in one stop.
6. Minneapolis Juicy Lucy
The Juicy Lucy is Minneapolis’s contribution to world cuisine, and boy is it a doozy. It’s an inside-out cheeseburger, with a scalding, molten cheese core. One part torture to two parts scrumptious. Matt’s Bar and The 5-8 Club have long battled over ownership of this monstrosity, but either is well worth the next day’s meat hangover.
7. San Francisco Mission-Style Burrito
Loosely defined, a Mission-style burrito is A) really big, B) full of a bunch of stuff, and C) delicious. Ok, very loosely defined. Bay Area restaurants like La Taqueria and El Farolito have been perfecting the inexpensive, exquisite burrito for years. Just check out FiveThirtyEight’s absurdly rigorous Burrito Battle to watch San Francisco slap the rest of the country’s burritos to their burritoy knees.
8. Los Angeles – Tacos and Ramen
Have any friends of the isolationist perspective? Just send them to Cactus Tacos on Vine or Daikokuya in Little Tokyo. They’ll leave with still heavy wallets, newly heavy stomachs, and a fresh outlook on immigration. Every day an army of aspiring actors and writers thank God for LA’s cheap, delicious taco trucks and ramen joints. That is, when they’re not on a cleanse, and as long as they don’t ask about what ingredients go into the aforementioned tacos and ramen.
Of course there are many more affordable delicacies I’m skipping over: Texas brisket, Chicago deep dish pizza, Miami cubanos, New England clam chowder, Maryland crab cakes – the list goes on and on. The message, however, is simple: when you travel the country, you owe it to your bank account to eat like a king.
Nick von Keller is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has been featured on Comedy Central, Fark, Funny or Die, Cracked, Mondo Media, Current TV, and Channel 101, among others. A Watson Fellowship recipient, he has also won the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival Screenwriting Competition, placed as a Finalist in the LA Comedy Fest Screenwriting Competition, and had the highest rated comedy pilot on The Black List as of December 2013. He is not to be trusted.