If you are a staunch believer in the “if you pay more, it’s better” school of thinking, our region’s restaurants have a few surprises in store for you. We recently ate our way through some very expensive—and very cheap—dishes from Auburn and El Dorado Hills to bustling downtown Sacramento. Some of our meals were blatant splurges, others simply pricey for the time of day, while a refreshing handful cost less than $5.
We came to the conclusion that a dish’s quality has much less to do with its price tag and much more to do with the freshness of its ingredients and the kitchen staff’s expertise. Our advice? Don’t prejudge a restaurant on how exorbitant or bargain-basement its menu (or ambiance) is. Instead, dine with an open mind and a curious palate. We guarantee some eye-opening results.
Spicy Vegetables (No. 27) $5.75
What could be more appealing than Vientiane’s bountiful, spicy vegetable entrée, piled high with crispy cooked broccoli, cabbage, carrots and baby corn? Big chunks of custardy tofu add a jiggly, soft contrast to the crunchiness of the veggies, and the entire dish is awash in a rich, sweet, pumpkin-colored sauce featuring the bold flavors of coconut and red curry. We aren’t the only ones who adore this plain, friendly restaurant, which specializes in Thai and Laotian cuisine: It’s also a favorite with many of our region’s highly regarded chefs.
2480 W. Capitol Ave.,
No. 2 Burger $ 6.05
Although hamburgers are rarely purchased for their looks, it is noteworthy that Ford’s happens to dish up some of the handsomest specimens in town. Sink your canines into the husky No. 2 burger: a juicy half-pounder that’s stacked to an alarming height with pungent red onions, shredded iceberg lettuce and thick tomato slices. The bottom bun is smeared with a sharply, sweetly satisfying housemade sauce the restaurant describes as “like a Thousand Island dressing without the pickles,” and the top bun is cutely rounded and pleasingly crusty. The main challenge is figuring out how to compress the burger enough to wrap your mouth around it, but once you manage that, you’ll understand why Ford’s is a Land Park institution.
Ford's Real Hamburgers,
1948 Sutterville Road,
Barbeque Pork Sandwich $6
At first pass, $6 for a sandwich doesn’t seem like much of a bargain. But when you consider this sandwich’s massive size and incontestable quality, you’ll agree that it deserves a permanent position in the Cheap Eats Hall of Fame. A sesame-seeded roll is piled high with BBQ Express’ inconceivably tender, moist pork, which has been wood-smoked for hours (as have all the meats on the menu). Housemade barbecue sauce of your choice (we like the medium-spicy sauce) is poured carefully over the pork, and the resulting sandwich will bring a tear to your eye. Eat it fast, or the pork juices will soak through the roll, rendering it soggy and useless. Or, better yet, share it with a friend (it’s plenty big enough) and enjoy a side of BBQ Express’ excellent baked beans—only a dollar more.
6693 Folsom Auburn Road, Folsom
Chili Dog $ 3.88
After years of preaching good eating habits to our children, my husband and I recently snuck into Willie’s on Arden Way for a good old American chili dog. This menu item contains everything your mom told you not to eat: an airy, soft white bun, a scandalously long, skinny dog (“You never know what they put in those things,” my mother would remonstrate, wringing her hands) and the chili: an indistinguishable, oily, glistening mass of brown. (“Is there meat in there?” my husband asked.) When I asked a Willie’s staffer if the chili was housemade, he proudly replied, “No—it comes as a frozen chili log, and we defrost it.” Not the answer I was looking for, but, hey, it was undeniably tasty. As we guiltily devoured our dogs, we stared out the window at the slow-moving, frustrated commuters idling in traffic on Fair Oaks Boulevard and felt pleased to be eating our naughty dinner in Willie’s peaceful, air-conditioned, corrugated-steel-lined dining area.
5050 Arden Way,
Raisin Bread French Toast $5.39
If you're sad, cold, grouchy or generally in need of some serious comfort, Rosy's raisin bread french toast may be just the ticket. The toast arrives, unadorned, fanned out carefully on the plate, oozing buttery cinnamon and speckled generously with powdered sugar. The texture-curiously crunchy on the outside (more about that later) and soothingly creamy on the inside, will fill you with goodwill and contentment. The interior of the cafe is equally reassuring: How can you be grumpy in a place with whitewashed knotty-pine walls and red-and-white-checkered tablecloths? When we inquired about the toast's appealing crunchiness, the waitress leaned in, gave us a conspiratorial smile and said, "It's a secret." She then proceeded to tell us that the cooks sprinkle sugar all over the toast slices after they've been dipped in egg and fried (hence, the pleasing and caloric granularity). And more good news: Rosy's serves breakfast all day long.
Rosy's Family Dining,
4950 Pacific St.,
Falafel Pita $4.50
Bring a college student’s ravenous appetite to the bright and cheerily decorated Pita Pit, where friendly young staff members cram various protein-y items (such as Philly steak, chicken souvlaki and roast beef) into a pita pocket. The pita then is stuffed to overflowing with a wide variety of various toppings (think pineapple, green peppers and cucumbers) and finished off with the sauce of your choice (barbecue, Caesar or honey mustard, to name just a few). Our favorite combo is the salty, crusty falafel pita, drizzled with tzatziki (Greek yogurt and cucumber sauce) and accompanied by lettuce, tomato and cucumbers. We were tickled to discover that the company (a 20-year-old Canadian-based chain whose motto is “Fresh thinking, healthy eating”) offers patrons an online nutritional calculator (pitapit.com) so you can punch in a theoretical pita order to see how many calories and how much carbohydrate, fat, sodium, protein, cholesterol and fiber it contains.
The Pita Pit,
213 E St.,
N.D.D. Wrap $5.49
New Delhi Chaat Cafe's absolutely delicious N.D.D. Wrap is on the shortlist of food items I must have if I'm ever abandoned on a desert island. Every time I order the wrap (which is embarrassingly often), I am struck by its vibrant, invigorating flavors and textures. The restaurant takes a soft, warm, freshly baked naan bread circle and jams it full of fire-red tandoori chicken chunks (which have been marinated in yogurt and spices), tomatoes, onions, cilantro and green chiles. This enticing ensemble then is drizzled with a scrumptious mint sauce. When we inquired about the name of the wrap, the waiter said, a trifle sheepishly, "We've all been wondering that ourselves. The owners really haven't told us. We think it means 'New Delhi Delight.'" I wouldn't argue with that.
New Delhi Chaat Cafe,
132 E St.,
Hawaiian BBQ Beef Saimin $3.89
When’s the last time you ate Spam? The pink, slightly gelatinous mystery meat had resided in the dim recesses of my memory (did my grandmother feed it to me when I was a baby?) until recently, when I found chunks of it floating happily in my Hawaiian “BBQ” beef saimin soup at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. Had I known the soup contained Spam, I might have thought twice before ordering it. Yet, after a few tentative nibbles, I decided it was a not-unappealing partner to the soup’s fatty, chewy, yummy beef strips (described by my unappreciative friend as “highly marinated, low-quality beef”). But I thought both meats tasted just dandy with the soup’s silky saimin noodles (long, crinkled egg noodles similar to ramen), whose relative blandness was perked up with a judicious addition of chopped green onion. Meats and noodles were immersed in a full-flavored, meaty broth, the combination of which made a rib-sticking, hearty soup to satisfy even the biggest appetite.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue,
South Pointe Shopping Center,
6301 Mack Road,
Gob Dol Bi Bim Bab $8.95
The Willow Tree’s gob dol bi bim bab was the most exciting dish we encountered in our exploration for cheap eats. We were seduced not only by its frisky name (try saying it 10 times quickly), but because it arrived tableside, sizzling, popping and cracking so enticingly that we couldn’t wait to get our forks into it. To prepare the Korean dish, the restaurant first places steamed rice inside a radiantly hot stone pot. The rice, encountering the extreme heat, forms an indescribably delicious crust on the bottom. The rice then is topped with thinly sliced carrots, earthy shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, greens and tiny bits of beef and garnished with a fried egg, lettuce and a fluffy thatch of dried seaweed. When the waitress realized we didn’t know what to do with the scaldingly hot pot she placed in front of us, she graciously mixed the ingredients together with a murky, tingling-hot red sauce she called go chu jang. We loved it. For your $8.95, you also get a plate of warm, salted soybeans, miso soup and crunchy salad.
Willow Tree Restaurant,
8979 Folsom Blvd.,