Chando’s Tacos • 863 Arden Way, Sacramento; (916) 641-8226; chandostacos.com
Why I went: Media frenzy, from a rave review in The Sacramento Bee to being named No. 2 of “Best Cheap Eats” in Sacramento News & Review. (This magazine also has taken notice, though not in Dollar-Wise.)
What I found: More of a takeout counter than a restaurant (though there’s a nice patio in back), with a full menu of Mexican favorites, all of them cheap: Prices run from $1.75 to $5.50.
What I tried: Fish and chicken tacos and a carnitas quesadilla. The tacos were served street-style on warm corn tortillas with chopped onions, cilantro and meat of choice. The quesadilla was huge, grilled to golden perfection and generously stuffed with tender shredded pork, melted cheese, onion, tomato and cilantro. Only one minor disappointment: The chicken was a little tough. But the fish taco was delish, with a citrusy flavor and a little kick, and the quesadilla was my favorite comfort food leftover for days.
The cost: Tacos: $1.75 each; quesadilla: $5.50. Can’t beat it.
Thai Chef’s House • 2851 Fulton Ave., Sacramento; (916) 481-9500; thaichefshouse.com
Why I went: Parking lot is often packed—always a good sign.
What I found: Tranquil atmosphere, good-size lunch crowd and a long list of lunch specials for $6.95.
What I tried: Pad Him-Ma-Parn—basically, chicken stir-fry with cashew nuts and a soiree of super-fresh veggies prepared al dente: carrots, zucchini, onions, baby corn and mushrooms. The black bean sauce was subtle yet flavorful, with a mildly nutty undercurrent. Dried crispy chili turned up the heat, but just enough.
The cost: $6.95, and such a deal: All lunch specials come with steamed rice, salad and soup. Mine was hot-and-sour and unforgettably good.
Mati’s Indian Eats • 1501 16th St., Sacramento; (916) 341-0532; matisindianeats.com
Why I went: Very loud local buzz.
What I found: Classic Indian buffet fare (lamb vindaloo, chicken curry), but it’s not self-serve. Instead, you walk up to the counter, eyeball the selections and let the server dish it out. Lunch specials range from $4.99 to $8.99 depending on number of entrées.
What I tried: Two-item lunch special with chicken tikka masala (chunks of tender chicken in a creamy tomato sauce) and aloo gobi, a cauliflower and potatoes dish seasoned with what tasted like turmeric, curry and ginger. It was warm and inviting fare on a cold day, but be warned: The aloo gobi packs a little punch.
The cost: $6.99, and that includes warm naan, rice, and an array of chutneys including sweet mango and tangy tamarind.
Kabob House • 1726 Fulton Ave., Sacramento; (916) 485-0163; kabobhousefulton.com
Why I went: Friends hounded me for years to try this place.
What I found: Cozy, friendly spot with all the usual Greek suspects: lamb souvlaki, gyros, kabobs, more.
What I tried: Kabob House claims to be “famous” for its garlic chicken, so I went for that. There’s an entrée version for $8.95, but I tried the less-expensive large pita sandwich. Served open-faced, it looked more like a tostada than a ’wich, with a pile of fresh leafy greens, chopped tomatoes and slices of delicious garlic chicken, moist and tender, with a crispy grilled crust. Warning: It’s smothered in garlic mayo, so you’d better be ga-ga for garlic. (For me, this was the best part.)
The cost: A steal at $6.25. But if you’re really pinching pennies, go for the small pita sandwich, only $4.95.
Bert’s Diner • 8972 Grant Lane Road, Elk Grove; (916) 686-6622; bertsdiner.com
Why I went: Elk Grove girlfriend said I should check it out.
What I found: Classic old-school diner, with cheery waitresses and those little countertop jukeboxes featuring ’50s and ’60s tunes. Heard “Leader of the Pack” when I walked in. Felt like a female Fonzie.
What I tried: Cheeseburger and fries. (What else?) It was excellent, with clean-tasting, gristle-free meat on a lightly toasted sesame-seed bun with the usual fixin’s. Generous pile of fries, perfectly crisped.
The cost: $7.49, and so filling that I dragged part of the burger (and most of the fries) home.