We’re not cheapskates. Really. But we like a good deal as much as the next person, especially in an economy that seems to constantly drain our pocketbooks. When we’re eating out, we know how fast the dollars add up. We felt confident that there were places around town offering a decent meal without us having to succumb to a quarter-pounder and fries. (Not that we don’t enjoy that, too.) We had a budget——$40 for two people. We also wanted to go to restaurants where we could share a meal at a table. We’re happy with what we found: a range of great food at affordable prices.
21 N. Eutaw St., 410-545-5112
Besides being a good-looking bar/dining room with its dark woods, burgundy walls, and historic stained-glass windows, Alewife also gives you a bang for your buck with its affordable New American menu. The fish tacos ($13), for instance, feature Potomac River blue catfish with exciting additions like blistered corn salsa and chipotle cabbage slaw. Or simply pair the Alewife salad ($8)—a hefty pile of mixed lettuces with asparagus, St. Pete’s blue cheese, candied cashews, spicy Granny Smith apples, dressed with balsamic vinaigrette—with the soup of the day ($6). On our visit, it was a big bowl of buttered-corn-on-the-cob soup, tasting of farm freshness.
Cheap thrill: It’s a badge of honor to polish off the 11-ounce smoke burger, delivered to the table with a steak knife jutting through its middle. The sumptuous meat patty—house-ground rib-eye, brisket, skirt steak, and filet of beef—shares a brioche bun with smoked Gouda, Gruyère, applewood smoked bacon, caramelized cipollini onions, and chipotle aioli. Enough said.
438 E. Belvedere Ave., 410-532-0022
For more than 15 years, Cafe Zen has been dishing up yummy pan-Asian eats in unpretentious digs just across York Road from trendy Belvedere Square. Locals know Cafe Zen is their best bet when they need something quick and (relatively) healthy to feed the family on a hectic weeknight. Start with a bowl of light and restorative miso soup ($3) or the slightly heartier wonton soup for $1.95. (A shrimp wonton is worth the splurge, $4.75.) Add in a serving of eight meat dumplings (steamed or pan-fried) for $5.50 before moving on to the entrees, which encompass everything from sushi rolls ($3.95 and up) to spicy Hunan shrimp with veggies for $12.95.
Cheap thrill: The Zen curry ($8.95 and up), a mélange of mushrooms, peas, carrots, onions, and your choice of meat in a sweet curry sauce made with 16 spices.
316 N. Charles St., 410-528-1222
Meze are small plates of Mediterranean appetizers meant to be shared. In Baltimore, there’s nowhere better to embrace this ancient and brilliant concept—especially on a budget—than Cazbar. The handsomely decorated Mt. Vernon restaurant features a wide selection of hot and cold dishes. We started with the baba ghanoush ($6.99), featuring two generous scoops of eggplant purée with olive oil and tahini. The sautéed mushrooms ($5.99) were covered in just the right amount of baked cheese. At just $8.99, lahmacun, a thin Turkish pizza topped with spicy ground lamb, might be the best bargain in town. (We couldn’t finish it.) Cazbar’s small plates had gotten the best of our full bellies, but not our wallets.
Cheap thrill: The manti ($8.99), small, handmade dumplings filled with beef and topped with yogurt sauce, is packed with flavor.
1619 Sulgrave Ave., 410-466-1000
In our experience, it can be difficult to stay within budget at a sushi restaurant—there are so many options to try and, before you know it, you’ve overspent. That’s why we love the fresh maki (sushi rolls) at cozy Chiyo Sushi in Mt. Washington. They’re filling and quite reasonably priced. One of our favorites is the Oriole roll ($11.95), made with white tuna, tempura flakes, and hot sauce, topped with salmon and avocado. We also liked their take on a classic dragon roll ($9.95) with crab and cucumber on the inside and hearty eel and tobiko (fish roe) on the outside.
Cheap thrill: When we ordered the volcano roll ($9.95), the waitress said it was her favorite, and we can see why. This baked roll with salmon, spicy tuna, fish roe, and spicy mayo was zippy and flavorful.
Corner Stable Restaurant
two locations, including 9942 York Rd., Cockeysville, 410-666-8722
While the restaurant has banked its reputation on its meaty, succulent baby-back ribs, it has lots of other choices that will be kinder to your pocketbook and just as delicious. When we need a shot of comfort food, the roasted-turkey dinner ($12.99) with mashed potatoes and gravy, dressing, cranberry sauce, and green beans, or the homemade meatloaf dinner ($10.99) with gravy, mashed potatoes, and green beans take us right back to Mom’s table. The portions are generous, and you’ll probably have a turkey or meatloaf sandwich in your future, too. Add a glass of house wine for $5.25-6.75 to celebrate your savings.
Cheap thrill: The barbecue pork sandwich ($7.99) is a mound of shredded piggy goodness on a fat roll with a mess of fries. Oink.
1600 Thames St., 410-276-9719
This tiny, corner tavern in Fells Point reflects Baltimore’s sailor culture in its nautical décor, as well as its no-fuss fare. Here you can find good oysters, onion rings, and crab cakes. But we opted for something a little different in the enticing Jamaican wrap ($8.99) with grilled chicken, mango salsa, and tangy pepper Jack cheese served with chips and a pickle. We also tried a Greek salad topped with blackened chicken ($10.99, small; $12.99, large), which was loaded with artichokes, pepperoncinis, olives, chickpeas, tomatoes, and tons of feta. It didn’t disappoint us.
Cheap thrill: You won’t go wrong with a juicy, half-pound, char-grilled burger ($7.99) with lettuce, tomato, and your choice of cheese ($1 extra).
611 S. Fagley St., 410-563-7577
Once the home of a German singing society, the ground-floor restaurant, tucked away on a side street in Highlandtown, has the feel of of a church-basement reception hall, with its low ceilings and gray-blue-striped wallpaper. But if you’re after Tyrolean-style food like Oma used to make, look no further. Schnitzels in various incarnations—from the straight-up wiener with capers and lemons to a festive Holstein schnitzel adorned with easy-over eggs and draped in anchovies—start with tender pounded veal, fried in a nicely crisped breading. There’s sauerbraten with potato dumplings dressed in gingerbread gravy, and a plate of grilled sausages—all accompanied by a choice of sides. (Stick to the coleslaw or sauerkraut unless you like bacon-flavored crispy bits on your canned green beans and flavorless mashed potatoes.)
Cheap thrill: The wurst platter gets the job done with three grilled sausages and a choice of sides for $13. How much more German can you get?
Golden West Cafe
1105 W. 36th St., 410-889-8891
With its kitschy décor (not easy to find a moose head and a faux Last Supper oil painting, all under one roof), this family friendly spot has been a Hampden mainstay for close to a decade. The menu—think Southwest meets Asian cuisine—is equally eclectic and playful. And no matter how many times you frequent—be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner—you’ll never get sticker shock (most main courses average in the $10-11 range) or tire of the mile-long menu. It’s hard to go wrong here—whether you crave the hearty, yet delicate, apple-Brie burger ($10.99) or tasty tilapia tacos accompanied by slaw and homemade hot sauce ($12). Breakfast fare—from egg-stuffed burritos to Elvis pancakes with bacon and peanut butter—is served all day.
Cheap thrill: The Vietnamese salad with tofu, a heady infusion of onions, mint, cucumber, and cool rice noodles bathed in peanut sauce ($11.99).
Havana Road Cuban Cafe
8 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson, 410-494-8222
It’s not the Cuban flag (there’s an American one as well) hanging above the sidewalk tables, the Bueno Vista Social Club poster, the photographs, or paintings of the island nation that give the Havana Road Cuban Cafe its authenticity. It’s the family recipes of Cuban-born, chef/owner Marta Ines Quintana. Start with the pastica de frijoles y tomates secos ($7), a three-hummus appetizer—black bean, a genuinely spicy red pepper, and garbanzo bean—served with bread. The El Cubano ($9.50), slow-roasted pork, ham, Swiss, mustard, and thin-sliced pickles on pressed Cuban bread, is simply one of the best sandwiches we’ve ever had. Dinner entrees are all served with Cuban black beans, white rice, and sweet, juicy plantains.
Cheap thrill: You’ll go back just for the lechon asado ($16), a slow-roasted Cuban pork, braised in white wine and served in a garlic, onion, and olive-oil mojo sauce.
1991 E. Joppa Rd., Parkville, 410-665-5900
The restaurant, in the mini megapolis of Perring Plaza shopping center, stands out with its Italian-flag colors: green, red, and white. The family-owned pizzeria is a no-frills affair, where diners order at the counter and take a seat in the cafeteria-like dining room. Do get a glass of Chianti ($4.50) while you wait for your number to be called. Then, be prepared for a feast. The garden salad ($4.99), enough for two, is piled with all manner of veggies atop crisp iceberg. We barely had room at the table for the 14-inch white pizza ($16.99)—a chewy crust smothered with creamy ricotta cheese and fresh spinach. Desserts are reasonable, too, including a cannoli for $3.25.
Cheap thrill: The meat ravioli ($13.99) is a mountain of pasta in a rich ruby sauce that includes a side salad and garlic bread. Mama mia!
Mari Luna Mexican Grill
102 Reisterstown Rd., Pikesville, 410-486-9910 When this BYOB neighborhood darling opened its doors in 2004, we were among the first in line to stuff ourselves silly on football-sized steak burritos ($11), flavorful shrimp fajitas ($16), and delicious, easy-to-share seafood specials. Years later, just when we thought we’d left no taco un-tasted, we sampled the shish kebab with grilled shrimp, peppers, onion, and charred tomatoes drenched in garlic sauce ($16), and—holy guacamole!—we realized that even blindfolded, we could point randomly to any menu item and find perfection on every plate.
Cheap thrill: Hard to pick just one, but the well-prepared, pan-seared tilapia fillet topped with shrimp and served with a salad and Mexican rice is deeply delicious ($17).
1105 S. Charles St., 410-752-8561
Upon entering, you’ll be warmly greeted by a friendly hostess and the enthusiastic chefs behind the sushi bar. Service is swift, and there are plenty of familiar Japanese plates like chicken teriyaki, beef yakisoba, donburi, and (of course) sashimi and sushi-roll combos. Whether you’re an a-la-carte diner, or looking for something already assembled bento-box-style, you won’t be disappointed with endless options of authentic, moderately priced cuisine.
Cheap thrill: The seafood ramen ($13.95) is served in an ocean-deep bowl stocked with an impressive portion of shrimp, scallops, squid, fish cake, and veggies.
3845 Falls Rd., 410-467-1000
Proving there is dining life off The Avenue in Hampden is McCabe’s, a popular locals’ bar that serves surprisingly good pub food. The crab and spinach dip starter ($10) is a stellar rendition of the Maryland staple with large chunks of crab and spinach stewed in a creamy but not soupy base and served piping hot with buttery, grilled baguette slices. A chicken-breast sandwich with pesto, arugula, and lemon aioli is a good value for $10, particularly since it comes with a side of French fries and a crisp pickle. The salads warrant a look as well, ranging from a house salad ($6) of field greens, tomato, red onion, and carrots to a tuna-steak salad with tomatoes, boiled egg, and olives in a mustard vinaigrette ($15).
Cheap thrill: The Springfield Farm beef cheeseburger ($11 and up) justifies its reputation as one of the best burgers in town. The patty of 40-day, dry-aged beef is served on a Stonemill Bakery brioche bun and comes with your choice of cheese (we chose Gruyère) plus the options of bacon, sautéed onions, cremini mushrooms, and a fried egg.
No Way Jose Cafe
38 E. Cross St., 410-752-2837
This no-frills Mexican restaurant with its long, unfinished wood bar and haphazardly painted mango walls with purple and tomato-red trim, is mostly a watering hole for Federal Hill youngsters who quaff draft Natty Boh and pitchers of cinnamon-laced sangria on game days. But the food is equally friendly, starting with fresh and simple guacamole (laced with lumps of crab if the budget allows, $7; without crab, $4), sprinkled with shredded queso fresco. A chimichanga in a fried tortilla casing is packed with fat shrimp and salsa verde, while the pork tacos come three to a plate. If you’re really on the cheap, a trio of mini burgers or a straightforward cheese quesadilla can be had for five bucks, and, of course, the house-made salsa, chunky and not too hot—with fresh cilantro, and crisp, slightly-greasy-salty chips—flows freely.
Cheap thrill: Fajitas for two, a sizzling Wednesday special, comes with a pitcher of margaritas for $25.
708 S. Bond St., 410-327-0445
While most people associate this Fells Point haunt with its affinity for Grand Marnier, its cuisine shouldn’t be counted out. Whether you’re dining at tables covered in white linen or in the open-air courtyard in the back, there are plenty of places to enjoy this tavern’s comfort food. The lunch menu is reasonably priced with most salads and sandwiches under $10. We tried the enormous Mike’s meatball sub ($9.50) with homemade meatballs, provolone, and marinara sauce served on a toasted roll. The sub came with fresh, crunchy coleslaw. We also liked the pulled-pork sandwich ($8.50), which was accompanied by a generous house salad with cranberries and almonds.
Cheap thrill: All the sandwiches and wraps are served with a choice of house-made chips, pasta salad, or coleslaw. We always choose the crispy, Parmesan chips, which are some of the best we’ve had.
One World Café
100 W. University Pkwy., 410-235-5777
This threadbare college coffee shop, its sponge-painted walls decorated with the requisite amateur art, is filled with chai-sipping students slouching over Wi-Fi during the day. But there’s also a multi-cultural—and affordable—dinner menu. A recent globe trot involved Thai noodles with mild coconut curry sauce, chopped fresh veggies, and nutty tempeh; a bulging whole-wheat burrito packed with black beans and cheese; and a generous plate of ricotta-filled ravioli in a tangy tomato sauce. The restaurant is almost entirely vegetarian these days (with a couple of fish selections), and prices top out at $13.95. (Many dishes are under $10.)
Cheap thrill: A fat portobello sandwich, topped with caramelized onions, feta cheese, and sprouts, with a side salad. A lot of environmentally friendly fuel for $9.75.
The Owl Bar
1 E. Chase St., 410-347-0888
This Mt. Vernon institution, housed inside the historic Belvedere, long has attracted politicians, businessmen, and other movers and shakers for post-work cocktails and gossip. During Prohibition, it was a speakeasy, serving up illicit libations. One reason for its contemporary success is a well-executed menu that includes appetizers, creative salads, pizzas, sandwiches, and traditional entrees. Pizzas, made before your eyes in a brick oven, have reliably fresh toppings and dough. Options include a caprese: tomato, mozzarella, olive oil, and basil ($10) and an all-American with sauce and cheese ($9). At The Owl Bar, there’s no need to drink on an empty stomach.
Cheap thrill: A heaping bowl of nachos ($9) is enough to serve as dinner for two, especially if you add chicken or chili for a few bucks more.
Razorback’s Raw Bar & Grill
826 Dulaney Valley Rd., Towson, 410-821-9550
Don’t let the boisterous crowd at the bar scare you away. Behind the front lounge is a quiet dining room with some of the friendliest servers in town. You’ll also find plenty of well-prepared dishes on the menu that won’t empty your wallet. Whether you nibble on a juicy burger or a couple of appetizers, there are a number of choices to suit a budget. The chef’s salad ($12) with a mountain of iceberg lettuce, shrimp, salami, cheese, hard-boiled egg, onion, and more satisfies a craving for a lot of food groups, and the shrimp-salad sandwich ($10) is legendary with its fat, Old-Bay-laced shrimp.
Cheap thrill: The half rack of baby-back ribs ($12) with Razorback’s original sauce, a sultry, smoky barbecue coating, is finger-lickin’ good.
Rocket to Venus
3360 Chestnut Ave., 410-235-7887
You’ve probably been to “Rocket” before to grab a drink and soak up the scene in this quirky and hip Hampden neighborhood bar. What you may have missed between jukebox feedings and the tatted-up drink slingers are the continent-hopping culinary options that won’t break the bank. Try a flavorful entree like andouille sausage, shrimp, and grits; the steamed mussels options—Thai green curry, Natty Boh and Old Bay, or traditional white wine and garlic—or make a meal out of a few small plates, like balsamic Brussels sprouts, homemade pierogi with Gouda-and-potato filling, and a half pound ($11) or full pound ($19) of the Old Bay-steamed shrimp.
Cheap thrill: Banh Mi ($11), the popular Vietnamese sandwich, is available in many options including grilled chicken, blackened catfish, and beef bulgogi with toppings like kimchi, pickled daikon and carrot, and mint aioli.
36 E. Cross St., 410-539-2093
It’s hard not to get drawn in by this inviting, expansive Federal Hill oyster house. Grab a high-top table between the two bustling bars on the first floor, or, for a more intimate experience, head upstairs, where you’ll find another full bar and a large dining area. While there are hearty seafood entrees and sandwiches on the menu—like jambalaya, shrimp and grits, and lobster roll—we love their happy-hour offerings. From Monday through Friday, choose local oysters for $1 and $5 small plates along with drink specials ($3 drafts and $4 select wines).
Cheap thrill: The fried oyster po’ boy ($11) is a delicious mouthful with panko-encrusted oysters, bacon, and tartar sauce, complemented by hand-cut chips.
several locations, including 5911 York Rd., 410-727-5737
The Left Bank meets Charm City at Sofi’s Crepes, a petite place that has become a local culinary institution. The simple pour of some batter onto a hot, buttered crêpe stone gives rise to thin pancakes both savory and sweet and satisfying enough to serve as a one-course lunch or dinner. Crêpes come classic (tomato, mozzarella, and fresh basil, $7), kitchen sink (The Godfather is a meat-lover’s dream with piquant pepperoni, mozzarella, salami, roasted red peppers, and fresh spinach, $8), and calories-be-damned (The Turtle: yummy caramel, chocolate, and nuts, $5) with some new items including breakfast crêpes and add-ons such as cranberry chutney. The latest Belvedere Square location still has that no-fuss vibe—place your order and consume your crêpe on a stool at the counter or go alfresco and watch the world go by.
Cheap thrill: The Crêpe Florentine is an inventive concoction of Gruyère cheese, baby spinach, mushrooms, and sunflower seeds, drizzled with a peppery Parmesan sauce ($8).
1427 York Rd., Lutherville, 410-825-8181
What puts this restaurant over the top isn’t that most entrees are under $12. It’s that most entrees could feed a family of 12. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but this is definitely a place for sharing, and the round tables with condiment-cluttered Lazy Susans are proof that this is how it’s done. Families dig into heaping platters of fried rice and lo mein, meal-sized appetizers of cold sesame noodles, and scallion pancakes. There are plenty of Chinese-American classics like General Tso’s chicken and beef and broccoli, but there’s also a “country side” menu with options for the less faint of heart.
Cheap thrill: Seafood fried rice, piled with shrimp, scallops, and an entire lobster tail, is a feast for a crowd at $14.95.
3327 St. Paul St., 410-243-5777
For years, Hopkins students and other Charles Villagers have filled up for less at Tamber’s, an odd diner and Indian restaurant hybrid that somehow works. We generally stick to the Indian side of the menu, although Tamber’s serves up American staples like clam strips and French fries (a plate of them with gravy is just $3.50) with the best of them. Our chicken vindaloo ($12.50) came with fluffy basmati rice, and the chunks of meat and potato combined with the sauce to create a vibrant, authentic flavor. Tamber’s even has a wine list that includes bottles for $15. It’s nice to know if you’d like a glass of Pinot Noir with your bacon cheeseburger or chicken tikka masala, it’s a possibility.
Cheap thrill: Two large potato-and-pea-filled samosas ($3.95) are a great way to start a meal whether they’re followed by a curry dish or cheese steak.
Ze Mean Bean Café
1739 Fleet St., 410-675-5999
Despite the elegant feel of this Fells Point cafe, Ze Mean Bean’s Eastern European fare is modestly priced. We especially thought so on a Thursday, which is Slavic night. All night, the cafe offers a bowl of borscht and a pierogi or holupki platter for only $14. The borscht soup was earthy with root vegetables, had a kick, and was served with sour cream. The Polish staple holupki had two cabbage rolls stuffed with ground beef, pork, and rice covered in tomato sauce and is served with potatoes.
Cheap thrill: The pierogi dinner was a standout with seven creamy dumplings stuffed with potato, sauerkraut, and farmer’s cheese. They are especially good during happy hour (Monday-Friday from 5-7 p.m. at the bar), where each pierogi is just 25 cents.
4710 Eastern Ave., 410-276-4484
Open late for dinner daily, this Greektown institution is the rare restaurant that’s always bustling, but never seems to have a long wait. Upstairs or down, the manager, barkeep, or waitress will find you a seat—at tables covered in blue-and-white-checkered cloths, naturally—and treat you like a long-lost cousin or friend from the neighborhood. It’s family-style Greek cuisine, not fancy, not overpriced, just good, hearty fare. Appetizers include melitzanosalata ($6), a roasted-eggplant spread with minced garlic, feta, and olive oil; tzatziki ($4.50), a garlic-and-dill dip; and spanakopita ($6.95), spinach, onion, dill, and feta baked in crispy phyllo dough. Zorba’s is also known for its rotisserie-style cooking and charcoal grill. Golden and crisp on the outside, moist inside, the half-chicken dinner ($12.95) comes with two sides or a Greek village salad.
Cheap thrill: Kontosouvli ($17.95), spit-roasted marinated chunks of pork literally covering the plate—a must for first-timers.