For those on a budget, it doesn't take long before Taco Bell, Top Ramen and mac 'n' cheese cease to be romantic and finding cheap eats becomes a necessary pastime. It can be an arduous process, especially if quality is important to you. So consider this an introductory course in tracking down quality food at affordable prices.
First, there's Mountain Brew Espresso. They lead a quiet existence downtown at 115 E. Kiowa Street but are a staple of many a downtowner's mornings and afternoons. Way more than just an espresso joint, this family-owned and -operated business offers a simple menu of soups, salads and bagel-based sandwiches (bread is also available). The kicker is, much of the food is homemade.
One of the best deals at this place is their vegetarian sandwich, appropriately called A Walk Through the Garden. It's seasoned with lemon pepper or garlic salt and consists of lettuce, tomato, onion, green pepper, cucumber, sprouts, cream cheese and sometimes avocado. For $3.25 it is accompanied by a heaping scoop of potato salad, chips and a big ol' pickle.
On the other end of the spectrum is La Casita (three locations around town). Housed in a bright pink stucco structure (at all three), it's a local, legendary institution. Almost all of the food is good, but the best bet is the bean and cheese burrito for a mere $1. These little burritos have pulled me through many a broke moment. And La Casita has the best beans around, hands down.
Heading west of the border to Manitou, you'll find another rarity of the modern restaurant industry: China China (106 Manitou Ave.) with a $3.99 lunch buffet. This is no skimpy buffet either. It's an all-you-can-eat deal, featuring a variety of vegetarian, chicken and beef dishes, drink and dessert. Their veggies are fresh and all of the food is prepared MSG-free, to boot.
2000 Wok (115 E. Fillmore) is another miser's paradise. Everything (except the beverages) is $1.25. That's right. A heaping scoop of rice and a heaping scoop of sesame chicken will run you $2.50. You can't go back for seconds, as you can with a buffet, but the portions are so large, there's really no need.
Rounding out the list is what I consider to be a hidden gem -- the deli counter at Mountain Mama Natural Foods (1625 W. Uintah). Their sandwiches are monstrous and humbly priced (small: $3.75, large: $4.25). Served on a variety of all-natural, gourmet breads, sandwich staples include tuna, turkey, hummus or straight veggie. The deli case houses a variety of cold salads, as well as enchiladas, lasagna, quiche, a casserole or two, and soups. And nary an item exceeds $5.25. There is no in-store seating, but for good healthy food on-the-run, you can't beat the freshness factor.
Tales from the dark side
There's a great little restaurant on North Nevada called J's Restaurant (820 N. Nevada). From the outside, the place doesn't look like much, but inside, it's chock-full of old-time atmosphere and great home-cooked food. J's has some of the best grits and burgers around.
Earlier this summer, I was driving past J's and noticed it was all aglow. Since it was about 11 p.m. on a Friday night, I decided to stop in to check it out. (If there's one thing this town still needs, it's places for late-night dining, beyond Denny's and Village Inn.)
Sure 'nough, J's was open and inhabited by a smattering of people, some just hanging out and drinking coffee, others eating what appeared to be full-on breakfast.
So I began asking questions. Was a late-night schedule going to be a regular thing? Try as I might to get more information, nobody seemed to know what the plan was. Not the patrons, nor the guy walking in and out of the kitchen, who also happened to be cooking the food. All he could tell me was, "Yeah, we're staying open later."
But how late, I wondered. About midnight, he thought. And if things went well, they might expand the hours, especially when the students came back -- to try to catch the after-bar crowd.
Too bad I'd already eaten and needed to meet up with friends. I wanted to stay. I wanted to support this late-night endeavor. I made a pact with myself to come back.
Easier said than done. Over the next few weeks, I continued to check J's on a regular basis. First late at night, but there were no signs of life. Then during the day, so I could stop in and inquire into the late-night situation.
Turns out, the folks at J's have taken a little vacation, European-style. They've been gone the last three weeks of August and first week of September and will reopen again on Sept. 10, but like that night I stopped in, nobody seems to be quite sure of the hours. But I have a gut feeling they may give late nights another try.
So the moral of this story is: Keep your eyes peeled. It's one of the few places that has true, urban, late-night diner vibes and a warm down-home feel at the same time. Perhaps it's the freshly cooked meals and bottle of hot sauce on every table, combined with the funky round, chrome-edged tables and matching chairs. J's screams, "Stop and sit a spell." Now, if they'd just scream that at 2 a.m.