GREAT FOOD, NO FUSS
The 50 states together comprise one nation, but each has its own specific culture distinct from the others. Perhaps nothing better exemplifies that than the variety of restaurants, which represent their respective regions' agriculture, demographics, and history. The following eateries offer delicious specialties that reflect the character of their states without sacrificing the unbeatable value that makes a popular hole in the wall worth checking out.
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Mrs. B's Home Cooking is as welcoming its name implies, brimming with Southern hospitality in a living room setting decorated with framed photos, behind a porch of rocking chairs from which to sip sweet tea. Like most authentic soul food, the cuisine is unfussy but delicious and amazingly cheap. Favorites like an oxtail-and-three-sides plate and breakfast combos of assorted biscuits, pancakes, hash browns, and eggs all go for less than $8.
Alaska's signature dish, wild-caught salmon, tends to run a little pricey, but visitors can enjoy a rich variety of other delicious options at the International House of Hot Dogs, which isn't a house but a stationary food truck in Anchorage. Each of the hefty hot dogs costs $7.50 or less and comes with unique toppings that reflect regional flavors from across the U.S., including a ham-and-pineapple Hawaiian dog, a chili-slathered Texas dog, and its own Alaskan reindeer dog.
The sheer breadth of options for all meals of the day at Adrian's Mexican Food in Mesa is overwhelming, and excepting a few seafood entrees, all cost less than $10. This yellow brick hole in the wall emphasizes authentically delicious Mexican dishes like chilaquiles in red tomatillo sauce ($9.25), rich chicken mole ($9.75), and the carne-asada-and-potato-stuffed Arizona burrito ($8).
Lindsey's Hospitality House is another in a long line of exceptional home-style barbecue joints throughout the South, drawing in customers with the smell of pit smoke and the promise of cheap hearty food. Try the tender rib dinner with bread and sides of macaroni and cheese or fried okra ($9), and don't neglect the sweeter side of the menu, like the fried pie (apple, chocolate, or peach) for $2.25.
California, and San Diego in particular, is lousy with great cheap taco shops, but Las Cuatros Milpas stands out with handmade offerings centered on handmade tortillas and corn flour tamales, which can be ordered for $21 by the dozen. It's hard to beat the $5 burritos filled with shredded meats and crumbled cotija, especially with a side of rice and beans.
Rincon Argentino in Boulder specializes in authentic Argentinian empanadas made with the highest quality ingredients available this side of the equator. Two filling empanadas, stuffed with any variety of ham, chicken, mushrooms, onions, and cheeses, cost less than $8 and come with delicious chimichurri sauce. Another mouth-watering option is the lomito steak sandwich, served with mozzarella on a fluffy baguette for $10.50.
Gold Burgers in Newington has all the timeless appeal of a great burger joint, with friendly service and noticeably fresh ingredients from local farms. The generous sandwiches range from $6 for chicken to $8.50 for larger beef burgers like the Twice-Roasted, a double burger adorned with bacon, roasted garlic, provolone, and roasted red peppers. Gold Burgers also offers hot dogs with a variety of toppings (starting at $2.50) and a falafel wrap ($7).
Gyro Kabob House is a tiny establishment in Newark that serves halal food cooked to order, distinguished by a huge variety and great prices. Its diverse menu includes cheeseburgers ($5), Philly cheesesteaks ($8), and chicken wings (five for $6), but the real draw is authentic Mediterranean food like gyros filled with moist falafel ($4) and lamb ($7), plus all manner of filling combo plates featuring tempting dishes with extra sides, most under $10.
Las Olas Café has a cafeteria-line setup leading to steaming trays of rich Cuban food. Customers choose one of the day's proteins and two of the sides. The hearty combo plate gives diners their pick of diverse Cuban specialties like fried pork, mahi, lamb shank, and boiled yucca for $9.16 total. Pressed sandwiches, notably the pork-heavy Cuban sandwich, are $6.50.
It's impossible to fit all varieties of home-cooked Southern favorites onto one menu, but Home Grown in Atlanta does a pretty good job of it. The homey diner is renowned for its breakfasts, particularly the fried chicken biscuit ($7), but lunch offerings like the catfish po'boy ($10 alone, or $12 for a "Blue Collar Lunch" combo) shouldn't be discounted.
Hawaii's diners are like no others in the nation, and 808 Grindz Cafe in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island is unique even among them. Its breakfast-centric menu is full of traditional American dishes infused with Pacific flavors served cheap in a laid-back dining room. On the sweet side, try macadamia nut pancakes ($7 for two), and on the savory side, sample kalua-pork hash eggs benedict ($12), fish of the day, or anything from the $8.08 menu.
Bar Gernika is a Basque restaurant along Boise's Basque block, serving cheap craft beers and authentic specialties in quantities so large they make the cheap prices seem that much better. Rich, meaty sandwiches like the spicy lamb grinder ($10.50) are served with a choice of sides -- don't miss the croquetas, fried balls of onion-crusted chicken. If you're feeling adventurous, come on a Saturday for the $7.50 beef tongue specialty.
There are scores of legendary cheap eats originating from Illinois and particularly Chicago, but even then it's hard to beat seafood as shockingly cheap as it is at Lawrence Fish Market. The cash-only establishment has a huge menu of fresh sushi offerings, with rolls starting at $3 for salmon and spicy white tuna, and sashimi specials at $1. Dine in or order in bulk to feed a family or group of friends, and don't skip pricier rolls like the Orange Sunshine ($8).
Savage's Ale House is a homey tavern near the center of downtown Muncie that fulfills the promise of its name with a large selection of craft beers from Indiana and elsewhere starting at only $1.50. Complement the drinks with a personalized three-appetizer sampler plate for $8.50 or a hefty burger starting at $6.50. Don't miss Savage's take on a statewide specialty, the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, fried in Pabst beer batter and served on a Kaiser bun for $7.50.
Communal tables and friendly locals make for a welcoming atmosphere at the roadhouse-style fast-food stop the Buck Snort in the tiny town of Neola. Its menu is uniformly cheap and delicious, with a variety of loaded pizzas (a little pricey at $15 for a 12-inch with multiple toppings) and even more loaded burgers. They start at $5 for a barbecue pulled-pork sandwich and go as high as $9 for the obscenely delicious Swamp Donkey burger, made with a third-pound patty, brisket, cheddar, onion rings, and barbecue sauce.
There are only three menu items at El Pollo Rey, an unfussy counter-service restaurant in Kansas City: a whole grilled chicken ($12), a half grilled chicken ($6.50), and an order of 10 Buffalo chicken wings ($6). Each is served with a stack of tortillas and sides of salsa, rice, and beans. Serving sizes of the perfectly tender poultry are typically large enough to provide leftovers.
Stella's Kentucky Deli in Lexington represents the state well with a menu focused on nearby sources as well as reasonable prices. Artisanal cheeses and farm eggs adorn the mix-and-match brunch menu (any three items for $9.95) while the dinner selections include a local lamb burger for $8.95 and the regional favorite Hot Brown (an open-face turkey and bacon sandwich covered in Mornay sauce) for $9.95.
New Orleans is renowned for its numerous regional specialties, and many of the best are served at Hobnobber's Variety Bar & Restaurant in the city's central business district. It has a large po'boy selection, with fillings including roast beef ($7.60) and fried shrimp ($8.05). But their value pales in comparison with the hearty gumbo-po'boy combo offered for only $10.
Perhaps the best of Maine's many roadside lobster restaurants, Scarborough Fish & Lobster is a kitschy wooden shack offering market price seafood rolls and steamer baskets that seem miraculously cheap compared with lobster sold elsewhere in the nation. Lobster rolls go for about $11 and crab rolls for $8, with an added $1.50 surcharge for a box lunch that includes chips and potato salad. Scarborough also sells generous buckets of steamed clams or mussels for $10.
Pioneer Pit Beef accepts cash only, offers just a few outdoor picnic tables at which to eat, and has a limited menu, but that hardly matters when the menu items are so uniformly delicious. The place specializes in wood-roasted meat sliced paper-thin and served on buns or sub rolls (all around $6 to $7) with a variety of homemade sauces. Opt for the tangy tiger sauce, made with mayo and horseradish.
N&H Saigon Subs, an unassuming strip mall location in suburban Randolph, serves home-cooked Vietnamese favorites in large portions for low prices. In warm weather, enjoy crispy spring rolls ($3) and banh mi sandwiches served on fluffy baguettes ($4.25). In the cold months, find comfort in an enormous bowl of brothy pho with a protein like pork meatballs or crab ($8).
Under the umbrella of Burmese food, Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant in Lansing serves a huge variety of international Asian food like tom yum soup ($7) or beef curry ($6.55), but the best meals are the ones you won't find at most other places -- namely the indescribably tasty fermented tea leaf salad ($7). The low prices, large portions, and unrivaled umami flavors make this strip mall joint a perpetually crowded favorite.
With two locations in each of the Twin Cities, Afro Deli & Catering is a popular curbside eatery offering the best of several worlds on a menu of American, Mediterranean, and African dishes. All three receive equally tasty treatments, but the Somali steak sandwich ($6.79) and Chicken Fantastic (from $7.79) are especially good, particularly with a side of sweet plantains ($3.29).
Mama Hamil's is a Southern barbecue joint with a buffet setup that lets diners fill up on hearty soul food specialties a cut above typical buffet fare. Smoked meat offerings like fried liver and pulled pork change daily, while vegetable sides like sweet barbecue beans remain the same, and it all costs $10 for lunch and $14 for dinner.
The sandwich is a culinary art, and Blues City Deli in St. Louis might have perfected it with a diverse selection of regional favorites, from Southern (the sauce-slathered Memphis Stax for $6) to Mid-Atlantic (the Old School pastrami on rye for $7). The bright, friendly deli is always filled with blues memorabilia and customers lined up out the door to enjoy the sensational sandwiches.
Main Street Eats in Helena is a restaurant as simple and iconic as its name might suggest. This friendly neighborhood diner specializes in down-home breakfast and lunch favorites for less than $6, including the biscuits and gravy combo ($5.50), griddle-fresh cinnamon roll French toast ($4), and a variety of sandwiches, including hot melts ($6 to $8).
For the Love of Food truck in Bellevue is a silver-plated truck selling enormous portions of tasty Mexican breakfast and lunch. The breakfast torta is the most expensive item on the breakfast menu, at $5, and the rich Nicaraguan barbecue pork burrito is similarly cheap. Bring a coffee mug or travel cup of your own for a free coffee with purchase.
Frijoles & Frescas Grilled Tacos has earned quite a reputation in Las Vegas after only two years in business, and it's easy to taste why. The freshness of ingredients pays off in the homemade salsa and richly flavored entrees like the carnitas burrito ($7), which is almost as good as the grilled Mexican street corn ($2.50).
Often located just across from the Lebanon city hall or on the Dartmouth campus, Phnom Penh Sandwich Station is an unassuming white food truck selling some of the best Asian cuisine in northern New England. The Cambodian-seasoned proteins include lemongrass beef and teriyaki chicken, which are generously portioned over jasmine rice, pad Thai noodles, or fresh-baked sandwich bread. All combo plates cost $8.50.
Hearty New York-style Italian food is the main draw at Brooklyn Boys Pizza & Deli in Edison, which places equal emphasis on its crisp-crust pizza pies, deli subs, and sauce-soaked pastas. Small specialty pies like bruschetta and eggplant parmigiana boast delicious ingredients cost $16 each, but the best option for the budget-minded is to ask about the tastiest off-menu slices, such as a loaded barbecue specialty or pizza topped with vodka sauce.
There's no better place to try a green chile cheeseburger ($7.50) than at Sparky's Burgers in Hatch, the town that provides the namesake to the famed New Mexican chile. The colorful art-deco restaurant has become a major roadside destination for its exceptional wood-fired barbecue dishes -- including a third-pound of sausage bites for $4 and pulled-pork or smoked-sausage sandwiches for $5 each -- as well as weekly live music events.
Once a simple hot dog cart, the Halal Guys grew into a New York City institution with multiple locations throughout the five boroughs, known as much for its late hours and long lines as its cheap, delicious food. The signature platters include a generous helping of chicken, falafel, or gyro meat atop a bed of flavorful rice, topped with signature white and red sauces, then served in a foil tin for easy transport and storage.
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It's difficult to truly master multiple styles of barbecue, but the Southport Smoke House does just that, providing plenty of choices. Choose from a la carte sandwiches ($4.59 for pulled pork) and one-, two-, or three-meat combo plates (starting at $8) that come with one or two sides, such as hush puppies, banana pudding, or potato salad, all nearly as flavorful as the half-pound of brisket or quarter-rack ribs they accompany.
A German-style bierkeller in the heart of Fargo, Wurst Bier Hall always has 20 or more beers from Germany and throughout the states on tap and ready to be enjoyed alongside a menu of pork, potatoes, and other hearty Old World favorites. The sausages are a highlight, from German (bratwurst for $6.25) to American (philly cheesesteak sausage for $6.25), and that's not to mention the exotic meats, such as boar sausage ($9). Also don't miss the perfectly flaky and crisp Bavarian pretzels.
One of the oldest established businesses in the town of Berlin, the Boyd & Wurthmann Restaurant seems uniquely old-fashioned both for its historic connection to the community's modest early days and the Amish character of its cuisine. Guests wait in lines outside to order from the menu, an expansive collection of home-style diner classics for low prices -- like a cheese omelet with homemade toast for $4 or a fried ham and Swiss sandwich for $4.29. Come Saturdays for the $16 special for a plate of prime rib with two sides.
With menu items such as the Hogfather, Knotty Pig BBQ, Burger & Chili House in Tulsa manages to capture all the delicious excess that makes Western cuisine so appealing. The $10 burger features a third-pound patty topped with pulled pork, fried bacon, ham, a hot link, and melted cheddar and American cheese. The rest of the menu can only approach that level of meaty decadence. It includes other specialty burgers, as well as the famous chili made from scratch ($3.49) and smoked meat sandwiches (starting at about $6).
One of the great successes of Portland's thriving food truck scene, Nong's Khao Man Gai now comprises three eateries (two trucks, one bricks-and-mortar) all built around a single dish: the underrated Asian comfort food khao man gai ($8.75), a plate of organic chicken and rice simmered in Thai herbs and served with fermented soybeans, ginger, and other vegetables, as well as a light soup.
John's Roast Pork in Philadelphia boasts one of the city's best cheesesteak sandwiches, featuring 12 ounces of meat on a soft hoagie roll for less than $10, but that's not even the house specialty. Instead, the tiny counter-service shack earned its name from the impossibly juicy and succulent roast pork sandwiches, which cost $6.50 for a small and $8.75 for a large. Add cheese for 50 cents (small) or 75 cents (large).
Nothing says Rhode Island like a hot wiener, a small hot dog made of pork and veal, a regional favorite that goes for $2.15 at Providence's Olneyville New York System Restaurant. Its modest menu also includes tasty hamburgers and club sandwiches for less than $5, but most guests stick to the hot weiners served "all the way" -- that is, topped with celery salt, mustard, onions, and meat sauce -- and a side of creamy coffee milk, Rhode Island's official state drink.
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Minutes away from downtown Charleston and seconds from the Atlantic Ocean, Jack of Cups serves nourishing pub food like no other, bringing worldly ingredients from places like India and Mexico into its seasonal menus of creative soups, salads, and sandwiches, all under $10. Cheap cocktails complement comforting dishes like red curry mac 'n cheese ($8) and pierogi cheese dumplings ($10).
Vietnamese food is a rarity around Rapid City, but Pacific Rim Cafe brings a few of the East's tastiest specialties to the region with aplomb. Appetizers like crab Rangoon wontons (six for $7) and crispy spring rolls (two for $5) are enough to fill guests before the main event, pho. The smallest bowls come with a choice of protein -- beef brisket, large shrimp, beef sliced so thin it cooks in the piping hot broth -- for $8. Be warned: They're small only when compared with the enormous large size for $2 more.
Despite daily changes, the options at Arnold's Country Kitchen, a welcoming cafeteria-style eatery, are always plentiful and delicious. Plates of meat and bread start at about $5 and go up to $10 with three vegetable sides. Chefs pay extra attention to make sure vegetables like turnip greens and creamed corn are nearly as flavorful as the sugar-cured ham, pan-seared trout, and other main courses.
Mexican food tastes best in the morning at Austin's renowned breakfast hangout Juan in a Million. The Don Juan El Taco Grande ($5.40) is the main draw for its generous mounds of bacon, potato, and egg, but the larger breakfast and lunch plates offer more filling Tex-Mex favorites like machaca and ribeye steak, none exceeding $11.
Bumblebee's BBQ & Grill in Midvale combines American and Korean styles to create international comfort food. The American, or A-Town, side of the menu preserves the classic diner patties while the K-Town half complements the beef with the Eastern flavors of kimchi, sriracha, spicy mayo, kalbi sauce, and breaded katsu pork, with sandwiches starting at $6 and combos at less than $8. Don't miss out on the sauce-slathered K-pop fries ($7) for the messiest and perhaps tastiest item on the menu.
Myer's Bagel Bakery in Burlington doesn't aim to beat New York at its own game. These bagels are Montreal-style, which means they're smaller, sweeter, and denser. The tucked-away, early morning eatery sells a variety of distinct wood-fired bagels with everything from a plain schmear ($2.50) to bacon and lox ($7).
The star ingredient at Buffalo and More in Riner comes from just 15 minutes away, where chef-owner Connie Hale raises buffalo before using the meat to create all manner of traditional American dishes, with the added flavor of the American bison. The aggressively local approach makes this rare meat unusually affordable, with a standard bison burger going for $4.50 and a quarter-pounder special including side and drink costing just under $7.
Every day, lunch at Il Corvo features a handmade pasta special with seasonal Northwest ingredients like parsnips, Chanterelle mushrooms, and braised pork shoulder picked to perfectly accompany the day's pasta shape. The decor is simple and elegant, just like the fresh, made-from-scratch food, which is some of the tastiest available for less than $10 no matter what day of the week.
At Morgantown's vegetarian-friendly Black Bear Burritos, guests build their own burritos starting at $5, adding proteins and fixings from a variety of cuisines, including marinated tofu ($2 extra), shrimp ($3), blue cheese ($1.25), and hummus ($2.25). It also offers a wide range of other entrees under $10, including the black-bean-and-blue-cheese quesadilla dubbed Gym's Jim. The affordable, globe-spanning menu is served in a homey Appalachian setting showcasing local musicians.
Cosmos Café in Wauwatosa, just outside Milwaukee, serves Greek and American diner specialties, often with both kinds of cuisine wrapped into a single pita. The half-pound burgers start at $7, with the feta-slathered Greekburger going for $8.50, while the pita sandwiches include favorites like falafel ($6.25) and gyro meat ($6.50) as well as more unusual fillings like shrimp ($7.50), jerk chicken ($7.50), and pork souvlaki ($7.50). Stop by on Fridays to enjoy a fresh fried or baked fish platter with sides for $10.
The Beartree Tavern and Cafe in Centennial is a cozy, log-cabin-style diner that offers a little bit of everything, from burgers and sandwiches to pizza and rib-eye steaks. Try the Ridge Runner burger ($10) with the "Bestest Ever" pork green chili slathered on top of the patty, or build your own personal pizza (starting at $8.50 for cheese) with a choice of traditional marinara or green chili. The dinner entrees are admittedly a little pricier but worth it for prime cuts of grilled salmon ($20), sirloin ($20), and prime rib ($28).