Leo's Taco Truck Al Pastor

Leo's Taco Truck Al Pastor by T.Tseng (CC BY)

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As one of the most expensive states in the country, you wouldn’t think that California would be a hotspot for cheap restaurants. After all, The Golden State is home to The French Laundry, Urasawa, Benu, and other world-renowned eateries where a single meal and a bottle of wine could cost you your entire paycheck. 

But that’s just one side of California. If you know where to look, you can find authentic tacos, mouthwatering bento boxes, and homemade noodles for less than a fast food combo. In this guide, we’ll serve up some of the best eateries from SoCal to NorCal, along with a few indispensable affordable dining tips.

Hot Dog preparation on Los Angeles streetsPhoto credit: anouchka/istockphoto

The Thriving Street Food Scene in Los Angeles

It’s rare that you hear the words “cheap” and “Los Angeles” in the same sentence. But both apply to the city’s thriving street food scene. If you know where to look, you can eat an entire flavorful, made-to-order meal for $10 or less.

Leo’s Taco Truck: Al Pastor on a Budget

In some neighborhoods in LA, you’ll find taco trucks and stands on every corner, few of which will disappoint. But if you’re overwhelmed by the seemingly limitless supply of tacos, tortas, and burritos, it’s hard to go wrong with Leo’s Taco Truck. With nine locations scattered across LA, there’s likely one in your neighborhood. We recommend ordering a few $2 al pastor tacos, which come topped with slices of fresh pineapple.

Kogi BBQ Taco Truck: Excellent Korean-Mexican Fusion

  • Address: Across LA
  • Hours: Varies by location
  • Phone: 323-315-0253
  • Website:

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Roy Choi changed American street food forever when he started selling Korean-inspired tacos out of his truck. The unlikely success of the now-celebrity chef’s fleet of Kogi BBQ trucks is a testament to how good the food is. Of course, there’s Choi’s signature dish — a Korean short rib taco served with cilantro, onions, and salsa rojas. But the award-winning food truck also offers a kimchi quesadilla, calamari taco, and sriracha-flavored dessert, with everything on the menu costing $12 or less.

Kogi BBQ Truck
Photo credit: Kogi BBQ Truck by Vincent Diamante (CC BY-NC)

Dollar Hits: Filipino Street Food at Its Best

  • Address: 2422 W. Temple St., Los Angeles
  • Hours: Monday: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tuesday – Sunday: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
  • Phone: 213-210-4380
  • Website:

Dollar Hits delivers on its promise: Each charcoal-grilled skewer of marinated meat is just over $1. You do have to work for your food, however, as customers are expected to reheat the skewers on open grills outside. But that’s part of the experience, and who wouldn’t put in a little extra effort to eat authentic, Filipino street food in the heart of LA? The only downside is that the restaurant is crowded and the parking is tough, especially since Dollar Hits was featured on Netflix’s “Street Food.”

Corn Man: The Best Elote in LA

Charred, Mexican street corn — smeared with butter, mayo, lime, chili, and cotija cheese — is the best way to enjoy corn. And the king of great California elote is the Corn Man himself (Timoteo Flor de Nopa), an LA legend who posts up with his son in Lincoln Heights every night from 11 p.m. till late. A corn cob with the works is just $4, though you’ll have to wait for it, as Angelenos start lining up for these savory treats before the Corn Man even arrives.

Elotes elote corn street food Mexican food dish cotija cheese spicy chili powder on white dishPhoto credit: Nicholas Klein/istockphoto

Baja Subs Market & Deli: An Eclectic Mix of Sri Lankan and Mexican Cuisine

  • Address: 8801 Reseda Blvd Northridge
  • Hours: Monday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tuesday: closed; Wednesday – Friday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • Phone: 818-993-7064
  • Website:

This San Fernando Valley spot looks like another random strip mall corner store, and in many ways, it is — except that it also serves affordable Mexican and Sri Lankan food, attracting diners from all over Southern California. So, yes, you can walk into Baja Subs and grab a stick of deodorant, a diet coke, and a steaming hot container of Kottu Roti all in the same visit. And, as you might expect from a small hole-in-the-wall spot, prices are enticingly low.

Affordable Dining Gems in the Bay Area

Now that Tesla-driving, Patagonia-wearing, MacBook-carrying tech overlords have taken over the Bay Area, many of the area’s affordable mom-and-pop eateries have been replaced by upscale restaurants that only serve the rich. Still, there are a handful of humble local institutions that remain for foodies on a budget.

Suruki Supermarket: Where Bay Area Chefs Eat

  • Address: 71 E 4th Ave, San Mateo
  • Hours: Monday – Sunday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Phone: 650-347-5288
  • Website:

Michelin-star chefs rave about Suruki Supermarket, a Japanese grocery store that’s famous for its pre-prepared sushi and bento. For a can’t-miss deal, head to Suruki right before they close, when their pre-cut sashimi, hot bentos, and cooked fish is half off. Just be prepared for a shopping frenzy.

Saigon Sandwich: A Budget Banh Mi

  • Address: 560 Larkin St., San Francisco
  • Hours: Monday – Tuesday: 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Wednesday – Sunday: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Phone: 415-474-5698
  • Website:

For less than a cup of specialty coffee, you can eat a full meal at Saigon Sandwich. Beyond the unheard of prices, this Tenderloin joint also hits the mark when it comes to quality. Sandwiches come with fresh French rolls, tart pickled vegetables, and fiery jalapenos. Customers also get the choice of a variety of well-seasoned meats, plus a tofu option for vegetarians.

Saigon Sandwich Tofu Banh MiPhoto credit: Helmut / Yelp

Uncle Boy’s: Burgers for a Bargain

  • Address: 245 Balboa St., San Francisco
  • Hours: Monday: closed; Tuesday – Wednesday: 11 a.m. to 9:50 p.m.; Thursday – Sunday: 11 a.m. to 1:50 a.m.
  • Phone: 415-742-4468

Although the prices are higher than McDonald’s, Uncle Boy’s is a step up in quality, serving wagyu beef burgers for no more than $11.25. This Richmond District eatery also offers crispy lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls) served with chipotle, cowboy, or sweet chili sauce.

El Farolito: Mission-Style Burritos on the Cheap

  • Address: 2779 Mission St., San Francisco
  • Hours: Monday – Thursday: 10 a.m. to 1:45 a.m.; Friday – Saturday: 10 a.m. to 2:45 a.m.
  • Phone: 415-824-7877
  • Website:

This no-frills taqueria has made a name for itself thanks to its low prices and massive portions (the $10 super burrito can easily feed two people). With its late closing time and proximity to bars, El Farolito is also a perfect spot to hit after a night out in the Mission. Fan favorites include the intimidatingly large super burrito, the equally gargantuan super quesadilla, and the carne asada burrito.

El Farolito Taco
Photo credit: El Farolito Taco by Ken-ichi Ueda (CC BY-NC)

Yamo: A Bang-for-Your-Buck Burmese Diner

  • Address: 3406 18th St., San Francisco
  • Hours: Monday-Thursday: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday: closed
  • Phone: 415-553-8911
  • Website:

Yamo is so cheap that its prices have actually gone down since it opened nearly two decades ago (provided you adjust for inflation). That means you can get a big bowl of homemade Chinese noodles topped with oyster sauce and your choice of protein for just $8 — an incredible deal in San Francisco. It helps that the hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a simple operation with only two employees, Judy Chu and daughter Michelle Kai Chang.

Budget Bites in the Central Valley

While Los Angeles and the Bay Area might capture all the hype in California, the Central Valley is home to some of the state’s best food. That’s especially true for affordable dining, as prices tend to be cheaper across the board. And, lest you forget, Sacramento is the farm-to-fork capital of America, benefiting from a combo of innovative dining and fresh produce.

La Esperanza Deli: Order Tamales by the Dozen

  • Address: 5028 Franklin Blvd, Sacramento
  • Hours: Monday – Friday: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday: 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday: 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
  • Phone: 916-455-0215
  • Website:

If you ask Sacramentans for a list of cheap restaurants, La Esperanza is bound to be near the top. Although it’s part supermarket and bakery, the deli is where you’ll find the cheap eats. And when we say cheap, we mean it. Beef tacos are $1.49 and burritos are as low as $2.19. La Esperanza is also great for large groups, with special prices for catered meals. Order chicken tamales by the dozen ($17.99), beans by the quart ($5.29), and you’ll be able to feed an army on the cheap.

Corti Brothers: Deli Sandwiches from a Sacramento Institution

Walking into Corti Brothers feels like going back in time. The market has been around since 1947, selling fine wines, specialty foods, and produce to discerning customers in the East Sacramento community. And while the grocery prices are high, the deli serves some of the cheapest, highest-quality sandwiches in the city. The best deal? The $8.49 Corti Special: you choose the bread, garnishes, and cheese, and the clerk picks the meat. The price is even lower if you opt for pre-packaged versions of the supermarket’s signature sandwich, which sell for $7.49 in the grab-and-go case.

Corti Brothers SandwichPhoto credit: Rachel K. / Yelp

The Berrock Shop: Comfort Food Done Right

  • Address: 2016 W Bullard Ave., Fresno
  • Hours: Monday: closed; Tuesday-Friday: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Phone: 559-439-0402
  • Website:

It’s not often that you find bierocks out west. The doughy, meat-filled bun is a Kansas speciality, one that German settlers brought to the great plains in the 1970s. But The Berrock Shop in Fresno does them justice, making the empanada-like pastries from scratch with quality ingredients. Apart from a slew of bierock varieties, this local favorite also serves wholesome chicken pot pies, meaty salads, burgers, and sandwiches.

Jalapenos: The Spot for Taco Tuesday

  • Address: 1413 21st St., Sacramento
  • Hours: Tuesday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday – Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
  • Phone: 916-492-0727
  • Website:

Sacramento locals know that this small, midtown haunt is the place to go for Taco Tuesday. Provided you order at least three tacos and a drink, tacos are just $1.50 or $1.95 a pop depending on what toppings you order. And the tacos aren’t just cheap; they’re tasty enough that I make a point of stopping at Jalapenos every time I’m back in town.

Tacos from JalapenosPhoto credit: Mike R. / Yelp

Manchester Philly Cheesesteak: Middle Eastern and American Fast Food

  • Address: 6792 N Riverside Dr., Fresno
  • Hours: Monday – Sunday: 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Don’t let the name fool you. Yes, Manchester Philly Cheesesteak does serve Philly cheesesteaks, and yes, customers say that they’re incredible. But this gas station restaurant — it’s located inside a Valero — also boasts a variety of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes that are worth trying, such as beef shawarma, saucy gyros, and pilaf. Oh, and nearly everything on the menu is $10 or less.

How to Dine Out Cheaply: Tips and Tricks

There are two secrets to dining out on the cheap. The first is that you simply need to know where to go. Whether you consult our guide or have local knowledge, you’ll be able to stretch your dollar a lot further if you have a list of cheap restaurants. But it’s just as important to know how to keep your bill as low as possible after you sit down to eat. Regardless of where you dine, follow these tips to keep from overspending.

The Art of Sharing: How to Maximize Variety and Minimize Cost

Make dining out a social experience and invite friends. Not only do you get to enjoy your friends’ company, but you can also try more without spending extra cash. Agree to split the bill and have everyone order something different.

Skip the Drinks: Why Tap Water Is Your Best Option

If you’re really pinching pennies, take advantage of free tap water and skip ordering drinks. And if you must order something, order soda

Enjoying lunch with friendsPhoto credit: VioletaStoimenova/istockphoto

Timing Is Everything: Take Advantage of Lower Mid-Day Prices

Restaurants typically charge the most at dinner when demand is highest. Go for lunch instead, and you can save thanks to lower prices and mid-day specials.

Cash Is King: Carry $20 to Take Advantage of OId-School Establishments

A lot of cheap restaurants are hole-in-the-wall eateries that aren’t going to take Apple Pay or card. For spontaneous meals and late-night outings, always have a little cash with you. Otherwise, you might have to borrow cash or pay an ATM fee.

The Bottom Line

While this list of cheap restaurants in California is far from exhaustive, it should serve as a culinary springboard for frugal foodies. We also encourage readers to make their own list of affordable local restaurants in their communities. Ask friends and family where they like to eat out, look for recommendations on Reddit, and don’t be afraid to walk down your street and try something new.

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