I really hate Rachael Ray. She's completely annoying and has no neck. I would occasionally happen upon her old, pre-Oprah show $40 a Day and want to vomit. "Bourgeois hog!" I'd think. "Anyone can eat amazing food with 40-fuckin'-dollars a day! That's rich- people money!"
This was during one of my unemployed spells, when I lived on $20 a week. You can't eat out when you only have $20 a week. You have to go to the food bank and raid Dumpsters and cook, which is fine. But what is the least amount of money you would need to be able to eat out for every meal, every day, like Rachael Ray (who, if you think about it, resembles a shaved ewok)? Could you do it for half of what she does: $20 a day?
Yes. There are tons of great cheap eats to be found in every neighborhood of Seattle. For five days, I only ate out at restaurants (and at delis, bakeries, and other havens of inexpensive goodness). I had no trouble spending less than $20 a day, and neither will you.
When I wake up, Seattle is soggy—the perfect day to hit Pike Place Market, as the tourist threat level will be low. (They never bring hoodies when they visit in summer.) A friend and I hop down to Le Panier (1902 Pike Place, 441-3669) for savory mushroom turnovers. At $3.50 apiece, they are a significant expenditure, but the flaky outsides and gooey, cheesy, mushroomy insides are well worth it. Then it's up to Bacco (86 Pine St, 443-5443), a pleasant cafe with a fake-Mediterranean feel, for fresh-squeezed fruit juices. The Modena is a frothy and pulpy mixture of pear, apple, and strawberry; chunks travel up the straw. My companion chooses the Ravenna, a smoother, chunk-free mixture of apple and carrot. Four dollars is not too much to pay for the fresh, healthy feeling of nice juice on a shitty day.
At lunchtime, I find myself in Lower Queen Anne and decide to visit Nielsen's Pastries (520 Second Ave W, 282-3004). I'd read about the house specialty: The "potato" is a cocoa-powder-covered pastry that looks ugly but tastes heavenly. Unfortunately, they were out of potatoes during our visit, but we ended up eating well anyway. The $5.50 lunch special included a bowl of cream-free potato-and-corn chowder (with soft, sweet chunks of onion) and half a chicken-salad sandwich on fluffy focaccia. I finished up with a soft and buttery chocolate-chip cookie (65 cents).
Dinner is simple: A $4 hot dog from S & S Cream Cheese Hot Dogs, otherwise known as "the hot-dog guy outside the Comet" (922 E Pike St), who splits his dogs down the middle, grills 'em, slathers cream cheese on the buns, and you know the rest. The perfect fortification for a night spent around 10th Avenue and Pike Street (better known as the Booze Block).
Waking up in serious need of coffee, I hustle down to the International District for breakfast. From the bus tunnel, I walk to Sun Bakery (658 S Jackson St, 622-9288) where coffee is a dollar and a half-dozen little Chinese doughnut holes is $2. The doughnut holes are soft and puffy, more like beignets than a Top Pot offering, and covered in sugar. The grease soaks through the paper bag containing the two puffs I save for later. I brandish it with pride.
For lunch, I visit KC Kitchen (414 Eighth Ave S, 332-1881), a new addition to the ID, located in the shadow of the painted freeway poles. When I walk in, it's completely empty, but the decor is nicer than your average noodle house, with dark wooden tables instead of plastic and pictures on the wall that don't look like they've been there since Nixon. Thankfully, the upscale-ish decor doesn't translate into higher prices: My wonton and dumpling noodle soup is still just $4.50. Initially, I can't tell the dumplings from the wontons, except for one has a veil of wrapper floating around it, but eventually I figure it out: The dumplings are pork and shrimp, and the wontons are shrimp and pork. Both are delicious, juicy in a bowl of very hot, deeply flavorful soup. The noodles are long, kinky, Hong Kong–style egg noodles, and the soup comes with a healthy portion of bright-green gai lan, a Chinese vegetable. When I'm done, I need a walk.
That night, I go to the 5 Point (415 Cedar St, 448-9993), the nice and divey 24-hour Seattle institution where I get a blue-cheese burger with tater tots (undoubtedly the best in the city) for $7.95.
I wake up with a small hangover (the 5 Point is also a bar!) and an indisputable need to eat tacos for breakfast. I also want to do some grocery shopping, so I hop down to one of my favorite Cheap Eat Power Blox™—the 3500 block of Rainier Avenue, where there are two places worth your time. The first is the legendary taco bus Tacos El Asadero (3517 Rainier Ave S), where I get three carnitas tacos and a Mexican Coke with real sugar for a mere $5.10. The carnitas have little crispy bits in them and I shove a spicy pickled carrot in the doubled tortillas and chow down. The second place is the Mekong Rainier Supermarket (3400 Rainier Ave S, 723-9641), where prices compare favorably to ID standbys like Viet Wah, and the selection of sweet Vietnamese treats is very large. I'm stuffed from the tacos, but I get a $2 tray with a green (tapioca?) jelly, coconut milk, and crushed peanuts for later in the park, a savory/sweet treat that's enough for two, or, in my case, lunch.
Dinner is up north at Shoreline's Nara (15033 Aurora Ave N, 417-9978), which is ostensibly a Chinese restaurant but the back page of the menu contains all Korean specialties. Our waitress gives us forks because we are the only white people there. I order the black-bean noodles with seafood ($7.50) from the back page. The spaghetti-like rice noodles come in a large bowl, doused in black-bean sauce and something that is either eggplant or mushroom, along with squid and scallops. The noodles have ridges to collect the thick sauce, and it's more than enough for two people, especially because we received free egg-flower soup and some pickled radish and kimchi to go along with it. My companion orders some tofu Szechuan style ($6.95) from the Chinese portion of the menu—the tofu is crispy and delicious, but soaked in a gummy, sweet sauce that isn't worth the time. My fortune cookie is prescient: "You shouldn't overspend at the moment. Frugality is important."
When it comes to cheap brunch, dim sum is really the only option, but that's okay because it's the best. Northwest Tofu/Deli (1913 S Jackson St, 328-8320) is an unassuming storefront that sells tofu out the side, holds a restaurant in front, and serves dim sum all day. I order pork pot stickers ($3.25 for six) and something called simmered tofu noodle ($2.75). The noodles arrive first, and to my surprise, they are vermicelli width and actually made from firm tofu and served with carrot and spring onion as a refreshing, slightly spicy cold salad that is incredibly delicious. The pot stickers are hand-formed and full of spring onion, carrot, and lots of garlic.
After the meal, I walk up to 23rd Avenue to watch the Umoja African Heritage Festival. A few blocks east of 23rd is Dallas BBQ (2519 S Jackson St, 329-5814), which is empty but busy filling orders for pans of catered barbecue to be served at Seafair picnics later in the day. I order the Snack Pack, a combination of either catfish or chicken wings, a side, and a roll for $5. When my catfish and fried okra arrive, I am pleasantly surprised to find that it is the best cornmeal-fried catfish in the city, wonderfully moist and juicy, leagues above Catfish Corner. The okra is also delicious, fried crispy in a regular batter. This combo pack is nowhere close to being just a snack, unless you weigh 500 pounds. But it's ultimate proof that, under the right circumstances, you can even gorge yourself for cheap.