Over-the-Counter Cheap Eats
In the end, all that matters is food. While atmosphere and service can enhance a dining experience, when someone places, say, a grilled bone-in rib eye in front of me, I'm barely able to tell the restaurant from my bathroom, the waiter from my brother. Some of my favorite meals don't even involve a restaurant, just a spring roll eaten off a Styrofoam tray by a lake, or grilled meat eaten off a stick while strolling down a dirty street. Forgo your expectations of the ambience of a typical "dining experience" and you'll find cheap, tasty eats at delis and markets all over town.
Everyone knows that if you want good, cheap banh mi, all you have to do is stand at the corner of Jackson Street and 12th Avenue and wait for one to fall out of the sky. Beyond banh mi, each of the delis in this area also offers an amazing assortment of other delights—rice-paper rolls, sticky-rice dishes, noodles, salads, all neatly plastic-wrapped in trays—as well as dirt-cheap spring rolls. You can easily assemble a full meal for two with three sundry items and come in under $10. (Unfortunately, I cannot tell you the exact cost of every item—most are not labeled, and these are not places where you bother the lady behind the counter with trifling questions in English.)
Banh Cuon Tan Dinh (1212 S Main St #A, 726-9990) makes some of the best fried spring rolls around, filled with superpeppery ground pork and shrimp, for a mere 50 cents (!!!!) each. Across the street at Spring Roll House Deli (1221 Main St, Suite 104, 726-1628), spring rolls (less spicy, but quite good) are also 50 cents a pop and banh gio ($2.50), a heavy triangle of sticky rice filled with mung-bean paste and ground pork, is a meal unto itself. Saigon Deli (1237 S Jackson St, Suite E, 322-3700) offers what I believe to be the greatest pork and shrimp salad rolls in town. The roasted pork is moist and rich, the peanut sauce less sweet than salty and pungent (thanks to fermented fish sauce), and the addition of house-made spicy shredded pickled carrots results in salad rolls more complex and intriguing than most others I've tasted.
Follow the sound and smell of sizzling meat to the back of La Conasupo Market (8532 Greenwood Ave N, 782-0533), where they serve enormous quesadillas, sopes, and tacos for startlingly low prices. A quesadilla de chicharrónes ($5) comes filled with what seems like a whole pound of shredded pork and crispy skin, and the sopes ($5), masa cakes covered with black beans and cotija cheese, are probably three times the size of what you get at taco trucks. Above this backroom eating area hangs the store's selection of piñatas, which makes for a strangely festive gorging experience.