Things have been getting awfully gourmet up in here, but it doesn't have to be that way. If you have a $20 bill, you can treat a friend to an extremely civilized French lunch at a sidewalk cafe, an upscale Ethiopian dinner feast, sushi that's not Genki, Malaysian chicken and rice with socks-knocking-off flatbread and lentils, a fried-chicken burrito (yesssss), and/or nine other new Seattle cheap-eats marvels. All these places opened within approximately the last year. They are waiting for you. Go, eat, and be happy.
THE RHINO ROOM: The news that the brand-new Rhino Room, located in party-central Pike/Pine, was going to serve food from La Bodega (see below) was great. Any crestfallenness when that deal fell through was immediately obliterated by the even greater news (sorry, La Bodega) that the food at the Rhino Room was going to be from West Seattle's Ma'ono—home to some of the world's most unstoppably awesome fried chicken, plus assorted super-delicious Hawaiian food to boot. When we heard that the Rhino would also be serving Ma'ono at lunchtime, those of us who work nearby almost passed out from sheer joy.
Fried chicken and Hawaiian food don't sound upscale, but Ma'ono is, and it's expensive. It used to be an even more upscale restaurant called Spring Hill, and chef/owner Mark Fuller still uses only the best ingredients and most meticulous preparations. Fried chicken at Ma'ono is $20 for a half, $39 for a whole; as they put it, they do their best to make "the most delicious fried chicken money can buy... It's not exactly cheap, but we think it's worth every penny." And it is, but it's also in West Seattle.
Now at the Rhino Room, from noon to 10 p.m. every day, you can get a huge Hawaiian plate lunch with Ma'ono's fried chicken for less than $10. It comes with macaroni salad so good, it is clearly trying to kill you, plus murderously spicy kimchi (yay!) and rice. If you eat it all—or all of the version with kalua pork, or the combo with Spam—you WILL need to sleep. There's also the less-huge fried-chicken sandwich on a homemade Hawaiian sweet roll, musubi for snacking, and they just added a salad for you-know-who-you-are. But how can even salad-eaters resist this: a fried-chicken burrito?! I haven't tried it yet, due to terror of how good it will be.
The Rhino Room itself is very pleasant during the day and at dinnertime, too. It's huge, with lots of kingly booths, sky-high ceilings, and a decor scheme you might call neo-deco-Egypto-minimalism, including a very pretty gold-leaf wall, inverted-pyramid light fixtures, mirrored pillars, and a subtly glittering rhinoceros surrounded by palm fronds. But please note: Due to the cavernous space, the acoustics can get weird (that is, LOUD), and you do not want to be here very late on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, unless you would like a parrrr-tay along with your fried-chicken burrito. (1535 11th Ave, therhinoroomseattle.com) BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
TEN SUSHI: Have you ever been to a Genki Sushi? It's a multinational Japanese conveyor-belt chain, and it's really cheap—as in, too cheap, really. The sushi comes fast and sometimes rolled loose, and it tastes cheap, too, with one roll pretty much indistinguishable from another, and the nigiri is kind of the same way.
The Genki upstairs from the QFC on Mercer and Roy was so unpopular, it closed down, giving Shinichiro Takahashi the chance to run his own conveyor-belt place his own way. He's from Aizu Wakamatsu, a small town in the Fukushima region, and he spent 15 years doing conveyor-belt sushi in Japan before moving to the US. He's worked for Genki, and he seems to have learned a lot about what not to do.
At Ten Sushi, Takahashi's restaurant where that ill-fated Genki used to be, he uses quality rice and vinegar, all-natural wasabi, local and organic veggies, organic Washington eggs for his tamago, and real crab. He makes his own light organic soy sauce mix, so as not to overwhelm the fish—a nicety you wouldn't expect at a kaiten place. Even more unexpectedly, the nigiri going past is labeled by country of origin. The sign for some ebi from Argentina also tells you, "Please let us know if you would like the shrimp head deep-fried!" (Yes!) Takahashi looks stern, working with concentration inside his rotating ring of sushi, but if you smile and wave, he will, too. Liberate a bowl of his homemade kombu crisps from the conveyor belt; the kelp is mirin-marinated, deep-fried, super-crunchy, and lightly sweet.
The six different-colored plates at Ten Sushi represent six price levels, from $2.45 to $9.85 per plate, with intimidatingly large, goofily named specialty rolls at the high end ("My Hamachi Will Go On," "Baby One More Bite"). That's more expensive than Genki, but the place is much nicer, too—upscale almost to the point of swanky, with artful details like a bunch of gilded fish heads looking at you when you come in (it looks much better than it sounds). And for a few dollars more, the sushi is worlds apart. (Go at happy hour for cheap beer and sake!) (500 Mercer St, tensushiseattle.com) BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
FREDDY JUNIOR'S: Both my uncle and my brother swear up and down that the best cure for a hangover is one, just one, McDonald's cheeseburger with extra pickles. No fries or nothin'—just one Mickey D with cheese. Well, I'm here today to call bullshit on this. I've tried it, and I have to say, those flat, gray, $1.29 silver-dollar-pancake-sized burgers with soggy, floppy pickle slices can't hold a candle to the mini-burgers they make at Freddy Junior's. They're only $2 apiece—treat your hangover to three, or even four, of these correctly BROWN-colored, slider-sized burgers. There's a classic (for only $1.85!) called "The Junior" that just has lettuce, tomato, ketchup, special sauce, mustard, and cheese. But the REAL Freddy superstars are "The Wrangler" (same as the Junior, but with barbecue sauce and Durkee-style fried onions, the kind that you shake out of a can to top a green-bean casserole at Thanksgiving) and "The Daredevil" (which also has fried onions, plus buffalo wing sauce [spicy!] and blue cheese [extra-cheesy! Mmm-mmm!]). At the free condiment station, you can also add fresh onions or jalapeños to any mini-burger and, more importantly, pickles. I asked about the pickles last time I was in there, 'cause they're super-tangy, sliced really thick, and there was a bay leaf floating in the container with them.
"We make them in-house," shrugged the guy behind the counter, like it was no big deal, like he had no idea that THEY ARE THE BEST PICKLES EVER (or at least the best sliced pickles ever at a burger joint).
You can also pay an extra 25 cents to add things like bacon or grilled pineapple to any and all of their little hangover nuggets of joy, and you can order any of them with a vegetarian Field Roast patty, same price (though in a place that has a cow wearing a cowboy hat for a logo, why the hell would you do that?!). Freddy's also has mini–hot dogs for $2 (though everybody and their mother knows that hot dogs are too salty after a night of boozing), milkshakes, and french fries—oh, the french fries! I believe these to be a key player in the hangover-curing. Freddy's fries their potatoes in peanut oil, so they're super crispy and crunchy. No soggies or floppers (cough... lookin' at YOU, Dick's french fries!). My uncle would tell me to skip the fries, but I would argue. This is probably why I've always been the chubby one in the family. (1513 Broadway, 323-1413) KELLY O
CORAZON TAQUERIA: Located almost exactly between thriving Columbia City and emerging Hillman City is a small Mexican restaurant that faces the constant traffic of Rainier Avenue, one of the main arteries of the most diverse neighborhood in Seattle. You can hear the bells of Link trains from here—right outside the restaurant's building. Inside, the space is short and narrow, with a row of stools on the left side and a row of dining tables on the right. You place your order at the counter, behind which are the kitchen's swinging doors. "The beans are fat free, and the food is prepared by hand. I cut all the vegetables, the onions, the tomatoes, the cilantro," says Melissa Lopez, the woman taking my order: one carnitas burrito with everything ($5.95), one carne asada torta with everything and regular mayo ($7.95). The hard work that went into the preparation is apparent on the first bite of the burrito. Nothing fancy, not at all greasy, and no feelings of guilt when one is done with the business. The carne asada torta is also excellent, but it comes with tater tots, and there is no way to escape the guilt of eating those fried and fattening things. This little place gives you more than your money's worth: The food is fast and very satisfying, and you get a real sense of being in a big and dense city. Seattle needs more restaurants like Corazon Taqueria. (5303 Rainier Ave S, Suite B, 557-7921) CHARLES MUDEDE
MARTINO'S: I suppose that 10 bucks for a sandwich is the ceiling of what some would consider to be "cheap eats," but you've got to consider what you're getting in return for those 10 dollars: The Santa Maria tri-tip sandwich is one of the best sandwiches in the city. It's made up of juicy, prime chunks of Martino's house-smoked tri-tip steak, doused in chimichurri and mixed with a tomato-and-onion salsa to keep the flavor from getting too meaty. The whole juicy, fresh mix is crammed into a crispy, chewy Macrina roll. This is an intelligently designed sandwich that was clearly prototyped to perfection: The steak is smoky without making you feel like you just smoked a carton of cigarettes, and it's so tender and delicate that you could probably tear it apart with your fingers if you wanted to. The chimichurri and the salsa add a certain liveliness to the sandwich, a robust herb-and-vegetable freshness that complements the earthy smoke-and-beef flavor. It's a whole lunch in itself, the sort of sandwich that doesn't need a side, because no side could possibly live up to the balance and heartiness of the Santa Maria tri-tip. So for 10 bucks, you get a complete meal that will fill you up and not make you feel weighted down with too much cow. I'd call that a bargain. (7410 Greenwood Ave N, 397-4689) PAUL CONSTANT
KIMCHI HOUSE: This Korean deli and restaurant has slipped into a tiny storefront that used to serve sushi on the sleepy mini-main-drag of 24th in Ballard. The Seattle area is scattered with good traditional Korean restaurants—try the cheap and great food court at H Mart up in Lynnwood or the soup-focused Korean Tofu House in the U-District—and in the city, variations on Korean cuisine are popular these days, from the Korean-Hawaiian fusion of Marination to the higher-end Korean-French fusion of Joule. But there's not much quite like Kimchi House, which manages to do both things well. If you want some traditional Korean food—the mix-it-yourself rice dish bibimbap ($8.95) or the spicy soup soon dubu ($8.50 to $9.50)—you're in luck here. If you want some playful fusiony Korean food, they have that, too. The kimchi fries ($6.50) are crispy little shoestring fries topped with hunks of sautéed kimchi, a little cheese, and some spicy mayonnaise. It's ridiculous but delicious, almost like a less-greasy poutine. The Kimchi House Sandwich comes with your choice of meat and some slaw on a banh mi–style small baguette for only $6.75; the beef version I got was almost as thick as an arm. The quantity and quality for the prices are superb, and the options will satisfy people who are making a first foray into Korean food as well as those who already love it. It's also a sweet place to sit, with simple, spare decorations and a partially open kitchen; casual, friendly counter service; and a fridge full of house-made kimchi you can buy to take home. (5809 24th Ave NW, 784-5322) ANNA MINARD
KEDAI MAKAN: A tidy little cubbyhole in a brick wall along Olive Way, Kedai Makan is even more cosmopolitan than it looks. Its owners, Kevin Burzell and Alysson Wilson, met in the Bavarian Alps, fell in love, and came to Seattle, where he cooked his way through some of the city's favorite Asian-inflected restaurants (Poppy, Monsoon, Ba Bar) and she worked at some hyper-local, very posh ones (Cascadia, Crush). Then the two hit the Golden Triangle, traveling to Thailand, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, and Malaysia, returning with an appreciation for Asian flavors that are a little harder to find in Seattle than the ones from our longstanding love affairs with Thai/Vietnamese/Chinese/Japanese cooking.
That kaleidoscope of Asian cuisine is one of the gifts of living on the Pacific Rim, but Kedai Makan brings some new pleasures to the party. Their nasi ayam ($10.50) tastes like a barbecue in Bali: roasted chicken and richly flavored rice (ginger, soy, chili-lime sambal paste) freshened up with cilantro and cucumber. The nasi goreng ($8.50) has a similar effect, but with tofu and egg instead of chicken. If you're looking for a smaller snack, try the roti canai ($4.50), a fried flatbread that is richer than any bread has a right to be, coupled with a container of lentil curry that has an earthy, muted spiciness even tender palates can enjoy. Roti canai is one of the world's great beer foods—and Montana, which is one door down, encourages Kedai Makan customers to bring their food in and have a drink. The steamed greens, both mustard ($3.50) and yu choy ($5), have a satisfying, vinegary tanginess to offset the carnival of flavors in their other dishes.
The Kedai Makan clientele can be surprisingly cosmopolitan, as well. While I was waiting on the sidewalk for my order the other evening—it's take-out only—a young woman struck up a conversation, talking about places she'd lived from Alaska to Pakistan, where her father had worked for the US Department of State. Now she lives nearby and was so grateful when Kedai Makan opened last year. It tasted, she said, like a little bit of her childhood. (1510 E Olive Way, kedaimakanseattle.com) BRENDAN KILEY
LA PARISIENNE FRENCH BAKERY: It's springtime. Perhaps you would like to talk to a charming person from Paris, then enjoy a lovely French lunch at a sidewalk table along a tree-lined avenue? La Parisienne French Bakery in Belltown will fulfill exactly that desire, as well as exceed any and all of your pastry expectations. (It also has an awning, plus a half-dozen little indoor tables, in case of springtime rain.)
La Parisienne is run by the Morin family, from Paris, France—it is all theirs now, as they bought it from the French chain Grenier à Pain three months ago. Before that, the space was Boulangerie Nantaise, which was, confusingly, part of another French-from-France bakery chain, Biofournil. But never mind all that! The tree-lined avenue is Fourth, between Wall and Vine. The charming person you will likely find behind the counter is Christine Morin; her husband, Patrick Morin, is the baker, with his name on the placard by the front door; their daughter Elise sometimes works here, too, arriving in a rush after her English class. The other morning, she happened to be clipping out last week's New Column from The Stranger, "Romancin' Ted Danson by Scarlett Johansson," to use in class; it's Cheers erotic fan fiction, which ought to make for an interesting exercise in English as a second language. The shop was absolutely spotless, freshly painted in chic deep red and gray; the song "Cheek to Cheek" played, with the lyrics sung in dreamy French. A woman with an exquisitely groomed, extremely small dog chose with care from among the jewellike fruit tarts, pastel macarons, bountiful éclairs, practically floating meringues. Those will all knock your socks off, and the basics here—the baguette with its bubbly, soft interior and chewy crust; the croissant with its golden, shattering shell and world of buttery tenderness within—will make you feel anew that it's good to be alive.
La Parisienne is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sunday. One of their impeccably delicious little quiches with a green salad is $8.99. The perfect, typically French baguette sandwiches, like ham and Gruyère with cornichons (the tiny, adorable French pickles), are $7.99. The only thing missing is a glass of rosé—La Parisienne doesn't have a liquor license—but what you have in your thermos is your own business. (2507 Fourth Ave, 728-5999) BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
SHEWABER: I have yet to visit an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant in Seattle that has come close to the limits of my dining budget. These places may be mediocre or exceptional, but they are never expensive in the sense of a posh downtown place that serves some European cuisine or has a chef with a reputation. I have never dropped 100 bucks at, say, Mesob (this includes lots and lots of drinks), or its new incarnation on the edge of Little Saigon (the center of cheap Vietnamese delis), Shewaber. One of the most costly items on the menu is zilzil tibs (beef bits, slices of cabbage, a mound of lentils, diced carrots, a bed of injera, a massive plate, and another plate with folds of injera). An order of zilzil tibs is more than enough for one or the right amount for two, and costs just $11 ($5.50 per person). The food is lovingly prepared by the talented owner of the establishment, Zufan Abebe. Thanks to her dedication and friendliness—she always finds time to talk to customers—Shewaber is one of the exceptional East African joints. (1221 S Main St, 860-0403) CHARLES MUDEDE
WATERCRESS VIETNAMESE BISTRO: Tucked in the same little Columbia City strip mall that houses Full Tilt Ice Cream and the Hummingbird Saloon, Watercress Vietnamese Bistro distinguishes itself from its shopping-plaza exterior the second you step in the door. Not only is the space surprisingly airy and expansive, it's straight-up snazzy, with careful modern decor and a menu that closes each item with a suggested wine pairing—pretty fancy for a place adjoining a pool hall. Nevertheless, with entrées running $8 to $12, it still counts as cheap eats, providing a party of two with a seriously good meal for $20 and some change. (Tip for thrifters: The lunchtime menu shaves a buck or two off everything.) I had the stir-fried green beans and tofu ($9, with a light garlic braise and the most tasteful slivers of tofu), and my date had the caramelized prawns and pork in a clay pot ($12, and essentially a bowl of meat, with a sweet-and-spicy vinegar sauce and a surprising lightness). Neither dish really stood on its own as a dinner entrée—Jake needed a serving of my green beans to make his delicious meat-pot make proper sense, and I needed some of his rice to round out my saucy vegetable dish. But we'll definitely be going back. (5041 Rainier Ave S, watercressbistro.com) DAVID SCHMADER
LITTLE UNCLE: Okay, it's true: Little Uncle is not new. Poncharee Kounpungchart (aka PK) and Wiley Frank have run their walk-up window of Thai-food deliciousness on Madison since 2011. (Before that, it was a pop-up at La Bête and Licorous, and it was also once upon a time called Shophouse, before Chipotle expropriated that name. Somewhat confusingly, "Little Uncle" is PK's father's nickname.) We're grandfathering Little Uncle in to this new-cheap-eats guide because their sit-down restaurant in Pioneer Square opened just last summer, and it is an excellent place to eat their superlative, inexpensive, exceptionally fresh, and legitimately spicy Thai food.
Here are some things to know about Little Uncle #2: It is in the subterranean space where Marcus' Martini Heaven used to be. It has old brick walls and lots of room and even a couch, making it a lovely retreat, especially on a hot day (those will happen again soon, right? RIGHT?!). Everybody loves Little Uncle's pad thai ($9.90), but you should try something new—their specials are always really, truly special. What they recommend for a hangover is khao mun gai ($10.95), which is poached free-range chicken, garlic-and-chicken-fat rice, and spicy soy-ginger sauce with winter melon broth on the side. Currently, Little Uncle in Pioneer Square is only open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and they're usually super-busy between noon and one, but before or after that, you'll probably have the run of the place. And unlike the walk-up Little Uncle, the Pioneer Square version has beer. (88 Yesler Way, littleuncleseattle.com) BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
LA BODEGA: You can't get much cheaper than La Bodega's empanadas de yuca: For three bucks a pop, you get a delightful little fried packet of ground beef, pine nuts, and olives that fits perfectly in the palm of your hand. Made with a yuca crust house-ground in La Bodega's little kitchen—naturally gluten-free, even—they're a bit grittier than the usual empanadas, but they're lighter and fluffier, too. You can also get a sweet-potato-and-smoked-Gouda empanada, or a rotating empanada of the day, but bear in mind that the vegetarian options are pretty dry, so you might want to ask for a side of chimichurri for dipping purposes.
But for three times as much money, you can get a sandwich at La Bodega that is 20 times more satisfying than any empanada could be: the puerco asado sandwich ($9). This slow-roasted pork shoulder sandwich is topped with chopped cabbage and pickled onions and served on a Macrina roll. The marinated pork shoulder is so soft and juicy that you could practically spread it with a butter knife, but the secret weapon is that chimichurri, which is oily and vibrant and has a garlicky kick that ties the flavors together. A handful of napkins will valiantly give their lives in service to the eating of this sandwich—it's certainly not an eat-on-the-run proposition like the empanadas—but it's worth the time it takes to sit down with the puerco asado and savor it. (100 Prefontaine Pl S, labodegaseattle.com) PAUL CONSTANT
ABAY ETHIOPIAN CUISINE: Abay is as fancy as an Ethiopian restaurant can get in this town, but it's still affordable. The average cost of a main dish on the menu is $14, and a single person has to be extraordinarily hungry to eat any one of these plates alone. If a group of four orders the meat plate and the veggie plate, all will achieve the kind of satisfaction that removes snacking from the picture of the near future. And this is an upscale Ethiopian restaurant! You'd be lucky to get even an unexceptional salad at a posh French restaurant for the price of the meat plate ($16). Though Abay aspires to the status and respectability of fine dining—the dining room has a simple elegance about it, and the servers are effortlessly professional when explaining the items on the menu—the bar in the back has the kind of lurid colors you find in an off-the-grid nightclub in a big African city. You know this kind of place: the DJ with the latest sounds from London, chatty men buying unimpressed women drinks, the boss counting the take in the back. Abay, however, is the kind of restaurant you take friends from out of town to. They will be impressed by the place and the food, and you will not be winded by the bill. (2359 10th Ave E, abayethiopiancuisine.com) CHARLES MUDEDE
LOTUS THAI: The vibrant orange exterior is just a hint of the cheerfulness you'll find inside. The staff is friendly and swift, happy to talk you through the specials and recommend favorites. Spring rolls are brought to you in a sweet, fragrant little stack with a tiny bowl that holds the perfect amount of citrus-flavored dipping sauce. You might promise yourself that you'll only eat a couple, but they're so light and crisp, the plate will be empty before you know it. A lot of places get spring rolls wrong, making them too soggy, overstuffed, or messing with the balance of crispness and freshness, but Lotus Thai is the closest I've come to perfection. I could make a meal out of them alone! The pineapple fried rice—be careful, the pineapple is really hot—with your choice of meat is an impossible size to manage alone, so be sure to show up hungry or plan to split it with a friend. You can definitely feed two people for less than $20 with one appetizer and one entrée, but if you end up with leftovers like I did, you'll be thankful you saved some for later. (2724 E Cherry St, 323-9445) DANIELLE HENDERSON
And here's a humongous list of all our favorite places for cheap eats, all over Seattle. Happy cheap-eating!