The secret to eating well on a budget? Go ethnic.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
In this economy, who doesn’t want to spend less to get more. That idea fueled our all-new guide to eating around town on the cheap, and it’s jam-packed with spots where you can fill up for 10 bucks or less.
For this story, we went the extra mile to find food that’s not just affordable and generously sized but also gigantic in flavor—a search that led straight to this area’s diverse ethnic restaurants. Amid this wealth of cuisines, which includes Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai and Mexican, you won’t spend a fortune to find a treasure trove of flavor. Especially, of course, if you know what to order.
Enter this cheat sheet on what to choose: from great pho in Garfield to shawarma in Squirrel Hill, plus sidebars on the best destinations for sandwiches, burgers and takeout. We think you’ll agree that what you’ll find in these pages could also be called a great summer savings plan—and a happy guarantee against another blah bite.
Eleven Burger, $12. A 10 oz. chuck steak and beef short rib house-ground patty merely serves as the foundation of this burger. It’s topped with braised veal, smoked black-pepper bacon, crispy Spanish onions soaked in buttermilk and crumbled Maytag Blue cheese (drooling yet?). The house-made Kaiser roll can barely contain the mountain of flavor. (1150 Smallman St., Strip District. Info: 412/201-5656, bigburrito.com/eleven)
POINT BRUGGE CAFÉ
Point Brugge Burger, $9. Known for its surf, this European-inspired café also impresses with its turf: The Point Brugge Burger, eight ounces of ground chuck, is grilled to order. Smothered in your choice of cheeses, the burger is piled high with fresh lettuce, red onion and crunchy pickles, held together by a lightly toasted bun. (401 Hastings St., Point Breeze. Info: 412/441-3334, pointbrugge.com)
SHARP EDGE BEER EMPORIUM
Brew-a-Burger, $6.97-$8.97. A grilled-to-order patty comes on an oven-toasted Kaiser roll with slices of red onion and tomato, Kosher pickle chips and lettuce. Choose among seven cheeses and seven zesty sauces. Six other goodies add a unique touch to the burger—selections range from roasted poblano peppers to crispy bacon—and complete the “brewed” masterpiece. (302 S. St. Clair St., East Liberty. Info: sharpedgebeer.com, 412/661-3537)
Tessaro’s Bacon Blue Burger, $9. Regulars will tell you that the secret to this restaurant's legendary half-pound burger (above) is the hardwood-fired grill. But the real essence of Tessaro's might be Dominic Piccola, the in-house butcher, who chops up fresh ground beef every morning. The Bacon Blue is just 9 bucks, plus the cost of a nap from your ensuing food-coma. (4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. Info: 412/682-6809)
Angus Steak Mini-Burgers, $7.99. Buried underneath melted smoked-bacon cheddar, ground horseradish and a mound of fresh-cut shoestring fries are three Angus steak burgers served on mini buns. And sorry, Heinz, this is one occasion where it’s OK to pass on the ketchup: Each burger lies atop a spread of rich roasted-tomato chili jam. (413 S. Craig St., Oakland. Info: 412/681-8620)
The Mediterranean Grill
Familiar veggies such as shredded lettuce, parsley, tomato, onion and cucumber go into this classic Middle Eastern salad—but the kitchen of this basement-level Squirrel Hill restaurant transforms them into a dramatically delicious plate of food. It definitely has something to do with the salad’s surplus of extra-crunchy, toasted pita chips; they eventually soak up the rich olive-oil dressing laced with sumac and lemon to become tiny bites of flavor-soaked heaven.
If you really want to fill up, add a topping of grilled tawook (chicken) for two extra bucks—although the fresh, hot pita served on the side can also do the job for you.
5824 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill
Mysore Masala Dosai, $6.99
This huge rice crêpe is brushed inside with a layer of hot chutney and filled with a mashed-potato mixture flavored with onion and cumin so addictively delicious that you’ll wonder why you ever ate potatoes plain. Triangle-shaped, with sides of about 10 inches each, the dosai is served in the traditional southern Indian way with sambar and chutney on the side.
Come at lunch to nab a deal in which the dosai comes with an order of idly (steamed rice and lentil patties) for just one extra buck.
4141 Old William Penn Highway, Monroeville
1/4 rotisserie chicken with Spanish rice and black beans, $6.50
When you see this heaping plate of food, you might envision leftovers—but after one bite, ohhh, how easy it is to finish in one sitting. The generous quarter of a chicken, rubbed with an addictive mix of spices, yields juicy, flavorful meat, and the huge pile of light, fluffy Spanish rice is the perfect accompaniment to the rich and earthy black beans.
Dive right in: You don’t have to waste time at a serve-yourself condiment bar since every plate is served with a squeeze bottle of absolutely addictive spicy green sauce.
155 21st St., Strip District
Reyna's Taco Shack
The Carnitas Taco, $2.50
Traditional carnitas (richly flavored slow-cooked pork) in a warmed corn tortilla, topped to order with fresh cilantro, crunchy lettuce, ripe tomato and shredded cheese—well, this is nature’s perfect food.
The final touch has to be the amazing homemade salsas; choose from hot or medium red salsa or a flavorful salsa verde. At this price, why not add another taco with carne asada, pollo, lengua, fish or shrimp to your order?
For value, the big vegetarian burrito ($5) is also irresistible.
Avoid lines on the weekend by making Reyna’s Taco Shack your weekday lunch destination.
In front of Reyna Foods,2023 Penn Ave., Strip District
Pho Dac Biet, $7.99
This enormous bowl of savory broth brims with bright-green crisp-but-tender vegetables, clear rice noodles and meat. The dish, also listed on the menu as pho minh soup or No. 23, is great because you can customize it by choosing either beef or chicken broth and selecting the main ingredients: beef, chicken or tofu.
The crunchy bean sprouts, aromatic basil and lime—which come on the side—are very fresh, perfect for adding to your bowl—and so are the condiments, including two types of spicy chili sauce, soy sauce, brown sauce and fish sauce.
Sip the complimentary pot of fragrant tea (the owner imports it from Vietnam) and congratulate yourself—this is such clean, healthy food that you’ll feel fantastic afterward. Dinner bargain-hunters will note that prices are the same at lunch or dinner.
4917 Penn Ave., Garfield
Lamb Shawarma, $7
If you think the quality of a meat sandwich only lies in the meat, think again. With shawarma, it’s just as much about the condiments and the tahini sauce. Sure, the lamb and chicken here are beautifully marinated and roasted, but what sets this sandwich apart is the details.
Just the right amount of fresh parsley, onion, tomato and pickle rolled with juicy, moist strips of meat gives the filling crunch and piquancy; the tahini sauce, not too runny or too thick, is a master stroke.
1827 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill
Lemongrass Tofu, $5.25
This memorable dish exists in, like, the fourth dimension of tofu. The opposite of bland, this is bean curd transformed into a savory treat that everyone—die-hard meat lovers included—should try at least once.
Cut into two large rectangles, the tofu, deliciously browned, is topped generously with crunchy, almost chewy, citrusy pan-fried lemongrass shavings. Just the right touch of chili is smoothed out with rich sesame oil.
Every bite delivers pungent, salty flavors and a textural contrast between the tofu’s crispy outside and soft, fresh, fork-tender interior that you won’t soon forget. Top with a dollop of Siracha chili sauce, and you might just have found a new addiction.
4050 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville
Lulu's Noodle Shop
Lulu's Pan-Fried Noodles, $7.50
This generously sized plate of crispy, thin egg noodles is tossed with earthy shiitake mushrooms, Asian greens such as bok choy or Chinese cabbage, green onions, crunchy bean sprouts, chicken and a savory stir-fry sauce that gives the whole dish great flavor.
As you might guess from the restaurant's name, noodle plates are definitely the way to go here; try the ramen with imported Japanese wheat noodles to discover what it tastes like when it’s not out of a plastic packet (add fish balls to make it extra awesome).
400 S. Craig St., Oakland 412/687-7777
Lentejas à la Criolla Combo, $10.50
Want a fresh take on rice and beans? Try this Peruvian restaurant’s version: a huge pile of super-fluffy garlic rice topped with thick lentil and tomato stew. The lentil dish rotates with other specials—there’s always one vegetarian and one meat option on weekdays, and two of each on busy Fridays and Saturdays—but all the dishes are simple, savory and filling (there’s a list on the website).
The combo deal comes with French bread and the La Feria side salad: This is no symbolic lettuce leaf, but instead a serving of super-fresh greens with ripe tomatoes, crunchy walnuts, tons of freshly grated cheese and delicious sherry vinaigrette. The plate price is the same at both lunch and at dinner, making this an especially good deal for evening eats.
5527 Walnut St., Shadyside
Chickpea Curry Lunch, $5
Dry-toasted spices such as coriander and cumin plus plenty of spicy, fresh ginger and pungent garlic pack flavor into this dish of meaty chickpeas coated in rich curry sauce. Order the truck’s large veggie lunch and also choose from two additional entrées (choices change daily)—think spinach and black-eyed peas or creamy vegetable korma.
Plates are served with saffron rice and pita, and vegetarians can rejoice: The vegetable dishes are vegan, and the kitchen never cooks with red meat (beef, pork or lamb), although the truck does offer a curried-chicken lunch at the same price.
Red Trailer (year-round), Carnegie Mellon University campus,
Margaret Morrison St., Oakland; srees.com
JIMMY & NINO SUNSERI CO.
Italian Hoagie, $6/foot-long; $3.50/half. Jimmy & Nino Sunseri Co. dishes out the most fully-loaded Italian hoagie in the ’Burgh. A freshly baked bun is stuffed with mortadella, capicola, salami, pepperoni and provonello cheese, then topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and a drizzle of the vinegar-based house dressing. The resulting hoagie is served cold, or, at its best—after a quick bake in the oven. (1906 Penn Ave., Strip District. Info: 412/255-1100)
PENN AVENUE FISH CO.
Crab Cake Sandwich, $9.99. This sandwich is reminiscent of something from the boardwalk: Fresh crab meat is combined with breadcrumbs, chopped celery and seasonings before it’s broiled, sandwiched in ciabatta bread and topped with gooey melted cheddar and spicy rémoulade. Bonus: It's served with sides that make a delicious spin on deli classics, such as jalapeño chips or slaw tossed with cucumber-wasabi dressing. (2208 Penn Ave., Strip District. Info: 412/434-7200, pennavefishcompany.com)
THE PRETZEL SHOP
Sausage Sandwich, $2.79. This seriously cheap hand food includes a thick sausage patty—your choice of hot or sweet—with a slice of white American cheese (add tomato or egg for additional spare change). And what sets this sandwich apart is exactly what holds it together: the pretzel bun, rolled and twisted in-house, sprinkled with coarse salt and baked in a 100-year-old oven. (2316 E. Carson St., South Side. Info: 412/431-2574)
SMALLMAN STREET DELI
The Rachel, $8.40. The grilled marble rye for this Rachel (above) is stuffed with layers of tender beef that is “corned” right next store at Weiss Provisions. Nutty, melted Swiss, brown mustard and tangy coleslaw complete this work of sandwich art in a basket. Based on the stream of people flowing in and out during the lunch hour, owner Jeff Cohen has made this deli a destination in the upper Strip and beyond. (2840 Smallman St., Strip District. Info: 412/434-5800)
Philly-style Cheese Steak, $8.41. The steamy, shredded rib-eye comes encased in a chewy roll. The orange cheese sauce drips over the sautéd sweet onions. Good thing there is a tube of paper towels mounted on every rickety table. (2000 E. Carson St., South Side. Info: 412/390-1844, southsidesteaks.com)
For a quick, filling lunch or take-home dinner, opt for the extraordinarily delicious eats from these affordable groceries, delis and bakeries.
The well-loved GROCERIA ITALIANA corner shop in this ethnic neighborhood, is a treasure-trove of cheap takeout, including great daytime deals at lunch and frozen pastas to bring home for dinner. For mid-day munching, try the huge pepperoni roll ($3.75). Nearly the size of a calzone, the roll features light, fluffy, freshly baked dough stuffed with spicy pepperoni and melted cheese. There are also huge plates of spaghetti and meatballs, beans-and-greens and plenty more. (237 Cedarville St., Bloomfield. Info: 412/681-1227)
In the Strip, don’t miss the friendly, family-run S&D POLISH DELI. Grab a hot lunch—try the hearty smoked-kielbasa sandwich ($4.50)—then stock up on such frozen goods as pierogies ($6.50 per dozen). (2204 Penn Ave. Info: 412/281-2906, sdpolishdeli.com)
Speaking of those popular Polish dumplings, this wouldn’t be Pittsburgh if we didn’t list at least two spots to find them. Here’s another: the renovated gas station turned Polish-food mecca, PIEROGIES PLUS. Nab some delicious, warm potato-and-cheese pierogies (six for $4.75), or buy a dozen from the freezer ($8.25). Pad the order with halushki and stuffed cabbage if you’re extra-hungry. (342 Island Ave., McKees Rocks.Info: 412/331-2224, pierogiesplus.com)
A recently opened Mexican butcher shop, LAS PALMAS CARNICERIA, is great for tamales ($0.99 each) made with tender masa or take-home grilling packages with meat and fajita seasoning. (700 Brookline Blvd., Brookline. Info: 412/344-1131)
Also in the Brookline neighborhood is PITALAND, source of some of the best local freshly baked pita. It comes in small, large and extra-large sizes with flavors that include plain, sesame or whole wheat (10 extra-large pitas, $1.69). Use it to make a Mediterranean feast at home or even as a base for quick-and-easy homemade pizzas. While you’re at it, grab some of the top-notch hummus, baba ghanoush or tabbouleh (8-ounce container, $3.25), all made fresh in-house every day. (620 Brookline Blvd.Info: 412/531-5040, pitaland.com)
People's Indian Restaurant
Lunch Buffet, $7.49
Penn Avenue’s oldie-but-goodie hole-in-the-wall Indian place has stood the test of time. Around lunch, the steam table offers up flavorful classics such as chicken tikka masala, with its rich and creamy spiced tomato sauce, or palak paneer, a delicious spinach dish with homemade cheese cubes.
Cool off with a sweet or salted mango lassi, and don’t bother resisting a second trip to the buffet—that’s what it’s there for.
Dinner is cheap too: Tandoori chicken served with rice and daal costs under 10 bucks.
5147 Penn Ave., Garfield
Cashew Nuts with Chicken, $8.95
It’s not the most daring dish to order, perhaps, but it is delicious—especially at this Thai place, which has the slightly bigger portions and slightly lower prices of a cheap-eats destination. As the name (inadvertently?) indicates, this dish certainly doesn’t skimp on the cashews: Finally, no more searching under onion slices to find the good stuff!
This plate serves up truly generous amounts of rich, meaty, salty cashews, crisp-tender large-cut veggies such as carrots and peppers, and your choice of chicken, pork or tofu stir-fried with just enough red chili pepper to leave you with a spicy kick. Yum!
4505 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield
The à la carte small plates are a strength at this college-student staple—go with friends, order a few, and you can all fill up for well under 10 bucks per person. One favorite, the mohomara, is a savory dip made from earthy ground walnuts and onions and topped with paprika and oil: It’s so delicious with fresh pita, you’ll be astonished how quickly it disappears (get the large; the extra buck is worth it).
Order up other small plates—spinach pie, sleek or mujaddara ($4.95 for large)—and you definitely won’t leave hungry.
404 S. Craig St., Oakland
The Green Mango
Tofu Mango Salad, $7.50
A salty, citrusy, spicy lime sauce is what puts this crunchy salad over the top. Its vibrant flavors perfectly blend all the ingredients on the plate, including ripe sweet mango, well-browned strips of super-crispy tofu, crunchy cucumbers and onions, ripe tomatoes and finely chopped cilantro.
The dish has just enough chili-based heat to wake up your taste buds; the same is true of the equally delicious Thai beef salad, which any meat-lover should most certainly try.
1109 S. Braddock Ave.,
Salem's Market and Grill
Shish Tawook, $7.50
Deliciously smoky from being charred on a hot grill, shish tawook is the ultimate chicken shish kebab, served with a pungent, creamy garlic sauce. This value price includes a kebab—about six hefty-sized pieces of chicken (you can also opt for goat or lamb)—plus a huge serving of rice and a Greek salad with all the goods, including real Kalamata olives, pungent feta and crisp cucumbers.
There’s a reason this cafeteria-style spot has such fresh-tasting meat: The owners opened here after years of running a successful halal meat and grocery store in Oakland.
2923 Penn Ave., Strip District