Depending on how old you are, the idea of two people eating well for $20 -- tax and tip included -- generally yields a sigh of nostalgia or a raised eyebrow of skepticism. And yet, it turns out there are quite a few places in Humboldt County where you can sit down to a truly good dinner for two, drop a Jackson on the table, and hit the road. A burger, a slice, or a sandwich would be too easy, though fans of all of these have lobbied hard for inclusion. The challenge of finding cheap eats is not sacrificing too much for price. We weren't planning to skimp on quality of ingredients, atmosphere or (shudder) hygiene. When you do find a place that hits the trifecta of tasty, nice and cheap, you have to decide whether or not to share the intel with others or keep it your little secret. We're sharing. And these are only some of the options out there. No chains, no fast food, no trucks, no take-out, no lunch specials. No problem.
Annie's Cambodian Cuisine
1917 Fifth St., Eureka. (707) 442-1556
Cambodia is the home of Angkor Wat, Angelina Jolie's coolest kid and the ancient delights of Khmer cuisine. It's not to be confused with Thai cooking, though if you like one, you're bound to enjoy the other. There is still the play of sweet, spicy and savory, but Khmer dishes are more about the warm flavors of pepper, cinnamon and ginger, and somewhat less red-chili-centric than Thai. Not everything on the menu at Annie's Cambodian falls into the cheap category, but with a little judicious ordering, a $20 dinner for two under the paintings of jungle ruins is possible.
Phnom Penh noodle soup (medium, $7.25) is the stick-to-your-ribs option. Follow the usual pho drill and slide the side plate of raw mung bean sprouts, sliced hot peppers and cilantro into the soup and rice noodles, but taste it before you reach for the chili sauce. I have a touch of condimentia, and I tend to get a little nuts with all those little jars on the table, but the pho at Annie's is so earthy and fragrant that I skip my usual sauce frenzy. Both the noodles and sliced beef are tender, though you can choose other toppings like chicken, shrimp or beef ball, which is a really mild meatball.
Tragically, we were forced to tip just 15 percent after being lured into the Banh Chav ($8.50). It looks like an omelet, but it's an egg and coconut milk crepe filled with ground chicken and bean sprouts and served with a side of lettuce and fresh basil. How to attack it? Our waiter, the son of owners Annie and her husband Chin, says most folks wrap bites of the crepe in lettuce and dip it in the accompanying sauce. He himself likes to get a bowl and cut the whole thing up into a warm salad. The crepe wrapped in lettuce is a refreshing balance -- that mix of the raw and the cooked that's so wonderful in Southeast Asian food -- with just a hint of the coconut flavor, though the sprouts were a bit soft. The sauce is lightly sweet and spicy, adding some intrigue without taking over all the other tastes. We'll have to come back and try the salad method for science ... and tip a little more, because the carved wooden statues at the door were kind of judging us on the way out.
5000 Valley West Blvd, Arcata. (707) 826-2121
True, it's hard to look cute gnawing on a souvlaki, but if you and your date are hungry, Kebab Café might be just the place. Tucked away in a strip mall, a handful of tables and a counter offer tight seating. You order and pay at the counter, where you can see and smell the long skewers of meat being turned on the grill. Travel posters and souvenirs from Greece and Turkey are tacked up on the walls, making the place look sort of like a diner/travel agency. And yet the presence of hunks of lamb on a stick and little bags of perfumed Turkish delight by the counter makes it a romantic spot as far as I'm concerned.
There are plenty of budget options on the menu (tax already included --less math!), so you can a la carte you way to a cheap meal without too much effort and still have something for the tip jar. And between the falafel, the babaganoush and the vegetable skewers, there are lots of goodies for vegetarians.
The plan was to try a dinner plate with a skewer, rice and vegetables, but the siren call of the pita sandwich (pork pita for $6.70 and gyro for $7.35) was too strong. A Greek pita sandwich is not a sandwich to be taken lightly. You can't drive while eating one, and once you tuck back the paper wrapping and take a bite, you are committed. Instead of stuffing your face absently, you have to hold it with both hands and take care not to drip or lose a cucumber. Order two and you are guaranteed to save yourself from an evening across from someone who's fiddling with a phone.
Stop wondering what gyro meat is and have some already. It's spit-roasted ground lamb that's sausage-y in flavor and tender like a meatball. Both the gyro and the char-grilled pork are marvelous in a warm, soft pita with cool, garlicky tzatziki sauce. Since there's room in the budget for a side, you need to do a little soul-searching. You could go with the healthy Greek salad ($4.65) topped with olives and feta with a side of tart, herby dressing. Or you could follow your id to the fried haloumi cheese ($4.95). The latter is perfectly salty and firm with a bacon-crisp edge that's like a drug. A creamy, fried drug. You can always have the salad next time.
3 Foods Café
835 J St, Arcata. (707) 822-9474
There are some lovely café tables and a sweet garden outside, and inside it hipster-pretty with a reclaimed wood wall, high ceilings and gauzy drapes. We asked the server for help ordering and he suggested we cut a swath straight through the happy hour menu, available Tuesday-Thursday from 5:30 to 7 p.m.. Everything on it is $2, $3 or $6 -- simplicity itself. Don't let the happy hour part scare you off. It's not the greasy, leaden bar food you've been subjected to before in the name of cheap drinks. At 3 Foods, the dishes are inventive and wholesome -- there's enough going on with a given plate to make for a little conversation, but it's not kooky. And splitting the small plates works as a kind of mini tasting menu.
The Light and Lovely salad ($3) of mixed greens, gorgonzola and apple is dotted with yummy praline-like walnuts and dressed with a vinaigrette that plays off their sweetness. Black on White ($3), an Egyptian snack, comes with sliced apple beside a stack of soft pita wedges to dip first in olive oil and then in a cup of crispy sesame seeds, cinnamon, and other spices. It's marvelous, and it's so fun to eat, like Fun Dip for grown-ups. The spices commingle along with the oil into something rich, nutty and spicy-sweet. One wonders why Egypt has been holding out on us.
The Golden Nuggets ($3) are, on the one hand, just tater tots. On the other hand, they're tater tots. Don't pretend you don't love them. It's as obnoxious as pretending you don't watch TV. And the dips give them the respect they deserve, with a smoky homemade barbecue sauce and a barely lavender-scented honey mustard. A little nostalgia, a little something new. The chicken on the Viva la Queso ($6) nachos was on the tough side, but the blue cheese sauce drizzled with chili oil that smothers the chips goes beyond comfort -- it's post-break-up food. We were satisfied halfway through, but we were unable to stop ourselves. According to our waiter, it's the same stuff they use on their macaroni and cheese, which is heavier and richer. Dang.
375 Sprowl Creek Road, Garberville. (707) 923-4060
The tables in the patio out back are wobbly enough to spill your Jarritos, but the staff is very friendly and the Point Break kitsch -- the dining area is a glorified shack covered in shells and beachy knickknacks -- is kind of fun. It's a dive, but the good kind. Funky enough for street cred, but clean enough for the health department. Sure, Mexican food is a pretty safe bet for a cheap and filling meal, especially when plastic forks are involved, but this little organic burrito stand in Garberville has something of a following.
Some of us hear the words "organic restaurant" and secretly fear we'll be fed cut grass. And if you lived through the raw food trend, you probably ate some. This will not happen to you at Nacho Mama. There are burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and sides that could easily be mixed and matched into a hearty $20 meal for two.
A pile of Surfer Nachos ($8.50) comes with plenty of stew-y shredded beef, pinto beans, cheese and guacamole. The toppings are generous, so there's no dreaded wasteland of dry chips at the bottom and no need to turn on one another for the last of the goodies. The Surfer Burrito ($8.75) with chunks of chicken, black beans, brown rice and tart verde sauce is a great pillow of a thing, but not at all greasy. The salsa and guacamole are fresh, and the flavors of the individual ingredients stand out instead of blurring together, though a little more salt wouldn't have hurt. And it's nice to eat brown rice without feeling punished -- instead, it adds a nice nuttiness to the burrito.
You and your companion can split both dishes and leave full and happy without that post-meal regret. Pat yourselves on the back for eating well and toss the change in the tip jar.
435 North Fortuna Blvd., Fortuna (707) 725-2431
Even on a Monday night, the joint is jumping. They're doing the hacienda-Christmas lights thing to the hilt in here, right down to the striped blankets and sombreros on the wall -- go with it. Of course there are chips and zippy salsa, from which some of us could more or less make a meal. You know who you are.
As we munched away and perused the menu, there were several a la carte items and even a couple of combination plates that came in under $8, but my companion's champagne tastes demanded the steak burrito Special ($8.95). It's large and loosely formed, with beans and meat tumbling out of one end. The meat had a nice char-grilled steak flavor with just a little heat, and the tortilla was of the pleasantly chewy variety -- the bagel of the tortilla world. If Mexican cuisine is a cheese-delivery system for you, then you're going to need to add some, but the burrito is pretty satisfying already with the dollops of sour cream and guacamole.
Sometimes you need to get some veggies, and the taco salad ($6.25) with chicken is the way to go. It's modest in comparison to the deluxe version that comes in a deep-fried tortilla amphitheater, but the chicken is moist and tasty, and the little mound of lettuce, chips, sour cream and guacamole is a nice, light meal. If you're looking for something a little more substantial, the a la carte burritos, enchiladas and plate-blanketing quesadillas in the same price range will fit the bill.
And if you qualify, the children's/seniors' menu has generous bean and cheese burrito and quesadilla plates that include sides of beans and rice. They run about $5.95. It's enough to make you consider a fake ID.
We've only gotten started here, taken the first satisfying bite of what could be a banquet of Humboldt bargains. The North Coast Journal wants to know your favorite spot to dine on a dime. Don't be stingy -- write in and tell us. No more secrets!