Seattle doesn't have the depth of international cuisines available in New York, nor the extensive selection of fine-dining restaurants that crowd Chicago. But the one thing that wows food-loving visitors from those places when they're in Seattle is the value. "Why can't we have this in San Francisco?," a friend once asked after pasta at Il Corvo. The answer, of course, is because it would cost twice as much. Cheap eats in Seattle run from one end of the food spectrum to the other; from the elegance and indulgence of lunch at Le Pichet to the sheer amount of amazing food at El Paisano, each checking in at under $10 a meal. So where do you go in Seattle when your budget is tight? Here are our picks:
Spicy Chicken and Gyoza Combo at Nasai Teriyaki
Teriyaki is to Seattle what pizza is to New York City—it's plentiful, cheap, and everyone has one place that they love, even though most of them are largely the same. One could argue in favor of any number of other teriyaki restaurants as the best in town, but it's hard to debate Nasai's sweet spicy chicken, crispy gyoza, soft rice, and crunchy iceberg salad as the classic rendition of this ubiquitous Seattle dish. Nasai's University District location has remained virtually unchanged over multiple decades, catering to the students' need for quick, budget-friendly food in its dim hallway of a space. There's a comfort to coming back after years away and seeing the same cast of characters at the tables: kids studying, stoners giggling, everyone in line for their spicy chicken.
Daily Special at Il Corvo
It's impossible to recommend a particular dish at Il Corvo, because the menu of three pasta dishes changes daily. One of the reasons Chef Mike Easton can keep the prices so low is that he only uses ingredients at the peak of their season—in other words, at their cheapest and, of course, most flavorful—be it local morel mushrooms in spring, or hearty kale come winter. But those ingredients are secondary to the impeccable pasta, made fresh each morning, with its perfectly chewy-tender texture. The Pioneer Square shop is no secret—there's rarely a time when the line doesn't stretch out the back door—but Easton and his crew work fast, and the tables turn as quickly as the food comes out.
Half Chicken Meal at El Paisano Rosticeria y Cocina
Seattle's Mexican food leaves a lot to be desired, but at El Paisano, they buck the citywide trend of mediocre tacos. The fresh homemade salsas are without a doubt the best in town: a trio of red, green, and pico de gallo. They arrive with chips when you order, but the best way to eat them is slathered on tacos—specifically the roasted chicken that puts the "Rosticeria" in the restaurant name. The half-chicken meal is huge, cheap, and comes with tortillas to split it into DIY tacos. The bird rests on a heap of beans and rice, dripping the red adobo and meat juices down into the sides; the meaty beans are a hidden treasure buried beneath this mountain of Mexican food.
Poori Masala at Chili's South Indian Restaurant
The Ave is famous for serving students cheap plates of crap, but Chili's breaks the mold by serving excellent south Indian food in a converted convenience store. To some, it might seem a risky venture—the spicy cuisine of the south means that there's no naan on the menu, no familiar tandoori chicken. But those willing to sit down at the plastic, elementary-school-style tables and try a dosa, a paratha, and maybe a goat curry, are rewarded with rich curries loaded with intricate flavors and spices. The poori masala is a top pick for the price-conscious: two huge disks of fried bread, puffed up from the cooking process so that they are the perfect shape for scooping up spicy potato and pea curry.
Burger and Salad at Wedgwood Broiler
The Wedgewood Broiler is a steakhouse, which means they trim their steaks on-site. That meaty, delicious trim, is then ground up and made into the perfect beefy burger. The burger is, like the restaurant itself, unintentionally nostalgic by stagnation. It's a throwback to the '70s, a reminder of a time when the most important thing about a burger was how much it tasted like beef, not what topped it or the origin of its bun. The salad, offered as one of the side options, is similarly ignorant of changes to food fashion, arriving sprinkled with slices of salami and entire Cheez-its on top.
Spam Sliders at Marination Ma Kai
Any hungry diner on a budget would be wise to get to Marination Ma Kai, the local Hawaiian-leaning taco truck-cum-micro chain, where only one thing on the menu is over $10. Pick and choose from various tacos (kalbi beef, spicy pork, sexy tofu), fried rice, or quesadillas, but do not miss the Spam sliders, no matter what preconceived notions you have about canned meat. The soft, sweet-bunned mini-sandwiches show mainlanders why Spam is practically its own food group on the islands. The meat is sliced and grilled, the edges crusted with char, and then slathered with Marination's signature Nunya sauce. Coleslaw completes the sandwich, offering a cooling, bland crunch to contrast with the overwhelmingly bold flavors of the rest of the slider.
Nasi Goreng at Kedai Makan
If fried rice brings to mind frozen peas and carrots afloat in a sea of white rice, it's time to check out Kedai Makan's Nasi Goreng. The Capitol Hill takeout window's execution of this Malaysian fried rice dish is pretty phenomenal, considering the minuscule space it comes out of. In the true spirit of Asian street food, everything here is cheap and fast, and there's nowhere to sit. The pro move is to bring Kedai Makan's food to gorge on at bar next door, Montana. Through some sort of tiny kitchen trickery, the egg stays perfectly cooked, even after the extra time in the takeout box; fried white, runny yolk, ready to spread out over the flavorful rice, which has an impressively even distribution of tofu and vegetables throughout, making each bite perfectly balanced.
Bún Chả Giò Thịt Nướng at Ben Thanh
In a city full of pho shops, this is a sleeper hit. Not only does Ben Thanh serve excellent pho; it also has an extensive menu of the usual Vietnamese hits and some rarer finds (eel, goat, alligator, or deer, anyone?). Among those usual hits is a Hanoi street food favorite, bún chả giò thịt nướng, a long name that means rice vermicelli noodles with spring rolls and grilled pork. They get as close to the blue-smoke char flavor of Vietnam's street grills as any restaurant here. Ambience is minimal in this Rainier Valley hole-in-the-wall, but the friendly service more than makes up for it—servers are patient enough to go through all the options on the menu, making suggestions and offering advice.
Foul at Café Selam
Foul is pronounced "fool"—as in what you are if you haven't tried this northeast African breakfast of fava beans sautéed in olive oil. The beans take on a stew-like consistency, dotted with tomatoes, onions, peppers, sliced hard-boiled eggs, and feta cheese. The cheese is tangy, the egg cool, and each makes an excellent partner for the rich, thick beans. At Café Selam, crusty French bread comes as both side dish and utensil to scoop the beans from bowl to mouth. This little hut of a restaurant in the Central District doesn't look like much—from the inside or the outside—but one bowl of foul and it won't matter where you're sitting. Just make sure to come early; it's a breakfast dish and sometimes isn't served after noon.
Le Pichet: Green Salad
Calling a salad a meal would normally go against both my personal beliefs and the spirit of a cheap eats article. But when you consider that this impeccable Parisian bistro will serve it with all of the excellent baguette and good butter you want, the green salad (bibb lettuce, hazelnuts, and the mustard dressing that all salad dressings aspire to be) is plenty of food. Le Pichet is the kind of place where time slows down during lunch. Maybe there's no need to rush back to work...and maybe you should order a glass of Lillet, too.
About the author: Naomi Bishop is a Seattle based food and travel writer. Find her wandering through words and worlds on her blog, TheGastroGnome, where she claims that being a GastroGnome is not about sitting idly on the front lawn of culinary cottages. Follow her explorations of cooking and culture around the world at @GastroGnome. Get restaurant suggestions and locate local eats in the Northwest from her app, Unique Eats of the Northwest.