San Diego can be an expensive city to live in (or visit), but with a little ingenuity, eating well on a tight budget is easy, whether you crave comfort food like killer mac and cheese, or international fare, like Thai curry or Vietnamese noodles. For the most part, the best bargains are found outside of the touristy areas, but even within these enclaves, you can eat well on a modest investment. Scroll on to see 10 of the best cheap eats the city has to offer.
Panang Curry at Sab-E-Lee
I've consumed at least 100 orders of panang curry ($9.00 with a side of rice) from Sab-E-Lee over the past four years. The curry is rich, with a luxurious, creamy texture similar to gravy, and a sweet, fiery heat that instantly spikes endorphin levels. You can get it with beef, pork, chicken, duck, shrimp, seafood, mixed vegetables, tofu, or mock duck. I typically go for chicken, but have found it doesn't make much of a difference. This dish is all about the sauce; the meat is more of a protein filler. Other solid options include charbroiled pork or beef ($7.25), pork larb ($7.25), drunken noodles ($7.25), and papaya salad ($6.95).
The restaurant is located in a run-down strip mall and has a tiny footprint—12 tables crowded into a space the size of a suburban living room—but don't let that deter you. It's clean, service is friendly and efficient, and this is some of the most dependably delicious Thai food I've had anywhere.
One thing to keep in mind is that Sab-E-Lee serves Issan (Northeastern) Thai food, which tends to be spicier and more pungent than other regional varieties. I order most dishes at level 3 out of 10, which is plenty hot. If you're at all concerned about scorching yourself, order a Thai iced tea or coffee ($2.00) as a preventative measure.
S&C Mac at Salt & Cleaver
When Salt & Cleaver opened a year ago, it was all about links and beer. Now, there is so much more to love, like sausage burgers, loaded fries, sandwiches, and innovative salads. I'm partial to the S&C mac ($7), a decadent dish of shell pasta bathed in a silky white cheddar cheese sauce, topped with garlicky gremolata and served with butter-soaked, grilled bread. If you're leaning more toward sausage, try the chicken-mango (mango-infused chicken sausage, citrus-mango slaw, and charred spicy serrano purée, $9). The parm & garlic fries (with garlic, shallots, parsley, lemon, black pepper, and grated parmesan, $7) are awesome, and yes...you're going to need a beer. Fortunately, the tap list is thoughtfully curated and reasonably priced.
Barbecue Pork Bún at Pho Cow Cali Express
Have your pho if you must (the restaurant does a more than capable job), but if you're open to suggestion, my go-to here is the barbecue pork and egg roll bún ($7.35). Really, it's my go-to at every Vietnamese restaurant; Pho Cow Cali just happens to do it best (and biggest). Packed into that big black bowl nearly to the rim is a whack of warm vermicelli noodles, crisp fresh vegetables and herbs, peanuts, and the two star components: juicy strips of pork and deep-fried rice paper rolls. The pork is fatty in places, with a tangy-spicy-sweet-smoky-charred flavor unmatched by any other restaurant I've tried. Douse it with sriracha and nuoc cham, and get comfortable...you'll be at it for a long time before your chopsticks hit bottom.
Carne Asada Fries at Lolita's
Carne asada fries are a San Diego invention, and Lolita's is where you want to get them. For $6, you can get a hefty portion of thin, crisp french fries heaped with juicy strips of steak, Cotija and cheddar cheese, guacamole, and Mexican crema. The small size (pictured above) is typically enough to share, unless you're eating late and are under the influence of an appetite-increasing (and judgment inhibiting) substance. If you need more, the large ($9) is there for you. Or, get your carne asada fix in taco ($3.25), burrito ($5.50), chimichanga ($6.50), quesadilla ($5.75), or torta ($5.50) form.
Pad Prik King Pork at J&T Thai Street Food
J&T Thai is another solid option for Thai food. This casual spot near The University of San Diego has everything from the usual suspects (pad thai, curries, and fried rice), to more unique dishes like duck noodle soup ($8), with juicy strips of duck and thin noodles swimming in a fragrant broth spiked with cinnamon, star anise, and sichuan pepper.
I've eaten my way through the majority of the menu and have never hit a dish that's a dud, but two of my favorites are pad prik king pork (thin ribbons of pork stir-fried with hot and spicy chili paste and a heap of crunchy green beans, $7.50), and steamed chicken rice ($7.50), served with white or brown rice, sliced cucumbers, and a big bowl of chicken broth.
Most dishes can be made using a 1-10 spicy scale. Somewhere between 3-5 is a good starting point, especially with dishes that are already inherently spicy. Save enough room for a blueberry fritter from Rose Donuts, located a few doors down. If you're not lucky enough to nab one, the standard varieties are also delicious.
Döner Box at The Kebab Shop
The Kebab Shop bills itself as "California Mediterranean with a European Turkish influence" but there are only two words you need to remember: döner box. It works like this: choose a starch (rice or french fries), a protein (rotisserie lamb/beef, rotisserie chicken, beef köfte, chicken kebab, Moroccan shrimp, or salmon), and sauce (garlic yogurt, spicy, or dill), and they'll load up a take-out box with your selections, along with salad mix and fresh vegetables. The options for further customization are endless. You can add hummus or feta, mix proteins, or swap out meat for falafel or one of the shop's prepared salads.
My favorite arrangement is rice and chicken with added spicy hummus and feta, no onions, and dill dressing ($8.49). It's just the right mix of spicy, creamy, and savory.
#8 Combo at Punjabi Tandoor
Punjabi Tandoor is the textbook definition of a hidden gem. Located in the back corner of a business park, it isn't visible from any major road. There's not much ambience, but the tables outside are clean and comfortable and it's completely worth the drive from anywhere to score a #8 combo ($9.99), a ridiculously generous feast of creamy chicken makhani, chicken curry, three vegetable curries (varieties rotate), rice, fresh naan, a huge veggie samosa, and a small cup of kheer.
All of the combo meals are served out of the steam table by the cash register (so there's almost never a long wait), but there's also an à la carte menu with a wider variety of options, including lamb curries, seafood curries, and "tandoori delicacies." Honestly, I've never bothered because the #8 combo has everything I really want. Tip: if you ask nicely, they'll douse your samosa in chickpeas, curry, and chutney.
Small Bites at Soda & Swine
This temple of munchies stocks all sorts of sweet and savory temptations, from meatball burgers ($8) and sliders ($3) to apple pie with soft serve ($5). You can eat healthy things like spiced chick peas ($2) or apple salad ($4) but I'm stuck on the cheesy, fried things, like skin-on, hand-cut, twice-cooked french fries with ridiculously addictive malt vinegar aioli ($3), cheese-stuffed fried pizza knots with tangy marinara dipping sauce ($5), and mac and cheese with aged cheddar and crème fraîche ($4). Two sides makes a good-sized meal, and only one of the 14 different options is over $5.
Khachapuri at Kafe Sobaka Restoran Pomegranate
Pomegranate isn't a prime destination if your first priority is to stick to a strict budget. At dinnertime, opening your mind (and wallet) to debaucherous levels of gluttony is greatly rewarded...but if you go at lunchtime with a more modest appetite, a khachapuri ($8.50) makes a delicious meal. Butter, feta, mozzarella, and an egg are wrapped up in the center of the crunchy, canoe-shaped bread. Swirl up the yolk and let it sit for a minute before you dive in (it's served right out of the oven). To drink, order a bottle of Old #3 Hot Blenheim Ginger Ale ($4.50) served with a frosted beer stein. It's potent, spicy, and sinus-clearing.
Build-Your-Own Sandwiches at Rubicon Deli
Most sandwich shops don't bake their own bread fresh, on site. Rubicon Deli does, and it's no ordinary bread; it's soft and squishy football-sized loaves of it, sprinkled with cheese, garlic, and jalapeños. Choose a pre-designed sandwich, like the Rubicon Special (turkey, smoked gouda, roasted red peppers, lettuce, and pesto mayo, $6.49) or custom-build your own, loading up your choice of bread (wheat, pesto, jalapeño jack, dutch crunch, garlic cheese, bleu cheese, or gluten-free rosemary focaccia), with meat, cheese, fancy spreads, and veggies for $6.99. My all-time favorite is jalapeño jack bread, turkey, jack cheese, pickles, pepperoncini, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle mayo.
The prices quoted above are for a half sandwich (which is more than enough!) but if you can broker a deal with a friend, you'll save a few bucks by splitting a full-size. Tip: the Mission Beach location (where the bread is baked) is the better pick of the two. I've had lackluster bread at the Mission Hills location more than once.