Oakland's Best Cheap Eats: 18 Great Bites Under $5

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Oakland is half the size of San Francisco, but its cheap food offerings are far better. [Photographs: Maggie Hoffman]

Oakland's food scene has stepped it up to become a very serious rival to the bigger city across the Bay. Much of this is chef-driven, locavore fare, in the form of cozy neighborhood restaurants and packed destination dining. But when it comes to cheap eats, there's no comparison: Oakland's budget food scene beats San Francisco's offerings across the board.

What can you eat for under five bucks (before tax) in Oakland? Honestly, there's something on just about every block. (Finding seriously cheap food in San Francisco proves to be a bit more of a challenge.) We got on the BART and ate for days, focusing on savory bites that were especially satisfying—more than just a handful of popcorn or a well-made cookie.* What we found was awesome: soulful Mexican comfort food, complex Sichuan creations, killer bánh mì, and of course, more than a few excellent tacos.

Here's the best of what we tasted, organized by neighborhood.

*A note: all of these spots are reachable by public transportation (specifically, BART, aka Bay Area Rapid Transit), but a car is definitely useful if you have access to one.

Old Oakland, Downtown, and Chinatown

Comforting, Hangover-Friendly Fare: La Boriquena Mexicatessen

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La Boriquena is the perfect spot for a quick work-day lunch, but we'll be leaning on it more as a weekend hangover cure. In addition to the no-frills sit-down restaurant, the family-run 'Mexicatessen' doubles as a bakery and grocery. We fell hard for the hearty, hefty pork tamale ($1.99, $2.29 with gravy) loaded with juicy, well-seasoned meat and rich with tender, fresh-tasting masa. Go for the gravy add-on—the red sauce tastes like a Mexican-spiced version of a savory marinara sauce (the kind good enough to eat with a spoon). It's not spicy, but doesn't need heat to be flavorful and delicious. One of these babies makes for a fine meal; order two and a post-tamale nap may be required.

We also loved the chile relleno ($4.49, includes tortillas), hangover food that's as tasty as it is curative. The silken, mild green pepper is loaded with melting Jack cheese, a nice balance of milky and salty, and accompanied with a pile of warm tortillas. A good dousing with the same red gravy as the tamale doesn't hurt things one bit; this is a tasty (and filling) enough dish that you really don't need a night of overindulgence to justify ordering it.

The Best Jook In Town: Gum Wah Restaurant

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Speaking of hangover-friendly food that's good enough for days when no recovery is required, the rice porridge, or jook, at Gum Wah Restaurant in Chinatown is one of the best we've ever had. We opted for the pork and preserved egg toppings ($3.95) out of a list of 15-plus varieties, and were deeply impressed with the massive, steaming bowl of perfectly textured porridge. Warming, creamy, and smooth, the porridge isn't at all overcooked and has a lush simmered-stock depth; tasting more meaty than you'd expect from the scattering of pork bits. Century eggs add even more gooey, earthy richness. A scattering of cilantro, scallions, and ginger lend freshness and crunch. While the entire bowl is well-seasoned, a spoonful of roasty chili oil is a worthy addition for spicy food-lovers.

Cold and Spicy Dishes for a Hot Day: Spices 3

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We fell in love with Spices 3 when we first explored Oakland's Chinatown, and are pleased to report that things there are delicious (and spicy) as ever. They offer an ample selection of cold starters, all well-portioned and many priced at a very budget-friendly $3 to $5 range. We tried and loved both the calamari in mustard sauce ($4.95), a pile of chewy-but-tender, fresh tasting calamari (it's steamed with wasabi), tossed with savory bamboo and doused in a sinus-clearing spicy mustard oil. The cooling powers of spicy dishes are demonstrated in the thick bean paste salad noodle ($4.25), a bowl of glossy rectangles of mung bean paste, firm but flexible and springy, doused in a fantastically funky sauce of fermented black beans, dried chilies, and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. A handful of salty, crunchy peanuts provides a little respite from the heat, plus a nice textural contrast.

A Rice Noodle Roll Snack: Gum Kuo Restaurant

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Tucked away in a small courtyard in Chinatown, Gum Kuo is a fine place to sample rice noodle rolls for a light lunch or snack. We enjoyed the green onion and chive rice noodle roll ($3.50)—the light, fresh filling was all crunch and delicate onion flavor, dressed in a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds and a delicate, brothy soy sauce. The rice noodle roll itself was soft but managed to be more melty than gummy—these are delicate beasts, best eaten at the restaurant rather than further steamed in a to-go container.

North Oakland, Rockridge, and Temescal

Awesome Pizza-By-The-Slice: Nick's Pizza of Oakland

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We would give a lot for Nick's to be our local pizza joint. The small, charming operation has some serious pastry and bread-baking cred—Nick Yapor-Cox worked as a pastry chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York and cut his pizza-making teeth locally at Arizmendi. His "Oakland-style" pies reflect that skill—the crust's texture is wonderful, with a slightly charred exterior, tender interior, and delicate sourdough flavor. It would be well worth eating, sans-toppings, but those are worth serious attention, too. We loved the tarte flambée slice ($3), topped with caramelized red onion, Laura Chenel goat cheese, mozzarella, and meaty chunks of bacon from Seaboard Foods. The salty-sweet-smoky flavor combination exerts itself in each bite. Nick's specializes in whole pies, but has a number of slice options daily—when we visited, you could snag Kenji-approved cheese or pepperoni, plus vegetarian-friendly slices topped with spinach and mushroom or roasted eggplant and pesto.

Killer Take-Out Tamales: Tamales Unicos de Cuernavaca

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This is the zero-frills tamale joint that dreams are made of. Tamales Unicos de Cuernavaca is little more than a take-out window, with a menu of tacos, burritos, and of course, tamales. We opted for one filled with pork and another with vegetables ($2.50 each)—the sizeable tamales are handed over steaming-hot in a plastic bag. Eat them while walking, rush them home, or eat them on the hood of your car, as we did—these are damn good tamales, and will taste good just about anywhere. We'd skip the veg option next time and opt for pork—it's packed with a generous amount of tender, shredded meat, well-seasoned and thoroughly juicy.

Bright and Fresh Fish Tacos: Cholita Linda

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A fish taco is a fickle thing with ample room for error—the fish can be mushy and flavorless, the crust can be soggy, the toppings heavy and underwhelming. So, when we say that the Baja fish tacos ($3.50 each) at Cholita Linda in Temescal are spot-on, it's because we believe that they nail every single one of those factors. The fish (tilapia when we visited) is fried shatter-crisp and has just the right amount of crust—the fish itself is well-seasoned, salty, and not the least bit swampy. And the toppings achieve the right balance of texture and flavor contrasts—a refreshing, citrus-laced cabbage slaw and sliced radishes add brightness and crunch; salsa roja lends acid and a fiery blast of heat; while a restrained squirt of crema adds a nice dose of richness. Expect this to get a little messy, but don't let that dissuade you.

A Great Breakfast Sandwich: Beauty's Bagels

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Beauty's Montreal-style bagels are a bright spot in an admittedly bleak bagel landscape, and their shop is a nice stop for a delicious, inexpensive breakfast. Go with the egg and cheddar bagel sandwich ($4.50), featuring a folded omelet of tender, freshly cooked eggs laced with molten Clover cheddar cheese, spilling from the bagel's sides. The eggs are wonderfully buttery, and the bagels themselves are fresh-tasting, nicely chewy, and not too sweet, with burnished crusts and dense coats of toppings.

Egg and cheese is the most meal-like option, but you can find plenty of topping combinations that clock in under $5—hummus plus pickled red onion and avocado would make a fine sandwich, though we'd be hard-pressed to pass up those eggs on a return visit.

East Oakland and Fruitvale

Top-Notch Bánh Mì: Bánh Mì Ba Le

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This may not be the first time that we've fallen hard for a sandwich, but the fantastic bánh mì at Ba Le in Fruitvale has been haunting our dreams for weeks. (In contrast, a visit to ever-popular Cam Huong left us underwhelmed.) At Ba Le, the meaty, amply stuffed sandwiches are flavorful, balanced, and massive; a proper meal for around $3. The grilled pork with lemongrass ($3) was lightly sweet and featured a hearty amount of meat;but even better was the meatball and egg ($3.50). The sweet, porky meatball is spread across the roll like loose sausage, lusciously coated by the just-runny fried egg yolk (which featured crispy, lace-like edges, too). The richness is cut with crunchy vegetables, including spears of cucumber, pickled daikon, and delicately sliced jalapeno. The bread, too, is on point (crackly, crunchy exterior; airy crumb within), and is spread with just enough mayonnaise to unify the ingredients.

Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cabeza Tacos: Taqueria Sinaloa

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Taqueria Sinaloa is one of the famed taco establishments lining International Boulevard in Fruitvale, and for our money, it has some of the best tacos in town. The setting, featuring two trucks, ample sunshine, and shaded seating makes this a taco truck experience that allows you to linger for a while; the excellent tacos will ensure that you'll want to. The runaway star here is the cabeza ($1.50 each), roasted beef head meat (here it's mostly cheek) slow-cooked to a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. The meat is juicy, hearty, and short rib-like in richness and texture. Of course, meat of this caliber deserves a worthy vehicle, and Sinaloa's corn tortillas don't disappoint. They're reheated to a tender pliancy, yet stand up to the onslaught of meat juice that quickly gushes from the first bite. Tacos are simply topped with onion, cilantro and a bright, spicy salsa, and served with pickled carrots, jalapeno, and a wedge of lemon.

Made-to-Order Pupusas: Los Cocos Salvadoran Restaurant

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We're not sure it's possible to have a bad pupusa—after all, griddle-crisped masa filled with cheese and other stuffings has that pizza-like, tastes-good-even-when-it's-bad quality. But truly great pupusas, like the ones at Los Cocos ($2.25-$2.75), are thing of incomparable beauty. They're made by hand when you order (and you can watch the process in the open kitchen just beyond your table), yielding tender, never tough results. It's the filling-to-masa ratio that really makes these exceptional: the dough is stretched paper-thin, and fillings (which include cheese, vegetables, meat, and combinations of the three) are spread to the very edge of the pupusa, spilling out enthusiastically from the well-toasted exterior.

There's not a bad pupusa at Los Cocos, but we particularly loved the plain cheese, which was molten and pleasantly salty; the bean and cheese, rich with hearty, creamy beans; and the bean, cheese, and chicharrones, which had the benefit a little porky richness and flavor. All pupusas come with a bowl of crunchy, slightly sour curtido to cut the richness. Take note, there is a two pupusa per person order minimum, though you can mix and match your fillings.

Dreamy Carnitas: Tacos El Novillo

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We can't stop thinking about the tacos at the Tacos El Novillo truck, parked behind Guadalajara Restaurant across the street from the Fruitvale BART station. The carnitas tacos ($1.50 each) are the winning order—the meat has the ideal combination of crisp-fried edges, and juicy, deeply flavored shoulder meat within. It's also perfectly salted, to the point that salsa isn't necessary for a full-flavored bite (though both red and green salsas are available at the pick up window). The tortilla was the best we had in Oakland: it gets a hint of golden crust from its time on the griddle, and has a pliant, wonderfully dense texture overall.

Fresh Ceviche: Mariscos La Costa

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Prepare to be transported straight to Nayarit with a meal at Mariscos -- the outdoor restaurant has a take-out window, picnic bench seating, and a decided beachside vibe. The menu speaks to this, too, with ample selections of fresh fish in the form of ceviche, seafood cocktails, and aguachile. We were excited to find sizeable ceviche tostadas—the tostada ceviche camaron ($3.50) comes piled with a hearty portion of raw shrimp tossed with tomato, red onion, and lime juice. The shrimp is snappy and fresh (there's no pungent fishiness to be found here), and well balanced with crunchy vegetables. The overall effect is refreshing and slightly sweet—this would make for a great light lunch or snack on a sunny day.

Stellar Tacos Al Pastor: El Grullo Taqueria

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This modest taqueria reaffirms for us the magic of al pastor done right. The al pastor taco ($1.50 each) featured melty, crisp-edged pork with an rich caramelized flavor—you get a bright tanginess from the pineapple marinade, countered with simple, salty richness from the meat itself. All of this is further amplified by a scattering of sweet, fat-sauteed onion, and balanced with a pour of bright, spicy tomato-based salsa. It's wrapped in a nicely supple, properly warmed tortilla, too, adding an earthy, corn-forward flavor to the package.

West Oakland

Happy Hour Drinks and Bites: FuseBOX

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We're a little obsessed with FuseBOX, a totally charming Korean-inspired restaurant in West Oakland complete with communal tables, ample outdoor seating, and a fire pit. We're particularly into their excellent happy hour (3:30 to 5:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday) which features a large selection of delicious, well priced snacks and drinks. The heartiest option by far is a combination of KFC (Korean fried chicken wings) and a draft beer for $8—the beer is priced at $4 for happy hour, meaning you get a half dozen wings for $4, glazed with a garlicky sauce that offers a nice amount of heat and the barest touch of sweetness. The meaty wings have an excellent, crisp rice-flour crust (it's thick, but not heavy, and crackles under your teeth).

There are grilled veggie skewers, too—the best of which are pickled mushrooms—but don't miss the pig-ear fries ($3.50)—thinly sliced deep-fried ears with nicely rendered fat, a good balance of fatty and crisp bites, brightened up with a dip in a sauce made with spicy Korean hot mustard and funky fish sauce.