May is a long month capped by a holiday weekend, so dining-out budgets can be tight. Cooking is out of the question; you still need to eat out. But you can't drop $50 every night. You need cheap eats.
However, it can't be obvious cheap eats. Discretion is required. No one need know you have a cash-flow crisis on your hands.
It can't reek cheap. That rules out taco joints, even the fancy gringo ones like Fuzzy's or Velvet Taco. And it rules out burgers, because no matter how much you dress them up with chipotle peppers or blue cheese, burgers are still just fast food.
No, instead it has to be a place where you can talk about how the food's spot-on, my man. Or the atmosphere — so distinctive. Or the drinks: amazing. And what's this you say? It's only $6.95? Who knew.
Veteran restaurateur Kay Agnew first moved to the Design District in 2009, well ahead of the curve. She has a lock on upscale Cajun/Creole food, from shrimp and grits to crawfish étouffée. But her salads — such as garden greens with fried chicken tenders — are big enough for a meal, and none is more than $10. By Design District standards, this is a bargain.
Ellen's Southern Kitchen
Making the West End cool again, Ellen's does Southern food and breakfast best. Although entrées can run up to $25, the menu features a number of options to dine on a dime; Joe's smoked mac and cheese, for example, is $8 and big enough for dinner. That's a small outlay in exchange for looking like a plugged-in urban hipster, instead of a dollar shopper. A nicely finished interior and full bar help extend the illusion.
If you're a Dallas gourmand, you know about the sandwiches at Jimmy's. Piled high with imported cured meats and cheese, they're silly-big; you can't eat one in a single sitting. As you can state authoritatively while chowing yours at one of the sidewalk tables, they're the stuff of legend. The Italian-market setting is so big-city, and after your sandwich, you can even get an espresso. Lest there be any confusion: If it were just a cheap sandwich you were after, you could go to Subway.
Theoretically, Kalachandji's could make every top 10 list ever created: best vegetarian, best patio, best buffet, best Indian fusion, best urban oasis, best restaurant at a Krishna temple — take your pick. The buffet includes rice, steamed veggies, curry, vegetable fritters, entrées such as lasagna and jambalaya, and the incomparable house-baked cinnamon-swirl bread. That it's an incredible bargain at $8.95 for lunch and $9.95 at dinner is almost incidental.
Nickel and Rye
Countless restaurants offer specials, but this newish Uptown restaurant-bar gets a special mention for reaching out to "unaccompanied" women on Tuesday nights by serving them half-off food and drinks. Unaccompanied women should get more breaks. But even without that perk, the prices are decent, with mussels, naan bread pizza and pastrami sliders all checking in under $12. As for the patio's catbird perch on McKinney Avenue: priceless.
Peak & Elm
Mexican food is almost always a bargain, and Mexican restaurateurs kindly keep it that way. From there, it gets down to how much you like the food and atmosphere, and what the situation is with the margaritas. Peak & Elm's owner Jesse Moreno and his father Jesse Senior serve up a mean plate of tamales (their signature), in an intimate, carefully restored vintage building, for $9.50. Since they opened in 2012, they've been serving complimentary margaritas, but they're about to get their liquor license. Drink up!
The experienced penny-pincher knows that many a dining deal can be had by driving outside the loop and exploring the plethora of ethnic restaurants. Such an excursion can be sold to one's date or friends as a "foodie adventure." But few bring the swank like Pho Chateau. Its spicy filet mignon pho with rich "Chateau broth" is exceptional; its salt-and-pepper fried tofu is divine. But it's the stunning interior by renowned JonesBaker Design that'll make 'em forget you got them to drive (and saved money on gas!).
Qariah more than capably fills the Middle Eastern niche on Lower Greenville left open when Ali Baba moved away. It has a lunch buffet that lets you get out for about $10 with tax; there is also a whole category of $10 sandwiches in which you get your choice of side. The BYOB policy keeps things cheap, and there's a fabulous patio that on its own is worth any price.
Stephan Pyles' homage to Texas has a menu that can run as high as $42 for a rib-eye with green bean casserole. But on the opposite end is an assortment of tacos for $4 each, in options such as fried oyster and brisket. You can rub shoulders with Stampede's groovy crowd, soak up the glitzy atmosphere — and none will be the wiser that you got away with dinner for under $10.
Zoli's NY Pizza Tavern
You don't go to Zoli's because you're a cheapskate. You go because you're a connoisseur of pizza in all its many forms. You've been to New York, see. You know what a slice joint is all about. You go because you can choose from three different styles of pizza in one location, all superbly executed: regular Italian; thicker Grandma; and the crunchy, extra-thick Sicilian. That you can also eat for $5 is merely extra cheese on your pizza.
Want more stories like these? Click the Where To Eat banner at the top to see the rest of the series.