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Eat Lunch Cheaply in Downtown Boston

October 22, 2009
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Now that I’m commuting daily to downtown Boston, with a break just short enough to make it silly to return home for lunch, I have been faced with the challenge of eating cheaply in the area least likely to find frugal eats. But, it can be done, and even without reverting to fast-food and cheap chain restaurants. The trick is to wander down the side streets, away from the areas most frequented by tourists. Most of these can be found in Downtown Crossing and can easily fill you up for under $10.

1. Viga’s often has a line of people out the door because they know they can get a full meal for only $6 with Viga’s Values. Choose from a slice of pizza or a pasta dish with salad and a drink, or a 1/2 sandwich, chips, cookie and a drink. There isn’t any room to sit, so plan a visit on a nice day when you can carry your meal to the gardens to eat.

2. Zo made, without a doubt, the best gyro I have ever eaten. Choose from pork or chicken for $7 and they’re carve it right in front of you. The flatbread is warm, the veggies fresh and the tzatziki sauce is amazing. They also have vegetarian options. Tip: take a lot of napkins.

3. Chacarero offers a unique option with their signature Chilean sandwich. This traditional meal starts with warm bread (baked daily) smeared with an avocado spread and piled with your choice of grilled chicken or steak (or both). Next comes a handful of green beans, some Meunster cheese, fresh tomatoes and a secret hot sauce recipe. This unexpected combination was delicious, and it had just enough of a kick to make it interesting (although I suspect they went easy on me). A small sandwich, which is plenty – trust me – is $7.

4. Since Vietnamese food seems to be the Asian Cusine Du Jour, it can be difficult to find a cheap restaurant. Xinh Xinh serves up the basics at a reasonable price. A huge bowl of soup averages around $6 and even their rice entrees don’t break $7. Compare that to Pho Pasteur right around the corner, which is selling the same food for $1 or $2 more.

5. If you’re in the mood for quick Italian food, try Al Capone’s. They sell hearty subs and pasta dishes at an affordable price, without sacrificing quality. Their regular menu isn’t anywhere near outrageous, but their specials are almost too good to be true. When I went, the deal was a 6 inch sub of your choice with Cape Cod chips and a soda for $6. Not too shabby.

6. Now, it’s pretty much impossible to find an expensive meal in Chinatown, but good luck finding one as cheap as at Potluck Cafe. If the sign declaring their special of 3 entrees, rice and soup for $5 wasn’t enough to lure you in, be comforted by the fact that I was the only white person in there (always a good sigh for Chinatown establishments). There weren’t any signs signifying what dish was what, but that was part of the fun. I pointed at the mussels, sesame chicken and what appeared to be tomatoes with scrambled eggs. There was only one choice for the soup, unfortunately, because it looked like ocean in a bowl (and tasted like it too). The rest of the food, however, was very tasty, and I even had enough for leftovers. To be honest, I kept waiting to get sick from it, but I made it through the day without even a whisper in my tummy. (For another cheap Chinese restaurant, try Golden Gate.)

7. I urge you to try out Deli One at least once, just for the experience. It felt like I was eating in my grandparents’ kitchen…if my grandparents were very, very Greek. I was drawn in by the menu of meals that didn’t exceed $8. What I really wanted was the turkey meal, but the man behind the counter gave me a sad look telling me they were out. The following conversation ensued:

“We don’t have anymore turkey. You try meatloaf, you’ll like it.” He starts to heap slabs of meatloaf doused with gravy on the plate with a pile of mashed potatoes and green beans.

“Ok…I’ll have the meatloaf…”

“Is this your first time here? Where you from? Are you Greek?”

“Oh, no I’m mostly Russian.”

“You look Greek. Are you sure?”

“I am…”

“Are you a nice Orthodox Catholic girl?”

(Besides not being used to the idea of discussing religion wit strangers, this was extra uncomfortable seeing as how the religion I’m most closely associated with is Reformed Jewish.)

“…no.”

Besides that bit of weirdness, he was extremely attentive and friendly, and sent me out the door with leftovers saying “you come back!” Now, that’s an order, not a request.

8. For authentic Mexican food, go to Maria’s Taqueria, where you can get an enormous burrito for $6.50, chock full of meat of your choice, beans, rice, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, hot sauce and pico de gallo. Another Mexican option is Boloco. Be sure to get one of their cards which gets you free food after a certain amount of points earned or other special occasions, like your birthday! (Their smoothies are delicious too.)

9. A healthier alternative is UFood Grill. They serve a number of grill items, salads and smoothies that are good for you and are priced competitively against their fast-food counterparts. Nothing is fried, the breads are whole-wheat, the dressings are “lite” and there aren’t any trans fats. They also have plentiful vegetarian options. I got a cheeseburger meal (with fries and a drink) for $8.

10. And if you’re ever just wanting a good ol’ deli sandwich, try out Lambert’s Marketplace. They offer a long list of tasty sandwiches (and they’re all topically named, don’t you love that?) that are made with the best of ingredients. The amount of options was almost overwhelming, but I ended up with the Mass. Ave (turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mayo) with their special that came with a fresh baked gigantic cookie and Pepsi product for $9. I settled into one of the tables by the window and looked out on the Common as I ate, leaving with a whole half for lunch the next day. (Note: I’d stay away from their small grocery section, seeing as how the chocolates on display were clearly stale, so who knows how long everything’s been sitting out.)

And there you have just a small sampling of how easy it can be to eat cheaply if you try. I’m sure there are plenty more options to share but you can only eat lunch once a day, people, so bear with me.

Originally written October 5, 2009

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