Inflation is rising to a 13-year high. Gas prices are inching closer to the $5 mark. There is nothing but bad news out there for our finances.
With that in mind, here’s a list of this food critic’s favorite places to get great, satisfying meals for $8 or less in Orange County. Use it as a refuge from those forbidding headlines to eat well but within your budget without resorting to McDonald’s Dollar Menu. But do it quickly! The prices reported are current as of this writing, but who knows what they will be in the next month.
Cubbon Street and S. Main Street, Santa Ana
$8 for their famous taco acorazado.
In 2009 Gustavo Arellano, my former editor at OC Weekly and current LA Times columnist, took me to Alebrije’s, the food truck that is now practically synonymous for their tacos acorazados (a.k.a. “Battleship tacos”). Things have changed since then. The owner upgraded to a tricked-out truck complete with a sound-system and LED marquee. And although the price for the signature dish has crept up little by little during the intervening years to its current rate of $8, the portion size actually seems to have doubled since the first time I had it 12 years ago.
If you don’t believe me, you can compare what you get now to the picture I took of my 2009 meal. The photo is on the side of the truck. But the $8 you pay in cash (which already includes tax) will be the best $8 you’ll spend on a taco.
A taco acorazado, by the way, is only a taco by name. It’s more of a knife-and-fork meal, consisting of a thin chicken fried steak and Spanish rice that happen to be served atop a thick, hand-pressed tortilla and garnished with grilled cactus, seared peppers, avocado, onions, tomato, and crumbled cheese. If a regular taco is a canoe; this would truly be a battleship.
BAJA FISH TACOS
3664 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana
$7.50 for a single enchilada combo plate.
If you go to Baja Fish Tacos you won’t see the single enchilada combo plate on the menu. It’s not advertised. Though not quite a secret item like In-N-Out’s Animal-style fries, one enchilada is all you need for a good meal, especially if you opt for the excellent fire-grilled carne asada as the filling.
It’s essentially like eating a good steak for $7.50. But no matter what protein you choose, Baja Fish Tacos’ enchiladas are proper enchiladas, draped in red sauce and smothered under a thin veneer of cheese melted under a broiler until all is bubbly and oozy. Flanking it on the plate, the rice and beans aren’t just supporting players. The beans are so blubbery they’re almost soup and the rice is flavorful and buttery. Both are already worth the sticker price.
1632 E. Katella Ave., Orange
California Rolls and other basic rolls for $3.99.
As a rule, you can’t use “good” and “cheap” simultaneously to describe “sushi”. Then a place like Heemo Sushi comes along and upends the rule. During what seems an indefinite half-off sale on all its sushi that lasts to this day, Heemo proves there is such a thing as “good cheap sushi”.
You can gorge yourself on the premium rolls with fanciful names like “Hot Night” that would otherwise cost a small fortune elsewhere, but the best deals are the basic rolls offered at $3.99. Pick anything from a sweet scallop roll to a crispy salmon skin roll, and of course, the always dependable California roll. Get two orders for a satisfying sushi meal that’s, yes, both good and cheap.
14230 Culver Drive, Irvine (949) 653-1443
$8 pork cutlet curry with rice.
Mitsuwa Marketplace isn’t the cheapest of grocery stores, so it might surprise you that it hosts one of the most reasonably priced food stalls in its Irvine food court.
At first glance, Misasa seems a prototypical Japanese food vendor complete with a display of plastic versions of all its menu items. But the offer of a bonafide pork katsu curry for only $8 is not prototypical. Across town at Curry House CoCo Ichibanya, you’d pay $11 for the same dish.
Misasa’s lower price gets you the same experience: soft and tender rectangles of crispy breaded pork; plenty of rice; and most importantly, the curry gravy, a flavorful sludge where sweetness, richness, and spice exist in a perfect balance, but also a perfect price.
17225 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley
Monday Special: 2 tacos and an agua fresca for $8.
It doesn’t have the alliteration of Taco Tuesday, but Mondays are the time to go to Sabrosada for their $8 two-tacos-and-a-drink special. Stuffed with either seasoned ground beef, or a ruddy stewed chicken that normally goes inside their enchiladas, these aren’t the diminutive tacos that are gone in a single bite.
Rather they’re hard-shelled half-moons the size of your face. Overflowing with shredded lettuce and tangy Mexican cheese, you’ll need to use a fork at some point. These tacos have a tendency to fall apart under their own weight. To wash them down, get the horchata or the pina agua fresca for your drink. When you finish, you’ll be full enough to skip Taco Tuesday.
15455 Jeffrey Road, Ste 315, Irvine
$5.50 Monday special for pad thai & $5.50 Thursday special for pad kra pow.
The vagaries of the restaurant business (and the COVID-19 shutdowns) have dwindled the once mighty Thai Spice empire from four OC locations to just one. But one is all you need, especially when it offers one of the best deals on this list: a $5.50 pad Thai special on Mondays and a $5.50 pad kra pow (basil chicken over rice) on Thursdays.
To qualify for the price, you must order on their website and enter a coupon code that’s specified there. Regardless of the discount, ordering online is the way to go — it’s easier to customize your dish and during the dinner rush, it’s nearly impossible to get through on the phone.
A warning though: the pad kra pow special ends at exactly 5 p.m. on Thursdays, while the Monday pad Thai special lasts practically all night. Also be warned that the “Medium”-level of spice here is considered “Hot” elsewhere, so it’s best to be conservative when specifying how spicy you want it. Otherwise, you’ll need to spend the money you saved on some Pepto Bismol.
WAHOO’S FISH TACO
715 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine
401 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
One enchilada plate with rice and beans $7.69. Download the Retail Therapy app for a buy-one-get-one free offer.
Wahoo’s Fish Taco’s $7.69 enchilada plate shows it’s not impossible to pay less than $10 for a satisfying restaurant meal at Irvine Spectrum or Fashion Island. It comes with rice and beans, and an enchilada filled with one of the protein options, including tender carne asada and succulent carnitas.
But as reasonably priced as it already is, it can be had for even cheaper. Download the Irvine Company’s Retail Therapy app for a buy-one-get-one-free coupon that only works at these two locations. Then congratulate your frugality further by loading up at the free salsa bar, or better yet, ask for the Mr. Lee chili paste. It’s not a salsa, but an Indonesian-style sambal of an unparalleled complexity, flavor and depth — the best condiment you’ll slather on one of the cheapest meals from a quasi-Mexican restaurant in Orange County.
18040 Culver Drive, Irvine
Friday special: $7.99 for koobideh plate.
Wholesome Choice may sound like Whole Foods, but the two supermarkets couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. One is a fiercely independent Persian grocer with a single location and the other is owned by Jeff Bezos. The biggest difference is at the register, where you pay a pauper’s price instead of billionaire’s for the same amount of fresh produce.
And then there’s Wholesome Choice’s international food court, of which Whole Foods has no analog. And if you go to the Persian food counter on a Friday you’ll discover the koobideh plate.
You get your choice of a foot-long tube of fire-roasted seasoned ground chicken or beef, served over an avalanche of steamed Persian rice with a charred tomato for $7.99 – which, I don’t have to tell you, is much more filling than Whole Foods’ infamous $6 “asparagus water.”
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