With food prices at all-time highs due to inflation and supply chain disruptions, it can be challenging to find a budget-friendly meal. Even some fast-food prices can be jaw-dropping these days. At these 10 spots, however, you can eat cheap but superior fare. From hearty breakfasts to good old-fashioned barbecue, and from street tacos to jambalaya, these restaurants, including some mom-and-pop shops, won’t break the bank but will make your taste buds dance.
1. Nudo House
The pho and ramen, which range from $13 to $15, are legendary in this modern, pan-Asian restaurant with 2 St. Louis locations, but the bánh mì are the real bargain bites. The Nudo Bánh Mì ($6) features slow-braised pork shoulder tucked inside a French baguette with a crispy exterior and an airy interior. Each sandwich comes dressed with a smear of house-made chicken liver pâté, house-made mayo, jalapeño, crisp cucumber, pickled carrots, and fragrant fresh cilantro.
The Bánh Mì Pho Dip ($8) is Nudo House’s take on a French dip sandwich. After braising for hours in pho, the beef takes on the rich broth flavor. It’s served with the aforementioned bánh mì garnishes, hoisin sauce, and pho broth for dipping. Every batch of pho starts with 100 pounds of bones and simmers for 24 hours.
Chef Marie-Anne Velasco co-owns the restaurant with chef Qui Tran, whose family opened the St. Louis area’s first Vietnamese restaurant, Mai Lee, in the mid-1980s. Both have trained with Japanese ramen master Shigetoshi Nakamura in New York City. They decided on the whimsical name as they planned the restaurant concept. “At the time I had a 2-year-old, and he came with me everywhere to do the recipe testing and called it ‘nudo, nudo,’ and that is why we called the restaurant Nudo,” explained Velasco. Creve Coeur location closed Sundays; Delmar location closed Mondays.
2. Jose Locos
Jose Locos is always bustling, especially on Taco Tuesday when you can score $2 chicken or beef tacos. Throughout the week, lunch specials attract throngs of hungry, cost-conscious diners with nearly 2 dozen meals listed at $11.49. Not many places serve sizzling chicken or beef fajitas for that price.
Among the lunch hits is the combination plate featuring an enchilada, a flauta, and a taco with guacamole salad. And the savory chimichanga with rice, refried beans, and salad keeps you satisfied all day long. Lunch specials are served from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The enormous dinner menu features 13 types of burritos, 12 fajita choices, and 7 varieties of quesadillas. One sip of a potent jumbo margarita makes it easy to understand why everyone keeps coming back.
3. Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que
Kansas City, Olathe, and Leawood, Kansas
In a region renowned for its barbecue, Joe’s stands out. Founded in 1996, the original location in a Kansas City, Kansas, gas station is quaint and unique. Two other Kansas locations have since opened in nearby Olathe and Leawood.
Joe’s chefs smoke the brisket and pork “low and slow” for 16 hours using Missouri white oak. Every bite of juicy meat is infused with smoky flavor.
The Z-Man sandwich put Joe’s on the map: juicy smoked brisket, provolone, and crispy onion rings on a toasted kaiser roll (regular $11.29; jumbo $13.29). They sell about 250,000 of them every year. The pulled pork sandwich is another favorite, with regular ($8.99) or jumbo ($11.39) options. The seasoned fries are always a good side, as is the award-winning mac-and-cheese. All locations closed Sundays.
4. Casa Maria Mexican Grill
If you crave tacos, head to Casa Maria Mexican Grill. The owners know what they’re doing; they’re from Mexico City, which may just be the world’s street taco capital.
The street tacos ($3.50 to $4 each) are a great value. Try the barbacoa, seasoned with 7 spices and then slow-cooked for 4 hours, resulting in tender, juicy meat. Carnitas are made in the true Michoacán style, with sweet and sour oranges. Other options include grilled chicken and carne asada. All street tacos are topped with fresh cilantro and chopped onion and come with a side of salsa.
The menu has all the classic Mexican-restaurant dishes like fajitas, chimichangas, burritos, and enchiladas. Lunch specials are $10 to $11, and most regular menu items range from $12 to $16, so you’ll get flavorful fare with good bang for your buck.
5. Stockwell Inn
Stockwell Inn has been in Audrey Christie’s family for 37 years. Her parents, Betty and Jerry, bought it when Audrey was 16, and she’s worked there ever since. Lunch is cheap and delicious. A favorite is the hand-cut, freshly pounded, hand-breaded tenderloin sandwich ($8.35). The juicy, piping-hot pork is served on a bun with a pickle and chips. Dress it any way you want.
Here’s something you don’t see every day: brain sandwiches, which are pig brains, hand-breaded and fried ($7.40). Tourists love this Midwest delicacy because it’s a rare find, Christie noted.
Hot Chips is a gut-busting appetizer that won’t bust your budget. A pile of fried, seasoned house-made potato chips is served with a bowl of spicy or mild cheese dip ($6.60). And don’t miss the drink specials, including frozen fishbowls filled with beer (starting at $3.25). In an industry plagued by high turnover, expect consistency here, as they’ve had the same cook for 30 years. Closed Sundays.
6. Delicious Temptations
Little Rock, Arkansas
Located in a strip mall, Delicious Temptations has been around since 1981. Back then, it was more like a tearoom with a limited menu. Today, the thriving breakfast and brunch spot attracts a diverse crowd.
Readers of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette have voted it “Best Breakfast” several times in recent years. Why? For starters, the pancakes (2 for $5.49). Yogurt makes them moist, fluffy, and delicious. You can add a variety of fillings ($1.49 each), from blueberries to pecans. Whole-wheat pancakes are also available.
Another scrumptious steal is the French toast ($5.99). Two thick pieces of Texas toast are soaked in an egg mixture, grilled, and then dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The menu features a fabulous assortment of classic egg breakfast choices too, along with sandwiches, soups, and salads. Father and son Tony and Anthony Niel have transformed the venue since taking it over in 2007 and are expanding it this year.
7. Crêpes Paulette
Bolstered by a vibrant downtown and a booming arts community, Bentonville’s culinary scene has emerged as a force in northwest Arkansas. You’ll find some pricey restaurants, but Crêpes Paulette is a charming spot to score an affordable brunch, lunch, or dessert crepe.
What started out as a food truck in 2010 became so popular that owners Paula Henry, an Arkansas native, and her French husband, Frédéric, expanded to a brick-and-mortar spot in 2016. The restaurant is casual, but the crepes are divine. With nearly 50 options on the menu, many in the $7 to $10 range, you’ll adore these handheld delicacies. Mini versions of the sweet crepes are $4 to $6.
La Classic features Black Forest ham, cheddar cheese, and egg. Other choices include Thai chicken, s’mores, and Reuben-style. There are also gluten-free and vegan crepes, along with killer house-made soups. Dine inside or in the Crêpe Courtyard. The Henrys hope to open a second location in nearby Fayetteville this year.
8. Rice & Roux
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
While Rice & Roux aims to get your food to you quickly, many of its dishes take hours to prepare. This casual Cajun restaurant with 2 Baton Rouge locations serves authentic jambalaya, gumbo, and popular daily specials. They make 3 types of jambalaya: chicken and sausage, pork and sausage, and a chicken and sausage pastalaya. The sausage hails from Baudin’s Sausage Kitchen, a renowned spot in St. Martinville, Louisiana.
Chicken and sausage jambalaya is a must, and the jambalaya dinner ($8.99) is hard to beat. It comes with a pound of your choice of jambalaya, 2 sides, and a roll. Cajun jambalaya is brown, not red, because it doesn’t include tomatoes as Creole style does.
“I think it’s popular because it’s a lot of food and will definitely fill you up for a good price,” said Dustin Felton. He owns the restaurant with his wife, Shasta, and his brother and sister-in-law John and Kara Baquet. “It’s also extremely tasty.” At $10 to $14, daily specials are pocketbook-pleasing and might include comfort food like crawfish étouffée, hamburger steak, and homemade beef roast.
Established in 1984 by Tim Glenn, Rooster’s is now run by his son, Nathan. The café’s popular fried chicken sandwich ($7.95) is old-school. A fresh chicken breast is run through a tenderizer machine and then marinated in buttermilk for 24 hours. It’s seasoned, hand-breaded, and fried to order. The buns are baked in house, and the jalapeño-cheddar is a favorite. “Our fresh-baked breads are one of our claims to fame,” said Nathan Glenn. And their food is so fresh that they don’t even have a freezer in the restaurant.
Another scrumptious meal is the slow-cooked red beans and rice plate ($11.25) served with a 6-ounce Louisiana smoked sausage on top, with jalapeños, onions, and a side salad. Located in the artsy Fondren District, Rooster’s might be categorized as fast-casual, but with food cooked to order, you can taste the difference. Closed Sundays.
10. Greenhouse Biloxi
Where would the South be without biscuits? If you want a buttery, flaky one for breakfast or lunch, head to Greenhouse Biloxi. The café takes pride in making its food from scratch, from the biscuits to the breakfast sausage, salad dressing, and even the coffee syrups.
Try the Sweet Potato Biscuit Sammy ($7.20), which stuffs a fried egg, ham, and addictive, house-made pimento cheese between 2 halves of a sweet potato biscuit. Roasted sweet potatoes are mashed and mixed into the dough before baking.
Or order the Bacon Cheddar Biscuit Sammy ($7.20), a buttery biscuit with bacon and cheddar baked into the dough. It’s sliced and filled with a fried egg, lettuce, tomato, and grainy mustard. A classic egg-and-cheese biscuit is a steal at $4.45. You’ll also find sandwiches and salads on the lunch menu. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Juliana Goodwin is a foodie and freelance writer from Springfield, Missouri.