Vancouver’s Best Cheap Eats

October 2, 2007

By Murray Bancroft, Chris Gonzalez, Fiona Morrow, Rosel Kim, and Masaji Takei

Some folks can drop hundreds on dinner every night of the week without breaking the bank. If you're one of those lucky ones, stop reading right now and head on down to your favourite glitzy, award-winning restaurant. For the rest of us, finding comfortable spots that offer excellent food at bargain prices is fun and fulfilling. We asked our team of culinary experts to scout for the best dining deals in town. Some of their choices turned out to be right under our noses; others were well off the beaten track. Here's what they agreed on:

So.Cial Custom Butcher Shop

It's all too easy to get your hands on a lame sandwich. No such danger lurks at Sean Cousins' laid-back addendum to his upscale (and excessively punctuated) restaurant So.Cial. Sliced-to-order, house-cured charcuterie and roasts are piled high on soft focaccia rolls, while marinated and roasted peppers, dripping in their sweet juices, add a seductive bite. Sizing is generous-small $4.50; medium $6.50; large $9-with the top of the scale able to feed a family of four. A bag of house-made potato chips are thrown in for good measure. Takeaway, eat at the counter, or head for the bar for a glass of rosé.
332 Water St., 604-669-4488

Café Presto Panini

Red-checkered tablecloths? Check. Cheap chianti? Git it. Mustachioed owner? Sure. This downtown eatery delivers authentic Italian home cooking, despite the clichéd (but somewhat winsome) setting. Over 15 pasta-and-sauce combinations ring in at under $10, but the real show stoppers are the signature panini ($8.95): go for the classic, loaded with capicollo and salami, the chicken pesto, or the veggie-friendly Sicilian (grilled eggplant, tomato and mozzarella), all available to go. The dessert menu is only one item long (tiramisu, $4.95), but it's a doozy-save room. Closed Sundays.
859 Hornby St., 604-684-4445

Legendary Noodle

Frank Zappa once said that you can't be a Real Country unless you have a beer and an airline. He might have added that Real Asian Countries also require a noodle and a dumpling. Hop on a flight to Beijing if you like, but you can enjoy three of the four things that make China "real" right here on Denman at Legendary Noodle. Savour one of the fabulous "hand-pulled noodle 'n' soups, tang-mian"-fresh shredded pork and preserved vegetable with thick noodles in chicken broth ($7.25), or the "hand-made dumplings, grandma mixed fillings, jiao zi"-a dozen steamed pork-and-chive dumplings ($6.99). Then wash it all down with a cold bottle of Zhu Jiang ($4.50). Real Asian Countries rock!
1074 Denman St., 604-669-8551; 4191 Main St., 604-879-8758; 1300-4540 No. 3 Road, 604-207-9226

Little Nest

 After shopping for well-priced groceries on the Drive, replenish the tiny troops at new family-focused brunch spot Little Nest. You many mistake it for the weekly meeting of the East Van Foodie Breeders Club, with its custom-built toy kitchen for your pint-size chef. Sleepy looking moms and dads tuck into a largely local, organic menu served up with cups of fair-trade coffee. After-school snacks like fruit fries and berry ketchup ($4) are a hit with the rug rats. For the over-seven (but still young at heart) set there are nostalgic soft-boiled eggs-and-soldiers ($5) that may be reason enough for childless friends to join in the fun. Though after eating brunch in a room full of babies and toddlers, they may choose to remain that way.
1716 Charles St., 604-251-9994

East Is East

For a few measly shekels you can embark on a culinary adventure that ranges from Istanbul to Calcutta. Enjoy roti rolls served with lentil tamarind soup and organic greens that come in savoury single ($8.50) or hefty double ($12.50) portions. Try the Afghan Nomad (lamb kebab with garlic and ginger), or the Mughal (roasted chicken masala) with spiced chai or a Kashmiri Sunset (a yogurt lassie flavored with fresh mango, cardamom and rose water, $4.50). A convenient take-out window offers the entire menu to go.
3243 W. Broadway 604-734-5881; 4413 Main St., 604-879-2020

Blake's

Fronting as a coffee shop, with 18-foot brick walls displaying local artwork, and chairs and couches perfect for lounging with a book, this place would be easy to overlook. Don't: there are serious (and seriously delicious) eats at this Gastown institution. Just about everything is made on the premises, then tucked away in a display case behind the front counter under stacks of plates and mugs. Vegans and vegetarians are well looked after with items like the vegan shepherd's pie ($6.35) and veggie and black bean quesadillas ($6.35). Meatheads get theirs-try the capicolli on marble rye ($6.35), an exceptionally moist, chewy bread for sandwiches brought in fresh each day. Break the $6.35 barrier (tax included) by ordering lasagne ($6.95) or adding roasted veggie and lentil side salad ($2). And by the way, the coffee in this more-than-coffee shop is pretty damn good, too.
221 Carrall St., 604-899-3354

Acacia Fillo Bar

Bulgarian ex-pats Vera and Ziggy Ivanova have cultivated a loyal following with their delicate flaky pastries: try the smoked turkey and kashkaval ($7.55) or the spinach ($5.36) banitzas-sumptuous baked fillo pies made from whisked egg and sheep feta, served in generous slabs with yogurt and garden greens. The pumpkin banitza ($4.85) with cinnamon and walnuts, and baklava with acacia honey ($4.19), are sweetly satisfying. Nothing on the menu exceeds $10, and the all-day breakfast on weekends, rotating daily specials and the elusive (and truly exquisite tasting) Caffé D'Arte coffee make this spot a real find.
1103 Denman St., 604-633-3884

Go Fish

Straight off the boat and into the fryer: you won't find better fish and chips in the city. The halibut dipped in light batter and served in a basket with well-crisped fries and Asian-inspired slaw is dangerously addictive (one piece, $9; two, $13). Waistline-saving tactics include opting for lighter (but no less delicious) options like grilled salmon, tuna, or oysters on salad greens ($10), or better still, the fish tacones wrapped in tastily char-grilled tortillas ($5). Order two-you'll find room. Daily soups ($5) are always a good bet. The biggest challenge is finding it, tucked into Fisherman's Wharf on the seawall, just west of Granville Island. If you're driving, go north on Fir. Expect a serious lineup (especially on sunny days) and don't bother dressing up-this is simply fine seafood in the most unpretentious of surroundings, with a million-dollar view thrown in for free. Note: it closes at 6:30.
1505 W. First Ave., 604-730-5040

Sushi Zero One

Step through the noren hanging in this door, sandwiched between dollar-pizza and donair joints, and you'll hear something not heard in most of our Japanese restaurants. Yup, that's native Japanese-Kazu and his staff all come from the motherland. Which in itself doesn't mean much, except when the owner tells you that his is a small selection, done well, and that he guarantees the top quality of his fish-said with a Japanese modesty that exudes personal commitment. The chirashi don ($6.50) is a fresh assortment of sashimi on rice, garnished with radish sprouts, marinated shiitake mushrooms, chopped pickled vegetables and grated ginger. On the wall, with postings for ESL schools and eyelash perms, are certain menu items in Japanese only. Take a gamble and you could end up with the delightfully slippery tororo (grated mountain potato) with salmon eggs and ikura yamakake don ($10).
559 W. Pender St., 604-605-1625

Kaplan's Star Deli

Overstuffed sandwiches reign supreme at this authentic New York deli where the hot pastrami between two Dijon-slathered slabs of caraway rye ($8.25) is legendary and made-from-scratch soups ($6.25) like matzo ball and borscht are meals in themselves. For Yankee Stadium-sized appetites, try Morley's Mega Merger (a towering stack of corned beef, pastrami and swiss, sliced thin and piled high, $12.25) or Zaida's Favourite ($12.75), also with corned beef and pastrami, sandwiched between two potato latkes. Wash down your sauerkraut-laden jumbo frank ($5.50) with a can of Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda ($3.25) for a real taste of the Big Apple. Dine in or take out.
5775 Oak St., 604-263-2625; 1059 Alberni St., 604-806-0333

Kwong Chow Congee and Noodle House

Is there anything more comforting than a bowl of toothsome congee? In a city full of congee houses Kwong Chow is one of the best. Here you can sink into a deliciously delicate version of the creamy rice porridge studded with everything from ostrich to fresh clams ($4.50-5.50), or share a vat-sized bowl for six ($11.50-$14.50). The extensive menu offers many dishes in small or large sizes, which helps with budgeting and variety, and the $5.75 lunch options (with free Hong Kong-style coffee or tea) are one of the best deals in town. Decent beef brisket and tendon noodle soup will set you back $4. Predictably enough with bargain prices like these, the place gets slammed: go early or late to avoid the crowds and the brusque, sometimes erratic service that comes with them.
3163 Main St., 604-876-8520

Glowbal Grill and Satay Bar

A little glamour at lunchtime never hurt anyone's work ethic-and at Glowbal, it won't hurt your wallet, either. With a $16-or-under menu (plus a guarantee to have you fed and watered in under 45 minutes), you don't have to be loaded to soak up a bit of Yaletown glitz. The all-weather patio is a great place to see, be seen, and most definitely forget the fleece. Standard midday favourites are cleverly gussied up: the club sandwich ($15) is a trio of crab, lobster and shrimp; spaghetti and meatballs ($14) pits sumptuous Kobe beef with a spicy tomato sauce. Can't decide? The Glowbal platter for two (rare ahi tuna with Asian slaw, marinated seafood salad, grilled asparagus, heirloom tomato salad, duck spring roll, braised short ribs, crab cakes and house-made chips, $28) is both stylish and satisfying.
1079 Mainland St., 604-602-0835

Red Burrito

 Red Burrito continues to ride high on the authentic Mexican food wave that's hit this city: built on the success of the original location on the Drive, they've opened three new locations in recent months (two on Robson Street and one in North Vancouver). The soft tacos are a real steal ($5.95 for four) with a choice of chicken, steak, shrimp or vegetables ($5.35), served with healthy doses of fresh cilantro, lime juice, corn and guacamole or yogurt. The bandana-clad, Spanish-speaking staff caters to a homesick Mexican clientele in a trend akin to the Japanese student-fuelled izakaya invasion of five years ago.
1700 Commercial Dr., 604-707-0877; 606 Robson St., 604-676-0097; 1236 Robson St., 604-676-0040; 1455 Lonsdale Ave., 604-980-0980

Shabusen

Wondering where to take the senior boys' rugby team for a victory lunch or dinner that won't empty your wallet? Shabusen, in a spacious upstairs room in South Granville, fills that bottomless pit known as an adolescent appetite with an all-you-can-eat menu featuring the likes of sushi, sashimi, Korean BBQ beef, duck, and pork, deep-fried tofu and spicy calamari. The food is quite decent, it keeps on coming as long as you can speak, and you get out the door for a bargain $12.95 per person for lunch on weekdays ($13.50 on weekends), $21.95 for dinner every night. Go early. It's less crowded on weekdays than on weekends, when you may have to wait a long while for a table.
2993 Granville St., 604-737-6888;755 Burrard St., 604-669-3883

Crave

Brunch at its best: hip, relaxed, and with a delightful backyard patio for sunny days. A short list of Benny's includes the popular California (bacon and avocado, $8.50) and a decadent crab cake version ($13) that marries a mild hint of Thai spice with the fabulously lemony house hollandaise. Chef/owner Wayne Martin was formerly the executive chef of the Four Seasons Vancouver, and the pedigree shows in the clean, unfussy plates of vibrant food. The only problem? Good luck trying to choose between the Panetone French toast ($7.50), the stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes ($6.50), and the smoked salmon and scallion croissant heaving with scrambled eggs ($10).
3941 Main St, 604 872 3663

Shanghai Shanghai

The name should leave little doubt that this innocuous mom-and-pop shop specializes in Shanghainese food. But it takes a keen eye to notice that this particular stall, in the cosmic lounge that is the Aberdeen Food Court, offers handmade dumplings and wontons, made fresh. Watch mesmerized as a pair of deft hands, using two spindles, rolls out a circle of dough, folds in a pat of pork and greens, and crimps the tender package shut. When you bite into your order of steamed pork buns ($5.75) be warned that the hot juice sealed inside will squirt everywhere-make sure it stays in your mouth, because it's too good to waste.
#3010 Food Court, Aberdeen Centre, 604-279-1239

Salade de Fruits

Tucked away in the French cultural centre on West Seventh, between Granville and Fir, is the unassuming but charming Café Salade de Fruits. Dim lights, simple décor and lively chatter in this cozy room make it perfect for an intimate but casual dinner. The best deal is the weekly-changing, three-course table d'hôte ($21.99). A recent visit turned out a simple green salad with balsamic vinaigrette and buttery terrines de poisson, followed by a tender flank of boeuf braisée, mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables. Last came the eponymous salade de fruits with mixed berries and a big dollop of crème fraîche. Dionysian accompaniment won't break the bank-a half-litre of red or white is a steal at $18. Weekend brunches see daily crêpes and eggs Benny for $7.99.
1551 W. Seventh Ave., 604-714-5987

 

Sushi Hachi

With four sushi joints in a three block stretch of Kerrisdale you'd think they would each need some sort of differentiator (like a signature roll or funky three-dimensional mural of an octopus). On the surface everything about Sushi Hachi would suggest that they're no different than the countless other sushi-ya's that carpet our city like sea urchins in a kelp bed. Order the Assorted Sushi Combo D ($11.50) as the acid test and you'll taste what makes them special. Fresh, generously cut slabs of salmon and tuna, a plump scallop and crisp ika. Just the way sushi should be. Substitute a tempura yam roll ($3.00) for the California roll and appreciate the crunch that signals freshly made tempura.
2255 W. 41st Ave., 604-263-1877

Wild Garlic

Follow your nose to this small West End room that offers big value with an extensive list of tapas served in deceptively large portions. Gorge on prawn and shitake pot stickers ($5), pepper-crusted tuna with citrus port glaze ($11) or an impressive duck leg confit with sour cherry jus and garlic mash ($7). Nightly drink specials make this one of the best spots to get buzzed, with spicy Caesars for $3.50 on Tuesdays and $4 Martini Fridays-boozy libations for less than a venti-size latte.
792 Denman St., 604-687-1663

Tsui Hang Village

After hours of tripping the light fantastic on the Granville strip, there's nothing better than commiserating with your pals over copious amounts of cheap eats. Open until 3:00 a.m. seven days a week, this popular late-night destination is just the salve for your hungry belly (and potentially battered ego). The ginger beef ($9), barbeque pork ($5.95) and a surprisingly restorative wonton soup ($5.75) stand out on an expansive menu that features all of the usual suspects in large portions suitable for sharing. Side takeout window (access off Davie Street) offers at least a dozen items to go for a scant $4.50 (tax included) and delivery is available until 1:30 a.m. Because a steaming bowl of chow mein will never turn you down.
1193 Granville St., 604-683-6868

Around the world in seven restaurants

These rooms, from our ethnic dining survey last year, continue to offer excellent value:

Kashcool Use lavash bread to scoop the hummus and kashkeh bodemjon (eggplant, onion, garlic, walnuts and mint, $6.95), both creamily divine. The polows and kebab dishes are rich and substantial (go for the chicken, $14.95). Finish with Persian ice cream (saffron, pistacchio and rose water, $4.95), baklava and Persian tea. For $9.95, the intrepid can also smoke flavoured tobacco. 222 Pemberton Ave., North Van, 604-904-3904.

Mogadishu Somali food is a simmering stew of Italian, Indian, Persian, Arab, Malaysian and Chinese flavours: try the chicken or beef sautéed with peppers, carrots, heaps of garlic, and hints of Indian spices. With it comes saffron rice, or spaghetti spiced with cumin and coriander for $9. It's comfort food: warm, rich flavours distilled from a multitude of cuisines. 664 E. Broadway, 604-484-3752

Casa Verde Restaurant Go for the lulas grelhadas, beautifully tender squid that is first grilled and then pan-fried in garlic, olive oil and lemon juice ($9.95), or the carne de porco alentejana ($13.95), a mélange of pan-fried marinated pork cubes, chouriço slices and steamed clams tossed together in a house sauce with a healthy dose of garlic, all served atop a bed of homemade fries. 3532 Commercial Dr., 604-876-7647; Cash only, open Wednesday to Sunday

Rinconcito Salvadoreño
The specialty here is pupusa, a thick corn-flour tortilla filled with either cheese, crispy pork rinds, refried beans or a combination of the three ($2.75). If you're lucky, mar y tierra will be on the specials board: a large platter for two with grilled top sirloin steaks and prawns accompanied by rice, red beans, avocado and warm tortillas ($30). 2062 Commercial Dr., 604-879-2600, closed Tuesdays

Nuba Begin with the crushed organic red lentil soup, before tucking into the full falafel plate, miraculously inexpensive at $7.50-it comes stacked with hummus, taboulleh, salad and pita (all made in house), and a choice of organic brown rice or roasted potatoes. 322 W. Hastings. St., 604-688-1655; 1206 Seymour St., 778-371-3266

Transylvania Flavour Mititei-pork and beef sausages loaded with garlic and thyme, served with house-chipped potatoes for $9-are fluffy, like a good scrambled egg, thanks to the lack of casing. A generous serving of yam, caraway and smoked Gouda perogies come with bacon, sour cream and roasted red pepper coulis ($10). Pastries are another specialty here, as is the flour-less chocolate layer cake with cassis syrup ($7), mercifully subtle in its sweetness. 2120 W. Broadway, 604-730-0880

Budapest Restaurant Start with lángos ($2.95), a large round of deep-fried bread that's accompanied by sour cream for dipping and a clove of garlic (which should promptly be sliced in half and rubbed across the bread while it's still piping hot). Chicken paprikás ($14.50) is a softly flavoured dish of chicken simmered in paprika and sour cream and accompanied by nokedli (spätzle) and a slaw of red cabbage and apples braised in egri bikavér (bull's blood) red wine. 3250 Main St., 604-877-1949; Open Wednesday to Sunday

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