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The 21 best cheap eats in the United States

These spots prove that street food can often be more delicious than what you find at a linen tablecloth restaurant

Written by
Time Out editors
,
Lauren Rothman
,
Sarah Medina
&
Erika Mailman
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A dish doesn’t have to arise out of a philosophical debate in the kitchen: it should just be delicious. We love good street food and any other items off an affordable menu, so long as the person making it loves cooking. Some of our favorite meals over the years have been ones that cost a pittance. Flavor isn’t free, but simple ingredients can go a long way when prepared with expertise and care. Here’s our list of fantastic cheap eats from all parts of the U.S., including some regional foods as well as just some overall favorites!

RECOMMENDED: Looking for affordable bites in a specific city? Check out the best cheap eats in New YorkL.A.MiamiBoston, or Chicago

Best cheap eats in the U.S.

If there's a more heavenly savory pastry in Chicago, we have yet to find it. Lucky for us, the case at Chiu Quon—one of Chinatown's oldest bakeries, and there's a second location Uptown—is always stocked with drool-inducing buns. Each golden orb is stuffed with tender, melt-in-your-mouth shredded beef marinated in sugar, salt, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame oil. The fluffy, slightly sweet dough surrounding the savory center tears easily with two hands (or your teeth). Save yourself the heartache and order a few extras for the road. —Morgan Olsen

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Tucson’s famous Sonoran hot dogs—beloved local snacks sold across town by about 200 street vendors and several popular sit-down joints—take their name from the region just south of the border from Arizona. Stuffed into a split-top roll, the perro caliente is wrapped in bacon, griddled until crispy, and piled high with creamy pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, grilled and raw onions, mayo, mustard, and Picante jalapeño salsa. Don’t neglect the roasted chile güero on the side: It’s a hot and smoky bite that perfectly complements the overloaded dog.

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Ask any native Detroiter what the local diet-buster of choice is, and you’ll get a resoundingly unanimous answer: a Coney dog. Named, of course, after the franks available on Brooklyn’s boardwalk, Coney dogs are such a thing in Detroit that elsewhere in the country, they’re called Michigan-style dogs. An all-beef frank loaded with chili, raw onions, and a squirt of mustard, Coney dogs are most notably slung downtown on West Lafayette Boulevard, where two neighboring—they’re literally next door to each other—rival institutions sell thousands of dogs daily. The call between Lafayette and neighbor American Coney Island is tough, but our loyalties lie with the former, whose chili is perfectly balanced and just a little spicy.

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Though po’ boy loyalty is fierce in NOLA, many residents and tourists agree that one of the best is found at Parkway, a family-run spot that’s been crafting excellent, seafood-piled po’ boys since 1911. It’s hard to decide between the fried oyster and fried shrimp iterations, but we usually go for the Gulf Shrimp Poor Boy, the plump crustaceans outfitted in a crisp golden crust and piled into an airy loaf “fully dressed” with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo for $9.99. But we also love the more affordable Streetcar Poor Boy with fried potatoes in roast beef gravy “and debris” (if you’re vegetarian, just hold the gravy), a sandwich originally crafted to feed striking streetcar conductors.

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Just when you thought corn dogs couldn’t get any more indulgent, this homey Jackson gastropub went and subbed a length of pork belly for the hot dog in the dish. These one-of-a-kind corn dogs have to be tasted to be believed: hot, melty pork encased in a perfectly light breading, they come with Colsons beer mustard and an addictively smoky tomato-ginger jam for dipping. 

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When you head to Vegas, one possibility you’ve gotta accept is poor luck in the casinos. When the roulette table or slot machine doesn’t work out in your favor, and your wallet is extra sad, head to this beloved comfort food spot for generous portions of reasonably priced sandwiches, burritos, wings, and more. We adore the salty, juicy Pastrami Boyger, a griddled beef patty topped with chunky slices of pastrami and slathered with grilled onions, pickles, chipotle mayo, and mustard.

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Curing and smoking pork is a longstanding tradition in the U.S., but no state has mastered it better than Virginia. Since the 1700s, smokehouses here have been perfecting the art of salted aged hams that rival the best prosciuttos of Italy and Jamon Ibericos of Spain. The tender, rosy pork can be enjoyed all over the state, but we especially love the simple, perfect ham biscuit baked by Richmond’s Early Bird Biscuit, which includes a buttery, perfectly browned biscuit split and stuffed with salty ham. Want one? Make sure to line up early because these babies tend to sell out before 11am. 

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Dumpling aficionados trek to this closet-size eatery to order the No. 6: A dozen pork wontons, doused in roasted chili oil and topped with a smattering of diced pickled vegetables, arrive on a Styrofoam plate with a plastic fork. Despite more than 30 items on the menu, it’s the only dish everyone seems to order—and for good reason.—Bao Ong

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Three-way chili, that unlikely but oh-so-delicious amalgamation of spaghetti, spiced meat sauce, and grated cheddar cheese, is a way of life in Cincinnati. Brought to the city by Macedonian immigrants in the early 1900s, Skyline is one of the original restaurants to serve the dish; its original location opened in 1949, and today, the mini-chain counts four Cincy restaurants in total. 

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Made of thin wedges of local Maine potatoes hand-punched and deep fat fried twice in pure golden duck fat, these Belgian-style frites are renowned throughout the city and state. Predictably, lines snake out the door for an hour or more during lunchtime, when diners dip them in accompanying sauces of curry mayo, truffle ketchup, and garlic aioli. The frites have proven so popular that besides the original dine-in eatery, there’s now a Duckfat Frites Shack a 15-minute walk away, with window ordering and beer garden seating shared with an adjacent brewery.

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This bright and cheery, Elvis-themed diner in Cheyenne specializes in breakfast in all forms, from standard omelets to over-the-top piles of loaded hashbrowns. Because this is the west, we go for a burrito at breakfast: the restaurant’s standard is a stretchy flour tortilla engorged with two eggs, hashbrowns, and a choice of meat, then smothered in red or green chile (or both) and heaped with cheese.

This late-night hot dog spot with Greek diner origins is a favorite among Providence’s many college students: its doors stay open until 2am on weeknights and 3am on weekends, the better for a post-boozing weinerfest. The Weiner combo will get you two juicy hotdogs piled with beef chili, diced onions, zippy mustard, and a generous shake of celery salt with fries and a small drink on the side. 

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It’s no easy feat to deliver the city’s best rendition of hot chicken, the spicy-crusted fried bird that’s perhaps Nashville’s defining dish. But the ever-present line snaking out the door of this Midtown spot is the first clue that the fryers here produce a damn qualified contender. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak: With five levels of heat ranging from Southern (mild) to Shut the Cluck Up!!! (very, very hot), Hattie B’s moist bird boasts a well-seasoned and super-crisp exterior.

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This expansive (not expensive) chaat house offers no-nonsense tray service in a former warehouse, and the delicious Vada Pao, described as “the Mumbai Snack,” is a mere $5. This vegetarian fast food item consists of a deep-fried potato dumpling with garlic, ginger and coriander flavoring, served in a bun cut in half: vegetarian satisfaction on the go! Viks is a beloved Berkeley tradition with a connected Indian grocery.

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Piknik Park PDX is a feast for the eyes as well as the tongue: it’s a cute conglomeration of brightly painted permanently parked food carts with a beer garden to sit and eat in. At Nam Pa, a tangerine-orange shack serving Hmong & Southeast Asian foods, the papaya noodle salad includes delicious green papaya, tomatoes, peanuts, garlic and rice noodles, covered in a funky/savory fish sauce dressing. Fresh Thai chilies add some heat if you dare! Piknik Park with its overarching tree canopy is a brilliant reenvisioning of a formerly vacant lot.

This small New England chain (originally begun as a food cart crafted out of kitchen floorboards, hauled on a converted sailboat trailer) offers savory and sweet crêpes. Our favorite one at the Montpelier location is the sugarshack, a sweet thin French crêpe with a filling of local maple sugar (not the same thing as syrup!) and melted butter sourced from the nearby town of Cabot, with a side of Vermont maple syrup. Ooh la la, it makes you realize that both Montpelier and Vermont are French names! Bon appetit.

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Its name translates to flying saucer, and you can bet Caja Caliente’s discos voladores are out of this world. The restaurant keeps theirs interesting, stuffing them with guava and cheese, lechón, vaca frita, and other proteins. Once stuffed these palm-sized, pressed sandwiches are grilled in a handheld contraption over a gas stove until they’re thin and the edges are crispy. Our favorite filling? The lechón con queso—like your favorite lunchtime ham sandwich, only way better, plus it’s served with chef Mika León’s famous green sauce. —Virginia Gil 

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