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Hattie B's Fried Chicken
Photograph: Courtesy Hattie B's

The best cheap eats in the USA

On a budget? The best cheap eats in America prove that you don't need to spend much to eat well.

Written by
Time Out editors
Lauren Rothman
Sarah Medina
Clara Hogan
Erika Mailman

Dining out can be expensive, and it's not getting any cheaper. Menu prices have been rising more quickly than inflation for several years now, especially at fast-casual and fast-food spots. So finding an interesting, intriguing, delicious cheap eat that truly hits the spot can be a real challenge. And while there's a time and place for a splurge restaurant or a multi-course tasting menu, some of the most memorable dishes come from no-frills, hole-in-the-wall, long-loved community restaurants. 

So, if you're hungry and on a budget, we've got you covered. From regional delicacies like a reindeer sausage in Anchorage to BBQ pork buns in Chicago to Cantonese rice rolls in New York, you're never too far from these spots with some of the best cheap eats in the USA.

Best cheap eats in the U.S.

Chicago, IL: The $1.85 BBQ pork bun at Chiu Quon
Photograph: Courtesy Jaclyn Rivas / Chiu Quon Bakery

1. Chicago, IL: The $1.85 BBQ pork bun at Chiu Quon

If there's a more heavenly savory pastry in Chicago, we have yet to find it. Luckily, the case at Chiu Quon—one of Chinatown's oldest bakeries, with 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.

Tucson, AZ: The $4.95 Sonoran hot dog at BK Carne Asada
Photograph: Courtesy BK Carne Asada/Ivan'Ochoa

2. Tucson, AZ: The $4.95 Sonoran hot dog at BK Carne Asada

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.

New York, NY:  The $6 vegetarian rice rolls at Joe's Steam Rice Roll
Photograph: Courtesy Noah Fecks / Joes Steam Rice Roll

3. New York, NY: The $6 vegetarian rice rolls at Joe's Steam Rice Roll

Dig into this pitch-perfect take on the Cantonese specialty of rice-based “crêpes,” with a vegetarian filling. If you crave meat versions like pork, barbecue pork, beef, and dried shrimp, the price is still pretty good at $8 ($9 for shrimp or curry fish balls). There are three Manhattan locations and one in Flushing.

  • Restaurants
  • American
  • CBD

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. 


5. San Francisco, CA: The $7.63 Hong Kong Pork Chops at Superstar Restaurant

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Located in the Excelsior District, Superstar Restaurant is one of the last places to get a truly affordable meal in San Francisco. Diners flock here for one meal in particular: the Hong Kong Porkchops. For $7.63, you get three fried pork chops—perfectly tender with a crispy exterior—plus garlic rice, a runny fried egg and tomatoes. 

Anchorage, AK: The $10 reindeer sausage at Tiki Pete’s
Photograph: Courtesy Tiki Pete's

6. Anchorage, AK: The $10 reindeer sausage at Tiki Pete’s

Long a traditional food in the state of Alaska, reindeer meat is prized by the local community, which enjoys it in the form of steaks, burgers, and, especially, sausages. At Tiki Pete’s, a beloved hot dog cart in downtown Anchorage, the house specialty is a juicy, snappy reindeer sausage heaped with a creamy, cheesy portion of mac ‘n’ cheese.

Washington, D.C.: The $4 sandwich at Falafel, Inc.
Photograph: Courtesy Falafel, Inc.

7. Washington, D.C.: The $4 sandwich at Falafel, Inc.

Cheap eats and a charitable model are the core tenets of Falafel, Inc., in high-end Georgetown, the Washington, D.C. neighborhood known more for toney houses and expense-account restaurants than cheap eats. But at Falafel, Inc., nothing on the menu costs more than $6. The signature falafel comes in either sandwich ($4) or bowl ($5) form, topped with a combination of pickles, salads, and a collection of six housemade sauces. An order of savory-salty zaatar fries still keeps a whole meal under $10. Plus, With each meal purchased, the restaurant funds a meal for refugees around the globe via the World Food Programme.

Chicago, IL: The $1.35 assorted sushi at Lawrence Fish Market
Photograph: Courtesy Lawrence Fish Market

8. Chicago, IL: The $1.35 assorted sushi at Lawrence Fish Market

This not-so-hidden gem in Albany Park deals in unimaginably cheap sushi, three words that could be a turnoff but aren't at Lawrence Fish Market. Most rolls ring up well under $8, but we love shopping the à la carte section, where you can snag single slices of pristine sashimi for around a buck.

  • Restaurants
  • Bayou St. John

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 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 for $7.19 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.

New York, NY: The $5 Freddy Prinze at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop
Photograph: Andrew Tess

10. New York, NY: The $5 Freddy Prinze at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop

A slice of New York City pizza is a shoo-in for the best cheap eats in America. While there are slice shops that wouldn't disappoint, if we have to choose one, it would be Paulie Gee's. Yes, you can get slightly cheaper slices, but for $5 you get quality for an excellent price point. The Freddy Prinze slice is cut Sicilian-style (in a square) with a sesame-crust bottom and topped with fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce and pecorino Romano.

Jackson, MS: The $7.99 pork belly corn dogs at The Pig & Pint
Photograph: The Pig & Pint

11. Jackson, MS: The $7.99 pork belly corn dogs at The Pig & Pint

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. 

12. Las Vegas, NV: The $7.19 pastrami Boyger at Fat Boy

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.

Richmond, VA: The $6.50 ham biscuit at Early Bird Biscuit Co.
Photograph: Courtesy Early Bird Biscuit Co.

13. Richmond, VA: The $6.50 ham biscuit at Early Bird Biscuit Co.

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. 

New York, NY: The $10 pork dumplings at White Bear
Photograph: Time Out/Ali Garber

14. New York, NY: The $10 pork dumplings at White Bear

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.

Cincinnati, OH: The $8.15 three-way chili at Skyline Chili
Photograph: Shutterstock

15. Cincinnati, OH: The $8.15 three-way chili at Skyline Chili

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.

16. Los Angeles, CA: The $2 al pastor taco at Leo’s Taco Truck

Out of all the taco trucks to dot the L.A. landscape, the $2 al pastor taco at Leo's Taco Truck has been a favorite among Angelenos for more than a decade. Tender carved pork is paired with a slice of pineapple on a small tortilla for a perfect one or two bites. You'll want more than one, and at $2, you can afford it. 

Portland, ME: The $8 duck fat fries at Duckfat
Photograph: Duckfat

17. Portland, ME: The $8 duck fat fries at Duckfat

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.

Cheyenne, WY: The $10.50 breakfast burrito at R&B Breakfast Club
Photograph: Courtesy R&B Breakfast Club

18. Cheyenne, WY: The $10.50 breakfast burrito at R&B Breakfast Club

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.

Providence, RI: The $3.59 hot weiner at Olneyville New York System
Photograph: Courtesy Olneyville New York System

19. Providence, RI: The $3.59 hot weiner at Olneyville New York System

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 classic hot Weiner will get you a juicy hotdogs made of beef, pork, and veal, then piled with beef chili, diced onions, zippy mustard, and a generous shake of celery salt.

  • Restaurants
  • Music Row

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.

Berkeley, CA: The $5 Vada Pao at Viks Chaat
Photograph: Ahsan/Viks Chaat

21. Berkeley, CA: The $5 Vada Pao at Viks Chaat

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.

22. Montpelier, VT: The $6.49 sugarshack crêpe at Skinny Pancake

This small New England chain (which originally began 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.


23. Miami, FL: The $9.75 disco de lechón con queso at Caja Caliente

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 gadget over a gas stove until they’re thin and the edges are crispy. Our favorite filling? The lechón con queso is like your favorite lunchtime ham sandwich, only way better. Plus, it’s served with chef Mika León’s famous green sauce.

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