While national fast food chains might make "dollar meals" easy, is it possible to find killer local deals in San Diego that could stretch ‘dining out for a day’ on a $10 budget? Can three (somewhat) well-balanced meals be found for a sawbuck by the beach in Southern California, without relying on Happy Hour prices? Eater challenged me to set off with $10 in my pocket to chronicle the experience and find out.
Total balance: $10
Alexander Hamilton and I head to Lucky's Breakfast -- a real gem of a cash only café in North Park -- where its namesake proprietor Lucky has cooked and served budget breakfasts to a loyal crowd of locals since 1975. It's a cozy corner spot in a quieter part of the neighborhood and there is a fond familiarity amongst the morning crowd. It's open from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. everyday (except Sunday), I'm reliably informed that there's a line out the door without fail on Saturdays.
I find a space at the counter and survey the menu, which offers breakfast fare aplenty all for less than five bucks a pop. Mindful of the budget I order one egg (scrambled, $1.50) and hash browns ($1.25) from the ‘sides' section, plus a mug of coffee (95¢) that includes one free refill.
While I wait a fellow diner offers up a slice of cake, I'm told it's in honor of Joy, a longtime Lucky's patron who just celebrated her ninety eighth birthday. Breakfast soon arrives -- it's modest but the eggs and hash are tasty and perfectly filling. I enjoy a second cup of coffee and take my time paying the bill, which Lucky hands out with two fortune cookies -- all up it's $3.99 including tax. My fortune advises me to "enjoy what I have, and hope for what I lack."
Amount spent: $3.99
Amount left: $6.01
It's past midday and I'm starting to feel hungry. A ‘bargain baguette' would be perfect for lunch so I make my way to K Sandwiches in Clairemont -- the best place in town for Banh Mi. Vietnamese bakers, schooled by the French, have perfected the art of this tasty street food snack. With golden crusty bread and fillings that include everything from grilled beef and vegetables, to meatballs and sardines, it's a great grab-and-go item.
Alongside an extensive sandwich menu the family-owned shop also features a mini-mart of Vietnamese drinks and delicacies, plus a full bakery with some generously sized croissants and plump looking pork buns. Open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Sundays 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.) a steady stream of students, office workers and locals from the Vietnamese community flock here on a daily basis.
I settle on a Pâté Cha Lua ($3.15) and place my order at the counter. Like a well-oiled machine K's service is fast and efficient - I soon hear number seventy-nine over the speaker system. Crusty on the outside, and fluffy soft on the inside it's one delicious sandwich. Thick slices of Vietnamese pork pâté are layered with zesty pickled daikon, carrots, cilantro, sliced jalapeños and house mayonnaise.
This addictive east-meets-west delight not only struck a unique, mouth-watering balance for lunch it was also incredibly budget friendly.
Amount spent: $3.40
Amount left: $2.61
Budget aside no mention of dining in San Diego would be complete without them, so what better context to round off the day than with a couple of fish tacos? Not wanting to rely on happy hour prices I head south to Bonita and spend my last couple of precious dollars on dinner at TJ's Oyster Bar in Bonita.
As with many neighborhood gems it's tucked away in an unassuming strip mall, but is one of the few places in San Diego to offer 99-cent tacos all day, every day. While this popular, and highly affordable, hole-in-the-wall serves up traditional and not-so-traditional Mexican fare, including oysters, shrimp and whole fish, it's the tacos that really put the place on the map.
I have just enough for two ($2.14 including tax) and wait my turn at the counter - the shop is doing a steady business, and the smells coming out of the open kitchen make tingle my taste buds. I grab the last available table outside - everything is cooked to order, and its well worth the ten minutes or so I have to wait.
The house batter is golden and crispy, the fish is moist and the coleslaw to sour cream ratio is perfection. I add a generous squeeze of lime and unashamedly wolf them down in a couple of bites.
Amount spent: $2.14
Amount left: $0.47
There we have it. While they might not have represented the most balanced of food groups, from $10 it turns out I was able to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for the day - with a little left to spare. Not bad for a city where living costs are thirty percent higher than the national average. Despite managing to include tax, with hindsight my 47 cents in change would of made a reasonable 12% tip at Lucky's.