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Student Survival '05
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Photographs by Stephen Laufer

Enjoying a diet of plants, fungus and decaying vegetable material, Sammy scours the Wednesday downtown farmers market in hopes of finding overly ripe delicacies.

Beyond Ramen

Our 'cheap eats' guide yields more bang for your gang

By Steve Billings and Mike Connor

The original version of this article--an exercise in syntactic and monetary frugality--was just two words long. Say them with us now: Top Ramen--the cheapest of the cheap eats. But we want to go beyond the generic student fare and help you eat some reasonably nourishing food for a change, and we want you to get incredible gastronomic bang for your precious buck. For more on Ramen, visit www.nissinfoods.com. For some of the town's tastiest and cheapest ways to fill up, read on.

Breakfast (Sometimes Slowly)

Whenever we go out for a weekday breakfast in Santa Cruz, one question springs to mind and begins repeating itself with a disturbing Christopher Walken–esque cadence: "Does anybody, at all, work in this town, whatsoever? It's crazy."

Witness the din and swirl of humanity at foundational eateries like Linda's Seabreeze Cafe, The Silver Spur, Walnut Avenue Cafe and Zachary's. And if you think weekday mornings are busy at any of the above mentioned joints, you should know that the wait on weekends can go nova at the most popular spots, making you thank God for pre-service coffee and good friends.

So even though you are hung over and forgot how to count, do some basic math and tack on 15 to 45 minutes for the right to bite. Though each joint possesses charms and specialties that will reveal themselves to you over time, there's one meal that truly justifies any wait: the blackened ahi eggs benedict ($8.55) at Walnut Avenue Cafe (106 Walnut Ave.). Some may opt for the Florentine version, but for us, those thin slices of spiced, salty tuna are a welcome departure from Canadian bacon as well as a good counterpoint for lemony hollandaise and rich warming yolks.

Breakfast at Kelly's French Bakery

Kelly's savvy decision to relocate to the Swift Street Courtyard and become its flagship business is a major boon to students seeking a campus breather. The breakfast menu is blessedly simple; just what I want with the first meal of the day. Order the poached eggs with polenta ($4.75), or the often proffered special Imperial ($6.95)--poached eggs on toast with roasted potatoes and sausage links. Don't forget the pastry case. You know who you are. Combine any of said options with choice of latte and reading material and you are sorted. Portions are Continental, not Nebraskan, and though lines can be slow and cumbersome, one will eventually find solace in the outdoor, heated dining area. 402 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz; 831.423.9059.

Pleasure Pizza Lunch Special

With locations on the east side, West Side and downtown (at the Catalyst), the Pleasure Pizza lunch special is always pretty much within the zone of instant gratification, meaning you can go from pizza craving to pizza-in-mouth in less than 10 minutes. Some of the designer, meal-size slices get a bit expensive, but the cheese slice special ($2.32) or the pepperoni or pesto special ($2.88) both come with a 22-ounce drink. All the slices here are for the hearty of appetite--thick, doughy and weighted down with enough scrumptious cheese to completely coat the head of an infant--though we're still trying to figure out why in the hell you keep doing that. Freak! 4000 Portola Drive, Capitola; 1917 Mission St., Santa Cruz; www.pleasurepizza.net.

Your Local Tamale Vendor

If you ever hear a tamale vendor pounding the pavement in your neighborhood, buy from them, even if you aren't hungry at the time. Chances are, the tamales will be delicious, incredibly cheap (usually between $1 and $2), and worth chasing down whenever the vendor makes the rounds on your street.

Vasili's Lunch Special

Aren't we all just holding out for a gyro? He's gotta be good, he's gotta be fast and, for $7.95 with fries and a drink, he can't be a thumb-sucker. Though you may order from a choice of chicken, lamb and beef, opt for the meatball gyro--Vasili's soft, warm flat bread is first piled with savory salted meatballs, then overstuffed with a dinner salad's worth of crisp romaine lettuce, sliced tomato, cucumber and an ultragarlicky aioli that harmonizes the entire affair. In between bites attacking this man-sized Greek taco, don't forget to relish the fact that you've also been served with an extremely judicious allotment of perfectly cooked, golden, herb-salted french fries--enough to fill up you and the Trojan horse you didn't ride in on. 1501 Mission St., Santa Cruz; 831.458.9808.

Royal Taj Buffet or Takeout

For those with bearish appetites, the Royal Taj buffet ($7.50) offers a slightly more exotic way to the sort of feeding necessary prior to hibernation than, say, Fresh Choice. A little-known secret about the Royal Taj: the to-go portions are larger than the dine-in meals. Combine the generous serving size with some of the richest cooking outside a greasy spoon and you've got yourself (and your poor friend) all the fixings for a belly-filling, curry-flavored evening for two. 270 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.427.2400.

Quesadillas at La Hacienda

Located near the Boardwalk, this hidden gem is the destination spot for an especially cheap nibble--the quesadillas de maiz. More akin to standard tacos, La Hacienda's quesadillas are neither Senor Chili's floury jack cheese nightmares nor Napoleon Dynamite's grandmother's alluded-to "dillas." Grab a Pacifico and order a few veggie style ($1.85) or go with your choice of meat ($2.25), including al pastor every day and Sunday, and you will be welcomed home to the glory of a grilled thick corn tortilla laden with melted farm-style cheese, whole pinto beans, shredded cabbage and diced tomatoes as well as an ample squeeze bottle (replete with applicator tip) of house salsa to provide that continual sweet piquant touch to the warm comfort stacked within. A basket of chips and salsa costs $1.50 extra but is worth the dime for righteous, thick cut, freshly fried and salted tortillas to salvage whatever escapes your mouth while watching futbol on the telly or freaks on the beach promenade. 303 Beach St., Santa Cruz.


Frosty beverages may be delicious, but Sammy knows they can wreak havoc on his carefully planned budget.

An hour at Hoffman's at half the price

Don't worry if you feel like you should be meeting your grandparents here for dinner; the service is friendly, the food is of very good quality and Hoffman's is one of the few places downtown with consistent live music during dinner service. Between 5 and 6pm, stroll into Hoffman's Bakery and Cafe and get satisfied ordering from an ample half-price appetizer list that includes house-cured gravlax ($4.95), melted Cambazola cheese and roasted garlic ($4.50), crab-stuffed mushrooms (4.50) as well as coconut prawns ($4.95) and a chicken quesadilla ($3.95). During this gem of an hour, wines by the glass are half price as well ($2.50–$3.50) and sourced mainly from local wineries with many food friendly options from Bonny Doon Vineyard. Spend the night in one of their amply appointed booths and be the first in line to check out the bakery case and order a hot breakfast, as Hoffman's also knows how to rock the morning meal. 1102 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.420.0135.

El Palomar Taco Bar Happy Hour

Happy Hour is the obvious cliché of any Cheap Eats guide, but this one (4–6pm Monday–Thursday) is worth a little extra atención. To do the little number we call the "Taco Bar Shuffle," do yourself a favor and order a $2 carne asada taco, which is made with what are widely known as the best handmade corn tortillas in town. Next, take your complimentary bowl of fresh, warm chips and salsa and do the electric slide down to the other end of the bar, where you can order $2 pints of Tecate on tap. Gulp, crunch, shuffle back to the counter and promenade your taco home. Repeat from the top until happy. 1336 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.425.7575.

Touch my Jumping Monkey

This petite cafe at the front of the 418 building offers a simple, healthy, unpretentious menu anchored around masala dosa ($5.50)--a South Indian staple featuring an oversized, thin lentil or moong bean flour crepe grilled until crispy and stuffed with a savory potato/veggie masala. The slightly sour crepe is balanced by the savory masala and sweet coconut chutney. Eating one at Jumping Monkey may launch an arduous quest, for in Indian-challenged Santa Cruz County there is probably no other place to find dosa. Soon enough you might find yourself unconsciously scouring South Bay strip malls in search of these hard-to-find subcontinent gems. 418 Front St. Santa Cruz; 831.466.9770.

Movie Theater Undercover

Everyone knows that burritos are the ultimate movie theater snack, but if you don't have a purse, it's hard to smuggle them in. The fail-safe method is, of course, the John Holmes Technique, because ticket-tearers aren't paid to pat down suspicious-looking bulges. But the pitfalls of this approach are many and obvious, which is why we recommend the wadded-up sweatshirt or jacket-under-the-arm technique. Go ahead and wrap up that roasted, juice-injected Safeway chicken--as long as you don't dawdle long enough for theater staff to get a whiff of its mouthwatering aroma, you're in for a finger-licking good dinner and movie for (as of presstime) less than $15. Or, simply go to the Skyview Drive-In and BYO rotisserie.

Meat on a Stick at Parwana

This is the true story (true story!) of a Santa Cruz couple who have been dating long enough to stop being polite and start getting real about the dismal state of their finances. Soon, they discovered they could each have a satisfying Afghan meal of exuberantly spiced chicken kebabs served on a bed of fragrant rice palau by ordering the dish to go and splitting it--along with the very reasonable $12.95 cost. 1209 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz.

Charlie Hong Kong

This small but bustling Soquel Avenue joint serves quintessential Santa Cruz cheap eats: Pacific Rim favorites meet California organic in a fusion that can accommodate the widest range of "dietary concerns." Charlie's menu is brilliant both for its adaptability and affordability. Most entree choices are vegan-friendly (cheaper) though all may be enhanced by additional "toppings" (read veggie or meat protein and more expensive) ranging from Sweet Garlic Tofu to Hoisin Pork, from Ginger Beef to Teriyaki Salmon. Menu categories range from "big bowls" of stir-fried noodles or curried veggies ($5.50) to "soups and salads" ($2.75–$4.95) and "rice specialties" ($3.85–$5.65). Spicy Dan's Peanut Delight, the Gado Gado and all of the rice bowls are personal favorites. Hit Charlie's before a show at the Rio or when you're jonesing to be back in Southeast Asia. 1141 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.426.5664.


Photo for entertainment purposes only. Neither Metro Santa Cruz nor Sammy the Slug endorse, condone or promote the raiding of neighborhood dumpsters.

Dumpster Diving

It doesn't get any cheaper than this. The thing about dumpster diving is, there are only so many good spots in town, and already too many people who know about them. Kinda like surf spots, but with flies. Point is, we're not telling you where they are. Mmm, leftovers.

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From the September 21-28, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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