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Cheap Eats

Eating the vida loca on a student's budget

By Heather Irwin

Life in wine country isn't all foie gras and truffles. For those of us who haven't yet inherited a multimillion dollar winery or hit the Lotto, life without a disposable income can be brutal. But slurping yet another bag of Top Ramen? That's downright uncivilized. Being broke doesn't mean you have to go hungry--far from it, for there's a world of tasty treats to be had for under $8 if you look hard enough.

After plundering questionable kitchens, flushing out bad fry cooks and overcoming the ever-present risk of steam-table food poisoning, we've sussed out the very tippy-toppiest of the area's cheap eats. Plus, some moderately OK, only slightly Pepto-inducing experiences that are inexpensive, if nothing else.

Good Karma: Indian

It's pretty hard to go away from an Indian buffet hungry--or without a slick of saffron-colored grease congealing on your plate. Either way, the whole thing is pretty satisfying, especially when washing it all down with a mango lassi and some naan. For bulky yet penny-conscious lunchtime eats, Karma Indian Bistro (7530 Commerce Blvd., Cotati, 707.795.1702) has a deal worthy of two sacred cows--just $6.95 for its lunch buffet. But come early, as things are pretty picked over by around 2pm.

Newcomer Shangri-La (1706 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, 707.793.0300) has a gut-filling special of rice, lentil soup and your choice of curries (veggie or chicken) for $7.99, and they're open until 9:30pm for post-study munchies.

Recently relocated from suburban exile, Govinda's (1899 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.544.2491) does a brisk business with its vegetarian buffet-only restaurant. Though the selection is somewhat limited, $5.75 ($7.75 at dinner) gets you fresh, home-style veggie treats like daal, rice and, um, pasta alfredo? Avoid the obvious discrepancies and be prepared for an adventure, as the dishes change daily.

Also surprisingly good is the popular SRJC standby Tandoori Express (1880 Mendocino Ave. #D, Santa Rosa, 707.543.8168), which fares well both on the pocketbook (most entrées are less than $7) and the palate, despite its appalling rural-Kentucky-gas-station-meets-Bombay-train-station décor.

Asian Invasion: Korean, Vietnamese and Thai

You are not eating one more plate of crummy, ketchupy sweet-and-sour pork. Seriously, get on with it and try something more exotic and daring, like Pho Vietnam (711 Stony Point Road #8, Santa Rosa, 707.571.7687). Though Pho has had a few run-ins with the health department in the past, the food is as good--maybe better--than ever. And, hey, talk about culinary daring! Crowds flock for authentic Pho noodle soup, but the bun vermicelli with barbecued pork ($5.50) is truly trip-worthy. Paired with rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls ($3.75), you've got more than enough for two people for under $10. Skip the egg rolls, however (bland and tasteless) and the weird liquid-with-something-floating concoctions in the refrigerator. Ick.

The $7 to $9 entrée prices at Jhanthong Banbua (2400 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.528.8048) make it a little pricier than other cheap eats on the list, but the Pad Thai ($7.25) is spectacular. After dinner, you and your honey can get a double room next door for just $37.50 at the Gold Coin Motel.

Bear Korean (8577 Gravenstein Hwy., Cotati, 707.794.9828) is the area's best (and only) place for really authentic kimchi and barbecued pork, though the prices have crept up lately. You can get a great lunch special ($6.95), however, on the weekdays while sampling the elaborate small condiment plates of pickled and preserved goodies.

For do-it-yourself-ers, Phnom Penh(923 Petaluma Hill Road, Santa Rosa, 707.545.7426) has a wide selection of shrink-wrapped, bottled and frozen Asian mystery foods, including ready-to-eat frozen beetles and salted liquid shrimp. We're also fond of the glowing, unrefrigerated blobs of fruit jelly at G&G Market (1211 W. College Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.546.6877). Yum.

The Raw Deal

Inexpensive sushi is almost impossible to find North of San Francisco. We almost daily lament the fact that Kitaro (5850 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, 415.386.2777), the insanely budget-conscious sushi spot, hasn't opened a North Bay branch yet. But there are some sushi deals to be found if you know where to look. U&I Sushi (199 Southwest Blvd., Rohnert Park, 707.794.0410) has a $15 lunch special that includes any three rolls or two rolls and four nigiri, as well as a 70-item all-you-can-eat sushi bar ($15.95) at lunch.

Sushi Hana (6930 Burnett St., Sebastopol, 707.823.3778) has a wildly popular $1 sushi night on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Jo Jo Sushi (645 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707.569.8588), though not an especially cheap eat, has the best sushi for the price and is open until 10pm most nights.

Pacific Market (1465 Town and Country Drive, Santa Rosa, 707.546.3663 ) still rules the grocery-store sushi at $7 and under for a bellyful of fresh fish.

Pie in Your Eye

In the battle over pizza, it comes down to two things: taste vs. quantity. If you care about issues like a crispy, thin crust, real ricotta cheese and fresh pesto, Mombo's (1880-B Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.528.3278) is your slice. The fact that Mombo's delivers is a bonus when you can't locate anything that isn't stained or offensively foul-smelling to wear. But at $2.50 to $3 a slice, it can be a little hard on the wallet if you're hungry.

For a good balance of taste and price--only if you can locate your oven (and it actually works)--Papa Murphy's (1985 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.568.7272) is the cheapest and best take-and-bake choice. The chicken garlic gourmet pizza with white sauce and tomatoes rivals the best anyone has to offer, and with coupons littering your doorstep and mailbox frequently, you're bound to find a large pizza for under $10 most weeks.

If sheer quantity, however, is of first concern, the runaway steal of the century is Safeway's $5 Friday pizza deal. For a mere fiver, you get a massive semi-edible pizza, a deli salad and a liter of soda.

Eat Late

Round here, sidewalks tend to roll up around 9pm, and most days, if you're still hungry after dark, well, you tend to stay hungry. A few brave souls continue to serve, however, and Adel's (456 College Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.578.1003) is open most nights until midnight. The people-watching is spectacular, the food is good diner fare and the mini fruit parasols in your drink are worth the trip alone, particularly after a hard night of drinking at the 440 Club (where we wouldn't recommend eating the peanuts, no matter how hungry you are).

Open and serving until 3am, Sweet Lou's (8201 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati, 707.793.0955) has a late-night Italian-style menu, though a recent health inspection (Aug. 17, 2004) found some vermin issues that may or may not concern you, depending on your level of inebriation.

A'Roma Roasters (95 Fifth St., Santa Rosa; 707.576.7765) serves up hot coffee and sweets until 11pm, along with even hotter and sweeter tattooed boyz and gyrlz behind the counter.

Made In the U.S.A.

Heavenly Burger (4910 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa, 707.539.9791) is still tops for a decent, honest slab o' ground beef on a bun, though Mike's at the Crossroads (7665 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati, 707.665.9999) comes in a very close second. Points are deducted not for the burger itself, mind you, but for the fact that Mike won't sell fries. He's got 11 reasons why not, including the fact that he's just too lazy to change the grease. Frankly, I hate potato salad and cole slaw and just about anything else that isn't a French fry with my burger, so Mike and I have a difference of opinion.

Mike's also isn't real accommodating to non-cheese eaters (his burgers all come with cheese, and he threatens to charge you a nickel to take it off), a problem for my favorite cheese-eschewing dining companion. Props, however, for the Petaluma stock-yard location (Mike's at the Yard, 84 Corona Road, Petaluma, 707.769.1082), the perfect spot for a memorable first date.

For weenie lovers, Charlie's Serious Chili Dogs (1301 Maurice Ave., Rohnert Park, 707.792.9274) isn't kidding around when it comes to the chili part. More Coney Island than Cincinnati, it's a dog with beefy panache (and only $3.25).

The recently opened Russian River Brewing Company (725 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707.545.BEER) has decent pizza and even better focaccia to soak up that pitcher of beer for between $6.75 and $8. Though "caramelized" didn't exactly describe the slightly crunchy onions on my pizza, my personal pie wasn't an altogether unpleasant experience, though the beer is unmistakably the main attraction here.

El Norte

And what about Mexican food? I'm still searching for that killer burrito, the ultimate tamale, the Holy Grail of enchiladas. Sure, there are some great local taquerias like the Sonoma Taco Shop (three locations: 913 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park, 707.585.2944; 953 Lakeville Hwy., Petaluma, 707.778.7921; 57 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa, 707.525.8585) and Taqueria los Altos de Jalisco (2700 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.575.1265). But I'm yet unswayed.

El Taco Grande (425 Center St., Healdsburg, 707.431.1464) has a burrito stuffed with so much meat, cheese and sour cream, that it's more than worthy of its name, El Loco Burrito, and La Playa Azul's (228 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, 707.763.8768) Swiss-covered enchilada rocks. But I'm a die-hard, still loyal to Taqueria la Sirenita (2817 N.E. Alberta St., Portland, Ore.) for the world's most amazing burrito. Convince me otherwise. Please.



Rock Bottom

Sometimes the dollar just doesn't stretch until the next paycheck, parental check or stipend comes in. That's still no reason to eat a hot, hasty bowl of reconstituted noodles with a packet of chemicals shaken atop.

While a $5 pizza deal is great, a $1 pizza deal is even better. Trader Joe's sells fresh pizza dough by the bag, enough for one large homemade pizza, for just a buck. Remarkably stable (a recently "discovered" bag that had been loitering in my fridge for at least two weeks baked up quite well), this stuff needs only to be stretched on a cookie sheet or pizza pan, brushed with olive oil and chopped garlic, and suddenly the oven is having a party.

Speaking of parties, the more the merrier. People, particularly as they age, tend to think of parties as great expenses to be sparingly scheduled. The truth is that scrubbing the toilet, hiding the worst of it and hosting a potluck is a great way to have dinner, breakfast, lunch or all three, depending on leftovers. Just as we don't want you eating chemical-laced noodles, we want everyone to have just that much more fun. Parties, parties, parties--oh, yes please. Plus, they are a great way to share with other people.

Sharing is particularly good when you've got a buddy with an expired Costco card. Such plastic gains airy access to the vast emporia of oversized products but of course denies purchase of a year's worth of toilet paper or the retail chain's newest product, the casket. Rather, one glides in through the hangar-sized doors on an expired card merely to eat lunch. The hot dog deal there offering a massive Polish dog with all the onions and relish a reasonable person can consume, replete with a soda for just $1.75, remains one of the last great midday coups.

And that's "midday" because foraging is best done in the morning or evening when the sun's relentless gaze allows fruits and vegetables a rest from wilt. Particularly in our bounteous climes, there is literally dinner for the picking, just right outside the door. We are not advocating stealing your neighbor's zucchini (though they'd of course be grateful given this plant's insane fecundity), but rather retraining the eye so that ground-lying walnuts are more than just something satisfying to crunch with a heel on the sidewalk; that the blackberries in riot on every public road needn't wither on the vine; and that ancient fig trees don't labor to produce their 100th crop in vain.

Many people in rural areas, lacking a full-time helper in the kitchen to can and freeze and "put up" all the produce, feel overwhelmed by the their farmhouse orchards this time of year. A polite knock on the door will often be rewarded with an instant U-pick feast in the form of a grocery bag full of homegrown pears, apples, quince and other autumnal goodness. Buy a bar of chocolate and, goodness, that's dinner.

--Gretchen Giles

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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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