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  • Photos by Ryan DuVall | The Journal Gazette A $2.50 cheeseburger with a $2.50 side of fries at The Oyster Bar on Calhoun Street.

  • Taiwan Express’ kung pao beef $5.59 lunch includes soup, fried rice and a crab Rangoon.

  • A $5.89 beef enchilada Express Platter with chips and salsa at Cebolla’s Mexican Grill.

  • The Big Texas Grilled Cheese platter at Liberty Diner on Goshen Avenue includes a cup of soup, rolls and a side of french fries for only $6.95.

  • Photos by Ryan DuVall | The Journal Gazette A $5.99 spaghetti and meatball lunch special with a side salad and a 99-cent basket of breadsticks at Ziano’s Italian Eatery in the Chapel Ridge Shopping Center.

  • The $6 ham and cheese combo from the “Niños” menu at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street with a side of sweet and savory plantains and a drink.

Sunday, July 08, 2018 1:00 am

Get most for your buck

RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette

Everybody loves a good deal, and there are plenty of chain and fast-food places that made cheap lunches the backbone of their business.

But those drive-thru joints aren't the only places where you can eat for about $6. There are several places where you can get more bang for your buck and these meals are way better than fast food.

So here's a look at my favorite cheap lunches. (Note: Prices do not include tips or drinks unless specified):

Lunch Special

Where: Taiwan Express, 820 Goshen Ave.

Cost: $5.59

This is the place on my cheap eats list that I visit the most often. I love the people who run it, love the solid food they produce and love that price point considering it includes one of 14 dishes – five kinds of fried rice, kung pao chicken, beef or shrimp, garlic, orange, sesame or General Tso's chicken, pork with broccoli or chicken lo mein – with a side of white or fried rice, a small hot and sour or egg drop soup and a piece of crab Rangoon.

The kung pao beef is a fine choice and provides enough of the spicy-sauced, thinly sliced meat, green peppers, diced water chestnuts, onions and cubes of bamboo to cover half of the plate with the rice covering the other half. And the General Tso's is always just right. The egg drop soup is pretty basic but the hot and sour has onions, Asian cabbage and carrots to give it added heft.

Burger Tuesdays

Where: The Oyster Bar, 1830 S. Calhoun St.

Cost: Starts at $2

A popular weekly special that might require a lunch reservation, this was easily the tastiest cheap meal. The half-pound burger is only $2 with standard toppings of lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. And that burger is made from ground sirloin and scraps of the restaurant's filet mignon so it is a gourmet burger. It is 50 cents to add cheese and a side of fries is $2.50. So you can have a great cheeseburger with a side of fries for $5. If you want to add bacon or an egg, add another $1 for each.

But there's more! The restaurant also offers gourmet upgrades you can add to the plain $2 burger for $3.75, $4.75 or $5.75. One of the recent $3.75 additions was a Mediterranean-style with brie, balsamic, spinach and feta cheese. There was a $4.75 option recently that included a sun-dried tomato-corn crust, prosciutto, pepperjack cheese and spicy corn mayo. The $5.75 upgrades might feature a crab cake or barbecued shrimp along with a tasty sauce and cheese.

Express Platter

Where: Cebolla's, 236 Fernhill Ave., 5930 W. Jefferson Blvd., 602 E. Dupont Road, 1234 N. Wells St. (Don Chava's)

Cost: $5.89

Diners can choose a taco, enchilada, chalupa, tostada, tamale or tostaguac that comes with sides of refried beans and Spanish rice. I went with a beef enchilada, which seemed to be the most filling option. What makes this meal a grand idea is that it, of course, includes complimentary chips and salsa, so filling up is not an issue.

Big Texas Grilled Cheese Platter

Where: Liberty Diner, 2929 Goshen Road

Cost: $6.95

It is the most expensive of my cheap offerings, but it is still a great bargain. In addition to the thick, crispy, buttery sandwich, you get an appetizer cup of soup – avgolemono (lemon-chicken-rice) is hard to beat – and a couple of fresh rolls with that soup. The sandwich is flanked by a heaping pile of the diner's impeccable double-fried french fries.

You can also tweak this deal a bit. If you don't want the fries, you will be charged 50 cents less. You can substitute a side salad instead of that soup or fries for an extra $2.25. And since Liberty Diner is the best place in the city to get a salad, another not-too-salty option is getting a half order of one of its signature salads which are still huge and includes rolls. The Caesar or spinach salads would be the cheapest options at $5.95. The more extravagant salads are just a bit more, such as the Mediterranean which runs $8.95 for a half. To add soup to those half salads, it would cost $1.75.

Spaghetti and meatballs

Where: Ziano's Italian Eatery, 5907 Covington Road, 702 E. Dupont Road, 10520 Maysville Road

Cost: $5.99

This deal is hard to pass on. The big meatball makes this a sizable offering as does the side salad that comes with it. The salad has mixed greens, iceberg and romaine, red peppers, tomatoes, green onions and mozzarella and Romano cheese. The house Italian dressing is strong with a distinct vinegar kick, so you might want to ask for it on the side. That salad comes with a piece of ciabatta bread, but for just 99 cents you can get a basket of five of Ziano's fabulous sweet breadsticks. Actually, paying $1.99 for a side salad and adding a basket of breadsticks might be the best cheap meal option.

'Niņos' Ham and Cheese

Where: Caliente Cuban Cafe, 120 W. Wayne St.

Cost: $6

Caliente was founded as an affordable place at its original locale on East State Boulevard, so there are many cheap options. The best now is the Cuban-style, pressed ham and mozzarella sandwich, which is part of the kids menu but can be ordered – and is often ordered, according to manager Nestor Rodriguez – by adults, too. It includes a standard side and a soft drink, which none of the others include.

Grilled cheese is also an option for just $5.50 or you can go with roasted pork and mojo for $6.50. About anything stuffed between that tasty homemade Cuban bread is good so there is no wrong choice. The most filling side is the restaurant's fantastic black bean soup, but I preferred the plantains, which can be had sweet, savory or mixed, which is what I chose to add diversity.

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall