Vancouver’s Best Cheap Eats 2012

Modest but hospitable joints offering delicious food with head-scratcher prices-that’s what we set out to find, and after combing the streets and following leads from foodie friends, we arrived at this adventurous list. True that the cheap-eats road often points east, but we’ve also uncovered excellent, frugally minded spots downtown and on the West Side.

Hida Takayama

203-1610 Robson St., 604-633-1884

Half a block away, the hordes are lined up outside Santouka and Kintaro ramen houses, but here on the upper level of the Robson Public Market is a little kiosk serving our favourite bowls. It must be said that the place has a Dawn of the Dead vibe, but it also follows that ole cheap-eats dictum that the more fluorescent the lighting, the better the grub. The thin but firm noodles, which maintain that all-important delicate snap, are made in-house (the only ramen house we’ve come across to do so) and the ratio of noodles to cha-shu (braised loin slices from barley-fed pork) is liberally calibrated-the owner used to run the fine Niku-ya Meats butchery in Richmond before turning it over to his son. The broths on offer go beyond the typical offerings and include natural rock salt (a clean, bright flavour), white sesame, and tomato. On fair days, retreat to the small outdoor terrace and gloat over the unsuspecting masses.


Jethro’s Fine Grub

3420 Dunbar St., 604-569-3441

There are many tempting things on the menu (say, gator nuggets, $11, or chicken-fried steak, $12), but for two cheap eaters it’s gotta be the ridiculous Frisbee-sized buttermilk pancakes to share ($10; Gold Rush adds banana, pecans, caramel, and streusel; Grrreat Cakes, frosted flakes and fresh strawberries), and a side of scrambled eggs—it’s the meal of choice for one Vanmag editor and his teenage son, so know that you and a brunch mate will be more than satisfied, too. There is a catch: unless you plan to eat at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, you’ll be waiting in line—even before the Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives spotlight, this place was a zoo.



4363 Main St., 604-558-3338

While Neapolitan style is all the rage, remember that we live in a democratic nation, and it is your right to choose from an array of flatbread-with-topping options. You’re at Trilussa for pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice), the ubiquitous street food of Rome, and a formula that calls for a thick, bubble-riddled foundation upon which simple ingredient combos-like the Capri with potatoes, pesto, and pecorino; or the Vancouver, served cold, with smoked salmon and salad-are built; the rectangular slab is then cut into regular (five inches, $5.50) or large (seven inches, $7.50) slices. You’d do well to start the day here, too, with the Buongiorno panino (ordering it is almost as fun as eating it)—eggs, ham, and provolone are insulated by a freshly baked housemade panino bun ($5.95).

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Saravanaa Bhavan 

955 W. Broadway., 604-732-7700

Even our stubbornly carnivorous friends buckle for Saravanaa Bhavan, the South Indian veggie room where chef’s special dosas, like the two-foot-long paper masala, a crispy-thin crêpe filled with spiced potato and onion, painted with ghee, and accompanied by a bowl of daal and creamy coconut, chili mint, and fennel-dotted tomato chutneys, is just $8.50. And you can’t beat the takeout “tiffin” lunch special, $5, which offers a choice between four mains—paneer butter masala (roasted cottage cheese cooked with rich butter gravy), “chilly” mushroom (that’s chili and mushroom), baingan bharta (minced roasted eggplant), or palak mutter (spinach sautéed with onions, tomatoes, garlic, and peas)—with naan, rice, potato masala, and dessert.


LA Chicken

160-11780 Thorpe Rd., Richmond, 604-278-4737

The best fried chicken (and we’ll suffer no argument) is found at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, but if the 4,600-kilometre commute to the Seventh Ward in New Orleans seems extreme (wimps!), consider a trip to LA Chicken in Richmond. Poker-faced staff make the juicy pieces to order, and a four-piece original or spicy chicken dinner comes with fries, salad (one of the three amigos: potato, coleslaw, macaroni), and gravy, all for just shy of $12. You’ll want to eat it right away, though the charms of industrial East Richmond are few (save for that ginormous new IKEA). En plein air be damned: this is parking lot fodder and that suits us fine. 


Nimby Burger

2210 Cornwall Ave., 604-734-3589

Back in the heady days of 2009, you couldn’t lob an artisanal patty without hitting a menu featuring some sort of gourmet burger. (RIP db Bistro.) Meat-bomb cravings are still happily satisfied at joints like Max’s Burger, where weekly specials like the $10 British Columbian (salty, juicy, with just the right amount of patty popping out of the bacon-marmalade-licked brioche bun) plus a $3.75 sleeve of beer, make for an inexpensive Monday dinner out. But in this cheap-eats universe, there’s an even more satisfyingly Scroogy option: the $5.99 Dooblay (double meat, double cheese) burger from Nimby in Kitsilano. Those in the know order it Buster-style (topped with fried onions) and call on its hangover-prevention powers at next-door Local, where it appears for the same price on the late-night menu.


Via Tevere

1190 Victoria Dr., 604-336-1803 (are your speakers on?)

Vancouver’s current pizza craze was born from a perfect storm of food fetishism and a belt-tightening economy. Of the many worthy contenders for sexiest pie, we’re crushing on Via Tevere, which pulls off that neat trick of being planted in its neighbourhood but atmospherically transporting: the room has a buzzy, cozy bonhomie but the yawning, teal-tiled, wood-fired oven at the centre of the room announces that the pizzaioli mean biz. Purists can rest easy: the blistery, minimalist margherita ($11) with its tangy tomato, creamy fior di latte mozza, and aromatic basil shows how brilliant a few simple quality ingredients can be.


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Karl Gregg of Two Chefs and a Table knows a thing or two about building a brilliant-value plate, so when he says he hits up New Town Bakery for chicken congee, spicy pork buns, and braised short ribs, we follow suit. Also on his list: “great breakfasts under $10” at Helen’s Grill on Main; and highfalutin comfort-food hits from Moms Grilled Cheese Truck (try the Jackson 3, a triple-decker of sourdough mortared with brie, Boursin and gruyère). Gregg can’t resist the two-beer-and-a-burger deal at Famous Warehouse, he gets his pho fix at Saigon Café, and he swears by the sausage rolls at Woodland Commissary.
CIBO Trattoria‘s Neil Taylor finds good value on the dim sum menu at Kirin and at Phnom Penh, which offers “the best chicken wings and fried rice. The butter beef is killer too.” For a quick snack he recommends Zakkushi-“charcoal-grilled meat on sticks!”
Chris Mills of Joey Restaurants goes for nasi goreng at Hawkers Delight; bahn mi at Kim Saigon; and #1 with thick noodles at Wang’s Noodle House.
Ted Anderson of Campagnolo Roma and the newly opened Fat Dragon (we love his crunchy squid bao buns, a steal at $2.50) gets his cheap-eats fix at Q Go Ramen on Broadway at Granville and praises the punchy, spicy Northern Chinese cuisine at Nine Dishes on Kingsway. 

Heidi’s Café

5943 Fraser St., 604-639-6317

After a late night, or a long week, someone else needs to do the thinking. So follow this simple mantra: weekend breakfast, head to Heidi’s. From the limited menu, go for the jumbo combo: eggs how you like ’em, bacon and sausage, uniform hash browns, and two fluffy pancakes, $7.95. Pay up at the counter, and a tattooed server peddling hot sauce or HP delivers plates minutes later. Then it’s just man vs. food. There’s something to be said for pushing that last bite of breakfast sausage through the maple syrup dregs, then bolting. (Is there anything worse than staring at empty plates, waiting for the bill, when the rest of the day, or your bed, awaits?)


Chong Lee Market

3308 E. 22nd Ave., 604-432-6880

At this competitively priced Asian grocer you might shop for fresh squid, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chrysanthemum, or pigs’ ears, but head to the back for a true guilty pleasure: the takeout counter does its food-court cousin one better by using generous portions of quality meat in entrées like sticky, tangy garlic spare ribs, beef tripe in spicy sauce, and short ribs in tomato sauce (choice of two dishes plus sticky or fried rice, or chow mein, for $5.50, and it’ll easily feed two). But the real deal is the glistening barbecued poultry—whole lemongrass-smoked Cornish game hens ($6), free-range soya chicken ($12), barbecue duck ($13.99), and barbecued pork ($4.49 per pound)—hanging in the burnt-amber glass case.


Bosa Foods

1465 Kootenay St., 604-253-5578

When the pantry needs restocking, join the pilgrims heading to the Van/Burnaby border for tins of San Marzano tomatoes, chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano, and containers of Castelvetrano olives. At Bosa Foods, you can while away an afternoon browsing the shelves and deli cases, but when it’s time to refuel, head to the café for a griddle-toasted Veneziano panino—prosciutto cotto, roasted red peppers, provolone, and basil pesto spread, $4.99—which avoids the all-American tendency to screw around with extras like, say, avocado crème or lettuce. Maybe your mood points to the arancini (softball-sized rice balls stuffed with ground beef, peas, and tomato sauce, coated in breadcrumbs, and fried, $4.99)—which is also a fine and filling meal. Take your lunch to the second-floor atrium, where kids run wild in their Saturday-visit-with-Nonna finest and elderly couples natter over which brand of biscotti to buy.


Grounds for Appeal

845 Cambie St., 604-681-8558

Continuing in the long (if inglorious) tradition of cafés with play-on-word names, Grounds for Appeal in the Law Society of B.C. building is not just a caffeine oasis for cubicle monkeys. At lunch, the lineup snakes out the door with in-the-know legal eagles: $7.99 ($6.50 for veg) buys a plentiful bowl of curry, which may include tomato-rich butter chicken, korma, rogan josh, or chana masala, with a plate of buttery, cumin-seed-and-pea-studded rice, and a round of fluffy naan, all served unceremoniously (save for a pretty napkin) on a cafeteria tray. So sue us if the milkshake-thick mango lassi ($2.50) ensures you sleep though those afternoon meetings.


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1537 W. Broadway, 604-733-9696

South Granville and cheap eats don’t typically go hand in hand, but the lunch special ($7.99, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) at Lin gives you the choice of 18 different meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes, including crowd-fave ginger beef (the tangled shards pack a belly-warming heat) and chef specials like honey prawn (the deep-fried critters swim in a citrusy, slightly creamy sauce). The portions are huge, so there’ll be plenty of leftovers, but you’d be a dang fool to miss out on an order of the city’s best xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings)—five bucks gets you six thin-skinned beauties encasing a slightly spiced ground-pork lozenge and a squirt of deeply flavoured, piping-hot broth.


Mango Thai

1206 Davie St., 604-689-9980

Until Portland’s Andy Ricker opens a Pok Pok North (oh, how we dream of those sticky, salty, pungent, spicy chicken wings), we’ll rely on quality takeout for our cheap-eats Thai fix, and nowhere offers better value than Davie’s Mango Thai. Daily lunch specials ($6.99)—served with rice, a shatteringly crisp spring roll, and salad—include coconut-rich curries and signature chili-paste-based stir-fries. In the kitchen, the energetic Thai chefs cook Bangkok-style (itself the melting pot for regional delicacies), eschewing the sugary, ketchup-laced pad Thai favoured by competitors for something tangier and more authentic. (Hint: tamarind sauce instead of vinegar gives it that bona fide sour taste).


La Brasserie Street

Granville & Georgia (Mon. to Fri., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m), 778-989-4883


What a happy adventure it is grazing through food truck offerings now that we’ve finally got a mobile-eats culture to brag about. When the Tacofino truck stops by our offices there’s a stampede for the fish tacos (the crisp lingcod, the chipotle mayo, the crunchy cabbage, the fresh salsa!), but if there’s one dish we’ll gladly travel for, it’s the beer-brined rotisserie chicken nestled into a buttermilk bun, overflowing with crispy frizzled onions and dressed with full-flavoured gravy ($6.25) at La Brasserie’s burgundy food truck outside the City Centre Canada Line station. It’s everything you love about Sunday roast-chicken dinner, doled out by the fistful.


Mui Ngo Gai

2052 Kingsway, 604-876-8885

The name means “coriander scent,” and to owner Nghi Do—who left Vietnam 30 years ago and worked in restaurants across North America until opening his own a decade ago—it’s not unimportant: on a stretch of Kingsway nicknamed “Little Saigon,” authenticity doesn’t set you apart, it ensures survival. All the critical components are here: fragrant herbs, searing chilies, tart lime juice, pungent fish sauce, and servings large enough to feed a group. The pho (large, $6.35) is clean and bright, a densely aromatic tangle of star anise, clove, cardamom, and cinnamon. Goi gà ($10) is a heaping platter of poached chicken breast, crispy white cabbage, roasted crispy shallots, and shards of peanuts to garnish, dressed in a thin but piquant sauce; move on to thit bo nuong la lot ($14), barbecued ground beef meatballs wrapped in sweetly spicy, fragrant piper leaf, then sandwiched with rice noodles and Thai basil in lettuce. 

Are there places we’ve missed? Let us know!