Cheap Thrills

By staff May 1, 2005

For many, college teaches the valuable skill of managing time. You need to make time to attend class, time to study, time not to study and, of course, time to eat. As a recent graduate of New College of Florida, I can attest to the importance food played for me and my friends in college life. The success of many a college function has hinged on food. If that food is free, you can usually count on people showing up. What you can't always count on is free food every day, especially when attending a small school like New College.

When there was no free pizza to graze over-or elbow my way towards, as the case might have been-I had to find food elsewhere. The cafeteria lost its charm pretty quickly; I'll leave it at that. Delivery wore thin, too. The only other option was-gasp-to leave campus.

Going out to eat was totally justifiable for a number of reasons. There's the old, "It's not like I'm slacking, I mean, I need to eat, right?" And, really, if there isn't anything in the fridge, well, then, there just isn't.

The following list of restaurants comes from my four years of dining out in college as well as suggestions from other students. Our criteria-classic for any college student: It had to be good; it had to be abundant; and most of all, it had to be cheap. Our definition of a cheap meal was simple-roughly $5 for lunch and $10 for dinner. A few items on this list defy that definition, but that's OK once in a while. And as we gleefully discovered and you will see, dining out on a college budget doesn't just mean going out to get the pizza.

Dinner at Yoder's might be the most wholesome thing some college students do all year-discounting the many possibilities for gluttony, of course. A psalm on this 30-year-old Amish eatery's menu impels diners to "taste and see that the Lord is good." Regardless of your own affiliations, there is no denying the divine qualities of the food at Yoder's-especially the pie. Rare is the diner who doesn't leave with at least a slice, and more often than not, a whole pie. With over two dozen varieties on the menu and special pies offered daily, Yoder's desserts are a draw all by themselves. I know a few seasoned Yoder's fans who make pie their first course, knowing very well they won't have room for dessert. That homemade goodness will cost you, though: a slice of pie ranges from $3.50 to $4.25. At four and a quarter, that might as well be lunch, and what's wrong with that?

Now that we've discussed desserts, let's move on to dinners. The majority of Yoder's entrées hover around the $10 mark, although several offerings are available in smaller, cheaper portions. The leftover factor is a big consideration here. You'll most likely be able to make another meal out of whatever you take home. For under $10, you can do no better than a quarter fried chicken, a pair of side dishes such as mashed potatoes, fried okra or baked apples, and a few slices of freshly baked bread topped with apple jelly. Although good food takes time, the dinners at Yoder's are usually ready when you are. Despite an ever-bustling dining room, the wait for a meal is never long.

While Yoder's can cater to the college budget, we quickly learned it doesn't exactly cater to the college schedule. The doors close at 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and stay closed on Sundays.

At first glance, the prices at Tondero might not appear cheap. Everything changes, though, when you see the portions. Large oval platters are piled so high at this Peruvian eatery that they put Richard Dreyfuss' Close Encounters sculptures to shame. Most of the appetizers and entrées at Tondero lend themselves to sharing, and family-style ordering is not uncommon.

Meals begin with a dish of cancha, large kernel South American corn, fried nut brown and served with a smooth, pale-green chile sauce. Although Tondero's menu is varied, its seafood dishes seem to be the most frequently ordered. One of the stars of Tondero's menu is its ceviche, a chilled salad of fish, squid, shrimp and mussels, "cooked" by citrus juices and served with corn, boiled sweet potatoes and a red onion, lime and cilantro slaw.

For something on the warm side, there's the jalea mixta, a similar blend of seafood, deep fried and served with copious amounts of the onion slaw. The captain's basket this is not. Meals such as the ceviche or the jalea mixta rely on the simplicity and freshness of the ingredients and the technique with which they are prepared. The flavors of lime and chile in the ceviche are clear and fresh; the fried seafood is light, and not at all greasy, doing justice to the seafood's delicacy.

Tondero does wonderful things with chicken as well. The Peruvian-style tamales, light and almost sweet with the scent of corn, are studded with strips of shredded chicken of dried red chile, and topped with the ubiquitous onion salad. Another Peruvian specialty, aji de gallina, features shredded chicken in a velvety, chile-laced sauce. Peru's large Chinese population has also left a mark on the nation's cuisine. One of the most notable and perhaps unexpected items on Tondero's menu is fried rice. It is as good as, perhaps better than, any I've had elsewhere.

If Tondero is the place to share a large plate, Miss Saigon is the place to have one all to yourself. The restaurant boasts an extensive list of Vietnamese fare, the star of which is pho, the traditional soup of beef, beef broth, rice noodles, and fresh herbs. Served in a bowl the size of a small hubcap, orders of pho start at around $6. From there, you can add different cuts of beef, including flank and brisket, or other meaty bits such as tripe, tendon or Vietnamese-style meatballs. Skeptics may scoff at the idea of a $6 bowl of soup, but Miss Saigon's pho is as filling anything else you'll find on the menu.

The ritual that accompanies eating pho is satiating in itself. When you begin, your bowl contains only noodles, broth and whatever cuts of meat you requested. While some cuts are previously cooked, others are left to finish cooking in the highly aromatic and disfiguringly hot broth that is the true star of the dish. The pho broth, which has clear beef flavor with overtones of star anise, acts as a blank canvas for whatever the diner chooses to add to their bowl. Accompanying every bowl of pho is a platter of Thai basil, lime wedges and slivered chiles. Along with the fresh components, there are also several sauces such as hoi sin sauce and sri racha-style chile sauce. You adjust the soup to your liking, and, as the meal goes on, the broth gains complexity; the subtle tones of beef and anise become punctuated with the fresh, immediate flavors of herbs, lime and red chile sauce.

Although pho is the standout value on Miss Saigon's menu, there are a host of other reasonably priced entrées including stir fries, sandwiches, and rice vermicelli dishes. Most meals are priced well under $10 and portions are more than substantial.

As with Tondero, cross-cultural influences are also apparent in Miss Saigon's food. French influences show up on the menu in the form of banh mi, toasted baguettes piled with grilled pork and cucumber slaw, or shrimp mousse wrapped around sugar cane skewers and grilled.

Vegetarian diners should be aware that many dishes contain fish sauce, a flavoring that figures heavily in Vietnamese cuisine. Even if a dish appears to be vegetarian, it's always best to ask. The kitchen has accommodated my vegetarian dining companions in the past.

A straightforward Colombian/Cuban diner, Mi Tierra has a menu that caters to both the adventurous and the timid. For the latter there are the ubiquitous rice and beans, fried plantains, fried pork chops and roasted chicken. However, the traditional fare also includes items such as morcilla-Colombian blood sausage, shiny and dark, plump with pork, rice, and spices.

I had overlooked the morcilla on my first few visits to Mi Tierra. Only on my third or fourth meal did I notice the man at the table beside me with a plate of the unmistakable garnet-colored sausage.

"Is that blood sausage?" I asked.

"Uh huh," he replied, still eating away, hardly even looking up from his plate.

"Is it pretty good here?"

"Uh huh," again, nodding to his dinner.

I had already turned back to my own table when he qualified his last answer with, "If you, uh, like that kind of thing, yeah, it's good."

I've been ordering it ever since.

Another item for the "if-you-like-that-kind-of-thing" category is Mi Tierra's tripe soup, or mondongo-a milder Caribbean cousin of Mexico's menudo. Tripe is a fickle thing to prepare, and Mi Tierra does well in making it tender and satisfying.

Equally satisfying: More than 20 of Mi Tierra's dinners or dinner-sized soup specials are under $10. The $5 daily specials, such as boliche or arroz con pollo, are not to be missed, either. Most meals also come with a variety of sides, such as rice, beans, plantains, arepas (corn cakes) or salad.

A must for dining at Mi Tierra are the batidos, or fruit shakes. Tropical fruits such as papaya, passion fruit or guava are blended with milk or water and served up in fountain glasses. The cold, slightly acidic tang of a passion fruit shake is the perfect foil to a platter of crunchy fried pork chops and starchy yucca.

Finally, I have not found a more substantial breakfast than the desayuno montanero at Mi Tierra. After this "mountaineer's breakfast" of rice and beans, plantains and a steak topped with a fried egg, the only place I'm ready to climb is back into bed-in a good way.

At New College, if pizza wasn't the free lure of choice at a student function, there was a good chance that Sahara's food was-and for good reason. If you're a vegetarian, or if blood sausage just isn't your thing, this Middle Eastern deli might be more your speed. Meatless staples such as hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves and falafel are favorites. The vegetarian sampler includes all of these, plus Sahara's freshly baked pita bread, for around $5. If you want to pick and choose, each of these items, as well as sides such as baba ghanouj, Kalamata olives, and labneh (drained yogurt with spices) are available à la carte for $2 to $3.

There are also plenty of options for the omnivorous, such as gyros (pita bread wrapped around shaved beef and lamb, crisp vegetables, yogurt sauce, and creamy, salty feta cheese) and kibbeh-Lebanese-style croquettes of ground beef, cracked wheat, pine nuts and spices. If you're hungry, most items at Sahara are available as part of a platter, which comes with hummus or baba ghanouj, tabbouleh or Greek salad, and pita. All are roughly $5 to $7.

For dessert, there's baklava-flaky phyllo dough layered with pistachios and honey. At $1 each, why not?

For those looking to do some Middle Eastern cooking at home, Sahara has a small deli case with a variety of olives and cheeses. You'll also find bulk spices and teas, plus other flavorings such as pomegranate syrup and rose water.

As with Yoder's, Sahara closes early; so, if you're looking to get your falafel on, you'd better get there before 8 p.m.

Just down the road from Sahara, sharing a plaza with a post office and a wig shop, is Kazu's, a sushi restaurant and "Asian bistro." If you blink, you might miss it; in fact, the first time I tried to go there, I did. While the term "Asian bistro" may conjure images of completely fusion-based fare, traditional Japanese cuisine seems to be at the heart of Kazu's menu. Large glasses of fragrant green tea, plump, crispy dumplings (gyoza) and warm soybeans (edamame) are all excellent and inexpensive ways to begin a meal. If you have to choose one appetizer, though, it should be Kazu's agedashi tofu. Large cubes of locally produced tofu are lightly deep fried, dressed with a soy and sesame sauce and topped with slivered scallions. The deep-frying leaves only a whisper of a crust, and the tofu yields easily to the pressure of a chopstick. The texture is light and custard-like, with distinct curds that resemble very tender scrambled eggs.

While cheap sushi doesn't always have the greatest connotations, Kazu's sushi is fresh tasting, skillfully prepared and inexpensive. There are over 20 rolls for under $5, as well as several pieces of sushi and sashimi ranging from $1.50 to $4.

Another Kazu's dish that's not to be missed is the miso soup noodle bowl-a gentle broth of miso, spiked with ginger, and rich with buckwheat noodles, fresh vegetables, tofu and crispy tempura chips. For around $9, this ample bowl makes a light yet satisfying dinner.

One final thing to keep in mind: Kazu's has fewer than 10 tables. This makes for both an intimate setting and a good chance of waiting for a table. Ultimately, the small space is a plus, as the attentive staff is never too far away; as a result, patrons are well taken care of. Still, if you don't want to wait, Kazu's encourages people to call or fax in advance and simply pick up their orders.

When we wanted to get out for a bite and still feel like we hadn't left the campus, we'd head to the Brownstone Café. Incense wafts around the ceiling, the lava lamp gurgles behind the bar and the black lights are just bright enough to read the menu or study. What the Brownstone has that our dorm certainly didn't is half a dozen imported beers and domestic micro-brews on tap, plus more than 80 bottled beers to choose from. Prices vary, but there's a good chance of finding a beer special if you're drinking on the cheap. If you're not, then you'll be delighted to find a solid selection of boutique brews from producers such as Rogue, Chimay, and Unibroue, as well as a changing variety of ciders, lambics and barley wines. Seasonal selections are worth checking in on, too. On a final beverage note, I have to salute the Brownstone for its diligence in trying to keep RC Cola on tap. It's a battle worth fighting.

Once you've figured out what to drink, deciding what to eat is fairly simple. The Brownstone offers a handful of sandwiches and salads-all of which cost roughly $5 to $6. Grab a seat at the bar or in one of the large, comfortable booths, and tuck into a hot Italian veggie sub, loaded with sautéed spinach and mushrooms topped with provolone. Add a half salad, which is a meal unto itself, and you've got a fine dinner. If you prefer something a little meatier, the Brownstone has an Italian cold-cut sub as well.

A relative newcomer to the Sarasota coffee/tea shop scene, Sarasota Coffee and Tea Company is a welcome addition to downtown Sarasota. Upon entering the renovated theater that the restaurant now calls home, you find yourself standing next to a gigantic scarlet and gold coffee roaster. A small electronic console shines from the machine's battered metal chassis, hinting that it may not be a completely antique piece of equipment. This combination of old and new continues throughout the building as modern furniture and halogen lights stand out against a backdrop of exposed rafters and brick walls. The resulting environment is both relaxing and engaging; a small mezzanine allows patrons a quiet space to read and work while paintings and art installations from local artists provide welcome distractions. Wireless Internet access is also a nice touch.

All the coffees served at Sarasota Coffee and Tea Company are roasted in-house. SCAT Co. (as I've come to know it) imports coffees from countries around the world, including Peru, Costa Rica, Kenya and Ethiopia. A regular cup of joe starts at around $1, although you can choose pricier coffee concoctions, both hot and cold.

As the name implies, tea is a big deal here, too. For around $2 you can get a small pot of tea, perfect for one person. Varieties include traditional black and English teas, green teas, and several unusual herbal teas such as honeybush, rooibos and yerba mate.

As well as showcasing local art, Sarasota Coffee and Tea Company is making a name for itself by hosting local musical talent on a weekly basis. Again, you'll get the feeling of something traditional-acoustic, coffeehouse entertainment-in a more modern setting.

Whether you're a student on a budget or you dine out every night, these restaurants are all worth trying. It doesn't take a college education to know good food, and even Donald Trump likes finding a deal once in a while.

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