Cheap Eats: 20 Under $20

PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER TAYLOR

1. Carolinas Dish   
Medium Plate with Banana Pudding

Find Southern comfort—complete with sweet tea and cornbread—in owner Edna Roberson’s family recipes. Try a ketchup-covered slice of meat loaf with a side of black-eyed peas, which are tender, full of flavor, and some of the best around. Portions here are generous, so you’ll have to make several trips to try it all, from the coarsely chopped collard greens to the fluffy banana pudding finish. 9624 Monroe Rd., 704-847-3474
$13.04 (+tax)


2. Savor Café & Catering 
Chicken Cutlets   
 
You’ll have a view of the city skyline and Southern comfort cuisine with a twist when you sit down at Savor Café in FreeMoreWest. The Pan-Fried Chicken Cutlet entrée comes with two sides—roasted root vegetable hash and drunken collard greens—to complement the two crispy cutlets smothered in pimento cheese and bacon bits. This meal goes a long, long way. 1404 W. Morehead St., 704-334-0098
$14 (+tax)


3. Mert’s Heart & Soul 
Low Country Combo with BBQ Beef Rib and Fried Chicken Leg Quarter
    
The shifting landscape of uptown Charlotte hasn’t diminished diners’ affection for Mert’s Heart & Soul, with its checkered floors and two decades’ worth of mementos from celebrity visits. Music from Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson blares through the speakers while servers drop hearty plates of fried chicken and twice-cooked barbecue short ribs on tables. A combo plate with two sides and Mert’s famous cornbread leaves you with enough cash to spring for the towering homemade cakes on the countertop display. 214 N. College St., 704-342-4222
$14.25 (+tax)


4. Vietnam Grille 
Meatball Spring Roll and Bun Thit Nuong  
  
Start with the grilled meatball spring roll (Nem Nuong Cuon)—savory, caramelized, ground pork meatballs wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, rice noodles, and fresh herbs. Then, go for the bun with char-grilled pork (Bun Thit Nuong)—vermicelli noodles topped with thin slices of grilled pork, a colorful array of herbs, bean sprouts, lettuce, and cucumbers. Douse with Nuoc Mam sauce and eat every last bite. 5615 South Blvd., 704-525-2408
$14.80 (+tax)


5. Bill Spoon’s Barbecue
Large BBQ Plate  
     
Bill Spoon’s feels like home. Its dark wood walls are decorated with tchotchkes reminiscent of your grandmother’s house, and, since 1963, the whole hog barbecue has been cooked over hickory wood. A large barbecue plate comes with tender barbecued pork, mustard slaw, plenty of hush puppies, and a side. We recommend the macaroni and cheese. And when Stephen Spoon Jr., grandson of Bill Spoon, bids you to come back, we recommend you listen. 5524 South Blvd., 704-525-8865
$10.75 (+tax)


6. The Mad Greek 
Chicken Souvlaki Dinner
 
This is the kind of Greek diner you want in a Southern neighborhood: upholstered booths, a giant poster of Greece on the wall, a waitress who asks if you want lemon in your tea. The souvlaki dinner is just as comforting. Well-charred chicken rests on a bed of rice and sautéed green peppers and onions. It comes with crispy, peppery fries, yogurt-cucumber sauce for dipping—heavy on the garlic, as it should be—and a generous portion of Greek salad. It’s a complete meal made by a real “mad” Greek—chef and owner Chris Limberakis.  5011 South Blvd., 704-523-8296
$12.95 (+tax)


7. Passage to India 
Special Dinner for One 
    
Make the decision to make fewer decisions with this four-course tasting menu that includes a soft drink. Order the vegetarian options to keep cheap eating healthy, but don’t think that means you’ll have a less flavorful meal. The vindaloo is hearty, with plenty of vegetables and potatoes, seasoned with a light kick of heat. Finish the meal with rice kheer, a thinner version of rice pudding. 9510 University City Blvd., Ste.  101, 704-549-1886
$17.99 (+tax)


8. Taste of Europe
Polish Sampler Platter   
 
It’s easy to be tempted by the pierogi here (they do have six varieties), but there’s much more to eastern European cuisine. Order the sampler platter. It comes with pierogi—you can pick the filling—but also has a juicy piece of grilled kielbasa and a classic preparation of stuffed cabbage. A heap of sour cream sits in the middle for dipping. 10915 Monroe Rd., Matthews, 704-708-8495
$14.50 (+tax)


9. Zeitouni Mediterranean Grill 
Mezza Plate
     
Served on a wooden board, this plate is an easy introduction to classic Mediterranean dishes. The hummus is smooth and topped with fresh herbs, and the grape leaves are as tender as slow-cooked collards. The crispy falafel—flavored with spices unfamiliar to the American palate, such as coriander and cumin—adds a crunch to the plate. The spicy-and-sour potatoes finish out the dish for a hearty sampling. 3419 Toringdon Way, Ste. A-124, 704-752-4245
$10.99 (+tax)


10. The Open Kitchen Restaurant
Chicken Parmigiana
       
Many people who come to this restaurant, open since 1952, have been doing so for a long time, as evidenced by the servers’ familiarity with their guests. The classic Italian menu is well-priced—no dish is more than $20—and the portions are large, with pasta and meat often requiring separate plates. Order the chicken parm for a juicy cut of chicken breast, unbreaded, cooked in tomatoes, mushrooms, and wine, then smothered in sauce and Parmigiana and mozzarella cheeses. It’s served with a side of spaghetti, and you probably won’t finish it all—especially if you snacked on the bread basket. 1318 W. Morehead St., 704-375-7449
$15.75 (+tax)


11. Ajbani Moroccan Cuisine
Spicy Lamb
    
Despite its name, the spicy lamb entree isn’t going to burn your mouth. Instead, it’s a dish seasoned with Moroccan spices, including cumin and turmeric. The delectable pieces of lamb, vegetables, and potatoes soak in the spices while they cook, and for an additional $2, you can add couscous for a well-balanced cheap eat. Celebrate your success with a slice of baklava, thin pastry sheets layered with pistachio, honey, clove, and cinnamon. 2903 Central Ave., Ste. C, 980-349-4015
$11.50 (+tax)


12. Finga Lickin’ 
Caribbean Eatery Large Oxtail Plate
    
This little green and yellow house on The Plaza is home to flavors as bright as the building’s exterior. The oxtail is slow-cooked and falling apart, and tasty enough to pick off the bones. Choose two sides to go with it, but don’t miss the plantains. When the oxtail is sold out (as it often is), the curry goat is an excellent alternative. 2838 The Plaza, 980-430-5120
$15 (+tax)


13. Doan’s  
Crispy Yellow Pancake
     
Even after the rest of the Archdale Marketplace shopping center grows quiet, you’ll find a lively group of diners at this family-owned restaurant. If you’re craving pho, know that the brisket here is slow-cooked to a fall-apart tenderness and the broth is made from scratch. To try something different, go for the crispy yellow pancake, which comes stuffed with chicken or pork, sprouts, and shrimp. The whole pancake—with fillings—is served with mint and lettuce leaves, to wrap each bite in. 5937 South Blvd., 704-733-9077
$11.95 (+tax)


14. Letty’s On Shamrock
Bayou Smoky Pasta with Shrimp  
    
The menu here is a collection of comforting favorites with a surprising selection of vegetarian options, including the “neatloaf,” a meat-free version of meat loaf. The Bayou pasta, though, has a creamy, tomato-based sauce that coats each rigatoni, complemented by heat from juicy Andouille sausage pieces. Grated cheese on top helps add a salty component. This hearty, homey dish is simple and flavorful. 2121 Shamrock Dr., 704-817-8702
$13 (+tax)


15. New Zealand Café 
Bento Box with Beef Teriyaki 
    
This big plate of goodies is certainly more than one dish, including a main item, such as hibachi chicken, alongside tempura shrimp and vegetables, white rice, sushi, and a salad. The beef teriyaki option comes heaped with broccoli, zucchini, and onions, all slathered in teriyaki  sauce and sesame seeds. Eat the tempura first—fried food shouldn’t sit—as an appetizer with your salad. Then, let the rice soak up the sauce and take a bite with the beef for a meaty, salty, sweet combo. Finally, dip your California roll in soy sauce. 1717 N. Sardis Rd., Ste. 6A, 704-708-9888
$13.95 (+tax)


16. The Chef: Heaven’s Kitchen 
Meat Molcajete
     
Salvadoran chef Roberto Mendoza’s menu is as diverse as his background. He’s cooked for such dignitaries as President George W. Bush and the prince of Saudi Arabia. The molcajete—which can come with meat, seafood, or both—is one of the few dishes on the menu outside of the $8-$15 range, but it’s also large enough for several diners to enjoy. Carne asada, chorizo, grilled chicken, and salty panela cheese come in the hot stone bowl, and are accompanied by plenty of tortillas, guacamole, lettuce, and rice. 6023 Albemarle Rd., 704-566-6454
$16.50 (+tax)


17. Monsoon Thai Cuisine 
Gaeng Keow Wan
     
Order the vegetarian version of this green curry dish, and you’ll receive large pieces of bright purple eggplant, broccoli, crisp carrots, and snap peas, along with fried tofu. The light, creamy coconut milk curry sauce is seasoned with kaffir lime leaves and Thai sweet basil—mild enough for the uninitiated, but still full of flavor. The warm, surprisingly complex dish won’t induce a post-lunch stupor. 2801 South Blvd., 704-523-6778
$10.95 (+tax)


18. Dish 
Chicken and Dumplings with Sweet Tea 

It’s easy to see why Guy Fieri devoured this dish on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. The peppery, buttery roux mixed with chicken stock creates a rich base for light, chewy dumplings. Served with a honey-basted biscuit, half a deviled egg, and a side item of your choice (go for the collards), this meal would make any Southern grandma proud. 1220 Thomas Ave., 704-344-0343
$10.28 (+tax)


19. Kabab-je Rotisserie and Grille  
Lamb Kabab
     
Set in a plaza packed with chain retail and restaurants, Kabab-je can be tough to find. Once you walk in the restaurant’s doors once, though, cravings will lead you back. Order the lamb kabab entrée for two skewers of tender meat and charred onions, served with basmati rice and vegetables. Homemade bread from the restaurant’s pita machine adds another touch of authenticity to the plate. 2233 Matthews Township Pkwy., Ste. E, Matthews, 704-845-0707
$15.95 (+tax)


20. Lebowski’s Neighborhood Grill
Buffalo Trifecta     

The Lebowski’s menu includes a specialty list of “The Dude’s” favorite beverage, the White Russian, as well as an impressive sandwich selection. For a full food experience, try The Buffalo Trifecta, which consists of a large, fried haddock filet, six buffalo wings, and a Beef on Weck slider, all atop a pile of fries (we recommend garlic fries for extra flavor). 1524 East Blvd., 704-370-1177
$15.95 (+tax)


This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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Categories: Food + Drink, In Print