Eat Cheap in New Orleans

Come to the Big Easy to discover some little-known restaurants that have great food at rock-bottom prices.

When in search of great food at bargain prices, how could you not find the ultimate cheap eat in the city that gave us po'boys, beignets, and oyster bars? Whether splurging for dinner by the city's many celebrated culinary wizards or settling in for a $4 overstuffed muffuletta sandwich, diners can find a memorable meal on any budget in New Orleans. And because the Big Easy attracts those who love and live to eat, stiff competition keeps prices reasonable. From all-you-can-devour fried chicken to elegant tapas, there are a wealth of ways to enjoy great food without spending a lot of cash.

Dunbar's
In this casual Uptown restaurant, you'll see photographs of Muhammad Ali, rave restaurant reviews, and a framed letter of praise from Bob Hope and his pilots. But they can never overshadow the real star--the fried chicken. Cooked up hot and fresh by 18-year veteran Jeffery Jones, the crispy bird crowds plates alongside red beans and rice, cornbread, and salad.

Noel Authement, a local fitness guru, hadn't eaten fried chicken in 25 years, but he recently muscled his way into Dunbar's and ate seconds and thirds--all for the unbeatable price of $5.99. "Ask for it hot, right out of the fryer," swoons Noel, "that's when it's the best."

A friendly and relaxed atmosphere welcomes seriously hungry diners who venture from as far away as England and as close as St. Charles Avenue. Lunch bustles with federal judges, councilmen, students, construction workers, and hospital interns.

Even if you're seated across from a celebrity or high-powered state politician, what will really get your attention, along with the fried chicken, are the pork chop plate ($6.25) and a bowl of seafood gumbo with potato salad ($5.50). The most expensive item on the menu is a gargantuan platter of perfectly fried seafood for $15.95, which could easily feed the whole family. To round out the all-star cast, try mustard greens, lima beans, and candied yams. Wash it all down with an ice-cold Barq's root beer straight from the bottle. 4927 Freret Street; (504) 899-0734. Breakfast: starts at $1.99; fried chicken lunch: $5.99; lunch plates: $4.75-$15.95.

RioMar Restaurant
Locals pack this Warehouse District eatery at night, so beat the crowd and the dinner prices and go for lunch instead. At $12 for the most expensive main course, try this unbeatable bargain for some of the freshest seafood in the city.

Co-owner and chef Adolfo Garcia, a New Orleans native and graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, returned home after 10 years of cooking in New York and Spain. He has created a Latin-inspired menu rooted in Southern generosity. Choices vary, but if available, try silky skate with lemon, capers, and brown butter; char-grilled oysters; or pan-roasted monkfish beside a small forest of fresh hearts of palm and passion fruit-butter sauce.

 

Regular lunch items, including mussels with spicy Spanish chorizo, smoked tuna salad, hangar steak with oyster dressing, and zarzuela--a tomato-saffron-laden seafood stew--are innovative and copious.

A wine list offers 30 choices by the glass, a great way to introduce your palate to some unfamiliar Galician treasures such as Albariño and Godeval. 800 South Peters; (504) 525-3474. Lunch: $8-$12.

Winnie's Artsy Cafe
For a great cheap eat, stop in at Winnie's Artsy Cafe, an art gallery cum breakfast/lunch venue with nothing on the menu for more than $10.

Co-owner and chef Mike Wingerter and his partner, David Crews, offer simple, good food--nothing fancy.

The quality is evident, especially in the sandwiches. Mike has focaccia made to his specifications by La Louisiane Bakery. TheItalian-style bread is filled with such choices as orange-jalapeño glazed turkey, stuffed grape leaves, or smoked barbecue beef. Thesandwiches are then grilled for an enjoyable Southern panini. The health-conscious can opt for fresh salads with homemade dressings.

The atmosphere is casual and fun. "In New Orleans, we like our characters," says David with a wink, theatrically lifting his chin to showcase his best profile.

Winnie's is a quintessential New Orleans cafe--a good, cheap place where there's never a dull moment. 3454 Magazine Street; (504) 899-3374. Breakfast and lunch: $5-$10.

Marisol
For a more upscale but still economic alternative, head toward Esplanade Avenue and Frenchmen Street, and enter into the world of Marisol, owned by chef Peter Vazquez and his wife, Janis. The warm terra-cotta-colored rooms with large sunflower murals are as welcoming as the magical courtyard used for alfresco dining.

During happy hour, have a seat at the bar, and enjoy an extensive menu of tapas (hot and cold appetizers). At $4 a plate, this is absolutely the best bargain in the city. Whether creating tapas or a full-course meal, Peter is known for respecting the ingredients and rendering pure, clean flavors. If available, try the sautéed duck livers in almond sauce or the date-stuffed, bacon-wrapped chorizo. The sweet, fresh mussels rival the shrimp with lemon and pepper.

 

Sangría or the 1898-inspired recipe for daiquiri verdad are perfect accompaniments for these delightful and inexpensive palate teasers. 437 Esplanade Avenue; (504) 943-1912. Happy hour: 5-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; $4 all tapas plates.

Elizabeth's
If you haven't been to Heidi Trull's Bywater restaurant, there's both good and bad news. Good for the locals who'd like to keep this place to themselves and bad for those who are missing out on good food at amazing prices.

Chef-owner Elizabeth Heidi Trull moved from South Carolina to join Emeril Lagasse's restaurant NOLA. After five years of cooking with Emeril, Heidi carved out her own piece of the restaurant pie. The result has been a smashing success due to her motto: "real food done real good."

When dining at Elizabeth's, follow her three simple rules: Be very hungry, turn off your cell phone, and don't mention "carbohydrate-free diet." The waitstaff may overhear and send out a bowl of hot cheese grits or the traditional Creole calas (rice fritters dusted with powdered sugar).

In one sitting, you'll get your basic Southern food groups: pork (candied praline bacon), grains (Lowcountry shrimp and grits), vegetables (sweet potato fries), and caffeine (coffee, thick and hot with chicory or iced).

Saturday brunch is a favorite. Depending on the time of year, choose from fried oysters meunière, braised ham shank, South Carolina pulled pork, or classic grillades and grits. For the sweet tooth, the French bread slices stuffed with cream cheese and fresh berries are pure decadence.

Elizabeth's is not about denial. Heidi cooks what she likes, and you eat as much as you want. This is comfort food at its best, shared by real people who want real food. It's that simple. If there are any doubts, the eatery's multicolored sign painted by local artist Dr. Bob sums it all up: Be Nice or Leave. 601 Gallier Street at Chartres; (504) 944-9272. Breakfast and lunch: $2- $10. Brunch entrées: $3.75- $12.

"Eat Cheap in New Orleans" is from the November 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.