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Cheap Eats: San Diego on $5 a week

With food prices rising, the problem of creating good, economical meals at home seems to grow beyond the normal tattered pocketbook. Now, some possible solutions to this problem might include free-loading meals from wealthy friends or going on a food stamp diet. But searching out the cheap eats places around town is perhaps a better alternative to either. Cheap eats places are those rare kinds of San Diego places, mostly in the beach areas, that offer specials on complete meals for under a dollar. Most of these places feature these specials once or twice a week, but by visiting each place for its special, a thrifty, hungry person can eat a week's worth of nourishing, balanced meals for around five dollars.

When one first thinks about a cheap meal served in mass quantities, thoughts of leftovers fried in old grease may come to the mind. The nourishment of cheap-eats meals, however, is surprisingly high, although they range in taste from very good to merely starvation prevention. Portions are generous, at least definitely worth what you pay. If you don't mind eating from paper plates, with plastic forks (and sitting on the curb or in the parking lots if you're under 21 — several of these places serve alcohol), this guide to cheap eats will help those "fed up" with the high cost of sustaining life.

This guide will exclude all fast food, chain-operated eateries that supply hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, etc. Although that kind of food can be purchased for under a dollar, only freshly prepared susbtantial meals from small, privately own operations will be dealt with here.)

A survey of the cheap eats places is a week-long operation.

Monday

The People, 4970 Voltaire, Ocean Beach

Vegetable dish served over rice with tortillas, 50 cents, served from 4:30 p.m. until they run out. Seating for 40 at three standard tables, and six low wood tables with cushions on the floor. While you wait for dinner, you can enjoy the aquariums built into the bar.

Even nonvegetarians would enjoy this freshly prepared dish made from zucchini, tomatoes, several other vegetables and cheese, served over white rice with hot tortillas on the side. The portion fill a paper plate, and it tastes like it is made with lots of care and time. The People is a dark, casual bar decorated with Polynesian fish nets and murals. Those under 21 years must evacuate the premises by 8 p.m. Live music is featured nightly, and there is a large selection of beers and wines. Jerry, the friendly, bearded owner is busy creating an outdoor garden to be opened in a month or so.

Tuesday

Tugs, corner of Emerald and Mission Boulevard, Pacific Beach

Mexican food is served daily from 12 noon to 2 a.m. If you're not 21 years old, you take your plate down to the cliff overlooking the ocean. It's a nice place to have dinner.

The food is served from a tiny kitchen in the back of the bar. Dinners are 50 and 60 cents. The 50-cent dinner includes one taquito (a crisp rolled tortilla filled with a tiny amount of beef) and a tostada (a flat, crisp tortilla covered with refried beans and lettuce and tomatoes. Refried beans fill the rest of the plate. The taquito is fairly tasty, but needs more meat inside. The tostada is well-covered with the shredded lettuce and tomatoes, and is made even better with a glub of their fantastic hot sauce. The beans are runny and begin to taste more like shredded cardboard with every bite. But the meal is filling and worth the price. Watch out for the flimsy paper plates (they soak through quickly), and bring your own fork; plastic forks just can't cut the fried tortilla.

If you are over 21, Tug's has a long, padded bar, with a full selection of liquor. There are two pool tables and a football game for after-dinner enjoyment.

If you aren't in the mood for Mexican food, head down the coast to The Pennant (2893 South Mission Boulevard, South Mission Beach) for a 19-cent spaghetti dinner, served on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.

The Pennant, a small, cozy bar, has been serving food for five years. For 19 cents, you can find a plate full of spaghetti with sauce, and a piece of garlic bread. The spaghetti may not compete with an Italian momma's, but it is tasty. If you're still hungry, splurge another 19 cents on a second helping. The place is very busy on Tuesdays, but spaghetti is enjoyable when eaten en masse. Jack, the owner, says he serves food as a service to his customers, mostly young people living down at the beach.

Wednesday

If you can handle another spaghetti dinner, this time with a salad and a huge piece of buttered French bread try Maynard's (1060 Garnet, Pacific Beach). Spaghetti dinner is 50 cents, double orders for $1, served from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Maynard's moved from Ocean Boulevard up to Garnet in October. The bar is filled with a rowdy, noisy biker crowd. But if you're a minor, or just looking for a delicious dinner, visit the cook at the rear of the building. The kitchen window opens out to the parking lot for easy ordering. The cook says he's from Costa Rica, and tells you he's been cooking since he was nine. he creates the meat sauce in a huge black pot, and ladles the soft, fat spaghetti from two equally huge pots. The meal is ready to go in a few minutes, and is served on a good, heavy duty paper plate. The sauce is a gourmet's delight, with bits of meat and onions simmered into a delicious, steamy treat for the taste buds. Along with the spaghetti and a hot buttery slice of bread, comes a tossed green salad covered with a savory Italian dressing.

Maynard's spaghetti was the best dinner sampled, based on flavor, freshness, the size of serving, and nutritional value. If you sit on the parking lot wall to feast, the cook will call you "baby doll" and amuse you with tales of his childhood in South America.

If spaghetti two nights in a row would get you down, an equally tasty meal can be obtained for the same 50 cents, back at the People in Ocean Beach.

Brian, the bartender-cook there, starts creating the chow mein on Wednesday afternoon with fresh Chinese vegetables.Topping the mound of chow mein served on white rice is a pile of crunchy chow mein noodles. With soy sauce and maybe a shot of sake. The People's chow mein dinner can compare with chow mein from a Chinese restaurant, at about a tenth of the price. If you're still hungry after the chow mein, try a unique, delicious munchie, a Chinese pork bun, imported from a place in L.A., the only place that makes them in Southern California. For 35 cents, sample the bun, which is a soft, sweet puff made from rice flour, an filled with well-seasoned bits of pork. The bun is steamed and served with HOT Chinese mustard.

Thursday

My research didn't turn up any specials for Thursday, so it would be a good day to visit Rozan's (4343 Ocean Blvd., at the end of Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach). Rozan's serves 95-cent dinners six days a week, from 5 p.m. to about 9:30 p.m. The downstairs dining room is comfortably decorated with wooden tables,a candle on each one. A complete meal features one night either chicken, pork, veal, steak, ham, or fish. Mashed potatoes or French fries, and a vegetable are included with the dinners. Fish and chips is served on Fridays but the rest of the days can feature any of the selections. If you're going for one particular main dish, call ahead to find out what's being served that night. The main dish portions are ample, a seven-ounce piece of steak on steak night, for instance, or three pieces of chicken or ham on those nights. The French fries are average tasting: the vegetables are sometimes a bit tired, but nutritious.

According to Scott, the downstairs ex-bartender, Rozan's is waiting for a new liquor license, since they changed ownership and the license went with the former owner. When the license is granted (within a month they hope), beer will again be 25 cents a mug, and mixed drinks 75 cents each.

Friday

Bring your mouth back to Maynard's for their Mexican plate, 50 cents, served from 6 p.m. until 11 p.m. Again, Maynard's wins for the tastiest cheap eats around. On Friday the plate is filled with two crunchy, beef taquitos, fluffy Spanish rice, and mellow, delicious refried beans. The dinner is freshly cooked by our Costa Rican friend, and the plate heaped to overflowing.

The weekend offers additional opportunities for cheap eats in San Diego. Saturday and Sunday are the days to try an inexpensive breakfast. With the price of eggs, milk, and bread spiraling upward, it often pays to eat out and leave the dirty frying pans to someone else.

Saturday (or any other morning)

Pie Piper Pies, 411o West Point Loma Blvd., Ocean Beach

Breakfast is served from 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for 59 cents. Alan, the cook, will prepare two eggs to your specifications, and the pleasant waitresses will bring to you you made-to-order eggs, with a pile of hashbrown potatoes, and a piece of toast with butter. Coffee, if needed to get your morning motor running, is 20 cents a cup. The Pie Piper is a small, modern coffee shop, but it's nicer than other breakfast havens around.

To satisfy a greater breakfast hunger, and if you can afford to spend $1.25, return to the Pennant, for their Saturday morning meals. From 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., enjoy three eggs, bacon and sausage, plus a drink of your choice. (Screwdrivers and Bloody Mary are the regular favorites.) You'll not only leave with a full stomach but a happy head.

Sunday

You have to decide where to munch on a Spanish omelette. If your funds are in good shape, return to the Pennant and for another $1.25, try their spicy omelette, served with refried beans, taco shells, and your favorite drink, available from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.

For only 50 cents, visit Maynard's for the third time, for their omelette, filled with peppers and served with chorizo, a hot, delicious Mexican sausage. Breakfast is served at Maynard's from an early 8 a.m. until the last group arrives just before the stop serving at noon.

(There are a lot of church centers located around college campuses that prepare meals for hungry students and anyone else who can sniff out a good cheap eat a mile away. Also around town, especially in the downtown area, there are a lot of other places offering good food at low prices. Share your discoveries!)

The cheap eats sponsors say that they don't make any money on their meals, but do it as a public service. Obviously, the theory is that if you like a place for its cheap eats, you'll buy something more — another more expensive meal or a drink or two. But remember, all you need for your cheap eats meal is a pocketful of coins, a way to get there and an adventurous spirit. Seek cheap eats and ye shall find.

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