Cheap Eats: 24 Wallet-Friendly Spots

Tracking down good food (not junk) that won’t blow your budget requires special hunting-and-gathering skills. So we dug out our spare change and elastic-waist pants and dined in style at these eateries.
Pizza from the Blind Pig
Blind Pig Pizza

Photo by Tony Valainis

Tracking down good food (not junk) that won’t blow your budget requires special hunting-and-gathering skills. So we dug out our spare change and elastic-waist pants and dined in style at 24 wallet-friendly spots. While we were at it, we took inventory of the happy hours in town, collected bargain wine tips, and found out where our top chefs eat when nobody’s watching. We even created some recipes for gourmet leftovers. Sound like more than you bargained for? Good.

Pho Sure: Egg Roll #1

People skip right over the Chinese portion of the menu at modest Egg Roll #1 and go straight to the soothing noodle-and-broth Vietnamese creations. In particular, they seek out the pho, offered in at least 10 interpretations—from chicken to beef ball. The kitchen is also no slouch with fresh spring rolls and the warm lettuce bowls of bun—topped with the thinnest slivers of meat, crushed peanuts, and a sweet vinaigrette. Finish with a pot of French milk coffee that slow-drips at your table while you eat.

576 S. Emerson Ave., 317-787-2225,

The $20 Meal: Shrimp-and-pork spring roll ($3.95) + 6 crab rangoon ($2.99) + beef pho ($6.75) + iced French milk coffee ($2.75) + 8 sugar biscuits ($2.99)

egg roll #1

Small Wonder: Movable Feast

Housed in a former drive-through pharmacy, this tiny establishment makes good use of its 800 square feet, including the “open kitchen”—a grill and prep area right behind the cash register. Every morsel is made onsite, from the Cajun ahi sandwich to the gazpacho. There are even housemade protein bars and take-home bottles of salad dressing. The name “Movable Feast” references its earliest incarnation as a caterer, and owners Peter Courtney and Kathleen Tracy still take their show on the road every Saturday at the Binford Farmers Market, which the couple helped found.

5741 E. 71st St., 317-577-9901,

The $20 Meal: Black-bean burger ($5) + Orange Crush Salad ($7) + cookie (65 cents) + a tub of Spicy Dark Chocolate cocoa mix to go ($7)

Creole Crazy: Yats

Joe Vuskovich and wife Gina first set up shop in August 2001 on the corner of 54th Street and College Avenue in SoBro. Billed as “essentially Louisiana” cuisine, Yats offers a daily menu of interpretive Bayou fare. There are no printed menus and no waitstaff—just a chalkboard menu and trays. And if you forgot your $6.25 (they only take cash), just give the staff an IOU and pay them back when you can.

Multiple locations,

The $20 Meal (for two): Chili-cheese crawfish etouffee ($6.25) + white-bean chicken chili ($6.25) + 2 Three Floyds Alpha Kings ($5) + peanut-butter pie ($3)

Stand and Deliver: The Pantry by Brad Gates Catering

People who have followed Brad Gates’s footsteps across Indy’s dining landscape—from Puck’s at the IMA to the former Euphoria inside Buggs Temple to Ball & Biscuit—got excited when the caterer opened a takeout counter in City Market. The quality of the food did not diminish with the square footage. Serving hours are limited, so move it or lose it to get your (depending on the day) skirt-steak sandwich, pulled-pork nachos, or Gruyere salad. On Wednesdays, the $10 fried-chicken special doles out three pieces alongside mac ’n’ cheese made with aged cheddar. Questions about the menu? Ask the chef himself. Gates usually cooks in the kitchen a few steps from the counter.

City Market, 317-445-0105

The $20 Meal: Crispy trout slider ($4) + asparagus salad ($9) + New England clam chowder ($7)

Go Big: Mann’s Grille

Mann’s Grille, a westside institution where former Pacers star Rik Smits has his own booth, bears all the encouraging signs of a classic hole-in-the-wall. First, you aren’t sure which door is the main entrance. (It’s the one set back farthest from the street.) And judging by the signs, no one cares how the name is spelled. (Grille, Grill— what difference does it make?) Inside, plant workers and second-shifters tuck into booths so close together that it seems rude not to say howdy. Mounted bass decorate the walls. Your menu, a flimsy sheet of laminated typing paper, has been scrawled on and updated with a marker, many times. And yet, despite the unmistakable harbingers, the gargantuan portions of comfort food still manage to take you aback. The breaded tenderloin is pre-cut into a pair of massive discs, and many sides arrive on their own plates, a meal unto themselves.

1214 S. Tibbs Ave., 317-241-5801

The $20 Meal (for two): Turkey Manhattan with mashed potatoes and a side ($6.74) + breaded tenderloin sandwich and crinkle-cut fries ($3.27) + two iced teas ($3.50) + coconut cream pie ($2.75) + banana pudding ($2.75)

Nice Buns: Garcia’s Hot Dogs

One prays that what happens in Tijuana, stays in Tijuana—but we’re glad Abacuc Garcia broke the rule and imported the concept of bacon-wrapped hotdogs from the Mexican border town. Amazingly, no one here had already thought of the idea by the time Garcia moved to Indy from California a few years ago, so he seized the opportunity by opening a stand on the corner of 16th Street and Emerson Avenue. That’s where you and Garcia will stand over his built-in grill, watching your meat sizzle and chatting easily like it’s his backyard on a Sunday afternoon. He’ll throw the store-bought bun on the cooker to let it soak up some seasoning. You’ll compliment his technique of slitting open each end of the frank and tucking in the bacon. He’ll pile on toppings—slices of Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, and pickle spears for a tangy Garcia’s Reuben; chili, shredded cheddar, jalapeños, and crunched-up Fritos for a double-dare Dorito Dog; grilled onions and mustard inside a butterflied Italian sausage, if you don’t feel like getting messy. You’ll like him so much that you’ll stay and eat the bacon-skinned two-hander right there, cajoling him for Tijuana stories. This is fortunate, because to-go orders are wrapped in foil, a treatment that steams the bun—which barely stood a chance to begin with—into a total soggy failure. It takes a lot more than bacon to fix that situation.

5102 E. 16th St.

The $20 Meal (for four): Garcia’s Reuben dog ($3.50) + chili-cheese dog ($3) + Italian sausage ($3.25) + standard bacon-wrapped dog with your favorite toppings ($2.25) + four bags of chips ($3) + two sodas ($2) + two bottles of water ($2.50) 

Counter Attack: Rock-Cola 50s Cafe

This spot was constructed in 1961 as a Peppy Grill and lived part of its life as a Blue Apron and an Amici’s before it became the ’50s-themed Rock-Cola in 1993. The entire restaurant spans just 900 square feet, which allows for barely half a dozen booths and a row of counter stools where diners can watch their food prepared on the grill top, at the hands of a cook who perfectly times the burgers to brown up just as the bacon reaches its peak crispness and the onion rings are ready to come out of the fryer.

5730 Brookville Rd., 317-357-2233,

The $20 Meal: Breaded mushrooms ($3.99) + Hawg Dog topped with pulled pork and cole slaw ($6.99) + BlueBerry Thrill bread pudding ($3.99) + lemon shake ($3.89) + a side of Ranch (50 cents)

Supper Table: The Legend

The kitchen at this Irvington family restaurant plays to its strengths, lovingly offering a brief list of meals—plated with one starch and one vegetable, just like Mom used to set out—that come straight from the Hoosier pantry. Homemade meatloaf with sauteed onions is a steal at $8. And the $10 pork tenderloin medallions bask in deglazed pan juices, with a rice accompaniment. The addictive Dad’s Crunchy Chicken—a breaded and sauteed chicken breast, oven-finished to a crisp and topped with herbed broth—is based on a version that co-owner John Robertson used to make for his kids. For dessert, order two warmed cookies for $1.75 and pop for a scoop of ice cream (cross your fingers it’s Graham Central Station, as sweet and cinnamony as a Yankee Candle).

5614 E. Washington St., 317-536-2028,

The $20 Meal: Dad’s Crunchy Chicken ($8) + Alan’s carrot cake ($5) + a glass of the night’s house wine ($6)

the legend

Masa Appeal: The Tamale Place

The tamales at this popular westside spot have always been a bargain, even at the original walk-up counter that would close by midday. At its current location, with evening hours and an airy dining room, putting together a rib-sticking lunch is a no-brainer, especially with tamales for $3.49. Hearty versions with well-seasoned pork or chicken will satisfy carnivores, but a straightforward tamal with poblanos and cheese lets the tender masa shine.

5226 Rockville Rd., 317-248-9771,

The $20 Meal: Poblano tamal in green sauce ($3.49) + chipotle chicken taco ($2.99) + steak-and-egg torta ($5.99) + ½ pint black beans ($1.75) + ½ pint white cheese ($3.25) + pineapple tamal ($1.99)

Mex Mix: La Parada Restaurant

For years, fans of the east side’s most endearing Mexican spot had to cram into a handful of booths lining a narrow slip of what looked like a convenience store—with just enough space for one server to walk by with a plate of enchiladas verdes without knocking the lime wedge out of somebody’s Corona. Over the winter, the family-run restaurant moved into comparatively elaborate digs at the back of the same parking lot. Now, the servers work a festive, open room adorned with carved chairs in all the colors of the majolica rainbow and three flat-screen TVs tuned to the same game. The hulking portions of authentic cuisine have not changed, ranging from a dark bowl of birria (goat soup) to a tangled plate of alambres (grilled steak combined with bacon, sausage, and cheese) to a la carte tacos with your pick of meat. Yes, tongue is an option.

1642 E. New York St., 317-917-0095,

The $20 Meal: Carne asada ($11.99) + shrimp ceviche tostada ($3.99) + elotes ($1.99) + glass of horchata ($1.75)

Caribbean Spice: Jamaican-Style Jerk

Barbecue places dot the Indy landscape, but to find good Jamaican jerk-spiced meat, look no further than 34th Street and Keystone Avenue. Here, Kahni Harris serves authentic, affordable fare from his homeland. Step up to the window at this takeout joint—knock if no one seems to be there—and order jerk chicken or pork, Jamaican patties (meat-stuffed pastries), oxtail, or curried goat. Then stand back and wait for the magic to happen. The chicken, available in light ($5.25) or dark ($4.25) quarters, half-chicken ($8), and a full-bird family meal ($16.50), is unquestionably the star of the show—ask for the mild jerk sauce. The oxtail ($12 gets you enough for two people) is rich, dark, and delicious, reminiscent of slow-simmered pot roast. Shell out the extra couple of bucks for the rice and beans, and plan on being too full for dinner. Sit at the picnic tables right by the window, or take your clamshell offsite to dig in. Extra napkins are advised.

3355 N. Keystone Ave., 317-926-1110

The $20 Meal (for two): ½ jerk chicken with rice and beans ($10) + jerk ribs with bread ($6) + ginger beer ($1.75) + pineapple soda ($1.50)

Hot Plates: Just Judy’s

The food at tight-quartered Just Judy’s is home-cooked and diner-style, with an emphasis on breakfast. Enormous grouper sandwiches (grilled or fried) get a lot of play, as well as a double-layer BLT piled with a mass of crunchy oven-crisped bacon. Iced tea is free with your entree on Tuesdays; you get a complimentary order of seasoned fries on Wednesdays. As for the service, a sign that hangs over the pick-up window explains it best: “Work hard. Be nice.” 5018 E. 62nd St., 317-254-8796

The $20 Meal (for two): Corned-beef hash ($6.50) + New York Strip with eggs and potatoes ($7.95) + peach cobbler ($2.25) + 2 coffees ($3.50)


Hot Deal: Ripple Bagel & Deli

This 1,100-square-foot deli may be small, but it offers more than 60 original bagel-based sandwiches steamed to order. With chuckle-inducing names such as The Original Mr. Butler (turkey, hummus, provolone, onions, and tomato), Sid’s Atlas (roast beef, bacon, smoked cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and mayo), and the Tonya Harding Club (turkey, ham, bacon, Colby, and Swiss), the colossal creations overflowing with cheeses, meats, and vegetables range from $3.03 to $5.95—the perfect price point for the standing-room-only 4 a.m. post–bar-hop crowd on Fridays and Saturdays. Creamy housemade hummus is an essential side. And just when you think there couldn’t be anything more satisfying than a loaded bagel, those Rice Krispies hunks smothered in chocolate prove you wrong.

850 Broad Ripple Ave., 317-257-8326,

The $20 Meal (for two): The Egg McMahon ($4.95) + Hot Tuna Meltdown ($4.90) + full order of biscuits and gravy ($4.50) + bag of Dirty Chips ($1.25)  + Rice Krispies treat with chocolate ($1) + 2 large cherry Cokes ($3.60)

High Rollers: Sushi Club

At Sushi Club, the tone is practically festive, full of diners lit up with that happy all-you-can-eat aura of anticipation. As with many clubs, this one has rules. Yes, the theme here is plate after plate after plate of sushi made fresh to order—for the set price of $19.99, Monday through Thursday. But the menu sternly warns diners to order only what they can realistically eat in one sitting (or else face an additional charge for wasted food). Traditional maki and rice bits get their fair representation, but Sushi Club really shines with its unhealthy deep-fried creations, like the cream-cheesy 10th Street and the crab-laden Speedy Way.

7230 W. 10th St., 317-248-8103,

The $20 Meal: All-you-can-eat-sushi ($19.99). Done.

Rise and Shine on a Dime: Good Morning Mama’s

Too often, bargain brunching means sacrificing ambience. That is not the case at SoBro’s Good Morning Mama’s, where midcentury kitsch is doled out along with the eggs and grits in an old remodeled cinderblock filling station decked out in bright yellow. Though it’s cheap, there is a price: your time. The cafe serves 500
to 600 guests on a typical Saturday or Sunday morning. If you can get in the door, pay attention to classic combos like the Papa’s (eggs over corned-beef hash with toast and meat) and the inventive Java French toast (Kahlua-battered and topped with toasted pecans and powdered sugar).

1001 E. 54th St., 317-255-3800,

The $20 Meal: Italian fried biscuits ($2.99) + mimosa ($5.50) + Full Boat: eggs, potatoes, biscuit, gravy, and bacon ($9.99) + cheesy grits ($1.99)

Food for the Soul: Kountry Kitchen

As soon as the screen door slams, the smell of bacon grease and cornbread lures costumers into one of Kountry Kitchen’s three dining rooms. Seasoned catfish, gravy-smothered pork chops, and fried chicken are among the choices for the two-meats/two-sides combo. You can’t beat the black-eyed peas (always made fresh, no cans), complemented by sweet tea in a jar.

1831 N. College Ave., 317-926-4476,

The $20 Meal: Cornbread (65 cents) + two-meats/two-sides combo ($11.99) + XL glass of Nell’s Secret Lemonade ($2.55) + chess pie ($2.75)

Such a Meat Market: Carniceria Guanajuato

Past the well-stocked aisles of this Latin market (the largest of three in a small chain around the city), the grills of an in-store taqueria rarely stop searing steak, chicken, and pork carnitas. Diners looking to get their Man vs. Food mojo on can order the “Tablas Guanajuato” and start tackling a table-sized portion of meats and veggies meant to feed an entire family for $39.99. More-modest customers can get excellent carne asada or chorizo tacos ($1.75 each) or one of the best tortas in town (try the Milanese steak version). Fruity aguas frescas or bottled Cokes are a must.

5210 W. Pike Plaza Rd., 317-297-5755

The $20 Meal: (for two) Three $1.75 tacos ($5.25) + ceviche tostada ($3) + loaded Milanese torta ($4) + guacamole and chips ($2.99) + 2 aguas frescas ($3)

Raw Deal: One World Market

This pristine Asian market and lunch counter, one of Indy’s few Japanese-owned sushi spots, proves that utterly fresh seafood can be had in landlocked Indiana for no more than the typical fast-food lunch. Most sushi rolls, such as an excellent spicy crunch tuna version, run $4.95 or less, and noodle combos come with a California roll or soy-wrapped inari. Set aside some lunch money and buy a box of crispy, chocolate-dipped Pocky sticks for afternoon snacking back at your desk.

8466 Castleton Corner Dr., 317-842-3442

The $20 Meal: (for two) Tempura udon combo with California roll ($7.95) + katsu don with rice and miso soup ($8.95) + pickled radish roll ($2.50) 

Barbecue Bonanza: Smokehouse on Shelby (Closed)

A vintage theater dating to the 1920s may be an unlikely locale for digging into outsized platters of slow-cooked meats and hearty sides. But few eateries of any kind rival this funky Fountain Square favorite for the plenty that arrives with every meal. Sandwiches such as the hand-pressed tenderloin and beer-battered fish are good bets, but pulled pork and ribs with accompaniments of sweet baked beans, slaw with plenty of celery seed, and complimentary fried biscuits with apple butter will more than hit the spot after a night of swing dancing or duckpin bowling. Skip the chicken, which is no longer the deeply smoked half-chicken it used to be. Try the novel smoked meatloaf for a change. Bring the family for a complete feast for four that runs just $44.99.

1103 Shelby St., 317-685-1959,

The $20 Meal: Sampler platter with a half slab of ribs, beef brisket, and meatloaf or pulled pork, served with two sides, fried biscuits, and apple butter ($18.99)

Deep-Dish Discounts: Blind Pig (Closed)

The regulars at this smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em Greenwood watering hole debate politics, sports, and, most importantly, whether the thin-crust or the pan pizzas are the best. With dough made from scratch daily and quality toppings, either is a good choice. And with all of the gooey, well-browned cheese on these custom pies, you can count on a box to take some home for lunch the next day. Blind Pig does have salads, potato skins, and Hoosier tenderloins, but with pizza this good—and this good of a deal—the only side you need is a stack of napkins. Avoid the canned mushrooms and stick with classic toppings such as sausage, pepperoni, or olives. The beers are bargains, too, especially when served in giant “Bad Ass” mugs.

147 S. Madison Ave., Greenwood, 317-882-7892

The $20 Meal: 16-inch pan pizza with up to five traditional toppings ($18.50) or 16-inch hand-tossed pizza with one topping ($12.25) + chef salad ($6.99)

Vegetarian Value: Spice Nation (Closed)

Conduct a poll of the people who even know that Spice Nation exists, and you’ll probably find that a high percentage are vegetarian: The Indian eatery has the only exclusively meatless menu in the city. Even better, everything is less than $10, from the creamy, paneer-laden Methi Malai Matar to the spicy Hyderabadi Vegetable Curry, chunky with zucchini, broccoli, and okra.

The $20 Meal: Methi Malai Matar, Indian cheese and green peas in onion-tomato sauce ($8.99) + batter-fried cauliflower ($3.99) + Bhell Puri, puffed-rice salad with basil and veggies ($4.99) + rice Kheer dessert ($2.99)

Asian Equation: K&T Deli (Closed)

Vin voong’s modest westside deli pioneered the banh mi genre in Indy when it opened in 2001, before the Vietna-mese specialty—thin slices of meat and fresh vegetables inside French rolls—took off like cupcakes. Fans can still chomp down on 10 different banh mi classics without paying much more than what they can dig out of their sofa cushions: just $3.50 for a standard Asian sub, or drop $3.75 for the popular Banh Mi #1, a combination of pate and a Vietnamese cold cut with pickled carrots, daikon, and cilantro. Much of the signage is in Vietnamese, but the photos on the menu behind the counter offer reliable guidance. And if you doctor your sandwich with a little too much chili paste, a glass of sweet coconut juice puts out the fire.

3738 Lafayette Rd., 317-602-2416

The $20 Meal: Banh mi dac biet, featuring three kinds of pork ($3.75) + catfish sweet & sour soup ($12) + avocado smoothie with tapioca pearls ($3.50)

Big Easy: Papa Roux (Closed)

New Orleans transplant Art Bouvier has cultivated a loyal following since opening his small establishment in 2007. Working the front of the house with the kind of open- armed hospitality usually reserved for big family re-unions, Bouvier offers dine-in customers free iced tea and all-they-can-eat sides of red beans and rice, creole, etouffee, cornbread, and bread pudding—and he practically makes up discounts on the spot. (Naptown Roller Girls eat for free the day before a bout.) His rotating list of po’boys—hulking sandwiches for which he crams roughly a pound of meat into a soft French loaf and adds a significant drizzle of spicy mayo—get plenty of love, especially when hand-breaded catfish makes a much-anticipated appearance.

8950 E. 10th St., 317-603-9861,

The $20 Meal: Full-order roast beef po’boy ($9.18) + extra bacon ($1.83) + un-limited sides (free) + French-press Strange Brew coffee ($3.90) + a pint of etouffee to go ($5.05)

Curbside Service: Taco Lassi (Closed)

For the best deal to come out of the street-food craze, take your $10 lunch allotment to the silver-paneled truck embellished with the big pink lotus. That’s how much you will spend for three soft tacos at Taco Lassi, the inventive rolling mash-up of Mexican and Indian cuisines. A chalkboard menu spells out the day’s offerings, generally along the lines of  tandoori chicken, tamarind beef, deep-fried fish, and pakora nestled at the bottom of a warm flour tortilla and topped with chutney, shredded cabbage, and matchstick slivers of mango. Get the sea-salt brownie for later.


The $20 Meal: Six tacos ($20)


Photos by Tony Valainis
These articles appeared in the August 2013 issue.