As inflation rates rise, dining out has inevitably become more and more of a luxury. This year, the consumer price index of food away from home increased by 7.6% as of July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But plenty of local restaurants keep costs low enough to impress with cheap eats. They might not have table service, plush interior designs, liquor licenses or many of the frills that can increase the check. Instead, they’ve stripped it all down to the most important part anyway: the food. Here are five restaurants where Baltimoreans can get solid eats for $10 or less.
Culture Caribbean Cuisine
Seton Hill’s Culture Caribbean Cuisine knows why you’re here — the classic Jamaican jerk blend with Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, the sweet barbecue sauce with a lingering heat, and the mild yellow curry, spreading gravy-like across the clamshell to-go containers. Guests can swap in chicken, oxtail, goat or shrimp, and the small portions come in at $7, including two sides. The restaurant knows that these are winners, the kind of spice mixes that warm through the chest and bring diners back again and again. Therefore, the rest of the menu serves as a sort of pit crew to the star speed racers.
The sides list leans toward the starchy — plantains, rice and beans, mashed potato — things that are going to soak up all those rich sauces. Sweet, pillowy coco bread ($2.50), baked locally, makes for a sloppy sandwich or a vehicle for eating fingerfulls at a time. On its own, the lemon cake ($3.50) could be read as too sweet and missing some acid, but after all that spice and heaviness, it feels right, just like washing it all down with a house-made pineapple ginger drink. 512 Pennsylvania Ave.
On any given Saturday morning at the Fells Point Farmers Market, the DMV Empanadas booth draws a line that extends past the next couple of retailers. Ask a regular patron or vendor what’s a tasty bite to eat now, and the answer will probably be, “Go get an empanada.” Despite the line, the empanadas stay hot, releasing puffs of hot air when bitten into, gooey filling dribbling down the chin.
At $4 each (or $4.50 in-store), DMV’s empanadas have a strong fullness-to-cost ratio and are easy to snack on while strolling through any of the market locations — the Baltimore Farmer’s Market under I-83, Cross Street Market and 32nd Street Farmers Market, in addition to Fells Point — or at the Gaithersburg brick-and-mortar.
Beef is the chef’s top pick with potatoes, sweet corn and black olives mixed into the filling, a family recipe, but Marylanders will love the shrimp Old Bay filling, which oozes out with onions, bell peppers, celery and mozzarella. The spicy chicken has just enough of a buffalo-like kick to singe the tongue but is mellowed with a creamy side sauce of garlic, bell pepper, habanero, jalapeno, mayo and a secret seasoning mix. “The homemade seasoning is included in almost every empanada and gives it a special kick,” Gaithersburg store manager Miguel Vasquez said. And of course, each empanada has a perfectly browned, sturdy but soft crust. 113 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg
Pupuseria El Salvador
Don’t be turned off by the unassuming aesthetic of Highlandtown’s Pupuseria El Salvador. Sure, the walls are decked out with enormous photos of the food, but those dishes deserve some recognition, especially the restaurant’s signature item, the pupusa.
Roughly the size of pancakes, pupusas are a stuffed flatbread that gets crispy on the griddle. This iteration absolutely drools queso, though the fillings — chicken, chicharrón or loroco (an edible flower with a fresh, earthy flavor), to name a few — can get a bit lost. A small salad on top and a bottle of sweet salsa on the table help to cut the fattiness.
At $2.35 each, the pupusas are a comfort food bargain, but that menu of a wall boasts other inexpensive Salvadorian classics; think corn or chicken tamales ($2.35), pastelitos filled with beef ($4.99) and yuca with chicharrón ($7.99). 3712 Eastern Ave.
Yomna’s Halal Gyro Cart
Parked at Market Place and East Lombard Street downtown, Yomna’s Halal Gyro Cart is reminiscent of the ones that crowd the Rockefeller Center area of Manhattan, the smell of grilled meat wafting down the street. Lamb, chicken and falafel are the cruxes of the pared-down menu and served in the form of a rice platter, salad, wrap, tabouna sandwich or gyro.
The nicely browned falafel is crumbly and full of spice and, when it’s served atop a king-size bed of yellow rice, a filling vegetarian dish ($10 with free soda). Hot sauce and lemony tzatziki bring it all together.
The fluffy pitas of the chicken gyros ($8) are overflowing with tender chunks of well-seasoned meat, topped with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, tzatziki and hot sauce. Arm yourself with a stack of napkins; it’s the kind of meal you attack more so than eat. 92 Market Place
Yum’s Asian Bistro
Yum’s Asian Bistro in North Baltimore is the sort of neighborhood takeout spot that packs the brown paper bags high with sauces, chopsticks, fortune cookies and dishes under $10. The menu is huge, covering America’s favorite versions of Chinese dishes, as well as Thai, hibachi, sushi and even some Cajun. It arguably tries to do too much (avoid the sushi and sashimi), but the go-tos are worth returning for.
Take, for example, the chicken lo mein (small, $7.75; large, $10.65). Silky egg noodles with just the right hint of oiliness beg to be slurped. The shrimp egg rolls ($4.35 for two) are golden and crispy enough to withstand the takeout journey, and tom yum soup (small, $4.95; large, $7.95) carries tropical notes of lemongrass and pineapple with more depth of flavor than expected. The lobster salad appetizer ($8.75) contains a good amount of meat, tossed in a slightly spicy sauce and punctuated with sesame seeds. Put it on toast to imitate an Asian lobster salad roll. 2501 N. Charles St.