What to Look for in a Quality Cheap Eat

By: Ali Khan
Show: Cheap Eats

Host Ali Khan poses with the Torta de Jamon at Donkey Taqueria, as seen on Cooking Channel's Cheap Eats, Season 2.

Photo by: Tom McKenzie ©© 2016, Cooking Channel, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Tom McKenzie, © 2016, Cooking Channel, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Eating well on the cheap. It's not nearly as easy as just eating on the cheap. And we have 50 years of the fast-food industry to thank for that. Not that I’m opposed to the occasional bag o' drive-thru, mind you, but the old maxim is still true: You get what you pay for. The truth is we all have our own budgets in mind, and not all $6 burgers are created equal. So let's look for a moment, beyond the bucks, to what makes food bang at any price point — a happy medium sandwiched in between Kobe dry-aged beef and the dollar menu. Here are my four tips for finding a legit cheap eat:

Figure out if the food/restaurant is “people driven.”

This is kinda like “chef driven,” but it involves a little more on your part than pulling up a website or a Yelp review. Bottom line: Are the people who work at this restaurant proud about the food there? Do they eat there on their days off? Can they list the faves from the menu in, like, no time flat? For most of you, this means gathering intel from your waiter, but don’t ignore the person bussing your table either. And, no, this doesn’t apply to only table-service restaurants. I reviewed a national burger chain ($6 and up) and was floored by how both the ladies taking my order were so down for their employer and the burgers they smashed (that's a hint). After all, don’t you want happy people — people who genuinely believe that they are worthy of your hard-earned buck — serving your food?
Look for "good"ingredients.

Twenty years of hanging my hat in California made terms like "organic," "sustainable " and "farm-to-table " seem commonplace. But in the world of Cheap Eats, they are a feat to pull off. Don’t expect a hat trick of these good-food tenets every time. But should you see a joint serving a burger or sandwich for $10 or less and serving up the words “sustainable”; that is a Cheap Eats score.

Know the culture of the food you are eating.

Some cuisines are notorious for serving up cheap eats. This occurrence is not random. To borrow from Chef Dan Barber’s keen observation in an episode of Chef’s Table: “Most of the great cuisines of the world came out of hardship. They were all forced into a negotiation between peasants and landscape.” Now let that observation ruminate over your next bowl of pho or plate of biriyani (two dishes, I might add, that are typically large enough to share). Vietnam and India, respectively, are countries known for poverty, so is it any wonder that the dishes that originated in these countries are economical and shareable? I’ve often said “embrace ethnic” when searching for cheap eats, but it’s important to understand the culture behind these foods, how they are eaten and, yeah, that means sharing.

Become an expert in the food you love.

If you are reading this, then there is no doubt that you love food. And love is the first step in becoming an expert in anything. I have been called an expert in food, and while I am a sucker for flattery, I consider myself more endlessly curious about food and why people love the food that they do. Usually someone who loves hot dogs has had “that one.” He or she has come across a stand that just killed it and will deviate no longer. While I think that it is important to find “that place,” one also must continue to sample the competition. Two things will inevitably happen: One, you will further your case for why the hot dog stand you love is the best or two, you will find a better stand. What does this have to do with finding cheap eats? You will appreciate a Cheap Eats find far more when you have sampled most of the competition, and the most-realistic and practical way to do that is to start with a food that you love. I started my case for cheap eats with my fave food: the hamburger. And let’s just say that after 60-plus burger blog posts, not only can I spot a good burger, but I can really, really appreciate it for what it is.

Find out where to get my favorite bargain bites by watching Cheap Eats every Thursday at 10pm ET.

Get a taste of the show by binge watching Cheap Eats season 1 for free online.

Keep Reading

Next Up

Cheap Eats Location Guide

Check out the budget-friendly spots that Ali Khan visits across the country on Cheap Eats.

Is This Sandwich Better Than a Cheesesteak? Find Out on Cheap Eats

Watch Cheap Eats' Season 2 premiere online for free with streaming on Cooking Channel.

Ali Khan's 5 Favorite Cheap Burgers

Most of Ali's free time is spent uncovering the best burgers for your hard-earned buck.

On TV

Home for the Holidays

So Much Pretty Food Here