Food & Drink: Embrace your inner cheapskate

Dinner for $2 with no fast food? It can be done!

Illustration by Mark Stivers

The summer months are best spent outdoors (for the most part) socializing with loved ones over food and drinks. Dining out can be expensive, but the less money you spend, the less hours you have to work, and the more time you have for those loved ones. Can being frugal increase the love in your life?

One way to get free eats is to seek out restaurants with competitive-eating challenges. Scarf down a giant-sized meal in a limited time, and you can win prizes and get your meal for free. The Knucklehead Challenge at Parker’s Hot Dogs in Roseville dares customers to consume a 5-pound chili dog smothered in jalapeño-nacho-cheese sauce, vegetables and french fries in 20 minutes. At Sacramento’s Suki Sushi, eating 4 pounds of specialty rolls in one hour wins a free meal and a photo on the wall of fame.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The eat-it-to-win-it approach has its downsides: painful gluttony, the risk of vomiting and the fact that, if you don’t beat the clock, you’ll have to pay for the meal. Fail at Suki Sushi and you’re on the hook for $29. More than 100 people have been defeated by the Knucklehead Challenge, including professional eater Adam Richman, host of Man v. Food.

It’s probably safer to leave the binging dares to the TV personalities and focus on affordable dining in human-sized portions. This summer, I set out with a pack of my closest amigos—and our dangerously shallow pockets—to find Sacramento’s cheapest and most substantial eats. On each outing, we preset a microbudget for the day: $10, $5, even $2. We squeezed those dollars like they were the last lemons on Earth to prove that a good time, and a good meal, can be had without a lot of cash.

Picnic lunch for under $10

Aside from being affordable and environmentally wise, a farmers market is a unifying experience, allowing you to interact directly with those who worked so hard to provide the goods. The Sunday-morning Central Farmers Market under the freeway at Eighth and W streets is a great place to load up on inexpensive and healthy food. Bounteous baskets of fruits and veggies are ready for the taking.

A cheap picnic is all about being crafty and having a game plan. Grab a picnic blanket and transform your farmers-market finds into a huge lunch. Consult the Davis Farmers Market recipe guide at for some great suggestions on main dishes, appetizers and deserts. We prepared a huge salad starring all of the earth’s bounty (strawberries stealing the show), along with some nice flowers to give the picnic some sex appeal.

Snacks and drinks on $5

With this challenge, it all depends on what you get and how hungry you are. The no-brainer would be to hit up a burrito establishment, but let’s think outside of the tortilla—until later.

Though not the healthiest, Quickly cafe, located at 2100 16th Street, is where vegans, carnivores and daring food lovers find common ground. Wring that hard-earned five for all its worth, and get a snack and icy drink from the overwhelmingly vast menu. If anything, the challenge here is choosing what you want. There at least 100 varieties of milk teas, slushes, juices and teas. Mocha snow took half of my five; the other was used for some tofu tempura snacks. Head over to the Quickly Facebook page for daily specials and deals, or visit

Lunch or dinner for $2

Stalk Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen via Twitter. Drewski’s is not your typical mobile-food-service apparatus. All ingredients are fresh and local, and the menu in itself taps into a whole new food vein. The only food truck ballsy enough to set up camp right in front of City Hall, the Hot Rod Kitchen rejects bland lunch options and instead serves up lunch that is cheap and beyond delicious. For $2, diners are bestowed with a taco stuffed with marinated beef or chicken topped with slices of apple, sauces and gourmet slaw. It should be noted with a gold star that Drewski’s fits into every pricing category: $2 tacos, $3 sides, less-than-$5 soups and salads, and hefty entrees under $10—almost all marinated, grilled and gourmet.

Azul Mexican Food and Tequila Bar, located at 1050 20th Street in the MARRS building, also offers cheap tacos. My good friend Amanda has devised a method that allows her to buy one taco and magically turn it into two. “They double up on their tortillas,” she explained, “and I can turn one soft taco into two by splitting up the toppings and taking advantage of their salsa, guacamole, jalapeño bar.” This is not considered swindling; it’s clever frugality.

Capitol Dawg, located at 1226 20th Street, has a “Cappy Hour” full of $2 options. From 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, get $2 beer, hot dogs, corn dogs, veggie dawgs, garlic fries and double-scoop ice-cream cones. If it’s Tuesday, follow that up with a 30-second stroll across the street for $2.50 pint night at Rubicon Brewing Company, located at 2004 Capitol Avenue.

Day-ender for under $10

Armed with little more than $10 each, my roomie Gabrielle and I ended the cheap-food challenge at our neighborhood bar, the Round Corner Tavern, for whiskey ginger ales and delicious vegan food. $3 buys a whiskey ginger ale with more drink, less ice and a perfect whiskey-to-soda ratio.

The Round Corner, located at 2333 S Street, is a bit of a hidden gem when it comes to dining. Hungry patrons are greeted at the bright portal to the right of the bar by a duo of chefs whose food completely surpasses the “bar food” category. This is the BBQ vs. Vegan kitchen, which serves food inside the bar. The barbecue side of the menu lists burgers and ribs, while the vegan side is colorful and surprising. The unicorn sandwich, fried tofu smothered with barbecue sauce slammed between sourdough slices, seems to be a favorite. The vegan BLT, noodle stir-fry, and teriyaki tofu rice bowls are welcome attractions. The Round Corner even does house calls. Orders can be called in and cheap, satisfying food will be delivered right to your door like lightning.

My partner in food frugality and I went halvsies on a plate of grub. After much deliberation, we made the very wise decision to feast on the falafel sandwich and sweet-potato fries to soak up that whiskey.