Cheap Eats in Greater Hartford
Food has become pop culture. Chefs are celebrities. Restaurant bloggers are everywhere. TV is obsessed with food trucks, cupcakes and high-intensity cook-offs. As befits this ever-more-elevated status, it seems like more and more of our personal budgets go to food these days. Fancy restaurants, boutique products, high-end salt (!), artisanal cheeses, sleekly engineered appliances and kitchen gadgets—we all want them. You can spend your entire paycheck eating, and that can have a lopsided effect on the whole clothing-and-shelter part of the personal self-maintenance equation.
To ease your eating outlay, we’ve assembled a list of cheap eats (read: good food that’s affordable—mostly less than $10). Cooking food for yourself is probably the most frugal way to stay fed, but many of these places offer delicious fare for less than it would probably cost to prepare in your own home. And your time counts for something, after all. These beloved eateries, out-of-the-way holes-in-the-wall, and hidden gems have all succeeded at what they do by making killer food and making it pretty easy on the pocket book. Unlike, say, cheap shoes, or cheap hotels, sometimes cheap food is the best kind around. And if you’re looking to get to know the Hartford area better (or to impress some food-loving out-of-town guests) there are few more delicious ways than to poke around the area’s restaurants—especially the ones that serve delicious food at bargain prices—for a taste of how diverse the region really is.
Buffet at Priya Indian Cuisine
The beauty of the Indian buffet is that we all want to sample dozens of dishes when we go to an Indian restaurant, but when you get yogurt raita, puffy bread, spicy soup, a creamy curry, a raisin-studded rice dish, and maybe a side of those funky pickles, you quickly end up spending a lot. And don’t even think about trying to make all this at home, unless you’re a pro and you’ve got hired help for prep and cleanup. Priya’s well-stocked buffet lunch ($9.99, weekdays) makes an Indian feast affordable and quick. And those slow-cooked meats and long-simmering sauces don’t suffer from the steamtable treatment. Expect to find familiar Indian favorites, like tandoori chicken, creamy curries, saag paneer (spinach and homemade cheese) and heaps of buttery naan bread at the wellattended lunch buffet of this Rocky Hill eatery. But also be on the lookout for surprises, like the sneakily spicy sambar soup, unusual fish dishes (with coconut milk or yogurt), somewhatnon-standard curries (like goat or egg) and the occasional arrival of wonderful dosas (impossibly light crepes made with a slightly fermented legume flour). If you go on the right day they’ll be serving gulab jamun (little donuts served in a super-sweet cardamom-flavored syrup). Priya also has a frequent-diner card, so your sixth buffet meal is on the house.
Priya Indian Cuisine, 1860 Silas Deane Highway Rocky Hill, 860- 529-5252, hartfordpriya.com
Tacos at El Bajio
There are a number of great places to get tacos in the Hartford area. El Serape on Broad Street is a contender. And Bar Taco in West Hartford serves some cute and affordable little guys.
But a go-to spot for excellent $2 tacos is this little easy-to-miss spot on Franklin Avenue in Hartford’s food-centric South End. El Bajio serves soft corn tortillas cradling tasty little cargoes of roast pork, seasoned beef, chicken or spicy chorizo sausage, all topped with chopped onion and cilantro. Those tortillas make all the difference. The essence of corn breathes out from the things.
There are also tacos featuring lip and tripe and other odd bits, if you like a little adventure. El Bajio also serves excellent tortas—Mexican sandwiches, with taco fillings and avocado. It’s a humble restaurant, with a jukebox that blares bumping accordionheavy norteño music and a TV that plays racy telenovelas.
El Bajio, 285 Franklin Ave., Hartford, 860-296-2695
Bánh mì at Pho Saigon
The Hartford area may have been a little late getting its taste of the bánh mì craze that spread from food-obsessed places like New York and San Francisco. But we finally got ours. Bánh mì, for the uninitiated, are basically Vietnamese-style grinders. (Vietnam was a French colony, and hence the use of French bread, etc. Some point to the East-meets-West touches of Vietnamese cuisine as a rare example of colonialism having an upside.) But, like Mexican tortas, they reveal how limited our standard conception of a sandwich can sometimes be. There are only a handful of places that serve bánh mì around here, but Pho Saigon’s are among the best. The grilled pork is sweet and slightly spicy, with a hint of char from the grill. (It can be made considerably more spicy with a squirt of sriracha or a spoon of sambal from the little arsenal of hot sauces and condiments on each table.) But what makes bánh mì exciting is the use of sweet and crisp wisps of pickled carrot and radish, plus loads of cilantro. You may also find some scallion, cucumber slices and green pepper nestled in the baguette-style roll.
Pho Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant & Deli, 989 New Britain Ave., 860-953-1122, phosaigonvietnameserestaurant.com
Lunch Specials, With Pan Chan, at Goong Korean
Korean cuisine is ascendant. Korean taco trucks have swept the country, and kimchi is fast becoming the go-to flavor-enhancer and exotic pickle of the age. But a lot of us have a learning curve when it comes to Korean. Say you can’t tell your bulgoghi from Kentucky Fried Chicken, the lunch menu at Goong in East Hartford is a great place to get a tasty tutorial. We’re lucky to have several very good Korean restaurants in the region—if you’re nearby or want to explore the scene, also check out Min Gung in Glastonbury or Pick and Mix in West Hartford. Lunch specials range from $8 to $11, but as with the Indian buffet, what you get makes lunch at Goong a serious bargain. In the same way that most Mexican restaurants will plop down some chips and salsa on your table when you arrive, Korean restaurants pretty much all include what’s called pan chan with any meal you’re going to buy. Pan chan generally consists of salty, tangy and spicy vegetables— some kimchi, some pickled radish, maybe some marinated mung bean sprouts or bean curd. Throw in a bowl of rice and it’s a meal unto itself. But Goong’s Korean fried chicken, which is something like spicy buffalo wings crossed with General Tso’s chicken, is worth checking out. There are people who are fanatical about this stuff, and once you taste Goong’s you’ll understand why. The dinner menu includes lots of interesting nooks, with pork belly and cabbage, spicy soups and stews. Those looking for the more familiar Korean favorites like bulgoghi (Korean barbecue) or bibim-bab (a rice dish served in a hot stone pot) can find those on the lunch menu.
Goong Korean Restaurant, 798 Silver Ln., East Hartford, 860-216-3041, goong.weebly.com