Steal plates: Our guide to a week’s worth of cheap eats

What if the American Restaurant — one of the more expensive and glamorous dining rooms in Kansas City — decided to return to 1976 prices? A 16-ounce Kansas City strip would cost $13.50, a Long Island duckling in white-grape sauce would go for $9, and a glass of the house wine would be priced at 95 cents. At those prices, people could actually afford to eat out a lot more frequently.

Alas, at today’s prices, even a glass of iced tea costs more than a dollar. Everything is more expensive in 2011. After eliminating the options of fast-food chains, all-you-can-eat buffets and prepackaged salads and sandwiches at convenience stores, finding bargain meals out is no simple task. Take away other cost-cutting options (coupons, happy hours, early bird specials, senior discounts), and getting a cheap breakfast, lunch or dinner becomes even more challenging.

Not that price should outweigh food quality, service and overall experience when choosing a restaurant. But when it’s the middle of the month, and it costs $50 to fill your gas tank, and the car payment and the cable bill are due the same day, eating in a restaurant seems like an outrageous luxury. (Don’t even think about tax and tip.)

So we went looking for a week’s worth of meals on a daily budget of $20. Across the metro, we found a reassuring number of places where inflation hasn’t quite caught up. There’s nothing fancy about any of these diners, mom-and-pop joints and blue-plate throwbacks, but treasures await anyone looking for a vivid atmosphere and a screenplay’s worth of overheard conversation — not to mention a full plate on a nearly empty wallet.


MONDAY

Harold’s Drive-In
1337 Admiral Boulevard
816-221-2359

Before there was anything known as a drive-through, there was the drive-in — and Harold’s, an East Side institution since 1958. Teenagers motoring home from seeing The Blob or Attack of the 50-Foot Woman at one of the downtown movie palaces would stop, park their cars, and go in for a chocolate malted and a cheeseburger. Owner Nancy Smith still sells malts and burgers, but her customers are usually blue-collar workers from around the neighborhood. Smith serves breakfast until 10:30 a.m. A five-spot buys a handcrafted grilled sandwich (fried egg and cheese with ham or bacon or sausage, lettuce, tomato and mayo), hash browns and a beverage. No tipping is required, but you have to eat in your car.

Englewood Café
10904 East Winner Road, Independence
816-461-9588

The daily specials at this small-town diner vary, but they’re nearly always solid, home-style dishes such as baked meatloaf or baked chicken, served with three sides and a dinner roll. Most of the lunch specials cost less than $7, and there’s always plenty left to take home. A slab of pie costs extra, but it’s baked right there.

Friends Sushi & Bento Place
1808 West 39th Street
816-753-6666

Happiness can be defined in just two words: inexpensive sushi. Every Monday (from 5 to 9 p.m.) and Saturday (from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), this 39th Street staple offers $1 pieces of sushi and $3.99 rolls. Spicy salmon is the way to go — it’s the finest offering in the joint.

TUESDAY

Nelle Belle’s Diner
150 East U.S. Highway 69
816-452-9786

Owner Dixie Edwards works from 3 a.m. to 2 p.m. at this pink diner frequented by workers at the nearby Ford plant. There’s a mean plate of biscuits with sausage gravy ($4.75), and the daily made cobbler ($2) makes pie a serious breakfast option. The specials hang on brightly colored posterboard on the walls, and the two narrow dining rooms mean that all conversations here are communal.

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Hayes Hamburgers & Chili
2502 Northeast Vivion Road
816-453-5575

This shiny, tiny 24-hour diner — the booths seat two people, unless you know your dining companions really, really well — dates back to 1955 and remains famous for its modestly priced breakfasts and lunches. A signature platter includes a 4-ounce rib-eye steak with two eggs, hash browns, and toast ($7.35) or a hefty order of biscuits slathered with sausage gravy ($3.60). A triple burger ($3.99) can be layered with cheese ($4.50) or chili ($4.95), and the small pork-tenderloin sandwich is grilled, not fried. You can make a satisfying meal out of a single pancake ($1.15) and an order of hash browns with cheese ($2.05) and still have enough left for a root-beer float ($1.65).

Ernie’s Steakhouse & Kross Lounge
605 North Sterling Avenue, Sugar Creek
816-254-9494

This small-town saloon dates back to the 1940s, and the dinner portions hearken back to a time when no one gave a damn about such things as cholesterol and high blood pressure. There are dinner specials every night of the week, but the best might be Tuesday night’s fried pork tenderloin dinner (with a choice of spud) for $5.

WEDNESDAY

Little Richard’s Family Restaurant
301 North Highway 291, Independence
816-257-7295

You can’t be too squeamish about mounted deer heads when you dine at Richard Cash’s family-style diner. He has mounted a dozen of them on the mint-green walls of his restaurant — they’re about the same size as his cinnamon rolls. He offers the biggest pork-tenderloin sandwich in the city, too, and he’ll pay you $50 if you can finish it. The breakfasts aren’t just hearty but also tasty and cheap: A two-egg cheese omelet with fried potatoes and toast costs $3.99 (a biscuit is 19 cents extra, or if you’re feeling fancy, spend 29 cents for an English muffin). If you spring for the $7.99 breakfast — a pork chop, two eggs, hash browns and toast — you won’t be hungry again until dinner.

Philo’s Grill
4127 East Truman Road
816-241-9995

George Ingelzos has something for everyone at his five-year-old Greek-American diner on Truman Road, including outstanding gyro sandwiches ($5.25), a delicious Angus steakburger ($3.50) and a fried-chicken plate with two pieces of dark meat, mashed potatoes and buttered corn ($3.50). The daily $2.75 breakfast special is served until 11 a.m. (or even later, for a buck extra) and features two eggs, two strips of bacon, hash browns, toast and jelly. Construction workers in the area prefer the “hot plate specials” for $7.25 — chicken-fried steak, rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, ham steak — because they include choice of potato, vegetables, bread, and coffee or tea.

Chapala Restaurante Mexicano
5224 East Truman Road
816-241-9957

Owner Martha Senda now closes her family-operated cantina early — dinner service ends at 4 p.m. so she can spend more time with her family — but she still offers some of the most delicious, least costly authentic Mexican meals in the metro. She’s famous for her soups, which are frequently featured on the specials board, as are her handmade enchiladas — four big ones with lettuce and sour cream for about $8.

Quick’s 7th Street Bar-B-Q
709 Cheyenne, Kansas City, Kansas
913-371-1599

Don’t judge this tasty book by its plain cover. The exterior of the 54-year-old joint looks a little forlorn, but the dining room is as neat as a pin, and the smoked meats are great. The best bargain is the $5.50 rib-tip platter, featuring a mess of tender, meaty rib meat slathered in a brawny, cayenne-seasoned sauce. The dish is served with two slices of soft white bread and a choice of baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad or fries. It’s not available every day, so call ahead.

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THURSDAY

Winstead’s
101 Brush Creek Boulevard
816-753-2244

Winstead’s may be known for its steakburgers, but the smart money is on the breakfast sandwiches at this Kansas City classic. A fried-egg sandwich on toast or a grilled English muffin is just $1.85. Add a breakfast meat or cheese for 40 cents, and you’re out the door in under five minutes for less than $3. Whether hungover or tired, never underestimate the restorative powers of an egg-and-cheese from Winstead’s.

Kitty’s Café
810 East 31st Street
816-753-9711

Pork-tenderloin sandwiches don’t have to be stomach anvils. Proof: the delicate, tempura-like, pancake-thin triple stack ($4.90) from Kitty’s Café. Ask for the hot sauce, which neatly complements the crunch of the pork tenderloin and the sweetness of the pickle slices. Call ahead — the tiny kitchen has just six stools, just as it has since 1951.

Niecie’s Restaurant
6441 Troost
816-444-6006

It’s an offer that sounds too good to be true: a three-piece fried-chicken dinner for $4.99, including two side dishes. But both of Denise Hayes’ restaurants — the newer Troost location and the East 63rd Street spot — offer three pieces of crispy, delicious fried dark meat (a white-meat dinner costs $2 extra) with sides and a choice of dinner roll or cornbread. The side-dish choices include delicious vinegary greens, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, green beans, and a few other soul-food favorites. Even after paying tip and tax, you’ll walk out feeling fuller and richer.

FRIDAY

Ruby’s Dagwood Café
1117 Southwest Boulevard
913-677-0747

Perfectly runny eggs are hiding inside a mound of hash browns, bacon or sausage (although you can have both if you ask nicely) and cheese, all smashed inside two slices of Texas toast. This is the Dagwood ($4.65), the signature breakfast sandwich of this L-shaped diner. Your heart is already a goner, so order a salad-plate-sized cinnamon roll ($3), served warm with butter-cream frosting and melted butter.

Lutfi’s Fried Fish
3360 Troost
816-921-0152

If you’ve driven up and down Troost lately, you’ve seen eager young men energetically waving yellow placards advertising the $5 fish special at this newest Lutfi’s location. The special is offered each day and fills you up good, baby. How much fish? Three pieces of fried catfish or three pieces of fried perch or two pieces of fried whiting. What else? Bread and a choice of one side dish (stewed greens, macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice, fries, potato salad, or cole slaw). Those sign wavers might just be satisfied customers saying thanks.

Kin Lin Chinese Restaurant
314 East 51st Street
816-561-4334

Budget-conscious students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Rockhurst University swear by this cozy little Chinese restaurant, which is short on style but long on portions. The inexpensive Chinese dishes here come in two sizes: big and bigger. Big — well, “regular” — is often enough for two meals, and “large” could be three. The regular dinners cost $6–$7.50, and the large meals top out at $10. Besides traditional Chinese-American dishes, there are spicy meatless dishes and fried rice and noodle creations. You can also make a satisfying dinner out of a bowl of wonton soup ($2.50) and the combination appetizer platter ($5.95).

Bluestem
900 Westport Road
816-561-1101
Lounge-only happy hour: 5-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday

Whoever said you need nothing more than friends to be wealthy must have been friends with Bluestem chefs Colby and Megan Garrelts. One of the best happy hours in the city is in the restaurant’s well-appointed lounge, where the half-price menu items include mussels ($7), wagyu beef tartare ($6) and truffle pommes frites ($2.50). After a week of budgeting, it’s a rich indulgence at a deeply fair price.

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RETRO SATURDAY

John’s Space Age Donuts
8124 Floyd, Overland Park
913-381-0980

It’s a heartwarming sight to see grown men holding school-lunchroom milk cartons and smiling at the first mouthful of apple fritter. They may have sat here as boys, on the same stools on either side of the pastry case. John’s opened in 1967, and today’s doughnuts aren’t much more expensive than the Apollo-era treats: 70 cents (75 cents to-go). And those fritters run just 95 cents. Only have a quarter? You can still buy a doughnut hole that’s out of this world.

Werner’s Fine Sausages
5736 Johnson Drive, Mission
913-362-5955

On calendars in Mission, Saturday reads Sausageday. That’s when the line forms to pick up one of seven sausage varieties ($2.50 each) from a grill cart just outside Werner’s Specialty Foods. The cart opens at 11 a.m. and runs until 2:30 p.m., but to make sure your favorite sausage is still on hand, get there by 1. Start with the smoked Polish, a mixture of beef and pork with the satisfying snap of natural casing.

Mugs-Up Root Beer Drive-In
700 East 23rd Street, Independence
816-254-7040

There are so few places to find home-brewed root beer served in those heavy, thick frosty mugs that even if this iconic drive-in were expensive — which it isn’t — it would still be worth a drive to Independence. Mugs-Up’s root beer can be ordered by the glass or the quart, and the simple menu is a throwback to a time when little loose-meat burgers were the rage — the Zip Burger ($2.15) is plain, while the Whiz Burger ($2.45) is a Zip with cheese. There are other treats here, including corn dogs, barbecue sandwiches and fried tenderloins. And the rib-sticking chili-cheese Frito pie is a bargain at $2.55.

HiBoy Drive-In
924 West U.S. Highway 24, Independence
816-252-4050

The cars in the drive-through are no longer classics, but not much else has changed since HiBoy opened in 1957 — especially the tasty food. The HiBoy Burger ($3.89) is still a thin patty with a slight pepper kick, juicy enough to make the bun slightly soft. It comes stacked with crunchy lettuce, sliced tomato, a dollop of house sauce, and melty cheese that sticks first to the foil wrapping and then to your lips.

SUNDAY

Cook Shack Café
8950 Wornall
816-333-0013

This little neighborhood diner is so small that there’s often a wait during bad weather (on sunny days, owner Bill Crow, a former firefighter, opens the back patio for seating). It’s worth the time. The food is simple, delicious and cheap, with big breakfast platters filled with the kind of home-style food — eggs and sausage, biscuits and gravy, omelets and flapjacks — that leave you comfortably sated until evening, when you’re ready to eat the same meal all over again.

El Pulgarcito
5921 Merriam Drive, Merriam
913-384-3887

Just south of Johnson Drive, El Pulgarcito serves up a papusa, a masa flour pocket stuffed with meat, beans or cheese, for $1.95. It also has what may be the best free condiments in the city. The papusas are served with a red-hot sauce and a jar full of curtido, a Salvadoran slaw with pickled cabbage, onions and jalapeños. And the friendly servers make even first-time diners feel like regulars.


MEXICAN

El Camino Real
903 North Seventh Street, Kansas City, Kansas
913-342-4333

People don’t just love this taqueria in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, because the tacos are so inexpensive ($1.50 each). They’re also delicious, and the selection is terrific: beef tongue, spicy chorizo, fried fish, carne asada, pollo, poblano chiles with cheese. You can eat like a king for less than $8.

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Bonito Michoacan
1150 Minnesota Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas
913-371-0326

You can work your way through an entire cow or pig at this popular KCK lunch spot, especially with tacos that cost only $1.49 (99 cents on Tuesdays). This grocery and restaurant serves beef cheek, tongue, tripe, pork shoulder, and lamb (just five of the 10 filling choices) on two corn tortillas under a generous handful of fresh cilantro and chopped onion. Add a small tamarind agua fresca ($1.69) — sugar and fruit-sweetened water — to cool off your mouth.

Paleterias Tropicana
830 Southwest Boulevard
816-221-0192

The frozen treats sold by Paleterias Tropicana at its flagship store on Southwest Boulevard are the best kind of dessert alchemy. The flat, oblong popsicles have the texture of a Creamsicle, the taste of a juice pop from childhood, and a price that anybody’s allowance can cover ($1.59–$1.79). The challenge: picking just one, which is impossible as long as the flavors include mango with chili powder and piña colada.


FOOD TRUCKS

Fresher Than Fresh Snow Cones
ftfsnowcones.com

Magic happens inside a Shasta teardrop trailer every Sunday, May-September, in the corner garden at 17th Street and Summit. The snow cones ($3) are complex, with fascinating flavor combinations — such as lemon prickly pear or pineapple with serrano pepper — that stem from the imagination of founder Lindsay Laricks. Can’t make up your mind? Get the flight of freshness ($4), a sampler of five flavors.

Curbside Cuisine
@curbsidecuisine

A righteous, Chicago-style hot dog was hard to find in Kansas City until Curbside Cuisine hit the streets in March. This rolling pleasure palace serves genuine, steamed Vienna-beef hot dogs ($3.50) with all the trimmings — sliced tomato, onion, neon relish, sport pepper, mustard, kosher pickle wedge, a dash of celery salt — packed into a poppy-seed bun.

Port Fonda
portfondakc.com

Chef Patrick Ryan’s retrofitted Airstream trailer has a single six-person table inside, which he has nicknamed “el comedor.” But you don’t have to sit there to enjoy his cracking-good regional Mexican dishes. The tacos ($3) include goat with radish and green onion. And the tortas ($7) are inventive sandwiches — like Ryan’s take on a banh mi, with rancho gordo beans, chicken-liver pate, pork belly, pork rillette, pickled vegetables, cilantro and hot-sauce mayo.


PIZZA

d’Bronx
3904 Bell
816-531-0550

The standard for thin-crust slices for many pizza fanatics in the city is still d’Bronx’s cheese ($2.85). It’ll burn the roof of your mouth as authentically as any proper New York wedge because you won’t be able to wait before taking the first bite. The cheese pulls off in molten strings, and the crust is slightly blackened on the bottom. The sauce is a balance of peppery heat and sweet tomatoes. Toppings (50 to 75 cents) — especially the fine house-made meatballs — turn a single slice into a knife-and-fork project.

Pizza 51
5060 Oak
816-531-1151

This slice ($3.19) is so large, it can’t really fit in the to-go box. Better just to eat the tip before you close the lid. The toppings (69 cents) are as well-stocked as a salad bar, perfect for vegetarians and carnivores. The closer you get to the crust, the more crunch you get, rewarding you for working your way through the entire slice.

Santora’s
3834 Main
816-756-1616

There are only a few late-night foods that can withstand the light of day. Happily, the slices at Santora’s are just as respectable for lunch as after a night out at the bars — and a bargain (two one-topping slices for $5). The homemade marinara, a family recipe from co-owner Anthony Santora, is the best part of every bite.


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VEGETARIAN

Planet Sub
planetsub.com

Local sandwich juggernaut Planet Sub has 15 locations in the metro, all of which offer the menu’s 6-inch veggie subs for just $3 on Thursdays. (Too hungry? Pay $6 for the foot-long.) The 10 hefty selections include a faux Reuben version, made with perfectly seasoned tempeh, and the “Meatless Masterpiece,” composed of cream cheese, Swiss cheese, spicy pepper jack, mushrooms, green peppers, onions and black olives.

Le Monde Bakery
308 Armour Road, North Kansas City
816-474-0055

The fat, succulent Vietnamese spring rolls here can be had vegan or with shrimp. They’re prepared and sold Wednesday-Friday at this North Kansas City bakery. Julie Le, the wife of Le Monde’s head baker, Houng Le, serves three of the moist rolls with peanut sauce for $5.45. They’re enough to make one extremely satisfying meatless meal. A limited number of the vegan rolls are made, so call ahead.

Olive Café & Bakery
9530 James A. Reed Road
816-763-0009

The most delicious falafel sandwich in the metro is served — for less than five bucks — at the original Olive Café & Bakery on the city’s East Side. The from-scratch falafel is slightly greenish from the fresh parsley in the batter, gorgeously crisp on the exterior, and soft and deliciously spiced inside. The sandwich is folded into freshly baked pita bread and slathered with nutty tahini sauce. It’s not just a sandwich but also a meal.

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