Best Cheap Eats in San Francisco

Track down Fog City's best food bargains, from breakfast platters through late night slices.

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Photo By: Wes Rowe

Photo By: Darren Samuelson

Photo By: Wes Rowe

Photo By: Seraphlia

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Frugal Finds in Fog City

In a city famed for its food, where even sandwiches and salads can push $20, finding cheap eats is a challenge. From artisan cheese bars to unfussy taco joints and everything in between, we found some of the best under-$12 meals without resorting to a food cart.

Japanese Hot Dogs from Ichi Sushi

Sushi may be the menu mainstay at this restaurant, but the kitchen also turns out an unexpected lunchtime selection that’s lighter on the wallet. An entire section of the lunch menu is devoted to the Japanese hot dog, which comes customized with a slew of different toppings. One fan favorite is the Okonomiyaki Dog: an Arabiki pork hot dog smothered in Japanese mayo and bonito flakes (toppings commonly added to Japan’s savory pancakes known as okonomiyaki), as well as spicy tonkatsu sauce and a flurry of furikake flakes and pickled ginger. Another standout is the Mapo Dog heaped with housemade mapo tofu, ground pork, green onions and sesame seeds. Other options include a curry dog, a kimchi dog and a vegetarian dog. Whichever one you choose, it won’t cost you more than $9.

Go to: Ichi Sushi

The Hot Wes at WesBurger ‘n More

There are many good burgers in town, but you can grab a truly great one for 11 bucks at this hip retro spot. Inspired by a favorite fast-food burger, owner Wes Rowe created The Hot Wes by stacking a magical combination of crisp onion rings and spicy pickled jalapeños on a six-ounce patty smothered in gooey queso. Order it at lunchtime for this golden bonus: a heaping portion of potato tots served on the side.

Go to: WesBurger ‘n More

Original Old Street Jianbing from TaiChi Jianbing

Tuck into the traditional tastes of China with an order of the namesake dish at TaiChi Jianbing. Originating from Shandong, jianbing is a rolled crepe typically eaten for breakfast in China. Each one starts with a batter of wheat flour mixed with ground rice or corn, which is cooked into a crepe, then adorned with a slew of toppings. The Original Old Street Jianbing comes festooned with a thin layer of scrambled eggs and a flurry of cilantro, green onion and spices, which give way to the sweet-spicy combination of garlic chili and bean paste slathered on the other side. With a crisp wonton wrapped in the center, the result is an irresistible bite that’s soft and crunchy at the same time. Find it for $8.50 as a breakfast or lunch option at TaiChi Jianbing’s pop-up location at Nabe in the Inner Sunset neighborhood.

Go to: TaiChi Jianbing

Fried Plantains and Eggs at Doña Mago

Fuel up for the day with a breakfast that goes beyond basic eggs at this family-run Mexican restaurant on the edge of the Mission district. This spot serves plentiful platters of food inspired by the cuisine of Mexico City for every meal, but the hearty breakfast entrees (which all ring in at around $10) have proven to be particularly popular. Choose from huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, or eggs served with nopales, fried plantains, chorizo, ham or sausages. But wait, there’s more! No matter which breakfast entree you order, rice, beans, fresh tortillas and salsa round out the plate.

Go to: Doña Mago

Mac and Cheese from Mission Cheese

This cafe puts American cheese front and center with menu options that include cheese flights, raclette and cheese-centric sandwiches. The mac and cheese is where it’s at, though. Mission Cheese’s kitchen amps up the richness by pulling in two kinds of cheeses (clothbound cheddar and washed rind cow’s milk), then topping the pasta with a crisp layer of breadcrumbs. Served in a piping-hot miniature skillet and priced at $10.50, this mac makes for a great shareable plate, though we won’t blame you for wanting this creamy dish all for yourself.

Go to: Mission Cheese

Momos at Red Chilli

A trek into the city’s gritty Tenderloin section leads to a tasty reward: genuine Nepalese food. Opt for Red Chilli’s signature momo and you’ll get 10 plump dumplings for $10 or less, depending on the filling stuffed inside. Brimming with either minced chicken or fresh vegetables, these dough-wrapped wonders are brightly seasoned with ginger, cilantro and red onions. For an added punch of flavor, dunk them into the accompanying achar: a dipping sauce made from chiles, tomatoes and sesame seeds.

Go to: Red Chilli

Seafood Burger at Basa Seafood Express

Thread your way past the fresh fish, sushi and poke sold at this popular market and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a bargain hunter’s bounty of made-to-order seafood burgers at the back counter. Each burger is built on a sesame seed bun that’s slicked with house tartar sauce, then stuffed with your choice of fried fish, shrimp, oyster or soft-shell crab. A trio of typical burger fixings — mixed greens, tomato and red onion—come piled on top. The atmosphere is bare bones, with fluorescent lights and massive wall menus instead of decorations, but the sandwiches are a steal for around $8 each.

Go to: Basa Seafood Express

Clare’s Locally Famous French Dip at Turner’s Kitchen

This tiny sandwich shop makes a big impression with its gourmet sandwiches built on freshly baked bread and priced at $10 or less. One standout is the French dip (named for the prior owner of the shop, Clare) piled high with paper-thin slices of rare roast beef blanketed in a gooey layer of melted Gruyere cheese. This prime-for-sharing stunner is so hefty that it’s cut in three pieces rather than two. In addition to the customary side of hot au jus for dipping, the sandwich also comes with a creamy, cool horseradish sauce.

Go to: Turner’s Kitchen

Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup at Eat Americana

This low-key spot goes beyond basic diner fare by upping the ante on American classics. One satisfying combo that won’t sabotage your budget is the grilled cheese sandwich paired with tomato soup for $10. You won’t find skimpy slices of white bread here. Instead, Eat Americana’s kitchen builds its sandwich on thick Texas toast that’s layered with three different cheeses, then griddled until golden. As for the soup, it’s so dense that it’s more of a dip that clings to your sandwich. Nostalgia never tasted so rich (yet cost so little).

Go to: Eat Americana

Fried Fish from Auntie April’s

Auntie April’s has become a community gathering spot of sorts, as locals crowd in for a taste of the restaurant’s Southern-style comfort food. The ever-popular option of chicken and waffles is served all day, but those in the know seek out the fried fish. Perfectly seasoned and always crisp, it seems like a steal at $10. In addition to creamy tartar sauce, each order is accompanied by a side of fries or grits.

Go to: Auntie April’s

Japanese Curry at Ken Ken Ramen

For a lunchtime steal at this ramen shop located off Mission Street, skip the noodles and get the sleeper hit instead — a Japanese-style curry served with rice and a garnish of pickled radish. The spot’s signature ramen broth serves as the base for the dish, which gets a flavor boost from a blend of Japanese spices. A ten spot will buy you an order of pork, vegetable or half and half.

Go to: Ken Ken Ramen

Panuchos from Taqueria Los Mayas

Sure, this spot is billed as a taqueria, but we suggest skipping the obvious pick of tacos. Instead, order a panucho or two. A delicacy of Yucatan, Mexico, this must-try menu item starts with a fried tortilla that’s sliced open and crammed with a black bean paste. Each panucho can be customized with your choice of protein, which is heaped tostada-style on the crisp disc of dough, then crowned with lettuce, cabbage, avocado and pickled red onion. For a true taste of the Yucatan, opt for the poc chuc or cochinita pibil, which are both pork specialties of the region. Two panuchos at $4.50 each make for a filling meal that goes easy on the wallet. Oh, and don’t sleep on the chips and three kinds of homemade salsa that are served on the side.

Go to: Taqueria Los Mayas

Dim Sum at Dim Sum Club

We love dim sum, but the mix-and-match setup is typically best for larger groups. Also, many places stop serving it late in the afternoon. Not Dim Sum Club. Here you can order a dim sum platter for dinner for just $10 and get two shrimp dumplings, two pork-and-shrimp dumplings, one steamed barbecued-pork bun, one egg roll and, for dessert, two sesame balls with lotus paste.

Go to: Dim Sum Club

Super Kati Roll at Kasa

Once a food truck, Kasa now has two brick-and-mortar restaurants serving an array of signature kati rolls priced at $7 or less and meal-sized super kati rolls that clock in at around $11. A wheat wrapper is filled burrito-style with your choice of chicken or vegetable fillings, chutney, onions and basmati rice, then topped with cooling cucumber raita.

Go to: Kasa Indian Eatery

Rice Bowl at The Chairman

The Chairman began as a food truck and became famous for its bao, stuffed with fillings like pork belly and tofu. You can grab one big baked bun or just about any two steamed buns for under $10, but our most-filling pick would be the namesake rice bowl. The basic version comes with pickled daikon, marinated mushrooms, spicy cucumbers, daikon sprouts, furikake and tempura flakes; top it with a spicy chicken or Coca-Cola-braised pork and the check will still be under a 10 spot.

Go to: The Chairman

Arepas at Pica Pica

On the edge of the Mission you’ll find this completely gluten-free restaurant offering traditional Venezuelan fare. The arepas clocking in at $11 are corn-based pocket breads split open and stuffed till overflowing with fillings such as crispy chicken with spicy pickled mojo, lettuce, jicama, tomato, aioli and guasacaca (an avocado salsa) or blackened beef asado with sweet plantains and queso fresco.

Go to: Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen

Buffalo Chili at Tommy’s Joynt

The hofbrau is San Francisco’s version of the grab-a-tray cafeteria, except with a bar and carving station. The phenomenon is best experienced at Tommy’s, where you’ll find daily specials like roast chicken, braised lamb shank, corned beef or pulled pork, all for less than $12. Our pick is the buffalo chili served over rice for just $8.25, with a fresh sourdough roll and butter on the side.

Go to: Tommy's Joynt

Farmers Market Salad at Roam Artisan Burgers

Roam is known for burgers (heck, it’s in their name). But the real deal on the menu is the massive, hearty and seasonally changing farmers market salad. The Fall version, for example, starts with a base of mixed greens, then adds rainbow carrots, French breakfast radishes, watermelon radishes, chives, pomegranate seeds, persimmons, pumpkin seeds, avocado, goat Gouda and a choice of dressings. For a $6 surcharge, top it with a skewer of mini burger patties.

Go to: Roam Artisan Burgers 

Roasted White Sweet Potato Sandwich at Souvla

The Greek-inspired pita sandwiches and salads at Souvla are so big they can probably suffice for multiple meals. The inventive vegetarian version, with roasted white sweet potato, comes with garlic yogurt, chopped Kalamata olives, toasted walnuts, pickled red onion, pea shoots and Mizithra cheese, all for $10.

Go to: Souvla

Taco Trio at Pancho Villa

Every San Franciscan has a favorite taqueria, but Pancho Villa is a classic with plenty of bargain-minded choices. The taco trio is just $7 and comes with a side of fresh chips and salsa. There are 12 different fillings, including spicy chicken, carne asada, tongue, chorizo and pork chile verde. We opt for the steak fajitas, cooked to order with plenty of fresh peppers and onions.

Go to: Pancho Villa Taqueria

Three-Egg Omelet at Brenda’s French Soul Food

Brenda’s is one of those places with an ever-present line, but head there on the early side during the week and you may not wait too long. The three-egg omelet is less than $10, which means you can add a cheese filling and still come in under budget. Best of all, the breakfast includes a large and buttery cream biscuit along with potato hash or grits.

Go to: Brenda's French Soul Food

Vietnamese Sandwich or Spring Rolls at The Soapbox Cafe

Banh mi is at its best at The Soapbox Cafe. Freshly toasted French bread is spread with Vietnamese mayo and pâté, and is then piled high with jalapenos, pickled carrots and daikon radish, cucumber and cilantro along with slices of pork belly, roast pork, lemongrass chicken or tofu. Even the fanciest combo sandwich will set you back only $8. If you are gluten-free or low-carb, check out the saladlike spring rolls with similar fillings, wrapped in thin rice paper.

Go to: The Soapbox Cafe

Stuffed Pancakes at House of Pancakes

This tiny restaurant specializes in hand-pulled noodles, dumplings and Chinese pancakes. Chewy and crisp, the pancakes come filled with beef, lamb or a combination of onion and egg. Some are rolled and others are stacked, but all ring in at around $7. It’s cash only, but considering how cheap it is, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Go to: House of Pancakes

Pizza Slice at Arinell New York Style Pizza

Pizza, the official food of frat houses, is no longer the bargain it once was. These days, an individual-size pie can run upward of $20. Fortunately, we have Arinell, offering “quality and value since 1975.” The classic and massive Neapolitan cheese slice is really the best thing to get here and a deal at just $3 (including tax). Still hungry? You can afford to order a few more slices at that price.

Go to: Arinell Pizza

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