Sunday, September 14, 2008

If you fancy cheap eats, D.C. is the place

As an appetizer at Matchbox DC, my friends ordered some mini burgers: angus beef on toasted brioche with pickles, onion straws and Gorgonzola, $14.

I've never been one to spend an incredible amount of money on food. Look in my refrigerator, and you'd see that it's true.

Good food is only enjoyable for the time it's in your mouth - a matter of seconds - and for the time it's leaving your body. The time in between, which is more prolonged, is usually quite unpleasant. I just don't see the need to go broke for something that causes such fleeting pleasure and lengthy discomfort.

My culinary frugality carries over to vacationing as well.

I traveled recently to Washington, D.C., where I avoided fancy restaurants - for the most part - and hit up the places with the good, classy, cheap eats.


The exterior of Matchbox DC in Chinatown.

The veggie pizza, $12.

Penny-wise pizza

Matchbox DC is a famous "vintage pizza bistro" on H Street in Chinatown that offers the best brick-oven pies in all of the District. It's a classy place, and there's always a line out the door.

When I went with a few friends, we were told we'd be waiting for an hour. But we knew a waitress, and she let us in early. As I've said before, D.C. is all about the people you know.

Shooting for something different, I ordered a $12 veggie pizza, less than half of which I was able to consume, leaving leftovers to further stretch my hard-earned dollars. It had sauteed cremini mushrooms, sweet onions, roasted red peppers, a zesty tomato sauce and mozzarella.

Usually, I wouldn't be caught dead eating a pizza without meat, but this one was surprisingly meaty on account of the mushrooms. Plus, there's that old adage: less meat, less price. So in the end, it was the smart choice. Besides, I had just eaten from my friends' mini burger plate for an appetizer, so I didn't need more meat.


The little cheeseburger from Five Guys with regular fries, $3.49.

Big little burger, small little bill

When you talk about burgers in D.C., you can't go without mentioning Five Guys, which made the nation's capital famous for its greasy goodness.

Five Guys is a franchise that started in D.C. but has spread nationwide. According to its Web site, there are 47 of them currently in or coming soon to Florida.

But I never have and probably never will chow down on a Five Guys burger anywhere other than D.C. My friend and I - starving out of our minds - made a random trip there around 11 p.m. Mind you, Five Guys excursions usually do come during the late-night hours.

The fries are great at this place - especially the Cajun spiced ones - but it's the burger that makes the trip satisfying. When it comes in a to-go bag, the burger soaks the bottom thoroughly with grease - even though it's wrapped in foil.

I got a "little" cheeseburger because the large ones are for serious eaters, and as I said, I'm not one of them. It was only $3.49 for 720 calories, which did wonders for my energy level, eliminating the need for another costly meal later on. And I stole the fries from my friend, so even better for the finances!


The outside of a Potbelly location in Chinatown.

My pizza sub at Potbelly, $4.19.

Light fare, light price

Potbelly Sandwich Works started in Illinois, so it's by no means unique to the District.

But because you can't get a Potbelly sandwich south of the Virginia-North Carolina line, I had no choice but to grab one while I was in town. And it's cheap anyway, so why not?

The shop is great because, on many days, a live band is playing on an elevated platform in the dining room. When you combine good music with a $4.19 pizza sub, you're getting a lot of bang for your buck.

Can't get all that at Quizno's.


A photo of Oyamel taken the night before I had its catfish.

Indulging, on someone else's dime

Of course, a trip to a fancy city is pointless without a trip to a fancy restaurant while you're there, right?

Not really. Not in my book.

But - lucky me - I had the chance to partake in a fine culinary experience for free. A professor whom I still keep close ties with took me to Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, located just off Pennsylvania Avenue in the Penn Quarter.

It's not the typical Mexican you get in America: no sugary margaritas here. It's "authentic" ethnic food from Mexico. And it actually tasted more of Spanish cuisine than of anything from south of the border. Most of the dishes were served as tapas, or small servings that combine to make a full meal.

Professor and I took a more traditional approach and ordered full entrees for our lunches. I got some catfish on a bun; he got some other kind of meat on a bun. Both came with a salad, chips and salsa.

I can't remember what it cost, but it was more than I would spend myself.

But was it good?

You betcha.

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