This post was seriously five months in the making. I started writing this back in February when we were in moving upheaval.
The night before the movers came to take all our possessions and put them into storage — including all my pots and pans and cookbooks — Jason and I sat in our neighbourhood pub over dinner, pondering our living situation.
The newly built condo we were supposed to move into was delayed again, throwing us into a bit of chaos. We hastily found a sublet in a building scheduled to be torn down.
“We have to settle into some sort of routine because we can’t eat out every night,” I said. “It’s too expensive, especially in Calgary.”
But then Jason threw down a challenge to me: Eat out for a week of dinners on $70.
“You have to follow my rules or I will revoke the challenge!” he said.
- No coupons.
- No fast food.
- No repeat visits.
- No 25-cent chicken wings.
And so I was off on my cheap eats challenge!
I could have cheated and had pasta three nights of the challenge. Chianti Cafe has a terrific deal on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, offering more than 40 pastas for $6.99.
On a cold day, the warm buns placed in front of us were welcome. I got the creamy spaghetti carbonara with bits of bacon. It wasn’t gourmet, and it wasn’t very pretty, but it was a decent, solid plate of pasta for a total of $7.34 including tax.
(Yes, there’s a glass of wine in the crappy picture that I didn’t count, but damn it, I needed it!)
Chianti Cafe, 1438-17th Ave. SW, Calgary, and two other locations in the city.
I know the Mexican places in Calgary don’t come anywhere near to the amazing ones in the U.S. or even the Chipotle chain (which I love). But Salt & Pepper has a good thing going every Tuesday with all-you-can-eat tacos for $10.98.
The tacos are wrapped in soft corn tortillas (not the deep-fried hard shells), sprinkled with lettuce and finely shredded mozzarella, and drizzled with sour cream. Chorizo is the best filling, hands down.
Subsequent trios of tacos are served on their own, which is too bad because the rice and beans are really good. In any case, Alison and I had to draw the line at six tacos, while Jason and Luke (making his debut behind the bottles of hot sauce) plowed ahead with nine.
Beware the hot sauce though. It really is hot.
I splurged a little and ordered a side of homemade guacamole (tasty!) for $1.95 so my total tab with tax was $13.58.
Salt & Pepper, 4351 Macleod Trail, Calgary, (403) 243-3173. Two other locations in Calgary and Cochrane.
Block Sixteen is where the challenge started, because of its Wednesday special steak sandwich for a measly $5.95.
The steak (I’m guessing 5 oz.) is a decent cut and crusted with a kind of Montreal steak spice. It comes with your choice of one side — mashed potatoes, fries, sweet potato fries, house or Caesar salad or grilled vegetables.
I’m always happy when my steak — no matter what price — is cooked as ordered (medium-rare yay!). My total here was $6.25.
Block Sixteen is the most underrated bar around the 17th Avenue strip. It’s got the big-screens for hockey games but enough ambiance to take it a step up from the local watering hole. There’s great service, great food and extremely reasonable prices even off the regular menu; thin-crust pizzas and burgers run around $11.
Unfortunately, it took me so long to post this that Block Sixteen changed owners and has been renamed the Balance Lounge & Eatery. They don’t appear to have a steak sandwich special or two tacos for $2 on Mondays, but their menu still seems reasonably priced.
Balance Lounge & Eatery, 1504-16th Ave. SW, Calgary, (403) 228-5955.
Chinatown is always the best place to find value, and I’m partial to the Hong Kong-style cafes. They serve Western-style food with Cantonese influences. Kind of like a Chinese diner, in a way. Think spaghetti but cooked in a wok, or steak marinated in soy sauce and served with gravy.
ABC Bakery & Cafe is a typical one. There are lots of one-plate Cantonese dishes, like curry beef brisket on rice or shredded duck fried noodles. But I love their combination meals.
For $9.99, I can get a sizzling hot plate of minute steak or pork chops with a choice of onion gravy, black pepper gravy, satay sauce, tomato sauce or cream sauce. It comes with onion soup, rice, mixed (frozen) vegetables, and tea or coffee.
The gravy comes in its own boat, so you pour it over the meat on the still-sizzling hot plate — shaped like a cow — and then transfer the meat to the plate of rice. It’s quite a bounty. As you can see in the pics, my order came with THREE pieces of pork chop.
My total here with tax was $10.49.
Years ago — and I suppose even now — the cheapest “meal” of all was those handy packages of Japanese ramen. It’s hard to beat a steaming bowl of MSG and noodles for oh, 75 cents.
But real Japanese ramen in a nice broth is quite lovely, especially at Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi, an inconspicuous, yet very cozy, spot off Centre Street and 16th Avenue NE.
Shikiji has the ramen available in the standard soup bases of shio (salt), soy and miso. (There’s no tonkotsu, white pork bone broth.) They all come with a couple of slices of roasted pork, seawood, bok choy, and green onions. The miso ramen has additional corn and bean sprouts.
I got the shio ramen, which was a clearer broth than Jason’s darker soy-based soup. I really liked the broths, especially because they were obviously not laden with MSG.
They gave us little bowls of toasted sesame seeds that we crushed with a mini pestle to release the aroma and flavour right before we added them to our ramen. There was also a tiny basket of dried garlic flakes on the table too.
The ramen was nice and chewy, just a tad past al-dente, and not the instant noodle mush you get at home.
For some reason, the shio and soy ramen are listed on the menu as $10.60 but they only charged us $8.60 each for them. So my total and tax ends up at $9.03.
There was some debate over Falafel King because it could be construed as a fast-food place but Jason deemed it eligible for the challenge after I pointed out we were eating at proper tables and chairs and that my dinner came on a plate.
I got the chicken shawarma platter ($8.49) which is pretty much a deconstructed pita wrap. It’s a huge plate of chicken sliced off the rotating spit, with lettuce, raw onions, tomatoes, pickles, my favourite bright pink pickled cabbage and a heap of garlic sauce and hot sauce. I passed on the pita bread, which is served on the side.
It was SO GOOD. (But verrry garlicky. So make sure you’re with someone who really loves you, or at least have some gum handy after.)
Total with tax: $8.91.
Falafel King, 1610-10th St. SW, Calgary, (403) 802-5464. Relocated downtown location opening soon on Stephen Avenue.
Things on sticks are fun, and the House of Kabob specializes in them. A similar Persian restaurant used to be in this same spot but there are new owners and an interior revamp.
The menu is pretty much kabobs and a few Greek-style souvlaki dishes. Service is sketchy, but it’s one of these small, independent places where it’s somehow forgiven.
I got a chicken sultani ($14.95), which was one skewer of chicken breast (jujeh kabob) and one skewer of ground beef (kubideh kabob) with grilled tomatoes and half rice, half salad. The kabobs are juicy and full of flavour.
If you’re lucky, you may get there in time for what looks like a cross between a Persian soap opera and karaoke on the flat-screen TVs.
The total with tax was $15.70 which officially brings me $1.30 over my $70 challenge… OR we could pretend instead that I got the chenjeh kabob ($11.95), a skewer of marinated chopped steak, which would’ve set me back only $12.55 — leaving me $1.85 under.