Tucked away in Alex Witchel's "Feed Me" column in The New York Times for January 30, 2008, this statement threw me for a loop: "These days, dinner for four at a good restaurant, in any major city, is not an endeavor to be taken lightly. Four cocktails, four appetizers, four entrees, one or two bottles of wine - depending on the crowd - and, potentially, four desserts and four coffees. You're looking at spending anywhere from $500 to $700."
Yikes! I really do expect dinner, even for four, to come in under the price for, say, a new refrigerator.
So, while the finds below are not the kinds of meals you probably want to share with your parents on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary, they are fun places that serve satisfying food. You could even take your parents. And with the money you save, buy a new fridge. Energy-efficient, natch.
The Corner Store
901 Williamson St.
The Corner Store hides its most salient characteristic - delicious takeout Thai curries - under a tidy maroon awning. The convenience store/sub shop offers the usual emergency items like chips and soda, as well as a variety of prepared foods for takeout. The real, true star of the show is the Thai food, with a couple of daily curries (for instance, a yellow and a green) with rice ($6). The curries stand up to those served at full-fledged Thai spots. Look for interesting sides, too, like the crispy potato-filled samosa ($3 for three) with a sweet/hot dipping sauce. At least I'm calling them samosas, although the server and I experienced a bit of a language barrier that day. It doesn't matter what they are, they're terrific, although if you're taking them home a long way you might consider eating them ASAP, before they get soggy.
132 W. Main St., Marshall
Pablo makes excellent, filling, can't-stop-eating-this breakfasts. The breakfast burrito ($4), which is even somewhat larger than your head, comes with scrambled egg, chorizo (or your choice of other filling), cheese, beans and rice. The scrambled eggs ($5), served with rice and beans, can also have fillings added to order, like chorizo or ham, peppers and tomatoes. The huevos rancheros ($6), delicately fried eggs with fresh chopped tomato on top, and served with rice and beans, are also killer. The huevos come with tortillas in a squat holder to keep them warm, and the smoky red salsa has a wonderful slow burn. I like the beans - pinto, refried, flavorful, salty, somewhere between the whole-bean variety and the completely pureed. Rounding out the morning menu are a cactus omelet and chilaquiles (both $6).
127 N. Hamilton St.
The crepes come in both sweet and savory - the one with ham, brie and spinach (finished with a touch of maple syrup, $5) is made with locally sourced ham from Fountain Prairie and spinach from Snug Haven Farm, and is completely alluring. This was the crepe I kept thinking about for two days after I finished eating it. The smoky ham was never overpowered by the brie, and the maple syrup worked in tandem with the pancake-like flavors of the crepe. It wasn't that any one element was the star; it was the balance of all the flavors that made each bite like a special mini-brunch.
The apple, bacon and cheddar crepes and the spinach, blue cheese and walnut crepes also utilize ingredients from local farms - Fountain Prairie for the bacon, apples from Ela Orchard, and Hook's cheese. Bradbury's also uses Blue Marble Dairy products and New Century Farm Cage Free eggs.
Besides the intense double ristretto espresso, the drinks menu includes other espresso-based drinks, fair trade organic coffees, served brewed or French press style, fair trade hot chocolate, and chai and black tea.
Erin 's Snug Irish Pub
4601 American Parkway
Start with an appetizer of homemade spinach artichoke dip. For dipping, there were small slices of "Guinness crostini," a slightly sweet, dark, dry beer bread. The thick, cheesy dip would go great with beer, too; but we needed more of the crostini.
From the sandwich menu, O'Reilly's Reuben features the pub's excellent homemade corned beef on grilled marble rye with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing; the Erin's Corned Beef Sandwich is an ungrilled triple-decker corned beef sandwich also on marble rye with Swiss and sauerkraut, but with the house special "Mary Rose" sauce. Both come with tasty homemade pub potato chips and a side of rustic coleslaw, for $6.60.
Erin's has a list of variations on the Black and Tan as long as my forearm, including the Black Cow (Guinness and Spotted Cow) and the Black and Blue (Guinness and Blue Moon). Why should martinis have all the fun, anyway?