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Frugally minded foodies know Madison has a lot to offer when it comes to places where you can enjoy a meal at an affordable price. And that doesn’t mean you have to skimp on taste. Madison is great at serving up gourmet meals, but it’s also home to a wide array of hidden gems and notable eateries that won’t break the bank. For less than an average of $10 per meal, treat yourself to classic dishes à la New Orleans, Taiwan, Peru, Hawaii and Russia, to name just a few. You might be surprised how doable (and delicious) these eats are within their reasonable price ranges. Go on, keep your taste buds happy and your spending sane.
Somewhere along the way, burgers got gourmet. And with these artisan creations came increased prices. But that’s not the case at DLUX, where burgers stacked with all sorts of fresh and interesting ingredients are only $9. For a creative take on the classic beef burger, try the Frito Bandito—the heat from roasted poblanos, Cholula and chili-cheese Fritos will ignite into a delectable south-of-the-border dance across your taste buds. Not a fan of beef burgers? Try the Colonel Strosin, which features a golden, crunchy piece of southern-fried chicken topped with pimento cheese, iceberg lettuce and buffalo ranch. Walk in knowing this specialty burger place will keep your stomach—and your wallet—full. 117 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 467-3130
“Estación” means station in Spanish, and Estación Inka is a station you’ll want to pull into. This place puts a meaty, Peruvian twist on what you’d expect from ordinary fast-casual food, so trust us when we say you won’t regret trying a loaded chicharrón sandwich ($7.99). It packs broiled pork, marinated onion with lime and fried sweet potato fries between two buns. If you’re trying to step outside the usual fast-casual option, the quarter Peruvian chicken with rice and beans is a great pick. The chicken’s surface is roasted to golden perfection, and the inside is tender and juicy. It’s served with both the green Peruvian huacatay sauce and the yellow sauce. The best part, though? This fully loaded entrée costs $5.65. 604 University Ave., 467-3010
This old-school bagel shop just off Capitol Square packs all your East Coast flavors into a New York street-style bagel. The bagel shop’s cheapest bagel sandwich starts at $2.50 (bagel with an egg). Some bagels come with a bit more decoration—at $9.50, one daily special sandwich, the O.M.F.G., comes with a chicken cutlet topped with cheddar, bacon, spicy aioli sauce and a fried egg on a dense bagel. The whole package is then heated and toasted to perfection. C’mon, how can you resist that? 112 E. Mifflin St., 467-7642
Madison is a trendy seafood hotspot—huh? Miko Poke brings poke to town, the country's hottest culinary sensation, inspired by the classic Hawaiian street food. It’s raw fish, rice and seasoning galore in a bowl packed to the brim. Miko’s signature poke bowls start at $6.50, so it’s seafood made affordable. If you’re already familiar with poke, you know that this is a completely customizable meal. Add Serrano peppers, crispy garlic, fried onions, wasabi, smashed avocado, edamame and more to any bowl. Fill yours to your heart’s (and your budget’s) desire. 2701 Monroe St. #250, 416-5241
New Orleans Take-out
“Eat mo’ bettah” may be this takeout place’s motto, but its menu seems to also scream “eat mo’ cheapah.” As the name may have already given away, classic Cajun and Creole comfort foods—po’ boy sandwiches (starting at $7.65), étouffées (starting at $6.95) and more—are the stars of the show here. Expect entrees in generous portions, too. Sure, the menu oozes southern flavors, but when it comes to New Orleans-style food, one item stands out: jambalaya. New Orleans Take-out’s rendition of the dish starts at $6.25. It’s a classic recipe—it’s peppery and fuses chicken breast and tomatoes. Get it à la carte or in a Mardi Gras combo with red beans and rice and shrimp creole. 1517 Monroe St., 280-8000
This modest eatery is an easy winner for all the indecisive folks out there: It’s quick, it’s simple and it’s a no-brainer if you’re up for Russian comfort food. You get either the potato or the beef pel’meni—or a combination of both. These hearty Russian dumplings are made to order and drenched in butter, yellow curry, sweet chili sauce, cilantro and sour cream. Get a half order for $5 and a full one for $7. With a meal that cheap, you’ll have enough money to grab dessert. 414 W. Gilman St., 467-3234
Short Stack Eatery
Anyone who has been to State Street on a weekend morning knows that this restaurant has such a faithful patronage that a line forms out the door even during cold winter months. While Short Stack Eatery’s down-to-earth atmosphere means that it may not give you all the oohs and aahs of an upscale breakfast place, it’ll give you a stack of delightfully fluffy, unparalleled sweet potato oatmeal pancakes for $9. If you’re adventuresome, take a risk with the blind special ($7). You don’t know what the meal is until it comes to your table. You can ask if it’s sweet or savory, but you’ll have to pay a couple extra bucks for a premeal reveal. So saving money here takes a bit of bravery. (But it’s worth it.) 301 W. Johnson St. 709-5569
Walk up a flight of stairs into this café tucked into a second-floor space—and voila, welcome to your grandma’s kitchen. Upon entering, you’ll see a display case full of scrumptious homemade pastries to your left and a sun-filled room overlooking bustling State Street to your right. It’s not hard to see why this joint is one of Madison’s favorites. For a dose of classic home flavors, try the Florentine omelet featuring spinach, feta and mushrooms accompanied by toast and potatoes for $8.95. If you’re looking for something more filling later in the day, the crispy Thai peanut noodle bowl on the dinner menu is perfect for that. At $9, this stomach-warming bowl of noodles provides crunch and a punch of mild, nutty heat. 638 State St., 255-1555
Taiwan Little Eats
This modern eatery may be the new kid on the block, but its traffic flow is a testimony to how delectable and authentic its traditional Taiwanese night market fare is. The $8 Tainan braised pork over rice is a must-have: It’s rich in texture and flavor, and soy sauce interacts with a handful of other tasty ingredients to give it a sweet overtone. The fattiness of the pork, too, seeps into the rice to give it a smooth finish—the kind of flavor that lingers for a while. The Taiwanese-style crispy and salty popcorn chicken makes great finger food, too. For $5.50, you get a paper bag full of uber crispy, well-seasoned chicken bites. And since entree options are reasonably priced, you can amp up your ultimate Taiwanese comfort food experience by adding one of eight milk teas to your order. 320 State St., 251-8529
Taqueria Guadalajara has poppin’ flavors to match the vibrancy of its bright coral and mint décor. Tacos here start at $2, and if you want to talk authenticity—well, the beef tongue, beef intestines and pork stomach tacos prove that this taqueria has all the standard (albeit offbeat to some) fare. The tacos al pastor, in particular, are a flavorful and cheap option. The restaurant transforms pork loin into thin slices and slathers it in a dynamic mixture featuring pineapple slices, lime, garlic, cilantro, oregano and two secret ingredients before sizzling it on a grill. You can expect home-cooked flavors from this family-owned Mexican restaurant, and it could even become a weekly pit stop at the prices. 1033 S. Park St., 250-1824
Switch up your normal sandwich at lunch with a thick dough pocket with hearty fillings. The savory hand pies offered at a Capitol Square corner mainstay, Teddywedgers, will not disappoint for a filling and affordable lunch option. Teddywedgers’ full-sized pasties cost $9.75, and half-sized ones (which are still quite large) are $5.50. One menu option seals all the classic breakfast foods—Wisconsin eggs, bacon and cheese—into a compact meal. Also try the chicken pot pie for a well-priced comfort-food treat. 101 State St., 230-5360
Haidee Chu is a former editorial intern at Madison Magazine and a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.