A quick look at some of my favorite lunchtime spots is proof that satisfying, well-prepared meals don't have to put you out more than a fin and some change. Time is a virtue at these joints, too. At most of these fast but not fast-food spots, you'll be in, fed and out before you could ever make it through the drive-thru of your local In-N-Out Burger.
A seafood feast for less than $5? Yes, Virginia, and it's not Rubio's. It's El Zarape, where fish tacos have been just 99 cents for years, cheaper than at the Mexican chain and much tastier. The filet of fried fish is usually crisp outside and moist within and topped with the prerequisite shredded cabbage, chopped tomato and an unremarkable white sauce that you can doctor at the salsa bar. Order four of these for a hearty, under-$5 meal or, if you're in a lighter mood, get a fish taco or two but up the ante with a $2.99 scallop taco, full of small, sweet sautéed scallops that, when cooked properly, melt in the mouth. The interior of this University Heights taco shop is warm and cozy, but I like taking my seafood bounty out to one of the two tables on the sidewalk patio. 4642 Park Blvd., 619-692-1652.
Just down the road and around the corner, off El Cajon Boulevard, is another delicious spot where most of the menu comes in around the $5 mark. Mama's Bakery and Lebanese Deli serves up hearty, filling food and transforms simple Mediterranean ingredients like herbs and veggies into addictive creations that turn me into a vegetarian, if only for the length of a meal. My two favorite wraps both feature Mama's warm, fresh-baked flatbread. One version is a double eggplant combo of flavorful baba ghanouj and rounds of fried eggplant. The other meatless specialty holds crunchy, spicy nuggets of fava bean and chickpea falafel. I just wish they stayed open late enough for post-Live Wire refueling. 4237 Alabama St. in North Park, 619-688-0717.
For a brown-bag lunch of the gourmet variety, nothing is as simple and delicious as the lunch special at Venissimo Cheese. Five dollars gets you a choice of bread, like a crusty Francese roll, stuffed with any of Venissimo's featured cheeses. I'm knocked out both by the flavor and mighty powerful aroma of Epoisses, a luscious cow's milk cheese with a scent so pungent that it's banned on public transportation in France. Midnight Moon, a California goat cheese similar to aged Gouda, will convert even goat-cheese-haters with its nutty, almost caramel-like flavor. A piece of fruit, like a juicy pear or cluster of grapes is also included. You'll be almost picnic-ready, save for a little half bottle of wine, unless you have to go back to work. 754 West Washington St. in Mission Hills, 619-491-0708.
I sometime wonder whether I'm hip enough to eat at Pizzeria Luigi in Golden Hill, but the everyday special there-two slices and a soda for $5.50-makes me care not a whit about my lack of street cred. The thin-crust pies rival-perhaps even surpass-the New York-style pizzas at local legend Bronx Pizza. I like the flavor of the sauce, so I usually go for the pure and simple cheese pizza, but you can also choose from specialty pies, including the three-meat-topped Capone or the pesto and cheese Leonardo. This casual spot has a nice outdoor patio on which to enjoy your meal, too. 1137 25th St., 619-233-3309.
There are nearly 200 menu options, all pretty fine, available for around five bucks at Minh Ky Mi Gia, a no-frills Vietnamese-Chinese rice-and-noodles joint located within one of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it corner strip malls on El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights. The interior is clean and the service friendly, and for $4 and change, I'm a happy repeat recipient of a bowl of Won Ton Noodles in a tasty chicken stock. At other places, I'm usually more about the contents of a soup than the liquid itself, but here I drink the sweet and savory broth right up. The won tons are nearly bursting with pork and shrimp, and the outer dough is silky and translucent. The egg noodles, so long that they'll provide you with small scissors to snip them into manageable slurps, are chewy and delicious. 4644 El Cajon Blvd., 619-283-4180.
Got a favorite under-$5 meal to recommend? Write to candicew@SDcitybeat.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.