At the end of last year, I got a bank statement telling me how much money I had deposited in the last 12 months. Initially I thought they had made a mistake — I didn’t have close to that little money in my bank account. After determining that no, the bank hadn’t made a mistake and yes, I had somehow managed to spend more than half of the money I was supposed to be saving for grad school, I was forced to face the facts: I had spent way too much money on food.
There are a couple of lessons to be learned from this story. The first is a personal lesson: I really shouldn’t be eating dinner out and ordering grubhub so often when I’m already on a meal plan. The second lesson may be more universal (although there’s a chance it’s only applicable to me and my inability to save money): Restaurants can get away with charging a ridiculous amount of money for an hour or two of decent food and mediocre conversation.
Everyone goes out to dinner on certain occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, Thursdays —and sometimes, as broke college students, we remember to check prices before going out. But often, as college students with only mild levels of real-world intelligence, we go to whatever restaurant sounds the best, only to realize later that we inadvertently blew an entire shift’s paycheck. Tired of explaining to my parents why my bank account was empty yet again, I decided to set out on a mission to find affordable Ithacan food that satisfies Tuesday night cravings while providing a fun Friday night atmosphere. Finding lunch deals is child’s play; I wanted a real challenge. Armed with only $10 a meal, I ventured out into the Ithaca wilderness to see if I could realize my dream of cheap food.
1. Viva Taqueria
Viva seems to be on almost every “Best of Ithaca” list, so the defiant part of me didn’t want to include it on this list as well. But it’s on every list for a reason, so last Thursday, I grabbed a group of friends and went downtown, determined to spend only an hour’s worth of money I had earned from the shift I had just finished working.
To be clear, there are aspects of Viva that do not make it the go-to choice for every busy college student. First of all, it’s usually packed, making it unbelievably loud and hard to hear the conversation you’re attempting to enjoy. Secondly, they don’t take reservations, which is one of my biggest pet peeves with restaurants. I plan out most of my days down to the minute and I love sticking to schedules. So when I plan on eating dinner at 7:30 p.m. but have to wait an hour before I’m seated, I get pretty frustrated. If you’re lucky enough to be 21, you can hang out at Viva’s bar area until you get seated; otherwise, plan to be waiting around for a bit.
The food makes it worth the anxiety I get from checking my watch every two minutes. I would not consider myself an expert on Mexican food, but I think Viva does a pretty delicious interpretation of it. I had been waiting all week to immerse myself in their food. Here’s a cheap-food-related tip: If you forego the guac and chips, you save money, but if your friend orders some for herself, she most likely won’t notice if you snag a couple of chips.
My favorite dish at Viva is the chicken mole burrito, but it costs $10.50 so it’s sort of cheating the purpose of this article. But if you got a bonus at work and want to splurge, I would definitely recommend trying the mole sauce. If, unlike me, you don’t eat a remarkable amount of food in one sitting, you could potentially take half the burrito home, stretching that $10.50 across two meals and effectively reducing the cost to $5.25 per meal.
Or, if you’re like me and can’t fathom how a person could only eat half a burrito in one sitting, but still want to stick to my under-$10 budget, there are plenty of other options. The Super Smothered Burrito contains everything you could ever want in a burrito, including guacamole (just in case nobody at your table volunteered to pay for the guac and chips starter) and costs only $9.99. Intrigued by the combination of spice and chocolate? You could still try the mole sauce in Viva’s soft tacos (Side note: Soft tacos are a million times better than hard-shell tacos. I will never endorse hard-shell tacos). And as is the case with all classic Ithaca restaurants, there’s a plethora of vegan options, including vegan nachos for only $7.99.
If you’re looking for the best combination of affordable prices, delicious food and a fun after-prelim location, Viva is your best bet.
Total Price: $9.50 + tax and tip for chicken mole soft tacos (plus about half of my friend’s chips and guac).
2. Wegmans Café
Everyone loves Ithaca’s biggest and best grocery store. Going shopping is a weekend adventure in and of itself. My personal favorite post-shopping ritual is ignoring all the groceries I just purchased and having dinner at the Wegmans Café.
Wegmans doesn’t provide the kind of restaurant-quality atmosphere you may be looking for on a night out with friends, but it’s the place to go when you just want a pound of cheap, freshly made food from your local grocery store. Whether you’re doing your weekly shopping run with a group or just grabbing a couple items on your own, stop over at the Café when you’re done.
The Café has options ranging from pizza to subs to sushi, but my personal favorite thing to do there is to get a giant styrofoam box and pack it full of stuff from their Hot Bars. There are a bunch of different Hot Bars that all cost the same price, so you can mix and match from a variety of cuisines to make your dinner. I love the Asian Hot Bar, which includes sesame chicken, egg rolls, Lo Mein and Peking pork. They also have a salad bar, a wing bar and a homestyle bar, where you can find mac and cheese and pulled pork.
All of this food is $8.99 per pound, and while the knowledge of how many pounds of food I’m eating kind of creeps me out, it’s a pretty good deal for that much food. If you’re like me, you’ll accidentally get more than a pound of food, but the Café has food scales so you can watch how much you eat and how much you pay. The dining area is pretty large, so you can either eat your pound of food there or take it home to enjoy, instead of cooking a meal from all the groceries you just bought.
Total Price: $8.99 + tax for a pound of food.
3. Souvlaki House
Full disclosure: Souvlaki House does not have my favorite food. If this article were called “Best Food in Ithaca” or “Best Pasta Dishes” or even “Best Italian/Greek Fusion Restaurants Whose Cuisine Confuses Me,” they probably wouldn’t make the list. But this article is about the best cheap dining experiences. As a dining writer and overall food lover, I really appreciate delicious food. But as a college student, I really appreciate delicious food memories. And a couple of my best dining memories come from Souvlaki House.
Souv just begs for a group of Cornell students to cram into their little benches and laugh together while enjoying heaping portions of pasta and salad. The staff there are some of the most personable and friendly people in Collegetown and they clearly enjoy catering to college students (which is hard to do because, let’s face it, we’re pretty annoying). Forget the mediocre dinner conversations you were having before — all the discussions within Souvlaki House’s walls are interesting, funny and guaranteed to bring you and your friends closer.
The meals all start out with a giant bowl of salad and breadsticks for the table. The breadsticks are always delicious and are (almost objectively) the best part of the meal. You could order a cheap cold sandwich or sub, but the most thrifty option is to order a pasta dish. But the pasta is almost twice as much as the subs, you are probably thinking to yourself. This girl clearly doesn’t know what “thrifty” means. Well, I just looked up the definition to be sure, and it turns out that I do know what thrifty means. If you order a sandwich, you spend about $5.95 on a meal. Not a bad deal. But if you get the pasta, you spend $9.95 (or $10.50 or $12.95, depending on what kind of pasta you order) on four meals.
As I mentioned earlier, I eat a lot in one sitting. But I could never in my wildest dreams get through a plate of Souvlaki House pasta in a single meal. When I ordered pasta there a few weeks ago, I came away with dinner for that night, along with three meals’ worth of leftovers. For the next three days, instead of having to trek to the dining hall, I went no further than the microwave.
To reiterate: Non-mediocre conversation. Leftovers for days. Thrifty.
Total Price: $9.95 + tax and tip for alfredo pasta, salad, and breadsticks (divided by four = around $2.50 a meal).