This story was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.
Inflation and supply shortages have caused food prices to escalate in the past year, but you can still eat relatively cheap in New Jersey. Really. The Garden State is an expensive one to live and eat in, but if you can’t find good cheap eats you’re not looking hard enough.
I’ve long focused on casual dining in my food travels, so this list was not difficult to compile. You’ll find a globe-trotting array of cuisines. Indian. Middle Eastern. Soul food. Chinese. Colombian. Mexican. Greek. Thai. Peruvian. Vietnamese. And more.
Hot dogs and subs were not considered; we were searching for complete meals, with sides. Our selections here are not just cheap eats; they’re good — often great — cheap eats. Enjoy. Your wallet/pocketbook will thank you very much.
San Pedro Tierra Mexican, Bellmawr
At San Pedro Tierra Mexican, tacos are $2.50, quesadillas from $3-$3.50, tortas $6.50-$7, and the salsas are maybe the most distinctive at any taqueria in New Jersey. It’s a funky little taco joint; what it lacks in atmosphere it more than makes up in quality. The salsa rojo (left) and salsa verde (right) are mildly spicy and majorly addictive.
Al Raouche, Paterson
Funny moment at Al Raouche while I was waiting for my order: A family walks into the restaurant, dad spots the “cash only” sign, tells owner they’ll come back another time. His daughter, who couldn’t have been more than 12, says, wait, I have money; she runs to the car, returns, and they sit down and eat. Sandwiches here are inexpensive and indescribably good: $5 for falafel, $6 for chicken kabob, and $7 for a shish kabob (lamb) sandwich that might have been the best sandwich I ate on this entire mission. Al Raouche is within walking distance of the Corrado’s complex of stores in Clifton.
Oaxaqueno #2, New Brunswick
Good, cheap, tiny and often crowded, Oaxaqueno #2 really lives up to the “authentic Mexican” tag. You can get huevos, tacos, burritos, soup, seafood and dishes you surely won’t find at Mexican chain restaurants. Fried rabbit, anyone? The shakes are recommended, and for something different, order the vampiros, a shake made with oranges, beets and carrots. It’s bloody good.
Freddy Restaurant, Camden
Buffet line to the left, counter in the middle, tables to the right. Freddy’s Restaurant isn’t much to look at, but the lunchtime crowd of locals attests to its down-home popularity. The pernil (roast pork) sandwich will happily fill you up for just five bucks, and the Cubano, for a dollar more, is a standout — excellent toasted bread, and juicy ham and pork inside. I sampled it in my car and ate the rest for dinner when I got home.
American Melts, Kenilworth
American Melts is a grilled cheese shack by the side of the road, just off Route 22. It opened in 2013 in a space formerly occupied by Frank’s Pit Stop. You can build your own grilled cheese (five kinds of bread, 10 cheeses, 13 toppings, nine dressings), or just order one of the 11 on the menu. My favorites: the Athena (feta, mozzarella, red onion, black olives, fresh lemon on country white) or the C.A.T. (Monterey jack, mozzarella, herb grilled chicken, avocado and sun-dried tomatoes on whole wheat).
Baguette Delite, Edison
I remember when two colleagues walked up to me in the office to tell me about a good banh mi place nearby. Must be Baguette Delite, I said, I’ve been writing about them for years. The spare eatery appeared on my list of the best restaurants in 2014 . Banh mi — $7.98 each — is the speciality, although you can also get pho (the traditional Vietnamese soup), lemongrass vermicelli and other dishes.
Crockett’s Fish Fry, Montclair
In “Jersey Eats,” a compendium of the Munchmobile’s first 10 years, I listed Crockett’s Fish Fry on my list of all-time favorite places, which is saying something, since we visited 100 or more restaurants every year. This small, cozy restaurant is fried food heaven; the hefty five-piece fried catfish sandwich ($8.99) here may be the best I’ve ever had. In a town filled with hip, upscale restaurants, Crockett’s delivers good food in unfancy surroundings.
Kawa Thai & Sushi, Millville
Mango chicken. That’s all you need to know at Kawa Thai & Sushi. I normally stay away from fruit and chicken dishes (the fruit is just too sweet and overpowering), but the mango in Kawa’s dish blends perfectly with the meat and veggies. It was one of the two or three best dishes on this entire mission. Lunch specials are $9.95, and include salad and soup. The beef penang is also recommended.
Cafe Espresso Italia, Newark
The espresso’s good, but you come here for the ample, Italian-grandma-worthy sandwiches and entrees (the latter about $8). Newark cops and firefighters, FBI, DEA, and port workers are among the customers at this unassuming deli/luncheonette, which, not surprisingly, has no website or official Facebook page. Hungry? The immense sausage sandwich, loaded with meat, peppers and onions, may be the state’s biggest.
Royal Grill 37, Toms River
There was no shortage of recommendations on Twitter when I announced this cheap eats project. Someone praised Royal Grill 37′s lamb and chicken over rice ($10), a big, bounteous dish, but I liked the six-piece tikka chicken (in photo) much more. The dish takes 20-30 minutes to make, but it is so worth it, and for eight bucks great value besides.
Latin American Restaurant, Camden
There was seemingly enough chicken on the grill to feed Camden and several neighboring towns when I stopped by the spare, no-frills Latin American Restaurant. “Pollo on grill” proclaims the menu, so you know what they’re good at. You can also get breakfast, empanadas, tacos, seafood and more. Head straight to the Combo Platters part of the menu; you’ll get a hefty portion of meat (grilled chicken, chicken stew, roast pork, fried beef, BBQ ribs) with choice of side; most of the platters are $8.50. The highly recommended pernil asada is shown in the photo.
Sazon Latino, Boonton
Boonton is an underrated dining destination, with Sazon Latino maybe its most underappreciated restaurant. The lunch/dinner buffet (photo) is $6 with two sides, $7 with three sides, and good luck finding a better deal. The roast chicken is tender and tasty, and by all means get the yellow rice as one of the sides.
It’s not easy standing out on Oak Tree Road in Woodbridge and Edison, with its nonstop procession of Indian restaurants, stores and markets, but Eggmania somehow does, with its emphasis on egg dishes. Brave? Try the Maniac Curry — boiled egg pieces in spicy tomato-based gravy. But I’m here to talk about the grilled cheese, listed on the menu under Bombay Grill Sandwich. The paneer masala ($9) is a sandwich, almost big enough for two, with marinated tandoori masala paneer, onions, tomato and green pepper. Wash it down with a cold coco (in photo), a delicious chocolate drink topped with chocolate chips.
Jay’s Elbow Room, Maple Shade
Jay’s Elbow Room is one of South Jersey’s great dive bars. The bar, formerly known as Bud’s, was once located at a nearby traffic circle and later moved here. Good craft beer selection. But let’s talk food. Sandwiches for a dollar? Yes, from opening until 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Monday is steak sandwich; Tuesday, chicken steak; Wednesday, roast pork; Thursday, hot roast beef; Friday, beer-battered chicken filet. You cannot beat the price — or atmosphere.
Sometimes you just fall in love with a sandwich. The Athena (at left in photo) at G.Y.R.O. is a near-perfect blend of some of my favorite things: feta, kalamata olives, tomatoes and cucumbers, nestled in a thick, warm pita. G.Y.R.O. (stands for Grab Your Real Opa) is a bright, pleasant storefront where you can build your own pita sandwich or wrap. Or you can just make things easy and order the Athena, or the Poseidon (at right), with grilled chicken breast, grilled peppers and onions, and hot sauce. The sandwiches are $10, and quite filling. Don’t forget to pick up a can or two of Tuvunu Greek mountain tea, flavored with honey and lemon.
Bo Ne, Woodbury
Banh mi are traditional Vietnamese sandwiches in baguettes, with chicken, pork or beef, and veggies. Bo Ne is a small, colorful cash-only restaurant, and the banh mi here (photo) are terrifically tasty, and a good deal for $7.99. But the biggest surprise is the stir-fry chicken, with supremely tender meat and crisp, fresh veggies.
El Unico de Elena Restaurant & Cafeteria, Union City
Prices can’t get much lower than the ones at El Unico. A Cubano for $4, a pan con bistec (steak sandwich) for $5, pollo asado (roasted chicken) for $4.50. And how about the Juanito Special, available every day — 1/2 grilled chicken breast, two fried pork chunks, fried egg, Spanish sausage, two fried plantains and rice and beans — for $8. The restaurant has been open since 1976.
Herbs Thai Kitchen, Brick
Squeezed into a strip mall at the intersection of Routes 70 and 88, Herbs Thai Kitchen was recommended by a chef friend, and he was spot on with this one. The chicken in both the Wok Ginger with chicken (in photo) and Mince Chicken Basil was excellent — fresh, tender, expertly cooked. Lunch specials (which include a spring roll and salad) are $9.50 with chicken or pork, $10.50 with beef or shrimp. Sure, you can get Thai lunch specials cheaper, but you won’t find them better.
Pollos Pucalor, Dover
Opened in 1992, Pollos Pucalor (in Dover and Morristown) showcases roast chicken from the owner’s native Colombia. Whole chickens are $11.50, half chickens $5.75, with sides about $2.50. The chicken’s good, but the standout is the pork rind ($3.50), a fried, fatty piece of pork perfection.
28 BBQ, Bound Brook
“Oh my goodness” were the first words in my 2007 Eat with Pete review of 28 BBQ; a copy still hangs on the wall of this small Portuguese churrasqueira. Spits of chicken and ribs slowly turn over fire, and the steady stream of customers attests to the restaurant’s popularity. A whole chicken (see photo) with rice and your choice of fries, beans or salad costs $20; a half order ($11.50) is more than enough for one person. A half order of ribs is $12.50. 28 BBQ is the equal of any Portuguese BBQ joint in Newark’s Ironbound, with one big difference: Parking is much easier.
Amazing Taste, North Plainfield
Joshua Muhammed, owner of Amazing Taste, started with a food truck in Plainfield; he bought it for $15,000 on Craigslist. The truck is parked outside the storefront, on Route 22 east in North Plainfield. The jerk chicken platter features plenty of tender, spicy meat, plus two sides, and cornbread, for $12. As I said in the intro, we were looking not simply for cheap food, but good cheap food. Amazing Taste easily qualifies on both accounts. There is another location in South Bound Brook.
Central Taco and Tequila, Westmont
Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean simple or spare. The tacos at Central Taco and Tequila go well beyond the usual taqueria menu. Korean short rib tacos? Check. Coconut shrimp? Those too. Picadillo, with seasoned beef, white onions, cabbage, crema and salsa pequin (a peppery salsa)? Gotcha. Most are two for $6, and they’re loaded. My favorite is the crispy fish taco. Oh, and if you’re looking for a review of the in-house tequila, look elsewhere. I was working!
Aunt Berta’s Kitchen, Haddon
The Berta at Aunt Berta’s Kitchen is Alberta Ferebee, who cooked in hospitals and restaurants before opening her own place. Every conceivable Southern/soul food item is on the menu, from fried and smothered chicken, pork chops, collards and mac n cheese to chicken livers, chitterlings and chicken gizzards. The Wednesday-Friday lunch special is $6.99 and includes an entree and two small sides. Or you can do a “mix and match” order, with two entrees, two hefty sides and bread for $13.95. Oh, and don’t you dare leave without taking home a container or two of Aunt B’s sweet tea. It just may become your favorite summertime refresher.
That Chefski’s, a Polish eatery, is in Wallington comes as no surprise; the population of the Bergen County town, after all, is 50 percent Polish. The deli-like eatery, next door to a 7-Eleven, is all about Polish home cooking; there are no burgers, hot dogs, salads or even sandwiches on the menu. But you can get borsch, dill soup, potato pancakes, sauerkraut and mushrooms, breaded pork chop, goulash, beef stroganoff and other Eastern European favorites. There’s a $8 daily lunch special, which includes entree (kielbasa the day I stopped), mashed potato and soup. But the winner here is the roast pork ($8, shown in photo), tender meat slathered in hearty gravy. Call it comfort food heaven, Polish style.
Taqueria El Mariachi, Trenton
Appearances can be deceiving. Taqueria El Mariachi is squeezed into an unremarkable if not dreary stretch of South Olden Avenue in Trenton, but inside it’s homey and friendly, with the World Cup on TV, good food and first-rate salsas. Three hefty, tasty al pastor tacos are $7, and there are five kinds of pupusas (thick corn tortillas stuffed with meat, cheese and other fillings). Besides the al pastor tacos, I tried the pork rind pupusas. Yum.
Best Food in Town, Galloway
Best Food in Town is a great, if gutsy, name for a restaurant. It’s a Chinese restaurant with locations throughout South Jersey. The Galloway store looks like anything but a chain, with spare decor and basketballs (for the owners’ kids?) stacked under a table. Lunch specials, from 11 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, range from $5.95 to $7.50. Hunan beef is shown in the photo.
El Pueblo Taqueria, Lower
Colorful little El Pueblo Taqueria — sunshine-yellow walls, murals — is in a strip mall across the street from a giant Wawa, so you can’t miss it. There are 11 kinds of tacos, from chicken, steak and pork to tongue, Mexican-style shrimp and spicy chopped tofu. The best part: an order of four is $9. Tortas are in the $9-$12 range, and the guacamole is made fresh to order.
Uncle Paulie’s Peruvian Chicken, Maywood
Uncle Paulie’s is a Peruvian restaurant specializing in rotisserie chicken. “Puro sabor” proclaims the menu — “pure taste.” Lunch specials are $7.95 Monday-Friday and include soup or salad, plus a can of soda. The arroz con pollo featured tasty chicken, and the lomo saltado (in photo) was another winner, with tender, seasoned steak. You can get a whole chicken (no sides) for $10, a half chicken for $6.
Shan Shan Noodles, Parsippany
Hand-pulled noodles date to the 1500s in China; the process consists of kneading the dough and repeatedly stretching it to produce strands of long, thin noodles. Shan Shan Noodles looks rather ordinary inside and out, but the hand-pulled noodle soups and dishes are standouts. Try the House Special Hand Pulled Noodle Soup ($11.50) for starters and then proceed to the Chicken with Fried Noodle (photo), a hearty heap of meat, noodles and veggies.
Lorenzo’s Cabana, Westville
Simple and spare describes Lorenzo’s Cabana, but there’s some excellent food coming out of that kitchen. Their tacos made our best tacos list, and the empanadas are equally worthy. And they’re cheap — $2.50 for tacos and empanadas, $8-10 for the “big quesadillas” (and they are). The chicken cheesesteak empanada is better than half the regular cheesesteaks I’ve eaten, the chicken empanada is loaded with fresh-tasting meat, and the Cuban empanada is highlighted with a big slab of juicy pork.
Platter King, North Bergen
Bergenline Avenue in West New York and Union City is one the state’s great food thoroughfares, brimming with Central and South American restaurants, markets, cafes and bakeries. Platter King features Mediterranean/Middle Eastern Halal food, and the platters are reasonably priced and bulging with meat and rice. I was hoping to try the charcoal chicken, a new addition to the menu, but they said it would take at least half hour, so I settled for the beef platter ($13.99) and the highly recommended chicken kabob platter ($13.99).
Olympia Restaurant, Vineland
The $14 lunch specials at Olympia Restaurant are not cheap as such, but the portions are dinner-sized and the food is sooo good, so that’s why they’re on the list. The moussaka (along with the Greek meatballs and pastitsio, the only items available every day) are highly recommended. The gyro ($12), with lamb and beef and served on a pita with tomato, onion and tzatziki, is huge and tasty.
Delhi Garden, Edison
Delhi Garden is currently takeout only, and parking can be a challenge, but don’t let it stop you from visiting this Route 27 restaurant — proof that not all great Indian food in town is along Oak Tree Road. The chicken tikka masala may have been the best of its kind sampled on my recent Indian food road trip. but the showstopper here is the lamb bhuna, a spicy and aromatic mix of onions, peppers, tomatoes and coriander. It’s $14.99, so not exactly cheap, but you deserve a splurge, especially in these troubled times. Forget the more formulaic lamb vindaloo and lamb rogan gosh; lamb bhuna is a must-order. The lime juice, both sweet and spicy, makes for a bracing beverage. Delhi Garden made our list of the state’s best Indian restaurants.
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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected]