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Urban Explorer's Handbook 2006

Cheap Eats: Dining on the outskirts

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Two weeks ago, in my "Table Dancing" column, I asked you to send in your picks for the best $10-and-under eateries in the Q.C. The e-mails didn't flow quite like I thought they would, so I queried a variety of folks in person and assembled some suggestions from my crack team of experts (i.e., my broke friends). So here we go -- a humble look at where the 25-54 demographic heads when they're hungrier 'n hell and hanging with Mr. (Alexander) Hamilton.

As in most cities, ethnic eateries are an easy, tasty fallback for those looking to eat on a budget. With our exploding Asian and Hispanic populations, the Central Avenue and South Boulevard sections of town are chock-full of these types of eateries. More than one person mentioned longtime Vietnamese favorite Lang Van (actually a bit off of Central, on Shamrock) for its multitude of hotpots and intriguing beverage choices (try the avocado shake). Also mentioned was Lang Van's sister restaurant on Central, Bên Thánh, which more than a couple folks swear beats the flagship location.

Fans of Mexican cuisine have lauded staid little Taqueria Mexico on South Boulevard for years now. Having worked only a mile or so away from the place back when the Loaf offices were on Old Pineville Road, I can readily concur. It's a truly authentic low-fi Mexi experience, so expect them to assume that, being gringo, you'll want flour tortillas (you don't -- the corn are more authentic, not to mention a hell of a lot better). And the carne asada and fish tacos with cilantro are to die for. Taqueria Linares, near Eastland Mall, offers a more northern-Mexico based menu, but also serves an absolutely amazing Cubano sandwich that might make you rethink communism: ham slices, chorizo, fried egg, avocado, tomatoes, onions, hot dog (trust me, it works) and melted white cheese.

Restaurant y Taqueria La Unica, on the outskirts of Plaza-Midwood, offers an equal blend of fast food-style and sit-down Mexican. (Our own Tricia Childress has been known to rave about Unica's "al pastor" taco.) Azteca on Woodlawn was another popular choice. But keep your eyes peeled; you'll think it's just a hotel if you're not paying attention.

Speaking of South Boulevard, reader Christian Bohmfalk recommends Owen's Bagel and Deli: "Charlotte's home of the steamed bagel sandwich, a taste treat and a heck of a bargain for lunch or dinner," he says. My big problem with bagel sandwiches is that the bread is texturally too firm to enjoy the goodies inside -- if steaming helps with this in any way, I'm there.

Reader David L. Preston recommends Courtney's Restaurant, on Park Road, where he swears by the Ultimate Omelette. Already a fan of restaurants serving anything with "ultimate" in front of it, I can't wait to try it out.

My personal favorites include The Philosopher's Stone Tavern (which serves what I like to call "bar food plus"), Sir Edmond Halley's (specifically, its sandwich options, including another variation on the Cubano), Cuisine Malaya's many Japanese grill options, Phó 98 (try the Bun Bo Hue, a spicy, light beef soup), Green's Lunch (the place to go when you want to get filled up on only five dollars), Simmons Fourth Ward Restaurant (not as well known as the Coffee Cup, but right there with 'em for authentic Southern country cooking), Boudreaux's in NoDa for brunch (beignets and bloody marys, anyone?), Cabo Fish Taco, and this tiny little place in Mint Hill called Happy's Grill that never fails to leave me feeling, well, happy as a bug.

None of which is to suggest that I don't love every chance I get to dine at your more obvious, white linens-and-tracklighting types of places -- true "fine dining" is one of life's greatest joys. However, there's loads of fine dining experiences to be had out on the side streets, on oilcloth and white paper. And most of them will save you some of that precious green paper in the process.

Where to find them:

•Lang Van, 3019 Shamrock Dr., 704-531-9525

•Bên Thánh Restaurant, 4900 Central Ave., 704-566-1088

•Taqueria Mexico, 7001 South Blvd., 704-552-2461

•Linares Mexican Restaurant, 4918 Central Ave., 704-535-6716

•Restaurant y Taqueria La Unica, 2801 Central Ave., 704-347-5115

•Azteca Mexican Restaurant, 116 E. Woodlawn Road, 704-525-5110

•Courtney's Restaurant, 10517 Park Road, 704-541-9065

•Owen's Bagel & Deli Shop Inc., 2041 South Blvd # G., 704-333-5385

•Philosopher's Stone Tavern, 1958 E. 7th St., 704-350-1331

•Sir Edmond Halley's, 4151 Park Road, 704-525-2555

•Cuisine Malaya, 1411 Elizabeth Ave., 704-372-0766

•Phó 98 Inc., 5937 South Blvd., 704-643-1243

•Green's Lunch, 309 W 4th St., 704-332-1786

•Simmons Fourth Ward Restaurant, 516 N Graham St., 704-334-6640

•Boudreaux's Louisiana Kitchen, 501 E 36th St., 704-331-9898

•Cabo Fish Taco, 3201 N Davidson St., 704-332-886

•Happy's Grill, 9229 Lawyer's Road, Mint Hill, 704-573-6743

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