America's best food cities for travelers on a budget

Mar 10, 22
America's best food cities for travelers on a budget

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One of the great joys of travel is trying new foods and exploring the restaurants and markets of an unfamiliar destination. But travel is expensive enough on its own, even before you factor in the ever-increasing costs of trendy restaurants. Where do you go if you’re a foodie on a tight budget?

There’s no getting around it: some cities simply have higher costs, while others have heaps of cheap food that doesn’t have much to say about the culture or traditions of the place. The American cities on this list, however, hit a sweet spot: each one has its own distinct personality, but they all have affordable good food that tells the story of the people, the history, and unique local ingredients.

Spicy noodle soup of Korean-Chinese origin.
Houston’s food scene features a mouthwatering jumble of influences, drawing on everywhere from Korea to the Caribbean © Michael Shun / Getty Images

Houston, Texas

Big cities get all of the attention in the food press – big cities except for Houston. Houston is America’s fourth largest city, and with size comes diversity, and with diversity comes lots of choice for curious eaters. Of course, you’re in Texas, so you get barbecue, Tex-Mex and large slabs of beef, but Houston has also absorbed influences from New Orleans and the Caribbean and has welcomed the cuisines from the city’s many immigrants from Vietnam, India, Korea, Nigeria and more. Houston restaurants often blend cuisines to create something new. Korean meets Mexican at Oh My Gogi!, while Crawfish & Noodles brings together the flavors of Cajun cuisine with the Vietnamese food of the immigrants who have played an important role in the Gulf fishing industry.

Check out more Houston restaurants.

A man sitting at a Mexican food restaurant about to eat a giant chimichanga (fried burrito).
Tucson is the home of the chimichanga (although they're not all this big) © Jackie Alpers / Getty Images

Tucson, Arizona

It may not have made front-page news in America’s biggest cities, but Tucson is a big deal in food circles. It was the first city in the United States to be named a Capital of Gastronomy by Unesco, who cited its distinctive cuisine, local heritage foods, and its 300-plus-year agricultural history. In more modern times, Tucson is credited with the invention of the chimichanga, a delicious accident caused by a burrito at El Charro Café slipping into a deep fryer. Don’t miss the popular Sonoran hot dog, a border-straddling favorite consisting of a bacon-wrapped frank topped with salsa and pinto beans – try the one at El Güero Canelo where they bake their own bolillo-style buns fresh. The always busy Mi Nitido serves up Tucson specialties carne seca (seasoned air-dried beef) and ‘cheese crisps’ (flat tostadas), as well as the president’s plate – the favorite of Bill Clinton.

Check out more Tucson restaurants.

Roasted green chili on a griddle
Green chile – one of the essential ingredients of New Mexican cuisine © Sergio Salvador / Getty Images

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque does two things especially well when it comes to restaurants: classic American diners (it is on Route 66, after all) and chile-heavy New Mexican cuisine, neither of which needs to put much of a dent in your food budget. Let’s be clear: we’re talking about red or green chile, grown in New Mexico, and prized like nowhere else. (Locals will also insist on spelling it ‘chile’ no matter what your dictionary says.) Frontier manages to capture both New Mexican and traditional diner in one spot, and the college crowd confirms you’ve hit on a good deal. For fresh baked treats, head to Golden Crown Panadería, where the green chile bread sells out quickly. For a taste of even earlier New Mexico, try the Pueblo Harvest Cafe where they showcase native cuisine using local pueblo-grown ingredients that are piled into blue corn enchiladas and generous tewa tacos.

Check out more Albuquerque restaurants.

Traditional German meal of sausage, potato pancakes, pretzels and kraut.
Cincinnati’s German heritage has left a lasting impression on its food scene © Marlene Rounds / Getty Images

Cincinnati, Ohio

Navigating Cincinnati’s super-affordable food scene requires learning some new lingo. Take Cincinnati chili. First, it’s served over noodles, not in a bowl. Second, it’s more like a cinnamon-spiked meat sauce. Third, you have to know whether you want it 3-way (noodles, chili, cheese), 4-way (add onions or beans) or 5-way (add everything), and whether you want to crush some oyster crackers on top. Skyline Chili induces a near-religious fervor among its fans (psst: there are other options). The Over the Rhine neighborhood’s name hints at Cincinnati’s German immigrant history, and there’s no shortage of German-tinged food choices. Local speciality goetta, a German-inspired sausage and grain patty that's popular for breakfast, won’t win any beauty contests, but it certainly has a legion of admirers — there’s even an annual goetta festival every summer.

Check out more Cincinnati restaurants.

A selection of colourful doughnuts
Did you know Portland is the home of arguably the world’s wildest, craziest doughnuts? © VW Pics / Getty Images

Portland, Oregon

Even if you’ve never been to Portland, chances are you know a few things about its food scene. It’s the home of the original wild and crazy doughnut maker Voodoo Doughnut, and has long been besotted with food carts, as well as brunch, and largely food in general. But perhaps the greatest innovation for budget foodies is the Portland happy hour. In most places, happy hours are a ploy to pull in customers during less busy times on slower nights. In Portland, nearly every bar and pub has a happy hour that includes food on every day, and the competition for your attention means you get good deals on good grub. Restaurants have jumped into the game too, with Bamboo Sushi, the Ash Bar at NomadPDX, and Imperial offering choice deals for early diners.

Check out more Portland restaurants.

Vietnamese spring roll
Beyond the theme parks, Orlando is a happy hunting ground for lovers of Vietnamese cuisine © Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Orlando, Florida

In 2017, 72 million people visited Orlando, and we can confidently guess where most of them were headed. But let’s be clear: there’s nothing cheap (or especially interesting) about eating in theme parks. Have your butterbeer, but don’t forget to explore Orlando itself. Among the thousands of refugees from the Vietnam war in the 1970s, many ended up settling in the Orlando area. Today, the Mills 50 District is home to a tempting – and budget-friendly – array of Vietnamese restaurants and groceries, including Pho 88, known for the cheap and delicious noodle soup that gives the place its name. It wouldn’t be Florida without Cuban cuisine, and Orlando delivers with spots like Black Bean Deli, a former car dealership converted into a casual spot serving up ropa vieja (stewed beef with vegetables), Cuban sandwiches and powerful coffee.

Check out more Orlando restaurants.

A waiter delivering coney dogs and chili fries at Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit
Detroit’s favorite double: coney dogs and chili fries at Lafayette Coney Island © Bloomberg / Getty Images

Detroit, Michigan

Good news for budget eaters: Detroit doesn’t do highfalutin. Case in point, one of the all-time Detroit favorites: the coney, a hot dog smothered with chili and onions. If you’re somehow still hungry after a coney meal at Lafayette Coney Island, you can move onto a second fave: chili fries. New-school diners like Parks & Rec are bringing Detroit’s love of the all-American diner into the present (while keeping the prices at diner level). During the early 1900s, a wave of Greek immigration changed the Detroit food scene forever, and today Greek food can be found all over the city. We won’t debate here who has the best gyro or who makes the flakiest baklava, but you won’t drain your wallet finding out for yourself.

Check out more Detroit restaurants.

Food trucks in downtown LA
The best taco trucks have a cult following in LA © Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo / Getty Images

Los Angeles, California

For a city that can be as flashy and glam as they come, Angelenos love a bargain bite. Taquerias and casual Mexican spots are always a good bet for an affordable meal, and they come in every possible form, from the rolling taco trucks to old-school stalwarts like La Cabaña in Venice, to new-school spots like BS Taqueriathat still won’t break the bank. LA’s love of Japanese food means there are deals to be found, even in the pricey world of sushi. Eclectic and homey Daichan is perennially one of the best value spots on the stretch of Ventura Boulevard known as ‘Sushi Row.’ Step back in time at Philippe The Original, where the ‘French dipped sandwich’ was invented in 1918.

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