Dining in Santa Fe without Breaking the Bank

Photo courtesy of Pranzo
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins
Photo courtesy of Il Piatto
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins
Photo courtesy of Cafe Castro
Photo courtesy of The Pantry Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins
Photo courtesy of Del Charro
By Billie Frank, Santa Fe Local Expert

What is good value when you’re eating out? The best scenario is discovering great food at inexpensive prices. But it can also be places where you get a lot of bang for your dining buck. Santa Fe is not, for the most part, a budget-friendly dining destination. You can stick to the ubiquitous chain restaurants, but what’s the fun in that? There are so many local options to choose from. Some of the best-priced food in the city is at food trucks and stands, but most of them are only open for lunch. When it comes to dinner, it’s a bit more challenging. Often food is reasonably priced, but adding drinks can take the bill way up. A few strategies to keep the tab down: drink water, have a bit of wine of beer before dinner, get a candy bar at a grocery for dessert. If drinking ahead or any time; moderation is the key or call a cab. DUI laws here are strict and there are random checks. At places like Pho Kim, Red Enchilada, Il Vicino and Café Castro two can have dinner for under $20 before tip and tax. At pricier spots such as Il Piatto, Pranzo Italian or Taberna La Boca, there are great deals during off-hours. Some even offer great wine deals as well.

9. Pranzo Italian Grill
Photo courtesy of Pranzo

Don't mind dining early? Pranzo Italian Grill has a great deal. The eatery offers a three-course prix fixe menu for $14.95 daily from 4 to 5:45 pm. Diners get a choice of a salad (there are three on offer), a half order of the house-made pasta (there are six choices) and either gelato or sorbet for dessert. Pair this with Happy Hour (from 4 to 6pm) wine and well cocktail pricing and you can save a lot of dough. There are other good value options as well. Sundays all bottles of wines are half-priced and children nine and under eat for free (one free meal per adult entrée order). On Tuesdays from 4 to 6pm, Pranzo offers their Buena Sera specials. All items on the Specialitá section of the menu are $17.95 (except steak and fish at $22.95). Savings are as much as $10 an entrée.

8. Il Vicino
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Pizza is almost always a great value. It's filling and often well-priced. Il Vicino, part of a small local chain, started in Albuquerque's Nob Hill in 1992. They specialize in wood-fired pizza. You can get an individual-sized by (the only size they offer) for as little as $7.75; most don't exceed $10. Choices run from the classic Margarita (cheese and fresh basil) to the more exotic Angeli featuring sweet balsamic marinara sauce, mozzarella, roasted chicken, portobello mushrooms, artichoke hearts, gorgonzola and fresh rosemary. There are a lot of choices in between. One of the best deals here is the Insalata della Casa (house salad), romaine topped with tomatoes, asiago and the house vinaigrette. Go wild and add gorgonzola cheese for a dollar. If you each order a pizza, it's big enough for two to share. There are other offerings but stick with the pizza.

7. Il Piatto
Photo courtesy of Il Piatto

If you don't mind eating either early or late, Il Piatto has some great dining deals. The charming restaurant, with its Italian farmhouse ambiance, is under the creative helm of chef/owner Matt Yohalem. Check out the two daily Happy Hours here. The Afternoon Happy Hour (aka early bird dinner) is from 4:30 to 6pm and their Late Night Happy Hour is from 9 to 10:30pm. All appetizers and small-sized pastas (most made in-house) from both the regular and daily special menu are half-price. There's also a daily specials menu. They also offer 50% off selected wines. After 9pm, there's a three-course prix fixe menu available for $25.14. Diners can select any appetizer, entrée and dessert from the regular menu.

6. The Plaza Cafe
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

The Plaza Café, opened in 1905, has been run by the same family since 1947. It's a Santa Fe institution. The retro diner-like ambiance will have your feeling like you're in a time-warp. The large menu also offers something for everyone, so it will please a lot of eaters. Diners will find anything from traditional New Mexican foods to sandwiches to comfort food s like turkey dinner and chicken fried steak. There are also salads and lighter fare. Remember the old Blue Plate specials? They're alive and well here. The no-frills spot, right on the historic Plaza, offers big portions at reasonable prices. They can be busy at prime meal times. Arrive either before or after the rush and you won't have to wait to be seated.

5. Cafe Castro
Photo courtesy of Cafe Castro

For the most part, Santa Fe eateries specializing in New Mexican cuisine offer large portions and are more reasonably priced than many places in a city where dining prices can be high. One of the most inexpensive is Café Castro. They've been serving up local favorites since 1990. If you want to dine where the locals do, this family-run spot, located out on Cerrillos Road, should be on your restaurant list. Prices are really reasonable and portions are ample. You can get a big plate filled with an enchilada, stuffed sopapilla or burrito with beans, rice and posole for $8. The most expensive item on the menu is a steak, served with all the already mentioned sides as well as a cheese enchilada, for $10.99. All entrees come with sopapillas (fluffy fried dough pillow) that you can eat with your meal or save for dessert.

4. The Pantry Restaurant
Photo courtesy of The Pantry Restaurant

There's something to be said for longevity. The Pantry has been feeding hungry Santa Feans since they opened in 1948. The Cerrillos Road eatery is a bustling local favorite. The same menu is served for lunch and dinner and you can get breakfast all day. Many entrée prices are under $10. The ample portions will fill you up. The menu offers traditional New Mexican favorites such as carne adovada, slow-roasted marinated pork cooked in The Pantry's 'signature red chile,' alongside American comfort foods such meatloaf, chicken-fried steak and grilled pork chop. Sandwich choices run from burgers, to a classic Ruben to the all-American hot turkey covered with gravy. For dessert: try the tres leches cake.

3. Pho Kim
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Some of the best value dining is found at Asian restaurants. Pho Kim (pronounced Fa), a Vietnamese eatery in the Solana Center west of downtown, has some great bargains. The menu is HUGE. Each dish has a number and there are over 120 items listed. As their name suggests, they specialize in pho, the traditional Vietnamese hearty beef-based soup. The huge bowls filled with the meat, seafood or chicken and noodles, come accompanied with cilantro, Thai basil, mung bean sprouts and lime wedges. It's a meal in a bowl. You may even have leftovers for later. Other offerings include rice noodles prepared a variety of ways, stir fries, omelets, curries and vegetarian dishes. At under $6, the real bargain is the banh mi. These popular sandwiches, made with beef, pork or chicken and topped with cucumber slices, cilantro, carrots and sliced chiles come on a crusty baguette.

2. Red Enchilada Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Red Enchilada is one of those places that locals know about but is a bit off the radar. It's also off the beaten path in a small strip mall off Cerrillos Road. The interior is downright casual but the food, a mix of northern New Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine, is good. Santa Fe has a number of cooks from El Salvador and a few have opened their own eateries. The menu offers a few Salvadoran dishes such as papusas as well New Mexican-inspired ones including tacos, enchiladas and burritos. Prices are the same at lunch and dinner. There's a great selection of entrees priced at around $7. The highest price on the menu is $10.95 for a steak. Portions are ample. If you still have room, try their house-made tres leche cake or flan for dessert.

1. Del Charro
Photo courtesy of Del Charro

Del Charro Saloon, just a few short blocks from the historic Santa Fe Plaza, is a popular spot with both locals and tourists. They have a winning combination: location and reasonably priced, well prepared food. It's a place where diners can easily fill up for under $10 without drinks. Their signature burgers made from locally raised, grass-fed beef served with fries, are a great deal. Fans of batter-dipped and fried will love the vegetarian stuffed poblano pepper. The best deal here: the daily specials. Each day brings a different one ranging from Sunday's Country Fried Chicken to Saturday's sliders. Save room for their signature chocolate mousse cake in Oreo shell with raspberry coulis. It gets pretty busy here. If you don't want to wait for a table, avoid prime dining times.