Low on cash and facing a greasy pile of fried rice and a resto with grim fluorescent lighting? Don't go there. Here are some options for inexpensive but interesting meals close to the UW campus.
The best advertisement for State Street's Mediterranean Cafe is the line of customers spilling out the door. With nothing on the regular menu over $6.25 and daily specials seldom creeping above $7, it's hard to know what to spotlight: The lemon-chicken soup, only $1.50 a cup? The falafel sandwich, wrapped in a flat pita with plenty of greens and tomato? Sometimes the pita is a little dry, but at $3.75, you can probably live with that. Warning: Med Cafe is open only until 4:30 p.m., so eat early.
Or if the line there is too long, hop across the street to Potbelly. The Chicago-based sub shop has recently introduced salads. The veggie, bulked up with marinated red peppers, artichoke hearts, chickpeas, cukes and tomatoes, is excellent, and a big heap of food for $5.60.
Whether you opt for Buraka's Library Mall cart or its lower-level restaurant on State Street, the lunch menu is full of African stews, served on white rice or rounds of injera, a fun, spongy sourdough pancake. Most economical are the veggie stews, $6-$6.50. Our favorite is the peanut stew, with cauliflower, cabbage and carrots, but honestly you can't go wrong.
If you're in the campus area, you've probably already made the acquaintance of Ian's Pizza By the Slice on North Frances Street, where thin-crust slices with inventive and sometimes outrageous toppings (local barbecued pork, brat 'n' kraut) run $2.50-$3.50. But the Ian's branch on State Street, near the Capitol, also has salads on the menu. The small ($3.50) is a star, with a choice of romaine or mixed greens, three generously sprinkled mix-ins and terrific homemade dressings (perfect pesto and marvelous maple vinaigrette); add chicken for $1.
The Coconate's cart, usually found mid-campus at Charter and Johnson streets, features authentic Chicago-style hot dogs, with Vienna dogs, fresh tomato wedges and a zesty oversized dill pickle spear. The $2.75 single dog isn't a bad deal, but it's even sweeter with the two-dogs-and-a-drink special for $5. Better yet: Veggie dogs can be subbed for no extra cost.
Mickies Dairy Bar on Monroe Street is a Badger tradition, packed on football Saturdays. Many swear by the breakfast scrambler or the oddly flat but appealing omelets, accompanied by the home fries dubbed "yanks." Others go for the hefty pancakes (one order will easily feed two people). Mickies' hand-written, wall-posted menu has plenty of diner favorites at less than $5, like a bowl of soup for $2 or a hamburger for $2.75. Dinners (mostly sandwiches served with soup or salad and choice of potato) are all less than $7. We like the cheddar melt ($3.75) with a chocolate malt - after all, it is a dairy bar. Note: Mickies closes at 2:30 p.m.
Just down the block is New Orleans Take-Out, where the red beans and rice ($3.25 small/$5 large) beat the heck out of the add-water-to-a-Styrofoam-cup variety. It's vegan; also available with sausage for a little extra.
Now that the UW's southeast dorms are further south than ever, it's not a long trip to Taqueria Guadalajara on South Park Street. And it would be worth traveling twice the distance for this. The tacos are $1.75 each, sopas and gorditas $2.25. Big tortas, south-of-the-border subs, are $6. Try the vegetarian sopas, with an almost muffinlike cornmeal base, or the gorditas with chicharrón en salsa verde.