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A Day of Dining on $10 in D.C.

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Writer Dena Levitz takes the challenge.

Tacos at El Chucho
Tacos at El Chucho
R. Lopez

In D.C., cocktails can run $15. A meager small plate (and let's face it, you're gonna need a handful of these bad boys) can easily exceed five bucks a pop. Dropping an Alexander Hamilton might add up to a meal in the ever-expensive nation's capital.

But Eater challenged me to feed myself for a day on $10. An entire f&*%in' day?! I'm a saver, a frugal shopper, to be sure. Still, this would take some serious creativity and a dash of what the Boy Scouts are known for — being prepared.

My approach was simple: Go the snacking route. With that little money, I would have to try to avoid sit-down meals and the tipping that comes with it. Instead, bouncing from place to place would be my way. And just turning to national fast food chains seemed to defeat the purpose, so I wouldn't allow myself to do that. Nor could I just eat a few cruddy pieces of pizza or scarf down several side orders of fries and call those meals.

I wanted to eat well and eat as diversely as possible. Tom Cruise thought he had a mission impossible. Pu-leese.

9:21 a.m.

Total balance: $10

Off the bat, I had a problem. Two of the primo inexpensive breakfast choices in my sights — The Pretzel Bakery and Florida Avenue Grill — aren't open on Mondays, when I decided to take this challenge. After cursing the heavens for several minutes, I pondered alternate breakfast sandwich joint possibilities... Bupkis. It's a cinch to find a good, bacony, egg-tastic breakfast sandwich for $4, $5 or $6 — not so much for half of that. As much as breakfast is considered the most important meal of the day, it's not important enough to blow half my budget.

So I went sweet instead of savory, figuring I'd begin on a sugar high. Donuts aren't usually my go-to, but Golden Brown Delicious in Dupont Circle has gourmet varieties.

GBD's many varieties of doughnuts. [Photo: Facebook]

GBD's many varieties of doughnuts. [Photo: Facebook]

The donut choices change by the day. That morning my dream donut was a maple bacon bourbon donut. At $2.75 plus tax, though, that donut was too rich for my blood. Same with a $3.05 decadent chocolate donut filled with pudding. Instead, I was forced to settle for a tres leches donut, which my cashier assured would be cake-like and moist. Both turned out to be true. What she didn't tell me was how teeny-tiny my pastry would be.

The tres leches doughnut [Photo: Official]

The tres leches doughnut [Photo: Official]

Amount spent: $2.75

Amount left: $7.25

11:31 a.m.

Already hungry again, I knew that the food trucks that populate downtown D.C. would already be setting up shop. That meant I could do a little browsing at McPherson Square to see the range of lunch options.

The line up of food trucks [Photo: Dena Levitz]

The line up of food trucks [Photo: Dena Levitz]

$9 Korean burritos or sausage sandwiches. Rice bowls of varying ethnicities ranging from $8.99 to $10.99. Nope. Nope. Nope. Even D.C.'s affordable trucks are mostly out of my price range. The only possibility in my targeted $2 range was something called "dirty chips" from a sloppy joe truck. Or I could get a $4 order of samosas (essentially two samosas) and try to find a random stranger to go halfsies with me. Shockingly, that didn't work.

The problem is I needed a nibble to carry me over while I regrouped. Five Guys is across the park. So, when the bun deliveryman entered, I ducked in along with him, pretending to hit up the bathroom. Then, in pure panic mode, I scooped up a handful of peanuts and peaced out the other door like I stole something. The fact that I frequent this place for burgers more than any human probably should made me feel a bit better about not dropping any coins this time.

Five Guys' peanuts. [Photo: Dena Levitz]

Five Guys' peanuts. [Photo: Dena Levitz]

Amount spent: zero

Amount left: $7.75

12:46 p.m.

On and off rain was, unfortunately, the weather dujour. Soup felt like the right call. Asian soup tends to be my favorite. With unlimited funds, I'd check out Daikaya for ramen or enjoy an uber spicy Tom Yum from Baan Thai. But, at about $12 apiece, these dishes are far too luxurious today. Instead, I went simpler and smaller: a cup of vegetable soup from Chinatown Express in — you guessed in — Gallery Place/Chinatown. The broth satisfied (especially since I added red chili oil to add punch and crispy noodles for texture), and eating vegetables felt a smidge healthy. The fact that a man was in the window making hand-crafted noodles I could not afford, however, was the ultimate tease.At first, I assumed the staff would roll their eyes at my pitiful order, but the customer behind me was just as pitiful and walked away with a single order of soup. When my order was up, I carried the to-go bag down the street, sat at a table in the Portrait Gallery's Kogod Courtyard and assembled it all, pretending what was before me was a feast.

Asian Soup [Photo: Dena Levitz]

Asian Soup [Photo: Dena Levitz]

Amount spent: $2.15

Amount left: $5.60

2:37 p.m.

Pupusas had to figure in here somewhere. Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant are rich with possibilities for the far-from-pricey El Salvadoran goodies, so to miss out would have been a ridiculous misstep. Friends had spoken highly of Gloria's on 14th Street, which meant I had to go. Inside, futbol blared on a corner TV, customers spread out individually at tables with checkered table cloths, and espanol was the universal language. 

Pupusas in progress [Photo: R. Lopez]

Pupusas in progress [Photo: R. Lopez]

Each pupusa costs $2. Sadly my budget allowed just one. Clearly it had to be pork. After all, as a fervent carnivore, it was the longest I'd go in a while without meat. When the pupusa arrived in a small styrofoam container I readied my change. For some reason, though, my waitress only charged me $2 on the nose. It made the glorious doughy, meaty disc taste even more delicious.

The pupusa [Photo: R. Lopez]

The pupusa [Photo: R. Lopez]

Amount spent: $2.00

Amount left: $3.60

3:19 p.m.

My interpretation of the challenge, which may be flawed, is that the $10 is to spend on food. I checked and re-checked and no mention of drinks, particularly of the alcoholic variety (Editor's Note: Hey, New York is fine with it; so we'll allow it). So my next step was up the street to neighborhood bar Lyman's. Though far more popular in the evenings and on weekends (in other words, there was a single other patron at that odd hour) Lyman's is technically open for most of the day. The best part about the bar —besides, of course the piano in the back that anyone can play and a row of pinball machines — is a popcorn machine at the end of the bar.

Popcorn at Lyman's [Photo: R. Lopez]

Popcorn at Lyman's [Photo: R. Lopez]

This was the target. With my own money, I purchased a Bell's Oberon and made a beeline for the popcorn machine. No popcorn?! The bartender got to popping just as quickly as I made my request. And then it was off to the toppings bar. Old Bay seasoning, liquid cheese topping, Cajun spices all made their way onto my two helpings.

Popcorn at Lyman's [Photo: R. Lopez]

Popcorn at Lyman's [Photo: R. Lopez]

Amount spent: zero

Amount left: $3.60

4:21 p.m.

Thank God for happy hour; thank God for happy hour. I'm definitely not the first, nor will I be the last to sing the praises of early-evening bar deals. Far more common in D.C., it seems, are specials on booze during this magical time. El Chucho, on 11th Street in Columbia Heights, has margaritas and boozy concoctions for less, sure. But it also has one of the most budget-friendly happy hour bites around: $3 for two tacos. Tacos were on my mind for hours, and I saved up my appetite for these. My photographer and I, literally the first first diners in the establishment that evening, ordered one of the al pastor variety and another chicken. When the bill came my half came to exactly what I had left. Mission accomplished.

Tacos at El Chucho [Photo: R. Lopez]

Tacos at El Chucho [Photo: R. Lopez]

Amount spent: $3.60

Amount left: zero

Victory was sweet, though not cavity-inducing sweet like that donut for breakfast. But I did it. Strategizing and saving was a good reminder that I can be incredibly scrappy when I need to be. And that even in a city like Washington D.C., quality food can be scrounged up without dishing out $25 for a fancy burger.

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