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Friday, July 29, 2011

July Food Adventure: All About Cheap Eats & Secret Menus

Shhh! A secret menu is something you tell only one person about at a time.

This month we explore what we call "cheap eats." Although we set no hard and fast rules for this category it mostly came down to food priced around the five dollar mark. Since we also shot for some ethnic diversity I called our little excursion "Around The World on Five Dollars a Day."

The other thing we sampled this trip were secret menus and I was surprised to learn just how few diners are aware of them. Secret menus are really just unconventional combinations of the existing menu items that someone has created and more regular customers learn of them by word of mouth.
Secret menus are off the grid so even the restaurants themselves don't publicize them. They are a win-win because they add intrigue and variety to the offerings but avoid the confusion of too many choices on the menu board. Although there are many sources for secret menus on-line I like Coupon Sherpa because their concise list is mostly popular places you're likely to find anywhere.

My partner in culinary crime, Stacie Tamaki, did some serious research and compiled her own list of secret menus from many sources. To see her Secret Menu Greatest Hits and read her version of our adventure click here for her story on The Flirty Blog.

Here is the line up for our value based food journey:

In-n-Out Burger
604 E. El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA

The Pita Pit
151 South Second St.
San Jose, CA 95113

Cheese Steak Shop
832 W. El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA

Taco Bravo
1950 S. Bascom Ave.
Campbell, CA

Mitsuwa Marketplace
675 Saratoga Ave.
San Jose

A word about secret menus. Like many people I was not too familiar with them and even thought they might just be urban myths. However, with just a little digging I found that they are not only wildly popular but really an essential part of the fast food culture. We decided one of the best spots to try secret menu items was at our first stop, In-n-Out Burger. We ordered a patty-less burger which, in secret menu terms, is called a Grilled Cheese and a special version of their fries called Animal Style. The fries are topped with melted cheese, grilled onions and smothered in their special 1,000 Island-like dressing.

Grilled Cheese on the left and Animal Style Fries from In-n-Out's Secret Menu

Zooming in on the grilled cheese reveals it is loaded just like their standard burger only without the meat. It is a great combination of textures/temperatures with the warm melted cheese, crisp lettuce, tomato and fresh onion. The animal style version of this sandwich features grilled onions instead of fresh ones.

Grilled cheese very neatly wrapped and ready for a big bite

If you try the animal style fries, grab plenty of napkins. It's super messy and always served with a fork.

Animal Style Fries could be a meal in themselves

Rounding out our all secret menu meal was a drink called Lemon Up which is simply a combination of lemonade and 7UP. As simple as this sounds I had never mixed the two and it is really a surprisingly refreshing twist. Combining any of the fountain drinks to your own taste is easy at In-n-Out because they have a self-service beverage dispenser. In-n-Out gets an "A" in the branding department because their red/white colors and palm tree icon is neatly present everywhere.

Lemon Up blends lemonade and 7 Up

Stop number two was in Sunnyvale at the Cheese Steak Shop. Tucked in a small shopping center it is part of a chain but with much fewer locations than the big names in fast food. However, we chatted with two loyal cheese steak fans from Philadelphia who meet there every Tuesday to satisfy their cravings for this famous sandwich born in their home town. From the steady stream of customers I get the feeling that this place has lots of phone and faxed in orders for pickup.

We tried a couple of vegetarian sandwiches here which were both unique and delicious. Mine was straight off of the menu and called a Zesty Veggie Sandwich. It got some nice kick from roasted chili peppers and hot sweet peppers. The whole roasted garlic cloves were done perfectly. These sandwiches are served on very soft rolls and simply melt in your mouth like the cheeses they come with.

Zesty Veggie is super soft and big on flavor

Stacie prefers a variation on their Original Vegetarian Sandwich. She requests that they make her their Classic Philly Cheese Steak sandwich but hold the chicken. The key to this "secret menu" version is they actually grill the lettuce. Grilled lettuce is a bit tricky to get right but it is delicious. I loved both my choice and her version because they are super soft without being soggy.

Special Stacie Tamaki Version Veggie Sandwich

The Cheese Steak Shop adds another touch of Philly to their menu by carrying a line of dessert pastries called Tastykake. The Tasty Baking Company foods are a tradition on the East Coast that dates back to 1914.

East coast sweet tooth solutions available right here in California

We headed downtown San Jose for our next stop at The Pita Pit. I like this concept. The world doesn't really need another fast food burger joint when a concept this strong is available. There is really no need for a secret menu here as the selection and choices are only limited by your imagination.

This menu board shows only some of the many choices available

Everything is made fresh while you wait and enjoy watching the action

I love their selection of breakfast pitas so I ordered the Morning Glory which includes avocado, grilled tomatoes, scrambled eggs, hash browns, grilled green peppers, onions and your choice of cheese and sauces. I opted for the hot sauce which nicely rounded out all of the other more subtle ingredients. On your choice of white or wheat pita these beauties are served all day long. Nice!

Morning Glory is just one of six great breakfast pitas available all day long.

The key to this great pita is the equal size pieces of each ingredient make it into every bite you take.

No cheap eats excursion is complete without a taqueria or some kind of Mexican food. I could not resist stopping at my long time favorite late night spot in Campbell, the legendary Taco Bravo. Open until 3:30 a.m. it is renowned for dining after everything else except Denny's has closed. This famous sign has been a landmark on Bascom Avenue for about as long as anyone can recall.

A fixture on Bascom Avenue – Some things never change

After many a mobile DJ event my favorite stop was to browse at the now defunct Tower Records store and grab something at Taco Bravo just one-half block away. T.B. is always the busiest just after 1:00 a.m. when most bars close. The entertainment factor of watching the bar patrons with munchies in the middle of the morning is priceless. While standing in line it is a hoot to guess which club they were at by the way they are dressed. The cast of characters who work the late shift at Taco Bravo are also well equipped to have a battle of the wits with the steady flow of intoxicated bar goers.  All of these ingredients make it ripe for laughing out loud and create an after hour sideshow like no other.

My favorite taste at Taco Bravo is the Super Red or Green Veggie Burrito and I enjoy them at any hour of the day. The staff is super quick at lathering on the refried beans, shredded cheddar cheese, onions and lettuce then quite adept at a quick wrap. Their hot sauce on the side is very perky. This food is hardly authentic Mexican but has an originality all its own that has created a huge fan base for quite some time. The secret menu at Taco Bravo is late night only and means some monster burritos using multiple mega size tortillas to house the multitude of makings inside.

Taco Bravo Super Burrito (Red is mild and Green is Spicy)

For our final stop Stacie suggested the deli counter at one of her favorite supermarkets called Mitsuwa Marketplace on busy Saratoga Avenue near Highway 280. This store is part of a large Japanese supermarket company with eight locations in the U.S.

Notice the $1.39 price tag. There is a lot of good eating inside for well under two bucks. The key to these little morsels is the special double wrap packaging. It keeps the rice and nori (seaweed) from touching and that keeps the outer wrap leaves crisp while inside the salted seaweed is very soft and savory. It is a lot of texture and flavor in a tiny portable package that makes for the perfect finger food on the go.

The concept of prepared foods inside supermarkets continues to gain momentum and has now moved way beyond just bakeries and deli sandwiches. It makes sense for the shopper who might have intended to come in for all the ingredients but is short on time to leave with a completely cooked meal. In most cases it certainly beats anything they will find in the frozen food section.This trend is so widespread that we decided an entire food adventure of in-store delis might be interesting so watch for that story from us down the road.

So whether you are looking for good value right off the menu or something less expected from the secret menu there are plenty of eats at that five dollar marker. The good news is you can find them both at the big chain outlets as well as your local ma and pa eateries exclusive to your neighborhoods.

More Food Adventures:

January - The Eats of San Francisco:
February - A Tasty Tour of Santa Cruz
March - The Cowgirl Creamery
April - Confessions of a Sushi Virgin
May - Best of the East Bay
June - Palo Alto Eateries
July - Cheap Eats & Secret Menus