I miss Zot’s. When the Chico News & Review was still downtown (I miss that a lot, too), Zot’s Hot Dogs & Deli was the closest restaurant to our building. It was just a short walk across the city parking lot to grab a really good dog (the tomato slices were key), plus chips and an iced tea and then get back to the desk for the afternoon push.
All for five bucks.
That was the ceiling. If I needed a quick bite during the work week, the meal had to cost $5 or less, and it had to be good. No fast food chains. I actually had a rotation of faves that were all within walking or biking distance, but post-pandemic that loop has been broken. As I’ve eased back into grubbin’ in public, I’ve found that my faves are either gone (shedding a tear for Zot’s, closed after 50 years in business) or have raised prices—some significantly. I don’t fault any local restaurant for responding to inflation and rising food costs. It’s perfectly reasonable to now pay $10 for a good made-to-order lunch—though it is a bit jarring to see $15 sandwiches at some places (those have been moved into the “date night” category for me).
If there is a good $5 option available, however, I’m not going to pass it up. I surveyed some of my traditional haunts as well as some new places and, without resorting to the fast-food spots (although chains aren’t so cheap these days, having raised prices by 13 percent overall last year), I found a handful of delicious, well-made, on-the-go, five-bucks-or-less items still available. (A quick shout out to one fast-food option: Costco and the unbeatable hot dog + soda for $1.50 deal. It’s too cheap, too delicious and remains one of my go-to lunches.)
One of Chico’s favorite restaurants also offers one of its best deals. A slice from Celestino’s (101 Salem St.) is no joke. Nearly as big as an individual pizza from from other parlors, most of the ready-to-go slices at the downtown staple are priced between $4 and $5. The crust is among the best in town—light, chewy, and thin enough to properly fold over to eat on the run. Options in the price range include cheese, pepperoni, mushroom, Hawaiian and Oscar Spicy Luau (with pineapple, garlic, jalapeno and pepperoni).
If it’s cold out and I’m not too hungry, soup is the answer. On a recent chilly mid-February afternoon, I tried out one of the rotating offerings from the hot bar at Chico Natural Foods (818 Main St.) for the first time. The day’s special was the house-made Spiced Lentil, a hearty nearly all-organic offering that is packed with lentils and vegetables (sweet potato, onion, carrot, celery, tomatoes and bell pepper) and big flavors thanks to a spice blend that included curry powder, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and white pepper. The 12-ounce portion is only $3.99 and was enough to fill me up.
This one is on everyone’s radar, right? In Chico, there are more than a dozen trucks/taquerias serving cheap and insanely delicious food that’s as well-prepared and enjoyable as a meal you’d pay five times more for at a fine dining establishment. Most places offer three tacos worth of pollo, carnitas, pastor, carne asada, etc. for under $5, and there are always specials on other items using those classic street-food proteins. During my most recent trip to the walk-up window at Crazy Taco (1205 Park Ave.), I picked up a junior burrito (al pastor) on Tuesday Special for $4.50. It was a little smaller than the usual offering, but was built with the same choice of fillings—beans, rice, meats, etc.—and busted my gut nearly as effectively.
Asian grocery to-go meals
Both of the Asian food stores in town—MY Oriental Market (2550 S. Whitman Place) and Asian Market (343 Nord Ave., Ste. 3)—serve fresh, ready-made lunch items from a counter by the register. Items vary, and not all are $5 or less (including the incredible bahn mi sandwich that’s only $6), but they are all made with loads of fresh veggies and some with a little bit of meat (pork, cooked tiny shrimp, fish paste), including the fresh spring rolls. Three enormous rolls wrapped in rice paper and packed with bean sprouts, cilantro, carrots, lettuce, a little jalapeno and a tiny amount of seafood with a spicy dipping sauce for just $5.