Five Dollar Feasts

Heraclitus once said, “the only constant in life is change,” but when it comes to the cost of living, that change is always going up. This is especially true of big cities like Austin, Texas, where newcomers including myself have been flocking in droves. Natives tell tales of $600 rent for a one bedroom apartment downtown, which is utterly unthinkable, if not downright laughable, in the midst of the current housing boom.

Despite these rapidly rising expenses, there’s still a wealth of wildly flavorful, incredibly affordable gems to be found within the burgeoning plant-based restaurant scene. For $5 or less, you can find a veritable vegan feast.

Originally devised as an weekly in-person event to bring the community together, Wheatsville‘s $5 Thursday dinners have shifted to prepared takeout plates for the time being. Not even a pandemic could stop this force of nature that brings hefty portions of protein and two sides to countless tables. Offering a different meat and meatless option every week, I eagerly await the monthly menu to see what’s in store. From shawarma to southern fried, Thai curry to Indian masala, there isn’t a single bad option on rotation.

Fluffy yet filling, the steamed veggie buns at Bao’d Up ring in at $2.95, and you can even add a $1.95 matcha red bean bite for dessert, without going over budget. However, the only thing better than cheap is free, and your first meal could be on the house. You just need to download their app and create an account (use my referral code 2271, please!) to get 500 points, which is enough to redeem three free full-sized bao! Don’t forget, they use vegan mayo in their slaw, so you could very happily round out a meal with veggies for $2.50, pickles for the same price, or spicy Sichuan fries for $3.50. You’ve got lots of cost-effective options here.

While full-sized New York-style thin crust pizzas will cost at least $15 at Big Nonna’s up north or their counterpart Li’l Nonna’s down south, the Sicilian slice will more than satisfy the appetites of the budget-conscious. Each thick, square cut slab of gently blistered dough is slathered in rich San Marzano tomato sauce and housemade vegan mozzarella. One generous piece is a meal in and of itself, bearing the minimal price tag of just $4.

You won’t find a single dish over $7 at Bodhi Viet Vegan, a Vietnamese food truck staffed buy nuns and volunteers from a local Buddhist temple. Most notably, all appetizers, bao, bánh mì, desserts, and drinks are only $3.50 each. Pull together a few friends and you could very well try the entire menu without breaking the bank. The biggest problem with this amazing hot spot is they’re only open for limited hours, Thursday through Saturday. Go early to make sure they don’t sell out of your favorites first!

Though it may not look very vegan-friendly at first glance, rest assured that Biscuits & Groovy has plant-based alternatives to everything listed on the menu. That means bacon, eggs, cheese, gravy, and of course, those fluffy, buttery biscuits are all within reach! The best bang for your buck is the Mc Hammer, which comes with one biscuit, tofu scramble, cheese, and your choices of meatless sausage or bacon all for $4. Don’t forget to ask for gravy on the side, free of charge.

In addition to some knock-out tacos and basic bagels, the wraps in particular are an absolute steal at Opera Cafe. There are four flavorful options all for $5 each, but my personal favorite is the bacon & v-eggs that comes with sauteed onions, crisp cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce. It has that perfect balance between rich breakfast comfort food and fresh, healthy ingredients.

Taco Tuesday is always a time to celebrate, especially at The Vegan Nom. Migas tacos are only $2 each, so you can grab two and still walk away with change to spare. Even a single order of these soft flour tortillas stuffed with scrambled tofu, tortilla chips, cheese and tomatoes is pretty darned filling. Best of all, the patio is dog-friendly and you can get a free beer with purchase all day, any day!

Food snobs: avert your eyes. Taco Cabana is not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, ranking just a step above Taco Bell Quality, but this homegrown fast food chain is pulling out all the stops when it comes to cheap eats. Let me just start with the $2 margaritas, available all day, via pickup, dine-in, delivery, AND drive through, available in at least 8 flavors with many seasonal variations. Food options are a bit limited for vegans, but with Beyond Meat on the menu, quite substantial with a little modification. You’ve got basic soft and crunchy tacos, the cabana bowl (which is like a taco salad), and my favorite, the nachos. Just ask for Beyond Meat nachos, no queso and no sour cream, add guacamole. Even with the extra guac, it still rings up under $5. I don’t remember exactly how much it costs because… Did I mention those $2 margaritas?

Though officially listed at $5.50, the People Project fried chicken sandwich at Project Pollo is actually a pay-what-you-can offering to those in need. The real price is whatever you can afford. If you do pay the full amount, it’s akin to a donation that will cover the meal for two more people seeking assistance. No matter what’s in your wallet, your stomach will soon be filled with a crispy fried vegan chicken patty swaddled in a soft brioche bun, topped with pickles and creamy mayo. Now that’s mutual aid in action.

In a world of over-hyped, overpriced dining disappointments, these staples will never let you down. Rich or poor, vegan or omnivore, no one in this town should go hungry, no matter what.

For anyone truly struggling to make ends meet, please visit one of the many free fridges or pantries sprinkled throughout the city, or find the pop-up emergency relief food distributions hosted by the Central Texas Food Bank. No judgement, no questions asked; we’re in this together.