Excited to discover some great Ann Arbor food on the cheap, Eater's $10 a day challenge seemed completely doable. But as I started scrolling through my mental list of all the happy hour deals and restaurant specials around town, a mild panic overtook my elation.
Ann Arbor is a college town, but it's also a town full of food enthusiasts, and most of the independent bars serve up fresh ingredients and innovative menus that hardly fall on the exceedingly cheap side. And that's what I needed to suss out — the exceedingly cheap — and still delicious. To be strategic in my food selection, I outlined the following criteria to stretch my dollars:
- Nowhere with table service that would require tipping
- Restaurants that sell in discrete quantities so I could buy one or two of a given food item only
- Locally-owned shops without pretense that are making quality products in their given genres
- Include tax when calculating the budget
7:40 a.m. I roll up to MD Bagel Fragel on the north side of Ann Arbor. I've heard about this purportedly local creation — the so-called "fragel" — but have never actually tried one myself. I plunk down $1.25 and I'm served a hot and fresh fragel: a fried cinnamon raisin bagel covered in coarse sugar. It looks suspiciously like a sugar donut, but when I bite into it, it's not the airy fluff of donut that I'm expecting, but the dense doughiness of a bagel. Holy delicious sweetness, how many calories am I eating? I'm not going to research that. I scarf the whole thing in a few minutes, wishing I had the guts to spare some of my precious $10 for a cup of coffee to dunk the fragel in like my grandpa used to do with his daily morning donut.
Being an East Coast transplant, I've been hard pressed to find an authentic New York-style bagel around these parts. I'm encouraged by MD Bagel Fragel's signage proclaiming they employ the traditional boil and bake method of bagel-making. I'll be back to try a savory, non-fried, bagel with cream cheese.
>>>Dollars remaining: $8.75
9:25 a.m. I realize I still have sugar crusted to my cheeks.
10:05 a.m. I hit the gym because, well, fragel.
12:30 p.m. Tmaz Taqueria is rumored to have deliciously authentic Mexican tacos, and their website claims that a la carte tacos are $1.80 each. Perfect for my budget-conscious lunch. I've been meaning to get down here and what a good excuse.
When I arrive at the restaurant, tucked into a small strip mall on the south side of town, it's hopping with a line that keeps filling up so that it perpetually consists of at least five customers. The clientele is diverse: Spanish and English speakers, students settling in with textbooks and people popping in for a take-out lunch in the midst of a busy work day. There's a mom and daughter eating a leisurely lunch at the sidewalk tables and a gaggle of pastel-clad grandmas contemplating the menu boards.
To my dismay, the menu board has clearly been updated, and I note that tacos are now $2.00 a piece. It's only 20 cents more than anticipated, but it still stresses me out slightly.
When it's my turn at the counter, I order two tacos for $4.25. Loving that I can mix and match, I get one grilled chicken and one beef. I set up at the wall counter to wait and people watch. Not long after, the gentleman that took my order brings over my pollo and asada tacos — both come on double-stacked corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, lime and scallion. He brings me two salsa squeeze bottles: a red chili and a green tomatillo. The green doesn't have quite enough kick for me, so I stick to the red and liberally douse my tacos.
The tortillas are sturdy and don't fall apart as they are typically won't to do, and the meat and toppings have been newly and roughly chopped. All in all, my slight preference is for the asada, but the pollo is good too.
I'd love to try one of their freshly squeezed, mixed-fruit juices or the homemade watermelon popsicles in the grocery (and ice cream parlor) connected next door, but I don't risk it, still uncertain of my dinner moves.
On another diner's recommendation, next time the spicy pico de gallo salsa with corn chips is on the must-try list, along with the Mexican hot chocolate.
>>>Dollars remaining: $4.50
12:58 p.m. I'm really craving a sno ball (or sno-cone or shaved ice) at this point but I don't know of any stands around town, and whether or not they would even have a size available for $1 or less. I Google "Ann Arbor sno cones." Nothing. Darn. I keep my eyes peeled as I drive home in case I've missed one over my years here.
5:44 p.m. I head to William and State Streets by the University of Michigan Central Campus because where students go, cheap food options ought to be plentiful. Ruling out the obvious chains (which probably wouldn't fit my budget anyway at this point), I enter New York Pizza Depot (NYPD), which sells pizza by the slice.
I have had and enjoyed their New York style thin crust pizza in the past but haven't ever ordered it by the slice. For $2.35, I get a slice of cheese, but I'm intrigued by the specialty pies like baked ziti pizza. They also offer Chicago style pizza and 12 draught beers from Michigan and elsewhere.
Their pizza has a thin but chewy crust — a nostalgically reliable slice like you might actually get in New York for 99 cents.
The restaurant is pretty quiet since the majority of the students are off for the summer and it's still early in the sunny Michigan evening. As I walk out with my to-go order, the University of Michigan bell tower starts chiming out a melody even though it's not quite the top of the hour yet.
>>>Dollars remaining: $2.15 (Frankly it's pretty shocking. Perhaps I've been too rigid in my spending or lack thereof.)
On the way home, I pull into Kerrytown to hopefully add some sort of fruit or vegetable to this carb-heavy diet I've been on today. In the small but well-stocked Sparrow Market, I buy a nectarine for 68 cents. I'm still craving a popsicle, but no luck, all they have are ice cream bars.
Eager to spend the last little bit of change burning a hole in my pocket, I cross the market and enter Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, an Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti café chain. On a normal day, I might get a French Vietnamese Au Lait coffee concoction with condensed milk or Crème Caramel, which is an even more decadent version of a vanilla latte.
Instead, I opt for a small pistachio macaron for $1.48. After paying, I snatch it right off the plate and pop it in my mouth — dessert first is never a bad thing.
>>>Dollars remaining at the end of the day: -$0.01
So I overspent my budget by a penny. I'm okay with that. If I had to do it over again, I'm not sure I would've really changed much. I got to taste some delicious and crave-worthy food and try out two local favorites that I had never been to before. I may have tried to eat some vegetables to be healthier. Salads all day tomorrow.