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Friday, July 29, 2011

A Bay Area Cheap Eats and Secret Menu Food Adventure

This month Carl and I decided our food adventure would be to visit our favorite, least expensive places to eat. We decided to share where we go when we want something that's not necessarily healthy or particularly fancy but is a great deal in the neighborhood of $5.

Last month's food tour in Palo Alto was our most expensive to date so we were both ready to economize a bit in July. LOL

We also liked the idea of choosing some chain restaurants also available outside the Bay Area so that some of you might be able to check them out where you live or maybe when you're traveling.

You can read Carl's recap "July Food Adventure: All About Cheap Eats & Secret Menus" by CLICKING HERE

Currently 266 Locations in Arizona, California, Nevada Texas and Utah

We set out bright and early at 10:30 AM heading to the In-N-Out burger in Sunnyvale, CA.

The menu is shockingly small to first timers. But if you live in a city with an In-N-Out chances are you're well aware the menu is larger than this. . . Much larger. Maybe you've heard of it before? By "it" I mean the infamous In-N-Out Secret Menu.

Carl had the brilliant idea to pose for this picture. I Photoshopped the sign to ham it up.

I discovered the secret menu by accident. Three times. LOL.

The first time was back in the mid-90's. I had already stopped eating beef and was in the habit of going to fast food places like Burger King and McDonalds and ordering Whoppers and Big Macs with no meat.

My Favorite: The Grilled Cheese with Raw Onions ($2.10)

So I figured it wouldn't be a problem to order a meatless cheeseburger at In-N-Out. When I placed my order for a meatless cheeseburger the cashier said "Oh you want a Grilled Cheese!"

It's a nice soft bun with two slices of melted American cheese, lettuce, tomato slices, In-N-Out's spread (very similar to Thousand Island dressing) and your choice of grilled onions, fresh onions or no onions. I get the fresh onions.

Messy Animal Style Fries ($3.30)

Then one day I was on the phone talking to my friend Christina when she asked me to hold on because she needed to place a to go order at an In-N-Out drive thru window. I heard her order something "Animal Style" so I hopped on Google and did a quick search which led me to web pages talking about the In-N-Out secret menu. WOW. I had no idea!

My favorite drink: The Lemon-Up ($1.50)

My third accidental discovery was when I ordered my standard drink at the drive thru window. When I go inside and order a "meal" I'll fill my cup 50/50 with lemonade and 7-up. It's kind of a poor man's French lemonade. When I'd go through the drive-thru I'd just get lemonade because I didn't want to be a bother. One day I wanted the 50/50 mix so bad I asked for it at the drive-thru. "Oh, you want a Lemon-up" the cashier cheerily said. Bingo. Another secret menu item!

There are many versions of the secret menu on the internet but none seem complete so I've compiled several of them and link back to each one at the end. Note not every item is guaranteed to be available at every restaurant but I think it's safe to say most are.

The Most Complete In-N-Out Burger Secret Menu:

Secret Burgers:

  • 2x4 - The first number denotes the number of beef patties, the second the number of slices of cheese. That makes a 2x4 two beef patties and four slices of cheese
  • 3x3 - Three beef patties, three American cheese slices, lettuce, tomato, spread, onions (grilled or fresh) optional, on a freshly baked bun
  • 3 by Meat - Three beef patties no cheese
  • 4x4 - Four beef patties, four American cheese slices, lettuce, tomato, spread, onions (grilled or fresh) optional, on a freshly baked bun (This is the largest burger they will make. There is no 5x5 or 6x6 due to maintaining quality control.)
  • Double Meat - Two beef patties, lettuce, tomato spread, onions (grilled or fresh) optional, on a freshly baked bun
  • Flying Dutchman - Two slices of American cheese melted between two beef patties. No bun. Other toppings like lettuce, tomato, onion can be requested
  • Grilled Cheese - Two slices of melted American cheese, lettuce, tomato, spread, onions (grilled or fresh) optional on a freshly baked bun
  • Plain - Beef Patty with no toppings
  • Protein Style - Popular with people on the Atkins diet, this burger replaces the freshly baked bun with lettuce leaves
  • Wish Burger (aka Veggie Burger) - Is a produce burger with no meat or cheese on a freshly baked bun

Secret Burger Customization:

  • Animal Style - Any burger with lettuce, tomato, mustard grilled beef patty, extra pickles, extra spread and grilled chopped onions
  • Buns - Default is toasted but you can request them extra toasted, lightly toasted or untoasted 
  • Chopped Chilies - Cascabel (hot) chilies chopped and added to the bottom of the burger
  • Cold Cheese - Unmelted slices added to your burger
  • Cut in Half -  Each half is wrapped in a separate paper wrapper. Great for kids splitting burgers
  • Dump Truck - The scrapings from the grill
  • Extra Everything - Extra tomato, lettuce, onions and spread 
  • Medium Rare - Medium Well Done is standard but you can customize the "doneness" of your patty
  • Mustard Grilled Patties - As your beef patty grills the other side is spread with mustard before grilling so when it's flipped over the mustard cooks right onto the burger
  • No Salt - No salt added to beef patties
  • Onions - Raw rounds, grilled rounds or grilled chopped onions caramelized in the meat juice from the griddle

Secret Fries:

  • Animal Style - Grilled onions, two slices of melted American cheese topped with spread. (Must be eaten with a fork)
  • Cheese - Fries topped with 2 slices melted American cheese
  • Chopped Chili Cheese - Chopped Cascabel chilies with melted American cheese slices
  • Lemon - Go find the container of lemon wedges near the ice tea machine and squeeze some fresh lemon over your fries
  • Lemon Pepper - Same as above but add pepper
  • Lite (aka Light) - Cooked less than standard fries
  • Light-Well Done - Fried more than standard fries but less than Well Done
  • Mustard and Ketchup - Their "spread" is the default condiment but you can ask for mustard and/or ketchup instead
  • Salt Free - No salt added
  • Scooby Snack - A beef patty (usually chopped) on top of an order of fries. The site I read about it on warned "This may not be available at all locations"
  • Scooby Snack - (Improvised) If the cashier doesn't know what a Scooby Snack is ask for a flying dutchman chopped and fries. (Thanks Richard W.)
  • Well Done - Extra crispy

Secret Drinks:

  • Tea-Ade (aka a Arnold Palmer) - Lemonade and Iced Tea Combo
  • Black and White Shake - Chocolate and Vanilla
  • Creative Lemon (aka Homeless Lemonade) - Cup of free water, take some lemons from near the ice tea machine add and mix in a couple packages of sugar
  • Extra Shake Syrup - As per Wikipedia not all employees know how to do this but if you can find one who does you can get extra chocolate or strawberry syrup in your shake
  • Half and Half Shake - Combine any two flavors of chocolate, strawberry or vanilla
  • Lemon-Up - Half lemonade, half 7-up
  • Neapolitan Shake - A combination of all three shake flavors: chocolate, strawberry and vanilla
  • Root Beer Float - Vanilla shake and half root beer
  • X-Large and Large Shakes - Utilizes the larger sized drink cups over the standard sized shake cup which means the large shake uses a medium drink cup and an X-large shake uses a large sized drink cup

Secret Extras:

  • In-N-Out Hat - Just ask for a paper, one size fits all, In-N-Out hat
  • Pre-packaged Spread - Their Thousand Island syle burger spread in a to go package
  • Pre-packaged Cascabel Chilies - Small, hot, yellow/green colored, pickled chilies to spice up any dish packaged in cellophane like a to go fortune cookie
  • Side Salad - Order extra lettuce, tomatoes and onions on the side. They'll come in a sandwich wrapper. Add a side of the pre-packaged spread and you have an instant side salad with Thousand Island dressing.
  • Stickers - Two styles available one with their classic palm trees and the other with a view of an In-N-Out parking lot

Secret Menu Sources:

While I did some of my secret menu research on my iphone Carl gave up on me and decided to try planking in the restaurant. His is almost as bad as my hubby's first attempt that I blogged about last week.

The Cheese Steak Shop has 27 Locations in Northern, CA

Next we headed over to the Sunnyvale location of the Cheese Steak Shop.

I love this place. LOVE it!

Their rolls are really soft like light, little clouds of bread and they taste good too! They're shipped in from Philadelphia's famous Amoroso's Bakery. I don't think you can make bread like this in California (it's something in the water).

Sandwiches come in 7", 10" and 15" lengths. 

Walk in and you'll spot the menu on the wall and a small indoor seating area. There's a couple of tables outside but it seems like most people come in and pick up their orders to go.

We started chatting with a couple of guys at the table next to ours when they saw us taking photos of our package of Tastykakes. Turns out Mike is from PA so he knows exactly what a Philly Cheese Steak should taste like. He's a regular and said these are the best he's had in California and that they're a "good value."

Before I became a vegetarian I used to order the "Chicken Hoagie" ($4.99 for the 7") which is chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo and melted provolone cheese. Additional options (at no charge) for any sandwich are sweet and/or hot pickled peppers and grilled onions.

For vegetarians there are two menu options. Up top is the "Original Vegetarian Sandwich" ($4.29 for the 7")  filled with spinach, mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, mayo, mustard, grilled onions, hot and/or sweet peppers.

 Below is the "Zesty Veggie Sandwich" ($4.29 for the 7") Roasted Chili peppers, cheese, mushrooms, whole roasted cloves of garlic, tomatoes and your choice to add grilled onions, hot and/or sweet peppers.

The thing is, I don't care for either of them. I don't like mushrooms, and even though I really like fresh spinach I don't care for it grilled. And I'm just not a fan of the peppers.

So I have my own "secret menu" item at the Cheese Steak Shop. It sounds kind of weird but I swear it's really delicious! I order a "Grilled Lettuce Hoagie" ($4.29 for the 7") which is lettuce grilled so there's something to melt the provolone cheese on, salt and pepper, tomatoes and mayo. I LOVE THIS SANDWICH! There's seriously no other like it. I think I like it even more than I did with the chicken :D

My hubby thinks I'm absolutely weird (and Mike who we met that day probably will too after he reads this) but I don't care :)

Tastykakes Butterscotch Krimpets ($2.19)

Also imported from Philly along with the buns are the pickled peppers for the sandwiches and these little gems, that's right, I think the Cheese Steak Shop may be the only place in the Bay Area that sells Tastykakes!

I only knew about them because I have friends who live back east. They are an east coast classic I suspect many of us west coast folks have never heard of before. They carry several flavors in a display case right up at the counter.

So if you need a Philly fix this is the place to hit. From their imported from Philly rolls, peppers and Tastykakes, they're the real deal.

A recent new favorite for healthful, affordable, fast food is The Pita Pit. 

At The Pita Pit their Lebanese-style pitas are made to order and filled with lean, grilled meats, unique flavorful cheese, a larger selection of fresh veggies and a multitude of sauces to chose from. They also invented their own special way to fold and roll their soft, thin pitas so that the wrap is never too thick and doesn't open up while you're eating.

The Downtown San Jose Location

There are close to 240 restaurants in AL, AZ, CA, CO, FL, GA, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MI, MN, MT, NC, NH, NM, ND, NV, NY, OH, OK, OR, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, Washington DC, WI, WV, WY - Click to View Map

19 Locations in Alberta, Canada - Click to View

So far the Hummus Pita ($4.99) on wheat with cucumbers, spinach and Tzatziki sauce is my favorite.

Here's how it works at The Pita Pit. You walk up to the counter and place your order then go to the side to let them know exactly what fillings, sauces and cheese you want.

Carl loves a breakfast pita called the Morning Glory ($5.79) filled with scrambled eggs, avocados (where available), sautéed tomatoes, hash browns, grilled green peppers & onions and your choice of cheese and sauces. I tried it. It's really good too!

One tip if you're in a hurry: Because the San Jose location is downtown try to avoid the noon lunch rush. The day we were there a to go order had come in for what Carl said looked like 30 pitas for one of the downtown office buildings. The employees were working as fast as they could but you can imagine an order of 30 would slow things down a bit.

Walk up and place your order.

Imagine it's dark out. You're tired. You're hungry. You may be a little drunk. You're driving through the darkness (unless you're drunk, then a sober friend is driving) and the bright yellow (facing north) faded yellow (facing south) Taco Bravo sign glows in the night like a beacon, drawing you in like a moth to a flame for some hot, good during the day, blow your mind fantastic after dark and a few drinks, affordable Mexican food.

Yes, we went to Taco Bravo, the epitome of "cheap eats" located on Bascom Avenue.

When the bars and dance clubs close this is the place to chow down. Which explains their unofficial nickname of "drunk food" to describe when (er, why?) you'll find people scarfing down tacos ($1.49 - $5.59), burritos ($1.69 - $4.14), toastadas ($1.49 - $5.89) and nachos ($1.45 - $5.89) from 2:00 to 3:00 AM.

As a professional wedding DJ, Carl often doesn't head home until somewhere after midnight so Taco Bravo has always been the perfect spot to grab a quick, late night bite.

There's both outdoor and indoor seating. Neither is glamorous but really, it shouldn't be. Fancy would be all wrong.

A Super Burrito (vegetarian) with Red Sauce ($4.09)

The fare is pretty pedestrian. Carl swears it tastes best after 2:00 AM. I don't know, I thought the Super Burrito with red sauce we had tasted pretty good and it was only 3:00 in the afternoon.

We took a break and briefly met up with our friend Ron Grandia who suggests to always get plenty of extra sauce to drench whatever you're eating with and he told us about the Taco Bravo secret menu! Carl didn't even know about it and he's been eating there for years!

If you go after 10:00 pm you can order two oversized and overstuffed burrito options:

The Boneyard: A two-tortilla-long burrito with your choice of filling for $8

The Kamikaze: An overstuffed, three-tortilla-long burrito filled with anything and everything the night staff feels like putting in it for $10

I was tempted to go back and order a Kamikaze just to photograph for this post but then I'd have nobody to feed it to. Hubby won't eat anything that "interesting" and I'm guessing they toss in all kinds of meat so I wouldn't eat it either.

Mitsuwa Market currently has 8 locations in CA, IL and NJ.

To wrap up our day we headed to my favorite and cheapest of cheap eats meals. A Japanese grocery store on Saratoga Ave near HWY 280 called Mitsuwa Market. They offer a type of rice ball called "Omusubi" (aka onigiri) which is a handful of lightly salted rice, usually shaped into a triangle and filled or topped with some type of meat or vegetable.

When I have over $5 cash on hand I might choose something from the to go deli selection. But if I only have $3 you can bet I'm heading to those Omusubi baskets for the Shio Konbu rice ball. Translations are "shio" means salt and "konbu" is a type of kelp seaweed pronounced cone-boo.

Can you see the price? They're only $1.39 each and one or two are enough for a meal.

While not particularly eco-friendly I love the packaging. See how the wrapper says "1 Pull" at the top and "2" and "3" along the bottom corners?

It's because if they wrap the nori seaweed directly onto the rice it will get soggy. . . So they use a two piece, split, plastic wrapper to keep the nori separated from the rice.

You unwrap it then wrap the rice into the crisp, toasted sheet of nori.

OK, it's not pretty but it tastes great! Come to think of it I'm probably wrapping it all wrong but that's ok. I don't mind the messy look.

The pickled konbu seaweed is inside the rice ball. Unlike sushi rice which is seasoned with vinegar, omosubi rice is either plain or lightly salted. The konbu is savory, tasty and I love, love, love it. Sometimes I buy just a package of the seaweed at Mitsuwa and make my own organic brown rice nigiri at home. It's a perfect snack food or sometimes I make it larger turning it into a shio konbu breakfast burrito wrapped in seaweed.

And that was the end of our July Food Adventure. As always we were full and tired and I needed a nap. I hope reading along was fun and informative and if you haven't already been to these restaurants, I hope you'll be able to try some of them where you live or when you go on vacation. You'll have to come to San Jose to try Taco Bravo. If you do and you order a Kamikaze be sure to take a picture of it and send it to me so I can show what one looks like in this post :D

In-N-Out Burger
604 E El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA 94087
Click Here for the Nationwide Restaurant Locater

Cheese Steak Shop
832 W. El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA
View more locations on their Website

The Pita Pit
151 South Second St.
San Jose, CA 95113
Click Here to View More US Locations and HERE for locations in Canada

Taco Bravo
1950 S Bascom Ave
Campbell, CA 95009
Yelp Reviews for the Campbell and San Jose Locations

Mitsuwa Market
675 Saratoga Avenue
San Jose, CA 95129
Click Here for More Locations

If you enjoyed this food adventure post you'll probably like these too:

• A Palo Alto, Epicurean Food Tour

• Our May, East Bay, Berkeley and Oakland Food Adventure

• Meet the Kids on The Harley Farms Goat Dairy Tour

• Beyond Sushi: A South Bay Japanese Food Adventure

• Beyond the Beach: A Santa Cruz Food Adventure

• Gourmet Meat Street Food & Vegetarian Food Truck Favorites

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