Trapped for cash and looking for a place to eat off-campus? As the school year begins, Charlotte welcomes more than 30,000 post-secondary students to campuses across the city. Here's a roundup of some inexpensive local eateries.
• In the realm of cheap eateries, Price's Chicken Coop (1614 Camden Road, a short walk from a Lynx Blue Line stop) is as distinctive as it is delicious, peddling Charlotte's best-known food specialty: fried chicken. Yet Price's remains equally inspired by other Southern delicacies, like hush puppies, cole slaw and fried chicken livers. A quarter chicken dinner ($6.50 dark or $7.15 white) is accompanied by tater tots, slaw, hush puppies and a roll. You can get a burger ($2.05), too, or a fried fish dinner, but generations of Charlotteans go for their nationally renowned chicken. Price's is a takeout, cash-only place, with a fast-moving line. (Closed Sunday and Monday.)
• If you are not from the Carolinas, Cook-Out (various locations), a drive-in fast food chain, might be new to you, but this is the most popular college hangout across North Carolina after 1 a.m. Everyone who just left that party will be there. Why? Five bucks will get you a three-item tray and a drink. Burgers come in four sizes: the largest is the half-pounder. Plus, Cook-Out serves Cheerwine (that's a soft drink from nearby Salisbury) floats and the ubiquitous Carolina burger: a beef patty slathered with chili, slaw, mustard and onions. In addition to the head-scratchingly low prices, Cook-Out is known for its hand-made shakes, including banana pudding, peach cobbler and seasonally-offered watermelon and eggnog.
• You will find fried pickles and other comfort foods at The Diamond Restaurant (1901 Commonwealth Ave.), an iconic spot in Plaza Midwood that began life almost 70 years ago as a Greek diner, hence the gyros on the menu. One dish worthy of note is the Midwood Challenge: an enormous sandwich encompassing 2 pounds of cold cuts, three types of cheese and condiments on a huge bun. The sandwich costs $15.95, but if you finish it all, you get a free Diamond T-shirt. Also on the starter list are its signature pig wings, deep-fried pork shanks, and, of course, the ubiquitous Southern fried chicken. Not all is fried, though. Vegetarian items include a meatless "meatloaf" with soy milk mashed potatoes.
• Beyond fried chicken and burgers, Charlotte offers some ridiculously inexpensive Latino dishes. Sundays are busier than other days at both locations of Lupita's Tortilleria y Carniceria (one shop is near UNC Charlotte, 5210 N. Tryon St., and the other is in south Charlotte, 5316 South Blvd.). Corn tortillas are made in-house, and you buy these by the pound, or about 14 or 15 warm tortillas for a buck. The taco filler is sold by the pound, too: barbecued beef, roasted chicken in adobo sauce and roasted pork with or without the skin. Near the front cashier are plastic cups of chipotle, pico de gallo, tomatillo, picante, quartered limes and whole avocados. When all is paid for, some tacos can cost as little as $.25 each.
• The city's large Salvadoran community has brought their popular street food to numerous locations throughout Charlotte, but Central Avenue in east Charlotte has a high concentration of these restaurants. A favorite of these is the inexpensive El Pulgarcito de America (4816 Central Ave.). The best deal at these places are the pupusas — thick corn tortillas filled with oozing cheese, beans, pork, or loroco, a pungent tropical flower bud. Typically, pupusas cost less than two bucks and have all the comfort of a grilled cheese sandwich. Served with them are curtido, a coarsely shredded cabbage and carrot slaw and salsa roja, a mild cooked tomato sauce with cilantro, garlic and chilies. Pupusas are so prevalent here that many other Central American and Mexican restaurants have them on the menu.