Al pastor tacos and a cheese quesadilla from El Charrito in San Carlos.

Lunch on the Peninsula can sometimes feel like a negotiation in which you hold no leverage. You’re pressed for time, looking for parking near downtown and when you find it you’re often treated to the kind of meal that prompts a discussion about how high the rents must be. Well, cheap, good food does exist in Silicon Valley and we set out to find it. Most, but not all, of our finds are tucked into alleyways, hidden in strip malls and otherwise escaping the attention of the hungry office worker hordes.

We skipped fast food chains and looked for the local shops offering tasty dishes that would fill us up for cheap. From tacos to banh mi to dim sum, here’s a look into the best lunch deals on the Peninsula:

Two pastelitos con carne from Zipotes Restaurant ($4.50) — Redwood City

Zipotes is a neighborhood Salvadorian joint off the beaten path in south Redwood City. Crowded with construction workers in the front and older women working the kitchen when we stopped in, it’s worth the detour for the pastelitos: Deep fried corn meal filled with with meat, potatoes, carrots, green beans and onions. We ordered the con carne but received the pollo instead. It was a welcome mix-up (and at $4.50, a cheap one) with the filling reminiscent of savory chicken pot pies. The pastelitos are on the antojitos (snack) menu but two of these along with complimentary cortido (Salvadorian slaw) was plenty for a midday meal. // 828 5th Ave, Redwood City // Mon-Thurs 6:30am-7:30pm, Fri 6:30am-8pm, Sat 7:30am-8pm, Sun 8am-7pm //

BBQ chicken sandwich from Phil’s Kitchen ($4.99) — Menlo Park

Best known for their Chinese and Hawaiian BBQ plates, Phil’s is tucked away in downtown Menlo Park and offers plenty of sandwiches under $5 — spam and egg, Portuguese sausage and egg, BBQ chicken, BBQ beef and fried shrimp. We went for the BBQ chicken — thin, tender strips of chicken with mayo and iceberg lettuce on a sesame seed hamburger bun. Basic on the outside, take one bite and this juicy sandwich will be dripping with flavor (and grease). Don’t forget, Phil’s is cash only.

// 625 Oak Grove Ave Unit B, Menlo Park // Mon-Sat 10am-9pm //

Pork banh mi from May’s Vietnamese ($4.95) — Redwood City

Banh mi’s are often on the less expensive side but we’ve never encountered a larger version of this Vietnamese sando than at May’s, an unpretentious spot in downtown Redwood City. Fluffy French bread holds this generous portion of pork, pickled carrots, cucumbers and cilantro. The service at May’s is speedy but it’s still a sit down restaurant. If you’re looking for a quick lunch option, order the banh mi to-go.

// 2088 Broadway St, Redwood City // Open everyday, 10am-9pm //

Shrimp dumplings and two large BBQ pork buns ($5) from Cho’s Mandarin Dim Sum — Los Altos

A one-man, cash-only, no-frills shop somehow surviving in the center of pricey Los Altos (some history here), Cho’s Mandarin will fill you up on the cheap. We snagged two large BBQ pork buns ($1.25 each) that were bigger than expected and fulfilled our dim sum cravings. The shrimp dumplings ($2.50 for three) caught us off guard with pungent, dehydrated shrimp inside. Next time, we’ll probably go for the pork or chicken. Cho’s also offers chow mein and hot and sour soup, both for $5.

// 209 1st St, Los Altos // Open everyday, 11:30am-6pm //

Two chicken tamales from Kabobs and Pupuseria ($5) — Mountain View

Pupusas and kabobs living together in harmony? Deal with it. Wrapped in plantain leaves, the chicken tamales from Kabobs and Pupuseria ($2.50 each) don’t come dry like some tamales we’ve tasted in some spots. The generous filling of chicken, potato, and green chili are tasty compliment to the steamed corn-meal on top. Add some fresh salsa and you’ll be in tamale heaven in no time. // 1910 W El Camino Real Ste D, Mountain View // Open everyday, 11am-9pm //

Two al pastor tacos and one cheese quesadilla ($5) from El Charrito — San Carlos

A neighborhood taqueria on the corner of Holly and El Camino in San Carlos, El Charrito serves up the classics (burritos, tortas, nachos) at very affordable prices. Tacos are $1.75 with an array of options from carne asada to cabeza (beef head). We went with al pastor and were not disappointed by the flavors, especially with the fresh onions, cilantro and lime on top. We threw in a cheese quesadilla ($1.50) to round out our lunch and still came in right at our $5 mark. Score. // 1100 Holly St, San Carlos // Mon-Sat 8am-10pm, Sun 8am-9pm //

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Nick Bastone

Editor of Is America Great?, Some things I learned at Square, and Cool Young Kids

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