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Tighten Up

How to eat out on $30 a day.

Mission: Visit three neighborhoods in Orange County and find quality meals in charming establishments for under $30 per day.

By Gaby Sunheart
Photos by: Ana Cavanaugh 

DAY 1: Santa Ana & Costa Mesa

Breakfast – Gypsy Den

125 N Broadway | Santa Ana, CA 92701
(714) 835-8840 |

The Lab in Costa Mesa is the first stop on my minibudget mission. I have $30 in my pocket and a plan in my head. I have done some research and on the first day of my mission, I am abiding by the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” axiom, so I start at Gypsy Den. I park next to a stack of artfully rusted metal drums repurposed as a quirky water feature and make my way towards the restaurant. My thrifty food journey has begun. I could not have felt more at home as I walked into Gypsy Den. Maybe it was the coffee mug they served me, which was painted with ginormous rainbow and declared “You’re the greatest Dad, ” or maybe it was my native Portlandia sixth sense that adored the mis-matched furniture, antique tables and hippy vibe. I ordered The Combo breakfast plate and a cup of their house coffee, which they source from a local organic roaster (Wilson Coffee Roasters). My breakfast arrived – two scrambled eggs, a 10-grain blueberry pancake and red potatoes. The eggs were really fluffy and satisfying, and the potatoes weren’t treated like the obligatory side dish – they were perfectly cooked and well seasoned. The pancake was served up with real maple syrup and silky Greek yogurt. I had never thought of choosing yogurt as pancake topping, but I was now obsessed. What a great way to start Day One. Gypsy Den served me filling meal in a great environment, and I had barely busted my first Hamilton.

Lunch – Thasos Greek Island Grille

3940 S Bristol St | Ste 113 | Santa Ana, CA 92704
(714) 708-3000 |

I am still satiated from this morning’s breakfast, but lunch has arrived, so I punch in the address of the next destination on my GPS, which is navigating us towards a shopping center near South Coast Plaza. I have driven past this corner so many times, but have never ventured in until now. Thasos Greek Island Grille is nicely decorated and smells wonderful. I ordered The “Thasos Bundle Lunch Feast, ” which encompassed all of my favorites. Falafel for my main dish, served in a warm soft pita, salad and hummus. The service is fast and the food is yummy. I can’t believe that five minutes later I have devoured the entire plate after the breakfast I had. The falafel is crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside and seasoned well. The pita is warm and perfectly chewy and made even more delicious when topped with their garlic hummus. The salad is really fresh and topped with tomatoes, cucumbers and Kalamata olives. Check lunch off the list.

Dinner – Memphis at the Santora

201 N Broadway | Santa Ana, CA 92701
(714) 564-1064 |

After eating two meals that hit the spot, my stomach needed a break. I decided to head to downtown Santa Ana for a light meal and drink during happy hour. I needed to let my mind and stomach relax. Santa Ana is re-emerging into becoming the cultural hub of Orange County that it once was. Theatres, clubs and restaurants are all pushing boundaries and attracting the hippest crowds. There are a dozen great restaurants within walking distance of where I parked, but I picked Memphis at the Santora. With only $10 of my budget left to spend, I picked out the goat cheese and beet salad for $5 and one of their amazing premium $6 happy hour drink specials. The salad is simple and not overly complicated with a pile of fresh young arugula, a generous portion of tangy and creamy goat cheese and beautifully roasted beets tossed in a really light vinaigrette and sprinkled with hazel nuts. My drink the “Vodka Daisy” was made with Ketel One vodka, orange Curacao, fresh lemon juice, house-made grenadine and was the perfect complement to the salad and end to my day. I did splurge on the drink by a dollar, but the Vodka Daisy sounded so much better than a Greyhound.

Gypsy Den
The Combo breakfast plate:
$8.62 and a cup of their house coffee: $1.89
Thasos Greek Island Grille
Thasos Bundle Lunch Feast:
MEMPHIS at the Santora
Beet Salad: $5; Happy Hour
Mixed Drink: $6
TOTAL: $30.94

Day 2 Newport Beach & Peninsula

Breakfast – My Galley

500 W. Balboa Blvd. | Newport Beach, CA 92661
(949) 375-4355 |

If you have ever raced to the Wedge to watch the waves pummel body surfers, or taken the fairy to the Funzone from Balboa, there is a good chance you have driven past My Galley. It is located just across the street from The Balboa Public Library and within walking distance of the boardwalk and the harbor. This establishment has become a fixture for locals. I notice that two of the people in line in front of me know the staff by name, and the third doesn’t even need to communicate her order since the girl behind the counter already knows exactly what her regular customer wants. They mix great food with great service and greet the regulars like family. I order a Breakfast Burrito and a Spiced Chai Latte and take a seat on the patio to enjoy the weather and people watching. After seeing two bagels served piled high with avocado, cream cheese and tomatoes, I second guess myself, but don’t change my order. The burrito is out several minutes later, tastes homemade and is very filling. The Chai Latte is hot and yummy. What a great way to start Day Two.

Lunch – Woody’s Wharf Newport Beach

2318 Newport Blvd. | Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 675-0474 |

“Let’s keep lunch simple” was my motto today. Woody’s is popular locally for two things: their late night singles scene and their Champagne Sunday brunch. This was my first time stopping in for lunch, and I was pleasantly surprised. I decided to sit on the patio to take in some sun and gorgeous views of the harbor. I ordered a glass of water and a bowl of clam chowder ($5). After going over my budget yesterday, I was determined to keep it in check today. This was one of the first times in a restaurant that I realized I would rather the food take just a little bit longer to come out. The day was gorgeous, the clam chowder hit the mark, and I was way under budget.

Dinner – il FARRO

111 21st Pl. | Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 723-5711 |

I had such a small lunch that I was hungry long before the dinner bell sounded on night two. I headed back down to the peninsula and squeaked through the door just before il FARRO’s Happy Hour ended (5pm). Il FARRO is wedged between bars, donut shops and surf stores, but as you enter, you are transported to Little Italy. I had to order quickly to take advantage of the specials, and I landed on the Pizza Margherita for only $5.99! It was delicious. A wonderful whole-wheat crust topped with their homemade sauce, a velvety mozzarella cheese and a few basil leaves. Il FARRO was the perfect way to end Day Two with money in my pocket.

My Galley
Breakfast Burrito (AKA hangover cure): $6.25;
House coffee: $1.75
Bowl of chowder: $4.95
Il Farro
Pizza Margherita: $5.99
TOTAL: $18.94

DAY 3: San Clemente

Breakfast – The Bagel Shack

777 S. El Camino Real | San Clemente, CA 92672
(949) 388-0745 |

Day Three has me heading South. San Clemente always feels like a vacation to me. It is so laid back that it is often hard to believe you are still in Orange County. I decided to stay with a hyper local favorite for breakfast. The Bagel Shack is definitely a high-five establishment. Everyone knows everyone. The Bagel Shack’s breakfast bagel, rightfully named “Churches” after a local surf spot, boasts a generous schmeer of cream cheese, buttery slices of fresh avocado and sweet tomato sprinkled with lemon pepper. A lot of cafes have a version of this, but The Bagel Shack’s fresh cheddar bagel is absolutely insane – crispy, cheddary goodness on the outside, fluffy fresh bagel on the inside. My bagel sandwich paired perfectly with their real fruit Aloha Berry smoothie, which is sweet and refreshing. And together they came in at under $10!

Lunch – Board N Brew

979 Avenida Pico | San Clemente, CA 92673
(949) 498-2739 |

Board and Brew definitely screams surfer vibe. It’s clean, airy and super relaxed. Amused by the little “socks” on the beer bottle taps, I take a seat at the bar and order one of their combo deals, which consists of a half vegetarian sandwich and a bowl of their home-made cheddar broccoli soup. The sandwich was served on fresh squaw bread and loaded with veggies. It was delicious. The soup’s flavors were perfectly developed and really satisfying. Sometimes there is nothing better than a great sandwich and a nice bowl of hot soup, and Board N Brew nailed it for well under $10. If you like to support your mom and pop restaurants and you want a deal, this is the spot!

Dinner – Cafe Mimosa

243 Avenida del Mar | San Clemente, CA 92672
(949) 481-6780 |

The atmosphere at Café Mimosa is what I would call homey Mediterranean. Its cozy and chic surroundings had me concerned that I may not be able to afford the offerings, but I spotted a Caesar salad for $11, and after coming in under budget for breakfast and lunch, I decided to splurge. Café Mimosa’s version of the Caesar salad was unique. The dressing was not heavy or too creamy. The mound of romaine was topped with delicate, crunchy and well-seasoned homemade croutons, and my favorite: fried capers. The portion was big enough that it made for a very satisfying dinner. I leave Day Three under budget and decide to take a walk on the pier to celebrate. I wonder if I have enough left over from the expedition for a “Cotton?”

The Bagel Shack 
The Churches Breakfast
Bagel: $5.30; Aloha Berry
Smoothie: $4.35
Board and Brew
Soup and half sandwich
combo: $7.54
Cafe Mimosa:
Caesar Salad: $11.00
TOTAL: $28.19
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