Sidewalk Surfing 

Downtown dining on a budget

We all know there's no such thing as a free lunch, but is there an affordable one? Downtown workers and wanderers in the Springs can easily drop $10 to $15 for a fine lunchtime repast, but can one eat well for around $6? With that as a cut-off, we went in quest of cheap eats in downtown Colorado Springs.

What we found was filling if not inspiring. The Mediterranean Cafe topped the list for healthful, mostly vegetarian options. Downtown Dogs 'n Smoothies made the list for political wit as a side dish to your hot dog and curly fries. The Pita Pit came on board as the new kid on the block, and an assortment of sandwich places merit a mention.

The Pita Pit, a local franchise, opened a few weeks ago. It's a simple concept we've seen elsewhere: individualize your sandwich -- in this case an overstuffed pita pocket -- with different toppings and sauces. The base ingredient -- grilled chicken, teriyaki chicken, thinly sliced Philly-style beef -- is cooked to order. The fresh toppings include lettuce, tomato, mushrooms, sprouts, bell peppers, hot peppers, three different cheeses, cucumbers and black olives. You can pack a lot of topping into the Frisbee-sized pita breads. Finish with a drizzle of sauce -- Tzatziki, anyone? Barbecue sauce? Caesar? Or perhaps the Secret Sauce -- and you've got more than a meal for around $5.

If pita bread's not your bread of choice, head to the Brooklyn Bagel Cafe. They make the bagels on the premises (kids of all ages can watch the process), and they build some interesting sandwiches with them. The East River, for example, combines roasted chicken, lettuce (whole leaf, not shredded), tomato, cucumber, a smear of cream cheese and enough black olive tapenade to give the sandwich an exotic flavor. The Garden Veggie gets its zing from sun-dried tomato spread and herbed cream cheese. All sandwiches are priced below $5. Salads, soups (several different kinds daily) and quiche round out the menu. Be forewarned: Some sandwiches, like a Reuben, are not meant to be made on a bagel, and most sandwiches on bagels tend to be two-handed messy affairs. Pricing and location make Brooklyn Bagel popular with Palmer students so finding a table during their brief lunch break can be difficult. Time your visit at noon or later.

There was a time in the last century when luncheonettes prevailed, little homey places with counter seats and a few tables. We have one tucked away in downtown, proudly maintaining its '50s style and feel. If you can't go home to Mom's for lunch, go to the Cottage on Kiowa. Choices are limited: whole wheat bread or croissant; chicken, tuna, ham and Swiss, BLT. Where else but here (and home) can you get a grilled cheese or an egg salad sandwich? Where else but here would you want to have a glass of milk with lunch? A half sandwich and cup of homemade soup can be had for under $6; most sandwiches are under $5. The chicken salad made with apples and walnuts on whole wheat bread is a particular favorite; at $5.29, you can afford to eat it often. Homemade desserts like cookies, brownies, date bars and fruit tarts add a little to your total bill but they're worth it.

If price were the only factor, we would not be able to include Broadway Deli where sandwich prices range from $6 to $9. If we calculated price per ounce, however, they're the cheapest eats in downtown. If you can agree on a sandwich, split one of the Skyscraper specials with a friend. You'll each spend under $5 and walk away stuffed. Two highly recommended sandwiches are the Broadway Reuben (try it the traditional way with corned beef & sauerkraut, or a variation with pastrami and cole slaw) and the Bronx Cheer, hot turkey, avocado and Swiss on grilled sourdough bread. Call me; I'll split either with you, anytime.

At lunchtime the Mediterranean Cafe offers Middle Eastern fast food like gyros and falafel at street vendor prices -- all under $5. Fresh salads like tabbouleh, vegetable salads and baba ghanouj can accompany a sandwich or be a sampler meal by themselves. Most dishes are nicely spiced though some palates might find them garlicky.

Sometimes, though, even hummus might seem too exotic when all you want is a hot dog. Those are the times to head to Downtown Dogs, a small storefront decorated with political placards and irreverent signs (life-size cutouts of Bill and Hillary Clinton announcing ... well, you'll have to see it for yourself). The irreverence is bipartisan; no one escapes. Would you like a Lethal Injection Chili Dog ("a favorite of the District Attorney's Office") or an Al Gore ("regular hot dog, plain and boring")? Talk local politics with owner Ken Ball and get the best deal downtown: a hot dog, large side of fries and a soda for $4.50. Tofu dogs are available as are non-doggies like the "Bin Laden's a Chicken" Basket.


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