You can still eat on the cheap in this city, from a mound of noodles to a chicken sando. And before all the angry emails, I will defend the $4 taco now. That birria taco, bursting at the seams with meat and cheese, is more filling than any other street taco you can get. Two birria tacos will fill you up more than a double cheeseburger or a slice of New York-style pizza.
The $7.99 XO stir-fried rice roll at Harbor City
707 S. King St., Seattle; 206-621-2228; harborcityseattle.com
In the dim sum scene, Harbor City Restaurant has become everyone’s contingency plan when you can’t get into Jade Garden, the popular kid on the block. You know what? Harbor City deserves to stand on its own merit. Its XO rice roll is one of the best dishes in the Chinatown International District. The noodles serve as a white canvas for the wok. The magic happens when the noodles sizzle on the surface of a high-Btu wok. These squishy rolls get caramelized in soy sauce, and the dried shellfish from the XO sauce adheres to the surface to form this sticky rich, umami glaze. The smoky taste comes from the wok hei. In Asian street markets, a toothpick or a bamboo skewer is the utensil of choice to eat these nuggets while you stroll. Come to think of it, that’s the best way to eat these rice rolls here as well.
The $6.50 fried chicken skins at Hangry Panda
7815 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; 866-842-6479; hangrypandaseattle.square.site
The better version of pork rinds, these battered fried chicken skins are the most ridiculously addicting nosh I’ve had in recent months. Thanks to an armor of potato starch, they stayed crunchy even after my 35-minute dash home. Just dig into that brown paper bag and fish out the biggest piece first; these are the gems of the lot, a melty concentration of poultry fat. Think of this as Taiwanese popcorn chicken with just the skin. It comes with your choice of seven different dipping sauces. The spicy aioli is the natural pairing, but I love how the chili crisp oil just covers and soaks every nook and cranny of the batter.
The $4 smashed cheeseburger (though you should make it a double for $2.50 more) at Burbs Burgers
Two locations: pop-up inside Quality Athletics in Pioneer Square, 121 S. King St., Seattle, 206-420-3015; and a food truck in Montlake at 2108 E. Roanoke St., Seattle, 206-294-5930; burbsburger.com
This is one of the cheapest smashed burgers around town, and it’s as good as many higher-priced versions. The patty gets smashed on the griddle and sizzled until the edges form a thick, charred crust for a smoky taste. This Burbs Classic ($4) will taste five times better if you make it a double ($6.50), two crisp discs with the neon yellow American cheese melted to form creamy, beefy layers. You can also get the Burbs Special ($4.50) with pickles and all the works, and it will taste like a Big Mac without the middle bun. But I prefer the basic double cheeseburger with none of the add-ons for a cleaner, beefy bite.
The $4 taco de birria at Birrieria Tijuana
1111 S.W. 128th St., Burien; 253-259-9465, birrieria-tijuana.com
The shredded beef taco dipped into beef consommé has been all the rage around the Golden State the past couple of years. You can find these crunchy tacos in just about every taco truck and taqueria now that birria hysteria has reached the Puget Sound. But Birrieria Tijuana inside Guadalupe Market in Burien remains the gold standard. To the uninitiated, it’s a corn tortilla filled with a scoop of shredded beef and mozzarella and then folded over, each side ladled with the fatty skim off the beef consommé and fried until the cheese not only coats the strands of beef, but also turns gooey enough to stretch out in between bites. You eat this like a French dip sandwich, dunking the taco in a Styrofoam cup of beef consommé ($4) to soak up the beef tallow and the smoky flavors from the ancho and other chili peppers. It’s a cheesy taco that requires a lot of salsa condiments to cut into all the greasy goodness. The first birria taco is everything you want. The second gets oozy-heavier but goes down easy. By the third, you’re gonna need a nap or a cardiologist.
The $8.95 chicken sandwich at Cookie’s Country Chicken
121 S. King St., Seattle; 206-420-3015; cookiescountrychicken.com
When it comes to a chicken sandwich, the thigh meat is always better than breast. I made that off-the-cuff remark during the Popeyes craze, and the pro-chicken-breast mob demanded my head on a platter. I haven’t changed my mind, but I offer this olive branch: This is the best chicken breast sandwich I’ve had recently. The white meat gets brined overnight and then encased in a thick, craggy coating and doused in a honey mustard and barbecue sauce mashup. Unlike a lot of other chicken breast sandwiches, this version stayed moist and juicy. Also, some of the best sides are served here, especially the lumpy mashed potatoes covered in a thick chicken gravy.