A recent letter from a NOW reader defending the Coffee Mill's ghoulish goulash asks with a resigned shrug, "Where else can you get lunch for under $10?" Here's the answer to that question.
Buddha's Vegetarian Food 666 Dundas West, 416-603-3811
In an austere white room, smiling servers in green smocks serve up Pyrex-pie-plate portions of vegan vittles like pressed tofu, celery, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, red pepper and fresh garden peas tossed with toasted cashews for $6.95. Large enough to be shared.
Caffe Brasiliano 851 Dundas West, 416-603-6607
Now in new digs across the street from its original location, Caffe Brasiliano continues to offer affordable Portuguese daily specials - 6-inch squares of lasagna layered with minced beef, sweet tomato sauce and gooey mozzarella sided with non-designer greens, or old-school roast beef with superb roasted spuds, olive-oil-doused Brussels sprouts and buttery fava beans - for 6 bucks inclusive. Great house-imported coffee, too.
Café Bernate 1024 Queen West, 416-535-2835
This long-time west-side favourite has also just expanded (check out the new rear space complete with garage doors that open to a tiny, breezy patio) but continues its tradition of wallet- friendly sandwich combos like ham, avocado and provolone on a Dijoned baguette with retro greens tossed in poppy-seed lemon mayo for $8.95.
Vicky's Fish and Chips/Sue's Thai Food 414 Roncesvalles, 416-531-8822
They don't come any quirkier than Vicky's, which gets it right when it sticks to Southeast Asian dishes like butterflied jumbo shrimp with cashews, red pepper, tart green apple and onion ($6.99).
Tacos el Asador 690 Bloor West, 416-538-9747
Now in its 10th year, El Asador delivers Mexican street food with an El Salvadoran bent. Don't miss the namesake snack stuffed with lime-marinated chicken, steak, pork or chorizo, topped with crisp iceberg, ripe tomato and sharp crumbled queso ($2.20 each/vegetarian $1.85).
Buk Chang Dong To Fu 691 Bloor West, 416-537-0972
Across the street, this Korean eatery features a short lineup of fiery kimchee-fuelled tofu casseroles served in clay pots, all $5.95, but only one strictly vegetarian.
Ghazale 504 Bloor West, 416-537-4414
Tucked under the Bloor Theatre's marquee, long-running Ghazale closes after this weekend, but only for some needed renovations. When it reopens two weeks later, regulars will again be able to chow down on Middle Eastern salads like chickpea with parsley, cabbage and ripe tomato, chili-oiled cauliflower and huge lemony chunks of carrot mixed with waxy potato, starting at $1.99.
Salad House 24 Roy's Square, 416-920-4964
As its name suggests, Salad House specializes in things leafy and green such as baby arugula with shaved parmigiano in a citrus 'n' shallot vinaigrette ($2.99), or a multi-tiered slab of lemony eggplant, sweet pepper, carrot and zucchini terrine ($4.34) served with mashed sweet potato. Finish with delish blowtorched crème brûlée ($1.99).
5 Alarm Diner 555 Church, 416-972-1708
Boystown's 5 Alarm Diner fires up retro comfort food like meat loaf with cookbook-correct mashed potatoes and period-perfect canned peas ($7.49), and Kresge's-lunch-counter-style grilled ham steak with very cheesy scalloped potatoes ($6.99). Bonus: this Alarm rings till 4 am every Friday and Saturday night.
King Palace 105 Sherbourne, 416-306-8188
Housed in a gas station (hence its popularity with cabbies), King Palace goes one better and stays open till 5 am every night of the year. Why, the Coffee Mill crowd might even get out of their cars if they knew a 16-ounce container of astoundingly tender and fat-free Pakistani halal lamb with chickpeas, in a thick tomato gravy spiked with chili oil, curry leaf and slender slips of ginger, goes for just 6 bucks.