You can't take two steps these days without running into somebody who's been laid off — or is planning to be. Suddenly, we're all transformed from grasshoppers into ants, and the only markets we're betting on are the aisles at Costco. Some of us aren't quite old enough to remember those high school home-economics classes where girls learned how to sew a muumuu out of fabric scraps or bake a pie with a couple of dollars' worth of flour, lard, and sugar, but such quaint skills are feeling a lot more practical every day. My neighbors down the block have already traded in their hulking, flame-red Hummer for a tiny, lemon-colored Smart Car — I kid you not — and when they're not bitching about the price of gasoline, my friends are all bending my ear about the cuts they're planning to make in their out-of-control budgets.
I hear this kind of stuff, and it worries me. Not that, like our president, I think tough times call for supreme acts of patriotism: shopping for flat screens and Tiffany charm bracelets. But when I learn that fairly well-off couples who barely know what to do with a dust cloth, a rake, or a frying pan are canceling the weekly house cleaner and the monthly garden maintenance or have bravely decided to cook every meal at home, I can't help wondering how these resolutions are going to trickle down. Pretty soon, the folks at the bottom of the food chain are going to start feeling seriously pinched. And that includes our friends who sling burgers, roll sushi, and pan-fry pork dumplings.
I hope I can soothe some anxieties here. Just because you see a flurry of pink slips roiling around you like some late-summer tornado doesn't mean you need to head for your basement stockpile of canned weenies and beanies. You don't have to stop eating out. In fact, we can all — the temporarily employed, the unemployed, and the self-employed together — dine rather lavishly at some restaurants for a lot less than we'd spend cooking at home, especially once we factor in the dollars wasted when one's family politely declines to eat one's famous blackened broccolini hash with bruised catfish.
Asian-Americans might teach us a thing or two about dining on a budget. Steve Ellman and I recently sauntered away from a delicious dim sum for two at Grand Lake Chinese Restaurant that cost $17. Ellman is the worst sort of Manhattan-bred reverse food snob, the kind of guy who thinks that no dish will ever compare to the $2 noodles he's personally discovered in some filthy basement grotto run by undocumented Taiwanese. But he raved, as did I, over Grand Lake's tasty steamed spareribs ($2.35) and over its turnip cake ($2.75) and chive dumpling ($3.25), among many other dishes. A couple of days later, Brandon Thorp and I popped in to Heart Rock Sushi for another bellyful of scrumptiousness and got out for under $30, but not until I'd polished off my skewered mushrooms ($1) and agedashi tofu ($3.50). And Thorp, with the delicate persistence of a cat, had painstakingly extracted every blasted morsel of meat from a grilled yellowtail jaw ($10.95), leaving nothing but a gleaming pile of bones. Talk about economies of scale!
There's something surreally Depression Era about finding anything on a menu that costs one buck or even two bucks, seventy-five. Prices like these have something in common with drawers full of saved string, coffee grounds used to scour dinner pots, and cookie jars stuffed with S&H green stamps. At both Grand Lake and Heart Rock, rock-bottom prices are the norm, not the exception. Heart Rock's yakitori skewers of zucchini, chicken, chicken liver, shrimp, or scallops cost less than $5 each; soups like crab-spinach, mussel-miso, or mixed vegetable come in under $3. I didn't eat any of the sushi (who can afford sushi these days?) except for a $5 uni roll with raw quail egg, which was gooey-chewy and unctuous, almost a meal in itself. Anyway, I've heard mixed reviews about the quality of Heart Rock's sushi, ranging from raves to pans. I do highly recommend grazing through the appetizers: the superspicy yukhe, minced raw beef in kimchee sauce served with a raw quail egg on top ($6.50), is the Japanese version of steak tartare at about one-third what you'd pay at your local bistro, and it's quite a lot tastier than many. I liked the idea of crispy battered chicken livers with teriyaki ($3.95) better than their execution — the organs were a mite overcooked. Seaweed salad ($4.95) made Thorp wonder why anyone bothered to eat lettuce, ever. And our splurge, the grilled yellowtail jaw, at just over $10, made us both try to imagine what kind of prehistoric fish would yield a jawbone that barely fit on a dinner plate. It's not the prettiest presentation you'll ever see, but the meat inside that massive collar was exceedingly buttery and moist, worth the trouble of getting it out; it was flavored with smoke and dark lashings of sesame oil.
The dim sum served daily at Grand Lake, out in the middle of Nowheresville west of Jog Road, is worth carpooling up for. There's a list of 64 specialties under $10, which you check off on a long sheet of paper, and a half-dozen others, such as whole roast duck, beef chow fun with black bean sauce, and pork pan-fried noodles, that squeeze in under $20. We were able to sample just 12 dishes over two visits, but not one was anything less than the best you'd get in Manhattan's Chinatown. (So crucify me: I've had oily and disgusting dim sum in the Mott Street environs; I've learned to be picky.)
Owners Chloe and Erik Poon are from New York, as it happens, which explains why they've been able to win over the pickiest of local Chinese and American foodies. Their steamed shrimp dumplings (four for $3.25) were practically dewy, stuffed with big chunks of fresh, salty shellfish. Pan-fried pork dumplings (four for $2.35), crisply browned on the outside, were juicy within. A delectably gluey turnip cake ($2.75) emanated subtle, sulfuric whiffs of that earthy root. Shredded chicken in a peppery, sweet, red barbecue sauce filled a steamed chicken bun (four for $2.75), and shrimp seasoned and fried had been stuffed between deep purple halves of baby eggplants ($3.25). A chive dumpling ($3.25) pulled apart to reveal a sharp, grassy, emerald-colored interior. Thumb-sized steamed spareribs ($2.35) were succulent, pleasantly fatty, not greasy. A new addition to the menu, vegetable dumplings, had been filled with water chestnuts, peanuts, and bean sprouts ($2.75), making a light, crunchy, palate-cleansing foil for the heavier dishes. For dipping, we had very hot mustard, a bowl of red chili oil, soy sauce, and teriyaki. Everything was beautifully seasoned and right out of the steamer or frying pan — nothing had been left to sit under hot lights or had spent too much time trolling the room on a metal cart (Grand Lake serves some dishes, but not all, from carts). We showed up around 11 a.m. Sunday, and by the time we left at 12:30, the room was packed with Chinese families spooning up bowls of seafood congee and divvying up the honey-roast pork.
Grand Lake has quite a lot going for it apart from the dim sum — a specials board offers winter melon soup. Exotic fare includes jellyfish, chicken feet, and frog congee. An efficient staff is willing to answer questions about whole fish, sizzling veal platters, casseroles of salted fish, chicken, and tofu; or imperial duck, Mongolian lamb, cold noodles in sesame sauce, and shark's fin soup (a special-occasion dish at $55 for the tureen). The menu is vast; the fish tanks are stocked; rows of roast ducks hang behind a window at the rear of the dining room. Geographically so far from New York, perched on an open highway diving straight into the heat of a palmetto-pricked Central Florida, Grand Lake is honest-to-God Chinatown in spirit.
So listen, keep paying your gardener and the girl who does your pedicures — you don't know squat about fertilizing citrus, and your toes are too far away to reach. Your part-time nanny's kids can still plan on going to college — who needs the guilt? A smart economizer is a well-fed economizer. Stuff while you save on taro shrimp cake ($3.25), coconut pudding ($2.35), a skewer or four of yakitori mushrooms, and a free pot of Chinese tea.