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“Oh my God, you’ve got to hear this!” That’s often the way a restaurant anecdote starts when people feed me their leftovers – the where-and-what-they-ate dining experiences. It usually has a familiar refrain: “And the bill! I stopped breathing when I saw how high it was.” It’s not that we’re obsessively cheap. It’s that we […]

“Oh my God, you’ve got to hear this!” That’s often the way a restaurant anecdote starts when people feed me their leftovers – the where-and-what-they-ate dining experiences. It usually has a familiar refrain: “And the bill! I stopped breathing when I saw how high it was.”

It’s not that we’re obsessively cheap. It’s that we appreciate value. And I don’t care where you go – to George Webb or Sanford – people do not like to feel ripped off. If they can eke out a little more for the money by using a page ripped out of a restaurant coupon book, so much the better. But I sense some despair out there about finding dining – a decent fork-and-knife meal – that doesn’t send your credit card balance to the moon.

Four years ago this month, I wrote a story on affordable dining, setting a $15 cutoff for entrées. I planned the same $15-and-under focus for this story, but as I began doing the research, it became clear that I’d have to raise my total a few bucks because, like everything else, the cost of eating out has gone up, too. But it’s not tragic. The options – affordable, substantial and palatable – are out there. As you read through the venues that made the cut, you’ll still see entrées that are $10. If they creep up to $18, soup or salad comes with, and you might not be hungry for another few days. Dining affordably takes a little know-how. Now you know… how.

SOUTH SIDE
Xel-há
“Shell-ha,” as it’s pronounced, is on the corner of Lincoln and Howell, in Taqueria Azteca’s original location. The signage isn’t the most obtrusive, but once you find this 35-seat Mexican spot painted in piñata-bright colors, you’ll remember it. Platillos (main dishes) max out at $11.50 – that’s for shrimp in one of chef Rafael Botelo’s rich, filling moles – peanut, almond, pumpkin seed, tomatillo or chocolate peanut. They’re also available with chicken or pork medallions ($9.95). Whichever you decide, the meal includes a cup of brothy, edgy tortilla soup and small wedge of jalapeño bread. 2301 S. Howell Ave., 294-4848. M

CEDARBURG
Galioto’s Vintage Grille
Take 76th Street (a.k.a. Wauwatosa Road) north from Mequon Road and you’ll feel like you’re taking a country drive on your way to a nice dinner. You are. Past the pumpkin farms, south of the Five Corners Grafton intersection is Galioto’s, the second restaurant opened by Meg and Dave Galioto, former owners of Thiensville’s (now in the past) Pastimes. They closed that restaurant to buy the Vintage Grille building in Cedarburg, which offered more space, a parking lot and, Meg says, a more accessible location. As a result, she adds, her 2-year-old restaurant is “three times busier” than Pastimes was. The couple went completely diverse on the menu – baby-back pork ribs ($14.95 half-rack; $18.95 full) to pan-seared yellowfin tuna ($18.95) – and kept the portion size substantial. On Tuesday nights, bottled wine on the regular list is discounted 50 percent (25 percent for reserve bottles), and this fall, the Galiotos brought back their popular $10.95 Sunday breakfast buffet. These folks are working for you. In their homey, fireplace-enhanced dining room, they lay it all out – grilled pork chops with applesauce ($13.95 and $18.95) and capellini with fresh basil and tomato ($11.95). I gravitate more to the tasty Sicilian pork tenderloin served with chunky mashed potatoes and sautéed veggies ($14.95). And yes, soup (like ham and vegetable) or salad (good romaine/mesclun) is part of the package. Many options $11.95-$18.95. 1221 Wauwatosa Rd., Cedarburg, 262-377-8085.

SHOREWOOD
Harry’s Bar & Grill
In the nine years since its opening, Harry’s has grown into a lively Shorewood hangout. This sister to The Knick and North Shore Bistro is as much bar as restaurant. This is probably not a place to talk business or propose marriage, but you can envision a well-rounded meal substantial enough that you don’t miss the freebie soup or salad you don’t get. Entrées I’ve enjoyed recently: moist, pistachio-crusted tilapia with mango coulis, white rice and sautéed vegetables ($15.95); and sautéed chicken – two hungry man-size boneless breasts – dredged in a light Parmesan cheese/breadcrumb crust and served with pleasingly lumpy mashed potatoes and a veggie sauté ($14.95). The latest menu also sports tuna casserole (topped with potato chips, $12.95) and wild mushroom ravioli ($13.95). Entrées $11.95-$16.95. 3549 N. Oakland Ave., 964-6800.

OAK CREEK
Di Carlo Trattoria
Veer a ways from Downtown, Brookfield or any other high-rent areas and you will likely see a dip in prices. This 2-year-old Oak Creek restaurant ranks high on my list for hearty, undo-your-belt Italian food without those annoying multiple dollar signs. Spaghetti and meatballs, $7. Stuffed shells, $8.95. Meat lasagna, $8. Venture up a couple of dollars and you have chicken saltimbocca ($10.95), veal parmigiana (a highlight – the veal cutlet is generous and tender, $12.95), chicken Marsala ($10.95) and others. The entrée category also entitles you to a cup of soup (an average minestrone) or an iceberg lettuce salad, plus a thick slice of warm garlic bread. If there’s a drawback, it’s that Di Carlo isn’t exactly a secret in The O.C., as you’ll notice by the state of the parking lot. Zoom in early and settle into the small, warm, tiled dining room. 8469 S. Howell Ave., 768-0001.

SOUTH SIDE
Captain’s Pub & Grill
Bronko Gruichich, who’s worked as a chef in the professional race car circuit, took over this business, split down the middle between bar and restaurant, more than a year ago. “Steak and seafood,” Gruichich calls the theme. “A nice meal at affordable prices.” He says his menu is partly a measure of what his customers look for, so it should make sense he would keep the prices respectable, too. Just between you and me, it’s pretty easy to keep your meal in the $15-$20 reach – and that’s with your choice of potato and a soup or salad thrown in. One thing I can’t tolerate at all-inclusive-meal joints is getting a bunch of “added value” extras that aren’t worth a crust of bread. The green and brass dining room at Captain’s rises above that. For salad, you have a nice mesclun/romaine toss with red onion, cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumber. Choose soup, and if it’s chicken dumpling, then great – it reminds me of the strong broth/hunky doughball kind served in Jewish delis. For entrées, the grilled ahi tuna is buried under capers and loads of minced garlic ($16.95); my one complaint is they tend to cook it well (not optimal for sushi-grade fans). As high as I’ll go on an entrée in this story is a $19.95 filet, and it’s a good one – six ounces of tender grilled beef in a garlic-embedded crust. A steak like this needs accessories, and it gets them: a large sautéed button mushroom, fried onion shreds and a pillowy baked potato with chive sour cream. 3710 W. Lincoln Ave., 384-2923.

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ELM GROVE
The Grove
Comfortable, welcoming, with a strong local following – not a bad calling card for a restaurant. Open for six years now, the Grove makes you feel at home, even if you don’t know anyone else in the dining room, with an appealing mix of wooden tables and booths framed by privacy walls. Two nights a week, musicians add a different welcome diversion. The menu’s beat is unpretentious and moderately priced. There’s lots to choose from in the $15 entrée range, and that’s with the complimentary soup du jour or salad (pick the latter, either Caesar or a good mesclun/Roma tomato house salad). Keep the tab down with an order of spanakopita, two baked rectangles of flaky phyllo dough filled with spinach and sprinkled with feta cheese ($16.95), or a tender bone-in pork chop coated in breadcrumbs and served with nice-touch horseradish mashed potatoes and sautéed veggies ($15.95/one chop; $20.95/two). Other options: lemon-caper chicken, petite pomegranate lamb loin and clams Provençale ($16.95-$19.95). 890 Elm Grove Rd., Elm Grove, 262-814-1890.

MEQUON
Edge of Town
You’d sure look out of place if you came to Mequon’s northern edge dressed in anything stylish. Folks congregate in the bar in jeans and sweats to watch a game on television and talk over their beer. In the dining area, the setup is simply tables laid with red and green vinyl “cloths,” accented by a small TV buzzing in a corner. Cocktail hour is weekdays 3-7 p.m., and every night the menu offers specials – like liver with bacon and onions on Mondays ($7.95) and prime rib on Wednesdays, Thursdays and the weekends (various sizes: $11.95-$19.95). One price and you get it all – your potato, roll (a forgettable component) and soup (cream of broccoli or good meat chili, possibly) or salad (iceberg with tomato, onion, shredded cheddar and croutons). One of the Edge’s better items is a 6-ounce beef tenderloin filet ($15.95) served au jus with a baked potato and sour cream (your best spud choice). Many entrées $9.95-$15.95. 14015 N. Cedarburg Rd., Mequon, 262-375-0911.

SOUTH SIDE
PorterHouse Restaurant
Board the steakhouse time machine and step off in the mid-1980s. Easy-listening music is piped through the roomy green dining room, windowless but bright with sparkling white lights that give it a perpetual holiday feeling. The PorterHouse is a friendly, oddly appealing place – the manager asked us how our “din-din” was. (A banner on the building’s front facade proclaims it the “official steakhouse of the Milwaukee Bucks,” and a few framed jerseys are displayed inside.) Dinners come with… a lot of food. Besides the crusty bread and cracker basket, diners get soup and salad – both pretty good (the former, a beef noodle; the latter, a crisp mix of chopped romaine, a cucumber and tomato slice, onion ring and croutons). Inclusive sides range from a rich, gingerbread-spicy meat sauce on mostaccioli to golden, addictive steak fries. Steaks are the pride here (several are $17.95 and $18.95), but you can score elsewhere on the menu, too – with a half-rack of tender, sweet barbecued pork ribs ($16.95) or a fish special from the chalkboard (baked tilapia stuffed with spinach and crab, $17.95; others $15.95-$19.95). For extra bucks off, print out the 10 percent-off coupon in the PorterHouse’s www.foodspot.com listing. 800 W. Layton Ave., 744-1750.

EAST SIDE
Sol Fire
The Latin theme of Kevin Sloan’s number-two bar/restaurant (number one is The Social) isn’t terribly far from the Mexican focus of the space’s old tenant, La Casita. The difference is that La Casita only had the front patio to fall back on; Sol Fire has more – an engaging menu and spirited atmosphere. To rev up mid-week, Sloan is doing Cuchifrito Night on Wednesdays. Cuchifrito, loosely translated, means Latin street foods. From 8 p.m. to 12 a.m., you can get a plate of Latin nibbles (four to five things – maybe empanadas, fried calamari, tiny tacos, sliced chorizo) for $4. Add a Latin beer for $2.50. Want something less finger foodish? Scan the mid-priced entrée menu for goodies: pan-seared blue marlin in a plantain crust with sofrito (a pungent/sweet green pepper/onion sauce), roasted red potatoes and avocado mousse ($16.95) or Jamaican jerk chicken with mango coulis, cilantro rice, caramelized plantains (they rock!) and sautéed green beans ($14.95). This isn’t an all-inclusive meal place – soup or house salad is $4.95 – but portions are considerable. Entrées $9.95-$18.95. 2014 N. Farwell Ave., 291-0232.

EAST SIDE
Carini’s La Conca d’Oro
It wasn’t an extreme makeover, but the cosmetic work the Carinis have made to their building deserves some horn-tooting. The sense of lounging at a seaside cafe catches on immediately in the enclosed front patio adorned with four warm murals of owner Peter Carini’s Sicilian hometown. Faux painting and updated lighting have rid the back dining room of its dreary feel. Carini’s is in this article for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is the quasi-vegetarian lunch buffet, a $7.75/person spread with quality choices. There’s fresh fruit, several vegetable salads, two hot soups and four hot entrées – from a tasty chicken-artichoke pasta to delicious eggplant spiedini in a thick red sauce. Peter’s son, Greg, is the working chef now; he’s a young MATC grad full of passion for the cuisine. “It’s all about the people,” Greg says of cooking. Vegetarian dishes like eggplant Parmesan or spaghetti with cauliflower, broccoli and breadcrumbs are smart choices ($12.95-$14.50); put pasta and seafood together and it’s even smarter – linguine with calamari in marinara ($15.95) or a scampi-style shrimp, broccoli and fettuccini dish ($17.75). The pre-entrée accompaniments are your choice of standard chicken pastina soup or a decent, basic greens salad. 3468 N. Oakland Ave., 963-9623.

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BROOKFIELD
Boulder Junction
Not many restaurants choose taxidermied animals (I mean, a fully intact mountain goat and black bear in a wildlife scene) as a design element. In fact, I can think of just one. Boulder Junction sports a semi-cheesy lodge look, but I know why people come – generous portions of good, anti-prissy American food. I wish that finding grilled salmon this juicy was less of an event – it seems to be hard to find. This meaty filet is twice what a nutritionist would recommend for one meal; then add in a broccoli floret the size of a small tree branch and a potato (or desired spud substitute) baked so that the outside is crisp and the inside creamy ($12.95). If your mood isn’t fishy, order the barbecued ribs and chicken combo – a quarter rack of fall-off-the-bone ribs and one-fourth of a chicken (thigh/partial breast) topped with just enough tangy-sweet sauce and accompanied by the same sides as the fish. They insist on giving you a soup or salad beforehand, but I’ll tell you, it’s their weakest link. Lots of entrée choices between $6.25 and $19.95. 12550 W. Burleigh Rd., Brookfield, 262-790-0726.

DOWNTOWN
Calderone Club
Seven years ago, Gino Fazzari came home to run his family’s Downtown Italian restaurant. He remodeled the interior – yellow walls dotted with cobalt sconces and tables covered in white linen. And he gave diners a glimpse on the menu of what he’d been doing while he was away – among other things, the Calderone Club owner/executive chef picked up a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He put some high-falutin dishes on the menu but says he “was throwing them out at the end of the day.… People wanted spaghetti and meatballs and traditional stuff,” says Fazzari. The menu went through a few more revisions until the chef found the right balance. And it’s small – appetizers, two sandwiches, pastas and a smattering of entrées, like pork chops in a beurre blanc cream ($16.95) and eggplant alla parmigiana ($15.95). Recipes for the meat lasagna ($12.95) – flavorful and rich, with a terrific beef sauce foundation – and other staples come from Fazzari’s cousin in Italy. My top pick: chicken in Marsala-mushroom cream sauce over penne ($16.50). Most entrées/pastas: $11.95-$16.95. 842 N. Old World Third St., 273-3236.

Perfect Timing Some dining and drinking deals that’ll make your wallet happy.

1. Two East Side places offer a hump day break for wine drinkers. Trocadero’s Wine Wednesday (11 a.m. 1 a.m.) offers a break on by-the-glass choices. A selection of red and white wines are half-price (regular prices are $6 $9/glass). Vucciria’s Wednesday night deal is two-for-one on all by-the-glass wines. Trocadero, 1758 N. Water St., 272-0205. Vucciria, 1323 E. Brady St., 431-9241.

2. Scenario: You want to eat, but you don’t want to cook and don’t want to dine in a restaurant. I can relate. But you’ve got two good choices – Pandl’s Catering Complete and Robbie’s Café. Pandl’s offers a different meal Tuesdays through Fridays. Entrées range from coq au vin to braised short ribs with horseradish sauce. Entrées include salad or fruit cup, side dish (starch or veggie) and bread ($9.50-$13.95). They accept orders until 1 p.m. the day of (they also take advance orders); pick-up is 4:30-6 p.m. Robbie’s Café has six choices for take-home meals (available Monday-Friday, 4:30-8 p.m.). Salad and roll is included with the entrée (herb-roasted chicken and new potatoes, lasagna, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, $8-$10). Pandl’s Catering Complete, 8825 N. Lake Dr., 352-5887. Robbie’s Café, 1424 W. Mequon Rd., 262-241-3354.

3. The best time to go to Sauce – if you’re hungry, but not too hungry – is Monday-Friday 5-6 p.m. The appetizers on the Third Ward restaurant’s menu go two for one. They’ve got crab cakes, chicken satay, spring rolls, grilled scallops and others (regular prices $6-$13). 217 N. Broadway, 224-1480.

4. On-the-House Cards are a smart way to build repeat customers. At Highland House, you can eat fajitas or Pasta Big Bowls and save on your next visit. Although you buy the card for $5, right away you get $10 off your next meal. From then on, you gain points depending on how much you spend (i.e., $25 equals 25 points). For every 100 points you accumulate, you get a $10 gift card. 12741 N. Port Washington Rd., Mequon, 262-243-5844.

5. Put the Internet to work. Go to www.restaurant.com and buy discount gift certificates to some local restaurants – the best were $25 certificates to Pacific Rim (830 N. Old World Third St. ) and Elliot’s Bistro (2321 N. Murray Ave.) for just $10. Of course, you need to spend a minimum dollar amount on your visit to use them.

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