Portland's rather blessed when it comes to cheap eats. If you happen to live close to a food-cart pod, eating three meals — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — for less than $10 total is an easy possibility. So to up the challenge, I ventured into Portland's most expensive rental neighborhood, land of $12 lunch salads and $2.50 macarons, to eat a day's worth of meals for under $10. With these rules that blessedly exempted coffee, beer, and random streetside freebies (but forbid repeat visits to the same restaurant), I went westside fairly certain I was going to starve.
10:15a.m. The original game plan was solid: Eat a calorie-laden, $3.95 breakfast special at John's Coffee Shop, the greasy spoon that just barely sits within the confines of the Pearl. Upon arriving, though, two road blocks emerged: 1) John's familiar two pancake, two bacon strip, and one egg special had skyrocketed in price to $5.50. 2) Even if I was desperate enough to splurge more than half the day's budget on breakfast, the restaurant was closed for a three-day weekend.
A quick pivot to Fuller's Coffee Shop seemed discouraging at first: omelets in the $10 range; a single blueberry pancake for $3.25; plates of eggs, hash browns, and toast starting at $7.50. But the menu revealed exactly one breakfast item within the budget: Its one pancake, two bacon, one egg special for $4.25.
It proved a happy accident. I got giddy from afar when a waitress whipped out a miniature ice-cream scoop to apply rounds of butter atop the pancake, while bacon arrived perfectly crisp. Comparing plates to my dining companion, who got an $8 omelette, I was confident I was eating the better (and tastier) deal, with the pancakes winning out over a slab of hash browns. For bonus points, cups of jam are left atop counters so those really looking to add on free calories can go to town. Plus, jam counts as a fruit, and it proved to be the only fruit I'd eat all day. >> Dollars remaining: $5.75
11:05a.m. Stumbled into Palmetto Cafe, the new breakfast/lunch counter adjacent to the Parish, thanks to the soft-opening promise of free coffee. Having just eaten, I figured I'd strategically space out calorie intake and aim for another meal at two o'clock, but a line-up of savory pastries proved too tempting: I purchase a $2.50 goat cheese and Thai chili pastry to-go, with plans to eat it later for lunch. >> Dollars remaining: $3.25
1p.m. Hunger starts.
1:30p.m. While running errands, I run into a shaved ice stand giving out free samples. It's technically located a few blocks west of the Pearl, but shaved ice is technically just water and syrup — which maybe makes it a beverage? — so I figure I'm in the clear. >> Dollars remaining: $3.25
2:20-3p.m. After getting to cranky levels of hunger, I stretch out the pastry by slowing nibbling at it over the course of a half hour. It's nicely flaky, goat cheese containing a nice hint of the chile spice, and I've consumed an unreasonable amount of butter for the second time today. By the time I'm done with it, though, I know I haven't invested enough quality calories in that $2.50.
6p.m. The quest for a $3.25 dinner in the Pearl begins. I figure I can get a single cheese slice of pizza for that amount of money, but a trip to Hot Lips reveals cheese slices are $3.50. The only under-$3 option is a footlong breadstick with an accompanying dipping sauce, which I briefly consider before moving on — surely there's some way to add cheese to that bread for three bucks. As it turns out, cheese slices at Pizza Schmizza also clock in at $3.50, but a presumably rotating daily special offers one special slice for $2.75. It's the "Don Ho," a Hawaiian-style pizza, and I have such a visceral aversion to pineapple and ham on pizza that I can't even bring myself to eat it ironically. (Making fun of my horror, my partner hyperbolically described the slice "a misanthropic bastard of a lost generation" and even though I know he is making fun of me, I wholeheartedly agree that the description is apt.)
I agree to eat the damn slice should no other food options else emerge, and by 6:45 p.m. we've arrived at Cha Cha Cha, which offers a handful of tacos for exactly $3.25 (and more for $2.95). I resign myself to a lone-taco dinner, and thus ultimately failure in the challenge: Appetite-wise, I'm really a four-taco kinda girl. But, a loophole: The kid's menu, which firmly self-describes as "for children only," includes five options for $3.25 if ordered without meat. After ordering a (cost-exempt) beer at the counter, I ask if it would be possible to eat something off the kid's menu, and the woman at the counter gives a Taylor-Swift-style faux look askance before leaning in and complicity saying, "that would be fine." She is my new best friend. Of the five options, the enchilada seems the most filling, and I score one "kid's-sized" meat-free enchilada with refried beans and rice for exactly $3.25.
It's a lot of food for just over three bucks. It tastes far better than a hypothetical slice of Hawaiian pizza. And the green salsa that arrives to the table is the only "green" item I will consume all day. But despite my suspicion that I'd have to order some bar food by 10p.m., it's filling enough to sate my appetite until the day's challenge ends.
>> Dollars remaining: $0.00
>> Number of freebies: 2 (small coffee and shave ice)
>> Number of brownish plates consumed: 3
>> Actual fruit and vegetables eaten in 24 hours: 0