Hot deals for thrifty foodies

Summertime, and the livin' ain't easy. Food cost's jumpin' and gas prices are high.

And even folks who eat out often want to squeeze their dining dollars harder. So here are six strategies, with some specific examples, for making your money mean more.

Look at Latino; survey Vietnamese

All cuisines offer some dishes that make the most of less-expensive ingredients, but these are particularly hard-working ones, with plenty of outlets in the Charlotte area and an array of penny-wise, stomach-filling options. Among them:

Double-corn-tortilla, meat-and-cilantro-stuffed soft tacos for $1.50 each at Taqueria Mexico (7001 South Blvd.).

Fat Honduran baleadas at Lempira (5906 South Blvd.), starting at $2.12.

Moist Peruvian beef with noodles for $8 at Machu Picchu (4715 E. Independence Blvd.).

Pho, the phenomenal and fragrant Vietnamese noodle soup, at Truc (4520 N. Tryon St.), where a huge bowl sets you back just $7.50.

Be early

I mean this three ways. First, seek early-bird and pre-theater dinner packages, which abound. (Easiest way to find them? Check the Web.) Second, go to dinner before Friday and Saturday; midweek specials also abound. And here's a bolder step: Make lunch dinner. Eating your biggest meal midday can get you terrific food at mid- and upscale places for much less than you'd pay at dinner. Push your date to the lunch hour; celebrate a spouse's birthday then; whisk your in-laws to a daytime dazzler. At Lulu (1911 Central Ave.), the estimable burger is $7 at lunch, $11 at dinner.

Re-examine buffets – well, some of them

Though I'm typically not a fan of them, the fact is that some are incredible deals. Ru San's has a midday sushi buffet for $8.75, a crazy price, considering how much a single plate of the nigiri and maki would cost from the regular menu – or at the grocery store. You can satisfy a healthy craving by going here once. (Note: These are economic-downturn measures, remember. I'm not suggesting you don't get what you pay for with sushi, or that it's not worth it. I'm just saying if you're in a pinch and you've got an itch, this is a way to scratch.)

Think before you drink

Beverages give restaurants – from fast-food on up – most of their biggest profit margins. A Coke here, a glass of wine there, a cup of coffee to cap it all and you're ratcheting up your bill exponentially, perhaps without thinking about it. Make all your beverage choices intentional, and you can save significantly.

Once seated, slim your selections

That means making a meal of shared appetizers, splitting an entrée, buying a whole entrée but planning to take half home for tomorrow's lunch, and the like. Restaurant portions can be two to four times the size of what health experts consider a single service.

Get tech-y

E-mail offers, Web site coupons and more lurk on the Internet; make them work for you. For example, the Harper's Restaurant Group Web site recently offered a $5 coupon just for signing up to get e-mail from its many venues. And when you check on the site's events calendar (which includes Harper's, Upstream, Zink, ARPA, Mimosa Grill, Blue Ribbon BBQ and M5 in Charlotte), you find a Sunday dinner special at M5 called “Sinfonia di Pasta.” That's a salad, unlimited servings of three pastas, and a hazelnut toffee cannoli for $21 – plus half off any bottle of Italian wine.

At the other end of the spectrum: Sign up for e-mail from the inexpensive Moe's Southwest Grill and get a free entrée on your birthday.

Also, you can snoop around spots like www.charlotterewards.com and www.restaurant.com for coupons offered at a discount. (And there are always the coupon books and mailings – just be alert of restrictions and spending limits.) Check your credit card, too: Discounts or frequent-diner offers (check at individual restaurants ) may be available.

Think about what you go out to eat for – convenience? the experience? romance? – and maximize that in your choices.