Affordable America: Best budget restaurants in Tampa

Cost-conscious travelers can enjoy bountiful pleasure at mealtime if they choose their itinerary carefully and order smartly. To help with the planning each month, USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver offers a menu of suggestions from a major destination:

Down-home dining: Profiles of cheap-eats classics.

1. Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish 1350 Pasadena Ave. S., South Pasadena 727-381-7931

For more than a half-century, beachcombers, snowbirds and road-food fans have followed their noses to this bare-bones, cash-only shack where every year, 100,000 pounds of salmon, mackerel, mahi-mahi and mullet ($13.49-$18.99) are filleted and slowly smoked over red oak. The process turns the skin a gorgeous mahogany while leaving the meat juicy and only lightly impregnated with smoke. The fish are accompanied by cole slaw and warm German potato salad, dill pickles and thick-sliced tomatoes and onions. The smoked fish spread ($4.59) is highly touted, but go with the fillets on a first visit.

•Top treat:Smoked mullet, $13.49

2. Las Palmas Café19651 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa; 813-907-1333; laspalmascafe.net

While traditional Cuban food is getting harder to find in tourist-oriented Ybor City, the "real" stuff is more easily found in tiny, family-run places like this, located on the outskirts of town. Slow-roasted meats in savory sauces are the standouts, and the $10.99 "Taste of Ybor" sampler offers three: ropa vieja (shredded flank steak in a sweet-ish tomato-wine sauce); lechón asado (pork marinated in sour oranges, garlic and herbs); and picadillo (beef hash with olives in a spicy tomato sauce). Wash it down with house-made sangria served in a mug with a sugar-cinnamon rim.

•Top treat:Lechón asado (Cuban-style roast pork), $9.99

3. Big John's Alabama BBQ 5707 N. 40th St., Tampa 813-620-0603

Tampa has never been an essential stop on the barbecue circuit, but the area boasts at least a half-dozen joints that serve a mighty fine meal. The late Rev. John A. Stephens founded this spot in 1968, and now his family keeps the flame alive, serving numerous generously portioned combos ($6.50-$10.50) of oak-smoked ribs (both center-cut and thin-cut), sausage, pulled pork, beef and chicken. The "Alabama-style" sauce is tomato-based, medium thick and spicy, not sweet; the traditional side dishes are standard-issue. All that's missing are sweet tea and collard greens.

•Top treat:Pulled pork, $7

Easy Splurges: Low-cost dishes at the hot new places.

4. Sidebern's 2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa 813-258-2233; sideberns.com

This companion to one of the country's most famous steakhouses, the nearby Bern's, has carved out its own stellar reputation by serving creative American and Mediterranean dishes based mostly on ingredients drawn from area farms. Executive chef Chad Johnson changes the menu (heavy on organic produce, game and wild-caught fish) frequently, and judiciously employs modernist touches such as foams and artfully composed plates to keep things interesting.

Cheapest dinner appetizer:Farm crudité salad with mustard seed vinaigrette, $7. Others, $8-$19.

Cheapest dinner entrée: Beet risotto with vadouvan spice-roasted vegetables and pistachio-spinach essence, $25. Others, $26-$35, plus $70 tasting menu.

Worth trading down? Yes. The crudité salad, a $7 Jerusalem artichoke soup and the risotto all were representative of the restaurant's farm-to-table approach

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