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The chipotle chicken sandwich at The Artisan Kitchen Cafe in Richmond, Calif., on Thursday, July 30, 2009. (Dean Coppola/Staff)

The Artisan Kitchen & Cafe

ADDRESS: 865 Marina Bay Parkway, Richmond

HOURS: 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays

CONTACT: 510-235-2323; www.artisankitchen.org

LUNCH BILL: Under $20 for lunch and drinks for two

Psst, there's a tiny cafe in Richmond that offers fresh, delicious salads, sumptuous sandwiches, quiches and pot pies — and nobody knows about it. No one, that is, outside of a devoted following of nearby office workers who not only queue up at the Artisan Kitchen counter daily, but they book the year-old cafe's catering services for parties back home.

Nestled behind an ocher yellow facade in a Marina Bay office park, the industrial-chic cafe boasts just a handful of tables — three inside and one under an umbrella out front — and a steady stream of happy customers. It's not a place to linger over a cup of coffee, but the food is fabulous and fresh, the takeout business brisk and the staff absolutely charming.

On this particular day, I lunch with one of those devoted cafe fans who barely even reads the menu before ordering his favorite salmon salad. A dill-flecked wild salmon filet nestles on a bed of spring mix greens, caramelized purple onions, red peppers and diced tomatoes. The salads, whose ingredients vary by day and all look marvelous, are $5.75 each and can be topped with chicken ($2 extra) or fresh poached salmon ($3.50). Dressings — balsamic, Caesar or a tasty Asian-style citrus soy — come on the side.


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As for sandwiches ($6.75 each), it's agony to choose. Fresh mozzarella with tomatoes, basil pesto and greens? The fried chicken breast topped with spicy pineapple coleslaw? A pulled pork barbecue number? But the tri-tip proves irresistible. It comes laden with a generous helping of tender steak topped with more of those caramelized Bermuda slivers and creamy caper-laced mayonnaise on still-warm ciabatta bread. It's comfort food and gourmet fare all rolled into one.

— Jackie Burrell

Plaza Cafe

ADDRESS: 1912 Contra Costa Blvd., Pleasant Hill

HOURS: 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily

CONTACT: 925-827-2811

LUNCH BILL: $30 for three entrees and three soft drinks

The Plaza Cafe typifies a greasy spoon, from the portable air conditioner venting out the front door and glass-front refrigerator filled with canned sodas and giant jars of mayonnaise, right down to the rack of mismatched coffee cups and lit Harley Davidson sign on the wall.

Homestyle cooking is clearly a priority over ambience. And really, the affordable, tasty food is what makes this hole-in-the-wall a must-eat breakfast and lunch stop.

The Plaza Cafe serves breakfast all day, everything cooked to order. Lunch options include 12 generous-portion salads, two dozen cold sandwiches, a slew of melts, homemade soups (weekdays only), hamburgers and a handful of seafood choices (fish and chips, calamari, etc.)

Service was fast and friendly. The meals were filling. My hot-off-the-grill turkey melt ($7.50) was stacked with moist turkey and served with a side of fries.

My friends opted for breakfast. The vegetarian omelet ($8.25) was cooked a little unevenly but stuffed with mushrooms, avocado, tomato and American cheese. The Jose's Scramble ($8.75) came with thick chunks of chicken apple sausage, Jack cheese, spinach and mushrooms. My friend requested egg whites, and although it cost 50 cents extra, at least the serving was substantial.

And if ambience is important, you can always order your food to go.

— Ann Tatko-Peterson

Currylicious

ADDRESS: 5299 College Ave., Oakland

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

CONTACT: 510-450-0644; www.currylicioussfbay.com

LUNCH BILL: $25 for three entrees, two sides and one yogurt drink

I've eaten at this Indian-Pakistani gem five times since it opened six months ago at the northern tip of College Avenue in Rockridge. Not only is the food stellar and the price more than right, but the space puts me in a good mood. The walls are saffron, the complementary archways are mint and bright lanterns round out an authentic vibe.

For a light lunch, go with the Kabaab Roll ($5.99), your choice of spiced, minced chicken, minced beef, boneless chicken or mixed vegetables with onion, tomato, tamarind sauce and mint chutney rolled in warm naan bread. The chicken and lamb at Currylicious are free range, and all dishes are made to order in canola oil, so you don't get the tough-and-dry tug of some poultry or meat wraps.

The restaurant offers 20 curries ($5.99-$6.99). My staple is the Lamb Curry ($6.99), a simple, one-serving portion of lamb cooked to just the right tenderness in a blend of spices. I'd rank the heat at medium, and recommend a serving of basmati rice ($1.49), which is a little on the greasy side but generous enough to share. The requisite tandoori and biryani dishes make an appearance, but I'd skip both for one of the five sensational chaats ($4.99).

Chaats are fried dough snacks topped with various fresh Indian condiments, from yogurt to mint or tamarind sauce. I couldn't get enough of the Papadi Chana Chaat, crispy crackers made from flour and oil and topped with potatoes, garbanzo beans, spices, mint sauce, tamarind sauce and homemade yogurt. It's nachos for the rest of us. — Jessica Yadegaran

The 202 Grill

ADDRESS: 202 Sycamore Valley Road West, Danville

HOURS: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, till 8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, till 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday

CONTACT: 925-855-9123; www.the202grill.com

LUNCH BILL: $35 for one entree, two sandwiches with fries, one kids meal and two milkshakes

The sign of a real bargain bite is when dinner costs less than a morning coffee. It's possible at Danville's The 202 Grill, where a Niman Ranch 1/3-pound hamburger runs just $3.99. With many items around $5, eating here can be less expensive than cooking at home.

The 202 Grill opened in March, replacing Bergie's Burger Stop in the Livery and Mercantile. It's a casual "come as you are" restaurant with counter ordering and a small dining area. The outside deck is more spacious, with both market umbrellas and heating lamps.

The majority of the menu is standard diner fare, with items such as a chili burger ($6), BLT ($4) and Cobb salad ($7). The Philly cheesesteak sandwich ($6) is satisfying with ample meat on a ciabatta roll. The $3.99 grilled chicken breast sandwich is probably the best value in Danville. It comes with a full breast and all the usual garnishes — lettuce, tomato, red onions and pickles.

The kids' menu is as straightforward as it gets. Options include a hamburger, PB&J or chicken strips. Fries and a drink are included for a $5 meal. The basic grilled cheese is always a good bet; this version is a classic cheddar on white accompanied by a crispy pile of thin-cut fries.

A specials board full of Indian dishes shakes up the predictability. Owner Vinay Patel is slowly introducing items such as chicken tikka ($6) and an Indian-spiced tilapia ($6). On my visit, the chicken tikka masala ($7) was only fair. The basmati rice with its speckles of diced vegetables was delicious, but the chicken was tough and the naan not too fresh. Still, Danville is short on Indian food and I'm happy to see it offered.

— Chrissa Ventrelle