Joanne Kates' five fabulous $50 food finds

BUSTING THE BANK for the holidays means less cash for dining, but that doesn’t have to mean a substantial drop in quality. Herewith, five of the top cheap thrills in town.

This Vietnamese soup is un-pho-gettable!

The best pho in town is served at this ungentrified Ossington dive, where huge bowls of pho are built on supernal stock. Classic rare beef pho has big thin slices of tender rare beef atop fat rice noodles, its beef broth made complex with star anise. Chicken pho is sweet strong broth with big pieces of moist chicken and rice noodles. Seafood pho is that marvellous chicken stock with thin egg noodles, barely wilted leaf lettuce and seafood. They garnish it with just-fried browned onion shreds, to great effect.

Golden Turtle is located at 125 Ossington Ave., 416-531-1601.

Classic surroundings surpassed by cuisine

For old world grace and gentility at lunchtime and Sunday brunch, nobody beats Gallery Grill. On the second floor of the neo-Gothic Hart House overlooking the Great Hall, there are stained glass windows under the vaulted ceiling, starched white napery and cuisine to match.

Suzanne Baby’s cooking is both elegant and modern. It changes often, but look especially for her feathery gnocchi with lemon and arugula, her deep rich soups, salads like charred endive with duck cracklings, and roasted freshwater fish always with interesting sides. Sunday brunch features the likes of fresh-squeezed juices and house-marinated fresh mackerel with perfectly poached eggs, smoked trout and buttery brioche toast. The Grill’s only weakness is that we want more: Would that they served dinner!

Gallery Grill is located at 7 Hart House Circle, 647-259-8736.

From Chiu Chow to Toronto

Chiu Chow is a Cantonese province of China, which means its food is lightly sauced and they tend to let ingredients speak for themselves. One often finds garlic and vinegar as a light sauce for poultry in Chiu Chow cooking, and at Chiu Chow Boy they do superbly tender duck like that, with subtle five-spice flavouring in its flesh.

The long green garlic chives that we see in Chinese markets appear with sweet chewy Chinese sausage and Chinese summer squash as garnish for noodles. XO (the famous sauce of Hong Kong, made from long cooking-down of dried shrimps and scallops with chili, Chinese ham, garlic and onion in oil) appears as benediction for stirfried turnip, rendering it an astonishment of delight. Any cook who can do that to turnip has my vote.

Chiu Chow Boy is located at 3261 Kennedy Rd., 416-335- 0336.

Thai food to wake the senses

A sweet little restaurant with attentive service and unusually assertive flavours. Their soups are robust and based on fine ingredients — especially the nicely balanced hot and sour soup. Cashew chicken is plenty of crunchy cashews with tender chicken made interesting with garlic and orange.

That same high level of flavour awareness takes beef with eggplant to an unusual taste level thanks to generous lashings of basil, onions and chiles. The green mango salad is also tastier than elsewhere.

Sorn Thai is located at 2550 Yonge Street, 416-322-3563.

Mighty Mexican fiesta for less

How does a fast food joint get so high on this list? It's simple. They do one thing, and they do it classy. They avoid the twin pitfalls of stuffing their burritos with mostly rice, and of using cheap ingredients in general.

Never before Burrito Boyz have I known the pleasure of perfectly deep fried halibut in thin batter in a burrito. Other options for filling include beans, properly cooked chicken (as opposed to the ossified mess most often found in fast food joints), and veg (green peppers and tomatoes with good cheddar barely melted). They toast our burrito to crispy after garnishing it to order with competent guacamole, rice, peppers, tomato, fresh jalapenos, refried beans, Monterey Jack cheese and creamy/sharp burrito sauce. Salsas come in mild – pico de gallo, green sauce, and tomato, exciting – jalapeno, and mouthsearing – their own hot sauce made from Scotch bonnet peppers

Burrito Boyz is located at 218 Adelaide Street West, 647-439- 4065.