Everyone loves a a healthy helping of culinary luxury -- it’s the best way to feel rich for a night (then poor until payday), and frankly, there's a lot we're willing to pay for. Sure, some dishes are difficult to cook, some ingredients are difficult to grow, but the rest are all jacked up and an excuse to stick a hand in your wallet while you’re busy stuffing your face. We grabbed ten of the big victims to foodie trends and looked at why, and foraged for some underrated deliciousness you can have instead (good news, torta is on the menu).
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Why the $$$: Wagyu just means Japanese cow. It doesn’t denote it was raised in Japan under the same strict regulations as, for example, true blue certified Kobe beef (which, keep in mind, is running 22 bucks per ounce at 212 Steakhouse in NYC). Basically, this is a cow version of Champagne vs. sparkling white wine from Napa. What wagyu really refers to can be easily misunderstood, and has been fair game for jacking up the price on cuts of beef that have in reality been interbred and diluted by domestic breeds.
Affordable alternative: If you're looking for great meat that lives up to its name, ask for a steak that's got a high USDA grade. Restaurants can be clever in calling cuts "choice" or "prime", but a steak with an actual Choice or Prime USDA grade is no bull. That steakhouse with the $22 for one ounce of real Kobe? Serves 16oz of USDA Prime filet mignon for $47.
Why the $$$: This ex-garnish (and animal feed!) is hardy, easy enough to grow, and it’s been around forever. But its price has shot up over the past 5 years, with the cost jumping up by 25% according to one study, thanks in part to heavy and trendy marketing starting in 2011, false rumors of shortages, and an explosion of its availability in stores (from a scant 4,700 stores to a whopping 50,700) following its newfound popularity.
Affordable alternative: Keep an eye peeled for seasonal vegetables to beat down that price point; nutritionists recommend a variety of veg rather than getting by on “one or a handful of superfoods.” If you really dig on leafy greens, spinach, Swiss chard, and collard greens are all nutritionally similar to this PSL of greenery.
Why the $$$: The evergreen diner burger is still thankfully alive, kickin', and stupidly delicious as ever -- and frankly, so are gourmet burgers! But the prices on the latter can be pretty unpalatable (looking at you Fleur Burger 5000). Loading a burger up with bacon or caramelized onions bumps up the price, but the real culprit seems to be the fad of grinding up way choice cuts of meat (hello again, Kobe), and adding pricey toppings like foie gras and truffles which doesn't necessarily add up to a better burger.
Affordable alternative: Switch it up with a torta -- this underrated twist on the sandwich can be eaten hot or cold, grilled or toasted, filled with ham or eggs or avocado, and topped with all manner of goodies, the torta is the diverse, reasonably priced pocket of goodness that your stomach and wallet can agree on.
Why the $$$: Once nicknamed the poor man's chicken, lobster was hugely abundant and only fit for fertilizer or dinner for a broke dude (and his cat) until industrialization rolled around. Fresh lobster became a delicacy, and coastal towns took advantage of the status upgrade and have pretty much been running with it ever since. While lobster populations aren't what they were in the 1800s, they're not exactly scarce -- but they're difficult to farm and are often transported inland live, which is a bit trickier than packing some dead crustaceans in a freezer.
Affordable alternative: The monkfish used to be considered the poor man’s lobster (funny how this term keeps getting shuffled around), but it too is now something of a delicacy. In Maine you can get lobster off the boat for cheap, but if New England isn’t in your travel plans, cod can be cooked to taste like lobster and doesn't come with the Homaridae hotel fees.
Why the $$$: You paid maybe 50¢ for one at a high school bake sale, and now suddenly they’re running you upwards of six bucks for a frosting bomb with an entire damn cookie on top. Many blame Sex and the City for a) the most dramatic relationship expectations ever and b) the proliferation of the cupcake craze, thanks to their feature of Magnolia Bakery on the show in 2000.
Affordable alternative: If you’re paying for something sweet, grab a macaron instead. Very labor intensive to make, they’re so very worth their nominal price tag of around $2.80 on the higher end, are less messy to eat, and won’t crucify you on the Fitbit for indulging while packing a huge punch of flavor at the same time.
Why the $$$: Having fallen into the sphere of the superfood and lauded as a miracle grain, quinoa has become so trendy, it’s overpriced to where the farmers who produce it can’t afford to eat it. It didn’t become more difficult to grow, just near insane in its demand. Super!
Affordable alternative: Can’t go wrong with a classic -- good ole rice is a cheap and abundant staple, grown stateside with fields that are expected to keep on expanding, and it provides an excellent base for a whole range of flavors from Japanese to Indian to Italian to classic Southern comfort food. Anything Q can do, rice can do better.
Gourmet mac and cheese
Why the $$$: Out of a box or on a silver plate, there's not really any losing when it comes to mac and cheese, unless you count your dang money when a restaurant takes advantage of everyone's undying allegiance to the American Comfort Food Classic and starts throwing in seven different high quality cheeses, when you really only need two: one mild & creamy, and the other sharp & tangy.
Affordable alternative: However, seven different cheeses are really fun. And tasty. Shave down the price by making the underrated and under-appreciated good ole box stuff from your childhood and amping it up, like so.
Why the $$$: Sitting down to an expensive omakase and a hefty slab of toro? Congratulations, you’re eating cat food, or at least what was considered only good for cat food in the '60s. In the '70s America lost it for tunny tummy when sushi bars proliferated, and Japan followed suit in the fad. Now for a slice of it, your money is almost as endangered as these blue behemoths are.
Affordable alternative: Instead of chasing after the sushi with the highest price tag, talk to the chef and get something underrated but incredibly tasty -- like mackerel or squid.
Why the $$$: We're with Daria on this one. There's no moment in life that can't be improved with pizza, unless you're sitting by candlelight at an Italian restaurant wondering why your pie cost twice as much as one from the place around the corner. Fancy pizza prices can be bolstered by the cost of ambiance, reputation, or sometimes straight up expensive Italian meats.
Affordable alternative: If you're talking Italian, order some timballo -- between all the pasta, rice, potatoes, cheese, and whatever else the regional variation on the menu comes with, this misunderstood casserole meets pie meets pasta dish is nothing but bang for your buck, and a little more structurally sound to consume -- unless you're a monster who eats pizza with a knife and fork.
Why the $$$: Caviar is a pretty universal, historical delicacy, but true caviar is roe that comes from sturgeon species that have been severely overfished across the globe. True caviar has only become scarcer; a number of alternative roe are on the market, which is great for baby sturgeon, but not necessarily your wallet since the cheaper substitutes may still benefit from luxurious reputation that true caviar has cultivated.
Affordable alternative: Feed your craving for luxury and sodium with some libido-lovin’ oysters -- you can grab them for a buck on the half shell at happy hours nationwide, and you don’t need a fancy mother-of-pearl spoon to enjoy them since theirs is basically built in.