Avoid gas station sushi.
Be suspicious of dollar store meat.
Never, ever visit a buffet after 8 p.m.
Those are all truths I hold firm as a professional food writer of 20 years.
Avoiding the dollar cocktails at Applebee’s officially joined that list this week.
I’m moving my relationship status with the monthly cheap cocktail specials at Applebee’s from “complicated” to “kicked to the curb.”
It took three tours to get there.
Last December, I called the chain’s dollar Long Island Tea dollar cocktails a little like Mountain Dew mixed with ginger ale, Crystal Light and rocket fuel (it was appropriate that the restaurant called them L.I.T. for short).
In February, I described the dollar Bahama Mama cocktails as having the assertive scent of 80s-era suntan lotion that reeked of fake coconut.
This month’s dollar cocktails — called “The Dollar Jolly” and available through Dec. 31 — are a merge of vodka and seemingly straight-from-a-spodie mixer allegedly modeled after cherry and green apple Jolly Rancher candies.
Was the corporation behind Jolly Rancher hard candies even part of the flavor development for this one? I’ve always liked those candies.
These, in no way, resembled a Jolly Rancher — or a drinkable cocktail.
I call shenanigans.
It tasted more like a corporate team-up with NyQuil. The cocktails even had the same cough syrup effect. The aftertaste elicited a pronounced shudder and quickly induced sleepiness and a light headache. I will point out that a Dollar Jolly is far cheaper than NyQuil at a dollar a 10-ounce glass.
Lucky me, I brought along a gaggle of journalists, so of course every last sip was finished. Reporters are not wasteful when it comes to booze on the company dime.
One reporter called the green apple version something like watered down Crystal Light. I’d say that was kind of accurate, so long as “bad Korean soju” and “sugared dishwater” also were listed with that description.
We agreed the green apple flavor was superior to the cherry flavor, but that’s only because there was some kind of menthol-like top note in the cherry version that we all found unappealing.
Both cocktails were electric red and green, which seemed appropriate for flavors not found in nature. They’re also festive. So, so very festive.
OK, OK. I’m being pretty harsh here.
Let me soften this up a bit because I love food, but I’m no food snob.
The no-strings-attached beverages fit a specific need. There’s no minimum purchase or add-on menu items required for what I’m generously calling “struggle cocktails.”
I applaud a restaurant for offering cheap eats and drinks during a time when $45-per-person Brazilian buffets are opening in Tacoma. Not everyone can afford an $11 cocktail or a $45 buffet.
This I also know: Applebee’s offers an upbeat soundtrack, an inoffensive menu of benign American eats and always friendly service no matter if a tab is $6 or $60. You can bring your boss, your picky sister-in-law, your hilarious aunt or your children, and everyone will find something to eat at Applebee’s.
At happy hour, three half-price appetizers and four $1 cocktails are about $20, including tax and tip. Where else can a group of four struggling (21-year-old) students get a cocktail and apps for $20? I can’t think of a single answer in Tacoma.
A segment of Tacoma diners are being priced out of our local restaurant market, and I find that endlessly frustrating.
So dollar drinks clearly have their time and a place: Broke people who don’t care what their booze tastes like. We’ve all been there. Struggle cocktails are real.
My job here is to tell you about dining bargains, no matter your income level.
If you’re struggling, I feel you. Here’s where to get good, cheap food when you need it from locally owned restaurants that make terrific food.
Piroshki: Friendly Foods/European Delicatessan in Tacoma sells $1.49 potato or cabbage piroshki and $1.59 chebureky weekdays at lunch (3612 Center St., Tacoma; 253-752-5649).
Tamales: Tacoma’s best selection of tamales is at Los Tamales in East Tacoma. Chicken, pork, jalapeno-cheese and more flavors are $1.99 each, with a serve-yourself salsa bar (1018 72nd St. E., Tacoma; 253-301-0849).
Korean dumplings: House of Mandoo in Lakewood has pork, sweet bean or kimchi-pork Korean dumplings for $2.50 each and they’re huge. (Inside Paldo World, 9701 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-267-0609).
Happy hour tacos: From 2-5 p.m. at Tacoma’s Taqueria El Sabor, get 97-cent pork or chicken tacos (1636 S. Mildred St., Tacoma; 253-565-0501).
Cookies: Pasteles Finos del Angel in South Tacoma has 40-cent cookies that are buttery, snappy and delicious. (5102 S. Washington St., Tacoma; 253-448-2649).