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Ballin' on a budget

While living in Los Angeles, and not on a celebrity’s budget I might add, I discovered the only way I could marginally engage in Hollywood hoopla was by tactfully hitting bargain nights and happy-hour specials. Now gladly back in Texas, I’m still working with a tight budget and on the constant hunt for hot happy hours.

When you really want to ball and do it guiltlessly — I’m convinced credit-card debt causes premature aging — head downtown to Zen Bar any day of the work week. Although the mildly Eastern-inspired décor and unobtrusive trip-hop provide a pleasant albeit passé atmosphere, the excellent drink prices seal this happy hour deal. Any drink in the house — including martinis and shots that average around $6.75 a pop — is $3 from 4 p.m.-9 p.m. The Sake Tumi is Zen’s chartreuse spin on the appletini. With a rim of sugar and splashes of sake, cointreau, apple pucker, and citrus it’s easy to keep ‘em coming. I also recommend the Pleasure Garden for a mango-pineapple treat that will help you forget about that remarkably unsexy peak into the very private aspects of the opposite sex. Just go to the bathroom ... you’ll see what I mean.

For those lacking a sweet tooth, the 25-cent pork dumplings are deliciously deep-fried and crunchy, garnished with white pepper and sweet and sour sauce. The $2 rolls of sushi — each night there’s a different specialty roll — are surprisingly satisfying, too.

If you can stand the upbeat South American rhythms perpetually on the mix, Azúca’s Bar Latino has excellent bargains all the workweek long. Standards like mojitos and domestic beers as well as exotic caipirinhas and pisco sours are $2.25 from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. I’d advise sticking to the original mojito rather than venturing off into the tempting realm of coconut and mango flavor. Azúca also offers sizable and excellent appetizers like yucca frita with garlic mojo, beef empanadas, and Guatemalan tamales for $2.

But for the most buzz for your two bucks, you can do no better than Martini Mondays at V-Bar in the recently contemporized Valencia Hotel. Tastefully decorated with metal chain curtains and textured earth-toned fabrics, the lounge makes the frumpiest patron feel hip.

The San Antonio Downtown Alliance voted V-Bar “the place to be seen in 2005,” and by the looks of their unbuttoned designer-suit-wearing clientele, the reputation holds true. Mondays only, from 5 p.m. til close, $1.99 will buy you a straight-up Smirnoff vodka martini and a tough week ahead if you’re not careful. The rest of the week offers a less intense 20 percent off any drink from 5 p.m.-7 p.m.

If rubbing elbows with the city’s business elite isn’t your scene, grab your drink and head out to the adjacent balcony, which overlooks the River Walk and has a great view of the illuminated skyline. And it affords a quiet space to sip those puppies slowly.

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