The Underground Gourmet's 2013 Cheap Eats List

By and
Hybird’s fried chicken. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Hybird
75 Ninth Ave., at 15th St. 212-989-3332
Fried-chicken drumsticks, slushies, cupcakes, biscuits, five types of Chinese potstickers, and thats it. Surely someone has brought together on one fast-casual takeout menu a wackier collection of foodstuffs than this, the brainchild of Roots drummer Questlove (drumsticks, get it?) and gastro­preneur Stephen Starr. Or maybe not. You start to wonder. At which point you might even imagine the following preopening conversation: Starr: Look, Questcan I call you Quest?Ive been in this racket since I was in shortpants, and you cant just offer people drumsticks and leave it at that. Questlove: Well, how about slushies, cupcakes, and dumplings like the ones you serve at Buddakan? Starr: Now, thats what I call a fast-casual concept! And yet, whats not to like (except for the cupcakes, which are terrible, as all cupcakes are)? The biscuits are reasonably flaky, the watermelon-jalapeño slushies possess the perfect balance of hot to sweet that one looks for in a watermelon-­jalapeño slushie, and the dumplings are terrific. And lets not forget the drumsticks, each one built along the lines of a Julia Child balloon whisk and battered with a super-craggy crust that, when you unhinge your jaw pythonlike and bite into it, emits a high-decibel crackle. Ka-runch! If only theyd replace the cupcakes with cronuts, then theyd really have something.
What to Get: Two drumsticks, $7.50; truffled-egg dumplings, $7.

sushi
Beyond Sushis vegan rolls. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Beyond Sushi
229 E. 14th St., nr. Second Ave. 646-861-2889
Once you get past the oxy­moronic concept, you have to admit theres something oddly appealing about the idea of vegan sushiespecially if you happen to be among the growing ranks of those who abstain from eating animals and animal products, a life choice that typically limits sushi-bar options to things like burdock and kabocha rolls. For this demographic, Beyond Sushi is a godsend. But even omnivores can relish the occasional fish-free foray into such colorful, creatively constructed novelties as the Spicy Mang, a crunchy sliced cylinder of avocado, mango, cucumber, and julienned vegetables rolled up in purple-hued black rice and garnished with one of the shoebox-size shops proprietary sauces, toasted cayenne. This might not be the stuff of Jiros dreams, but judging by the packs of famished yoginis regularly storming this location and its new Chelsea Market outpost, the Green Roll, the New York market is ripe for it.
What to Get: Spicy Mang roll, $6.50.

Fiores Pizza
165 Bleecker St., nr. Thompson St. 212-982-8663
The provocative anti-folding manifesto titled How to Eat Fiores Pizza hanging on the wall of this Greenwich Village slice joint seems like a bit of a Soup Nazi put-on. Never fold your slice in half, it commands. After all, slices of pizza, like lousy poker hands, were meant to be folded. And telling a New Yorker to refrain from doing so is like instructing a salmon not to swim upstream to spawn. Still, this is pizza from the relatively non-droopy Staten Island school, cooked in a Fish-brand rotary oven, and in the same elite class as Joe & Pats and East Harlems Patsys. Its thin and crisp with a sweet tomato sauce, dabs of mozzarella, and a practically nonexistent cornicione; as such, it doesnt require the fold maneuver. But thats not the point. Fiore owner and Staten Island native Steve Cunningham argues that to fold is to throw crudely into disarray the fine balance and textural integrity of his slice. If you want dough on both sides, get a calzone, he says.
What to Get: Plain slice, $2.50.

Glasserie
95 Commercial St., nr. Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint; 718-389-0640
The howd they end up here? Newtown Creek-side location, the atypically roomy layout, the quietly inventive melding of zesty Middle Eastern flavors with Über-seasonal produceall these factors conspire to make the month-old Glasserie truly unique. Its hard to categorize the cooking, but bowls both small and large tend to share a few distinguishing structural characteristics: a puddle of tangy sauce below, a smattering of bright herbs on top, and the dishs featured ingredients shoved to one side in an artfully off-kilter arrangement. This formula applies equally and deliciously to hot grilled zaatar-spiced radishes over whipped feta, mini-­torpedos of lamb and bulgur croquettes (a.k.a. kibbeh, stuffed with mint and peas) submerged in nutty tahini, and sliced chicken breast, simultaneously moist and charred, in a puddle of beer-enriched almond milk. Both the parathalike flaky bread and the hot, zaatar-spiced flatbread are baked in-house and compulsory, especially in concert with rich, creamy labneh for dipping. Cocktails are shaken with conviction and, at mostly $9, priced to move. And the chocolate tart, topped with sesame whipped cream? Bittersweet perfection.
What to Get: Flatbread, $3; labneh, $4; chicken, black chickpeas, and cilantro, $16.

Cafetería La Mejor
191 Suydam St., nr. Wilson Ave., Bushwick; no phone
This pint-size, pastel-painted Cuban café off the beaten Bushwick pathif you can still call any Bushwick path unbeatenis long on charm and short on menu. Youve got Cuban-style coffee, strong and sweet. And youve got pastries and sandwiches. Thats enough. The café con leche is made with a pat of butter and a dash of salt, and if youve never taken it that way before, youre in for a treat. Not to mention that this has got to be the best sandwich Cubano in Bushwick, if not Brooklyn: good ingredients, meticulously George Foreman-ed on excellent bread from a Williamsburg bakery (though were on the fence about the coarse-grain mustard). You can enjoy both while lounging at the six-seat counter, or out back on the so-called patio, which is about the size of a small California Closet yet perfectly lovely nevertheless.
What to Get: Café con leche, $3.75; sandwich Cubano, $8.

Pok Pok Phat Thai
137 Rivington St., nr. Norfolk St. 212-477-1299
Considering how much Andy Ricker has single-handedly done to rehabilitate the sullied reputation of pad Thai, that hapless Siamese-menu cliché, it seems a tad churlish to say that of the three principal dishes on offer at his subterranean noodle nook, its our least favorite. This is not, you understand, to disparage the quality of his rendition, which, like everything the chef-restaurateur does, aspires to utmost authenticity, and does indeed excel in its perfectly calibrated, intentionally understated contrast of flavor and texturethe slick nest of pork-fat-fried rice noodles mingled with nuggets of dried shrimp, pressed tofu, and preserved radish, among other toothsome things. According to his forthcoming cookbook, Pok Pok (Ten Speed Press), Ricker considers the iconic dish rich but minimalist, as subtle as it is satisfying, and we defer to his expert opinion. For something a bit brasher and rough around the edges, though, we recommend the kuaytiaw khua kai, a sizzling toss of chicken, egg, and cuttlefish with wide rice noodles that crisp and char on the fire, or the hoi thawt, a delectably greasy broken crêpe embedded with saffron-colored mussels and egg. The pad Thai might be edifying, but these two are imperative.
What to Get: Kuaytiaw khua kai, $11, or hoi thawt, $10.50.

sushiEastwoods fish and chips. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Eastwood
200 Clinton St., at E. Broadway 212-233-0124
Other than being fried, falafel and fish and chips dont seem on the surface to have much in common. They both have personal significance to Sivan Harlap, though, who was inspired by her Israeli heritage and her husbands Scottish one when developing the menu for her Lower East Side bar and the takeout annex next door. As it turns out, both of these snacks make excellent pub grubthe herby green falafel stuffed into a puffy pita or encasing an Israeli Scotch egg; the tender pollack fillets coated in a sufficiently crisp Narragansett-beer batter and served as is or tucked between two thick slices of Pain DAvignon brioche. Everything on the tiny menu, in fact, is carefully cooked and unfailingly delicious, and the pride Harlap and her partner, Andrew States, take in the details is evident: the homemade tartar sauce, the tender-crisp hand-cut fries, what Harlap hails as the citys best pita (she may be right). Were also fond of the setup. Order and pay at the kitchen window, and youll never have to wait for a check.
What to Get: Israeli Scotch egg, $4; fish and chips, $12, or fish sandwich, $12.

Grill 43
43-02 43rd Ave., Sunnyside; 718-706-0600
At Grill 43 (not to be confused with Bar 43, the popular saloon across the street, unless you have a hankering for Atomic Wings), the name of the game is fresh-baked Turkish breads and char-grilled meats, served in a functional, fluorescent setting with great alacrity by a chipper Romanian waitress. Peruse the refrigerated display case while pondering your order, and see which kebab speaks to you mostthe pepper-flecked ground-meat adana, the chunky shish, or maybe the doner shaved off the rotating spit. (In a novel take on one classic dish, tomato sauce is dribbled over the garlicky yogurt, suggesting the grandma pizza of iskender kebab.)
What to Get: Mixed appetizer plate, $13.95; chicken adana, $9.95, or iskender, $11.95.

Yuji Ramen at Whole Foods
95 E. Houston St., at Bowery 646-262-1358
Forget the pop-up setting, Smorgasburgs high-seat counter at Whole Foods Bowerys second-floor mess hall that resembles nothing so much as an airport tequila bar. And never mind that theres a guy right over there hunched into a nearby food-court chair snoring like an English bulldog. All that matters is that here is where youll find some of the most immensely satisfying ramen in town. Yuji Haraguchis shoyu (soy-sauce-based) style is first-rate, but what you want is the much-talked-about mazemen (or brothless) ramen. The pasta-carbonara-inspired version, topped with bacon, poached egg, and kale, is fantastic; another, with smoked salmon, Camembert, and lemon, even better. Toppings aside, the key to the mazemen is the fettucine-shaped alkaline noodles made expressly for Haraguchi by Sun Noodle in New Jersey. (What Pat LaFrieda is to bespoke burger blending, Sun Noodle is to springy strands of custom-made dough.) These things are lush and flavorful with a bafflingly great chew. Describing them as perfectly al dente doesnt even come close.
What to Get: Salmon-and-cheese mazemen or bacon-and-egg mazemen, $9.

Mama Joys
1084 Flushing Ave., nr. Porter Ave., Bushwick; 347-295-2227
A local couple opened this southern gastropub last summer when they found themselves homesick for their native South Carolina and Florida grub, which includes, apparently, an impeccable shrimp and grits, cornbread as rich and moist as brownie batter, and matzoh-meal-crusted fried chicken, plus additional varieties like the notorious Nashville hot. That this is all served in a makeshift setting with seemingly unfinished walls and ceiling adds to its charm, and the rotating art shows, curated by one of the cooks, ground the place in its Bushwick milieu. The bar specializes in craft beer and American whiskeyjust what this food requiresand the garden is a fine spot to while away a Deep South North Brooklyn afternoon.
What to Get: Boiled-peanut hummus, $6; shrimp and grits, $14.

Cutting Board
53 Bayard St., nr. Elizabeth St.; 212-528-0188
This is Hong Kong-style sai chaan, or Western comfort food (mostly American and Italian with a heaping helping of Japanese), as interpreted by an all-­Chinese kitchen for a predominantly young, bubble-tea-slurping Chinese-American audience. Which is not to say you wouldnt do well to make it your own go-to neighborhood coffee shop, as a gang of uniformed gastronomes from the nearby Fifth Precinct have done. What do they keep coming back for? A decent burger, fat fries dusted with Parmesan and togarashi, mussels steamed in sake, Pullman-style toast smeared with peanut butter and drizzled with condensed milk, barbecued ox tongue, and fried calamari. But thats not all. Theres a fantastic spaghetti with sea urchin doused with a veritable Niagara of creamy sauce that would make flames shoot out the eyes of Marcella Hazan. Also delicious, not to mention forward-thinking: a chicken Caesar salad that tosses out the grilled chicken in favor of deep-fried pork katsu. And if you like grain dishes that fall vaguely under the heading of risotto, theres something known as creamy rice, a soul-soothing concoction that comes with a choice of toppings; go for the charred chicken necks, if theyre available, and you wont be sorry.
What to Get: BBQ ox tongue, $6.95; sea-urchin pasta, $9.

Ganso
25 Bond St., nr. Livingston St., Downtown Brooklyn; 718-403-0900
In New Yorks post-Ippudo period, its hard to believe there was ever a time when a decent bowl of ramen was hard to find, but that doesnt mean one should start taking the new breed of noodle shops for granted. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a local like Ganso, a modern, minimalist soup kitchen situated just off Brooklyns Fulton Mall. Ganso takes a generalist approach to its ramen styles, offering the kind of introductory course youd expect from a food scholar like cookbook author Harris Salat, who opened the restaurant with chef Ryuji Irie last fall. Although each bowl has its charms, from the spicy miso to the vegetarian tan tan, its the stamina ramen thats become the house signature: bigger and bolder, as you might expect, bolstered with fermented-fava-bean paste and chile oil, umamified with shrimp paste and wood-ear mushrooms, and adorned with teensy shrimp, chicken chashu (the Japanese char siu), and greenery like garlic chives and yu choy. Its noodles are thick and chewy, its aroma potent, and as far as its endurance-giving properties, youll have to test that claim for yourself.
What to Get: Stamina ramen, $14.

Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana
36-08 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria; 718-278-4800
Queens might have arrived late to the rigorously authentic, wood-fired, 900-­degrees-and-counting Neapolitan-pizza party, but, having recently added Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana to its restaurant collection, the borough has more than made up for lost time. The pizzaiolo behind this step in the right direction is Stephen Menna, age 30, who, you will not believe after tasting his handiwork, began his career as a child making pizza out of English muffins at the knee of his mother. His technique has undoubtedly improved since those dark days, and a trip to Napoli plus a brief stint at Greenpoints excellent Paulie Gees cant have hurt. Now his pizza is light and tender and puffy in all the right places, not to mention liberally charred with enough rustic spots to be mistaken from certain angles for a leopard-skin throw pillow. Of the eighteen topping combos, we like the Nonna (with meatballs). But dont miss the increasingly rare fried calzone filled with ricotta, mozzarella, prosciutto cotto, and an intense tomato sauce. This rather shapeless blob may look like an angry amoeba, but its so good it could spark a fried-calzone revival.
What to Get: Nonna pizza, $16, or calzone fritto, $12.

Nightingale 9
345 Smith St., at Carroll St., Carroll Gardens; 347-689-4699
What happens when an Arkansas-bred American chef falls hard for Vietnamese cuisine? Youre in for some fascinating fusionnot that Robert Newton, chef-partner of the dressed-up southern Seersucker and its coffee-shop offshoot, Smith Canteen, would ever think to use the dreaded F-word. But the most memorable dishes at Nightingale 9, his spartan new noodle shop, are the ones that combine his background, his predilection for sourcing locally and seasonally, and his unabashed passion for the flavors and foods of Vietnam. These three influences meld most impressively in a stellar salad of shaved raw collard greens seasoned with grated coconut, fried shallots, and lime, a combination that suggests that the kale-salad hegemony may have some competition. Another perfect-for-­summer starter made with shredded poached Hudson Valley chicken derives its crunch from cabbage, kohlrabi, and North Carolina peanuts and its fragrant bouquet from the fresh herbs that characterize Southeast Asian ­cuisine. Theres cracklings in the Berkshire-pork noodle soup, country ham in the ­glistening fried jasmine rice, and deep-fried catfish in Newtons take on cha ca la Vong, a Hanoi specialty typically made with grilled fish. That the tabletop soy sauce is aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels makes perfect sense.
What to Get: Shaved collard greens, $9; cha ca catfish, $12.

Gladys
788 Franklin Ave., at Lincoln Pl., Crown Heights; 718-622-0249
Think of Gladys as a modern-­day Eisenbergs, serving New Brooklyn Cuisine sandwiches to the hipster massesonly instead of a lime rickey, youre sipping a barrel-aged Negroni. This nouvelle dinner-only luncheonette has counter stools, a pickle plate, vintage aqua Formica. Theres even a corned-beef Reuben, which here they call the Bubie and dress up with Raclette cheese and charred-­onion mustard. Where there used to be rotisserie chicken on a larger opening menu, theres now a Pollos Hermanos sandwich, Buffalod with blue cheese and hot sauce. The incontestable star, though, is the Octo (temporarily on hiatus, but soon to rejoin the ever-changing roster, we hope): a slender length of sandwich roll toasted on the wood-fired grill, which is also put to consummate use on the tender cephalopod itself. Unexpected garnishes like tatsoi, chopped olives, and preserved lemon add flavor and texture, but its the creamy, mildly spicy poboy sauce that puts it over the top.
What to Get: Octo, $12.

Mamak House
35-20 Farrington St., nr. Northern Blvd., Flushing; 718-886-4818
Like the Dabbawallas of Mumbai, Nani Yusof Hughie got her start in the hospitality business by delivering boxed lunches to office workers. Now shes graduated to the ranks of full-fledged restaurateur with Mamak House, where shes serving the first authentic Penangs Indian Malay Mixed Halal cuisine in Flushing, according to the menu. A bit of history: Mamak is a term used to describe Malaysians whose ancestors migrated from South India, and Hughies cooking reflects that Tamil Muslim legacy. She presides over the onetime Korean barbecue joint, tabletop grills and exhaust hoods still intact, exuding a gentle motherly presence as she floats from booth to booth, greeting diners and talking up her food. It mostly speaks for itself: Tender satay served with a sauce less overtly peanutty than most; deep-fried okra that makes jalapeño poppers look like health food; aromatic curries that you can combine in Meal Set combo plates accessorized with basmati rice, ­pappadams, turmeric-tinged fried cabbage, and okra, abstemiously steamed this time. For a summer dessert, nothing beats the shaved-ice concoction called ais kacang, splashed with sweet syrup and festooned with peanuts, red beans, grass jelly, and corn.
What to Get: Chicken satay, $6.95; combo No. 3 with ayam rendang and beef nasi kandar, $18.95; ais kacang, $3.95.

Zizi Limona
129 Havemeyer St., nr. S. 1st St., Williamsburg; 347-763-1463
There might not exist a more polarizing appetizer than Zizi Limonas Crazy Baba, a verdant bowl of babaganoush blended with feta and basil. Whether you find the Ligurian-­Levantine fusion misguided or inspired, you have to admit this is not your run-of-the-mill hummus-and-falafel joint. You could call the menu Modern Israeli, if that classification allows for such exotica as curry in the tahini sauce, skirt steak in the shakshouka, and inky, slow-cooked oxtail in the 5 hour bureka. The dining room is cozy and homespun, with kitchen ingredients stacked up on shelves along one wall, and the bar dispenses regional drinks like Lebanese pale ale brewed with sumac and zaatar. For a less divisive finish, few can argue against the legitimacy of the basbosa semolina cake, an ice-cream sundae of sorts lavished with cardamom syrup, shaved halvah, tahini, and date honey.
What to Get: Crazy baba, $6; Aunt Trippos falafels, $7; basbosa semolina cake, $7.

Lao Cheng Du
37-17 Prince St., Flushing; 718-886-5595
What would an annual cheap-eats list be without a great new Flushing Sichuan joint to paralyze your lips and tongue and cause steam to blast out your ears? Happily, Lao Cheng Du, which opened recently down the block from the venerable Spicy & Tasty on Prince Street, a.k.a. the hot zone, is up to the task. All our old fiery friends are here, and theyre about as good as you could wish for: cold noodles in red chile sauce to start the meal off on the right piquant note, cucumbers in vinegar to cool things down, a spot-on double-cooked pork, some Chengdu spicy chicken to fan the flames, and our favorite, a bowl of spicy green peppers in a zingy sauce. Charred and kind of shriveled, these capsicums look innocent enough, but one bite and you realize that what you have on the table before you is pure dynamite.
What to Get: Cold noodles with red-chile sauce, $5; whole green hot peppers, $8; double-cooked pork with garlic shoots, $10.

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Barbeque With a New York Accent

*This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.