User's Guide

Salute the Gulag Gourmet Movement

Where not to start?
Where not to start? Photo: Melissa Hom

If there’s a vein of New York food writing that has gone unmined, it’s Gulag Gourmet — that strata of consumption below even the Cheap Eats genre, where the mere acquisition of food, and the resulting dodging of starvation, counts as a victory. A burger at Resto or a falafel is pheasant under glass compared to the stuff Joshua M. Bernstein ate in his trip down Nostrand Avenue. Canned cuttlefish in ink, hot pea-flour fritters: This is stuff we would pay $1 not to eat. Hence the piece’s genius. But when we find ourselves as broke as the Ten Commandments toward the end of the pay period, we have our own Gulag Gourmet treats. Here are a few.

1. Char siu bao at Sun Say Kai (Walker and Baxter streets). Still the city’s best food bargain, these baseball-size rolls are puffy and supple and contain a kumquat-size serving of sweet roast pork in their center. Each one is a meal in itself, especially if you’re not hungry, and the cost is even more appetizing: 60 cents.

2. Buffet-Picking. We’ve been a fan of deli-buffet cherry-picking for a while now, and our latest victim, the Just Delicious Deli on Watts and Varick streets, is totally representative of a dollar deli meal at its best. On a typical day, we’ll take one slice of desiccated but still juicy roast pork, one deliciously salty teaspoon-size mound of home fries, and (maybe, just maybe) one little lump of spicy, beefy picadillo, the better to mix with the potato. And like that — we’re filled, for almost ten minutes. Cost: around $1.

3. Hot box treats. The city teems with Latino lunch counters, almost all of which have a large metal box in the front, usually heated by an oversize lightbulb, in which can be found various snack treats: beef and chicken enchiladas. Nothing maximizes the dollar-to-satiation ratio like double-thick chicharrones, the thick fried pork rinds that often also contain a good three-quarters of an inch of bronzed fatback, with a slender but precious vein of meat running delicately through. Cost: Usually around $1.

4. A fruit. We’re told that fruits cost under a dollar. Cost: N/A.

5. Nighthawk pizza. One of the most rewarding of Gulag Gourmet treats because of the difficulty in attaining it, nighthawk pizza is the remaining slices still sitting around when a pizzeria closes for the night. Often these go into the garbage, but by planting oneself at the glass and chatting for hours with the pizza man, he can frequently be persuaded to give them to you instead. For less sociable types, just come in and offer the man a dollar for the remaining couple of slices. Cost: dignity / $1.

Dollar Grub: Nostrand Avenue [Metromix NY]
Related: Nasty Late-Night Buffets, and the Beauty Hidden Within

Salute the Gulag Gourmet Movement