Cheap Eats

The Underground Gourmet’s 2012 Cheap List
Photo: Danny Kim/New York Magazine

Once again, we have ferreted out the best dumplings, tacos, seasonal greens, and expensive-looking foods whose looks may just deceive. Click through the slideshow to see what we found.

This story appeared in the July 16, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

A Survey of Pizzaiolo Innovation
The Bun Explosion
The Fish Sandwich Craze
Asian Hipster Cuisine
Platt Ranks Dirt-Cheap Meals

154 Orchard St., nr. Stanton St.; 212-529-8800 (See the Listing) Reader, forget about the “cheap” in “eat cheap.” This place—a branch of the San Francisco original—transcends talk of filthy lucre. The food is too good. You eat here and are so stunned by the audaciousness, the inventiveness, the lip-smacking, mind-bending tastiness of Danny Bowien’s cooking you don’t even look at the check. If it came down to it, though, you would rob convenience stores to get money to eat here. Not that you need to. On a recent visit, the cost of the entire 24-item, ever-evolving menu—not counting the $1.50 steamed barley rice—added up to $249. That’s an average of $10.37 a plate, in case you were wondering. Huge portions built for sharing, nothing over $15. And 75 cents from every main dish goes to the New York Food Bank. When you settle up, you feel guilty, like you should fork over some extra cash. So, yeah, cheap. But wait a minute. We weren’t supposed to talk money, were we? It’s the food we’re interested in, and to say that we like it, as you might have surmised, would not be to overstate the facts. It’s not Chinese as you know it. It’s better. There are different techniques at play here: Eastern, Western … Bowien-ese. The chef and his business partner call it American Oriental food, and simply reciting the menu can elicit a Pavlovian drool response. Example: Thrice-Cooked Bacon with Shanghainese rice cakes. Another one: broccoli beef brisket with smoked oyster sauce. See? There’s pastrami in the kung pao; pickled ramps in the stir-fried peas; and charred dates, for chrissakes, in the Mongolian-style lamb ribs. It will ruin you for all other American Oriental cooking. What to Get: Sichuan pickled vegetables, $4, plus “sizzling” cumin lamb breast, $15; total, $19.
10-43 44th Dr., Long Island City; no phone yet; opens mid-July Pulled-porkologists trace the modern era of the New York barbecue craze back to 1992 and the original Pearson’s, a ramshackle joint near the Long Island City waterfront where homesick Texans gnawed on bones and brisket at picnic tables. Twenty years later, Kansas City native Josh Bowen ignited a ’cue revival in a nearby corner of Queens with succulent, dark-crusted ribs; porky baked beans; and his much talked-about burnt ends. Although proud to uphold certain K.C. traditions (strawberry soda; a tangy-sweet homemade sauce), Bowen is no hidebound traditionalist and has smoked everything from foie gras to ­Wagyu rib eye. The man also makes a righteous PBLT (a pork-belly BLT), solidly constructed on Texas toast. Having already outgrown his first home, Bowen is in the process of relocating to a Hunters Point honky-tonk nearly triple the size, with live music, beer and wine, and, in true L.I.C. BBQ fashion, picnic tables out back. What to Get: Three-meat platter with beans, $17.
781 Franklin Ave., nr. St. Johns Pl., Crown Heights; 718-483-8834 (See the Listing) If New York weren’t so overrun with meticulously proportioned, 900-degree wood-burning Neapolitan-pizza ovens, you’d hear a lot more about Barboncino. The restaurant’s Naples-style pie is spot-on—comparatively thin and light as a feather. It’s also wonderfully fragrant in the way that great wood-fired pizzas are, with good balance and some world-class blistering around the cornicione. It’s destination-worthy pizza in a town fairly bursting with destination-worthy pizzerias. As such, the mob of locals who pack the industrial space on weekends seem to have it all to themselves, and they probably couldn’t be happier about it. What to Get: Margherita pizza, $11, plus pork-and-veal meatballs, $9; total: $20.
605 Prospect Pl., nr. Franklin Ave., Crown Heights; 718-230-4941 (See the Listing) For certain people who take these things too seriously, Tex-Mex is a watered-down punch line. This philosophy is misguided. There is plenty of regulation Mexican to be found on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn and Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, sure, and then there are other, equally worthy culinary wonders: the viscous cheese-product dip called queso, scooped up with freshly fried tortilla chips; drippy ground beef with sour cream and Cheddar in a hard taco shell; and, in particular, the breakfast taco, as much a source of Texan state pride as barbecued brisket and high-school football. All of these underappreciated delicacies are deftly done at Güeros Brooklyn, a no-frills storefront with a handful of seats and a first-rate frozen margarita. The chorizo and flour tortillas are housemade, and the tacos don’t apologize for their tasty if inauthentic fillings. We speak especially of the fried avocado-and-­jalapeño, the fried-chicken-and-Cheddar, and the migas, a delicious brunch special of scrambled eggs and crunchy tortilla strips. What to Get: Migas taco, $3, plus brisket taco, $4, plus beans and greens, $3, plus frozen margarita, $6; total: $16.
152-24 Northern Blvd., Flushing 718-321-2007 How much is that dumpling in the window? Two smackers, if you’re talking about the puffy behemoths sitting in the streetside display kitchen of Daheen Wang Mandoo, a Korean chain that planted its first franchise flag in New York last fall. (A second is coming to Manhattan’s Korea­town sometime this summer, and another to New Jersey after that.) Although the restaurant offers a full menu, you go here for the featured attraction, wang mandoo, or king dumplings. Steamed-dough balls the size of small grapefruits come with a choice of two stuffings—pork (fantastic), or kimchee pork (even better)—and a soy-vinegar dipping sauce spiked with chile pepper. The buns are spongy and warm, the fillings juicy and well seasoned. If you have room for dessert, the supersize red-bean-paste bun out-wangs them all. What to Get: Kimchee wang mandoo, $2.
41-10 Main St., Flushing; 718-888-7713 For those accustomed to slurping slick, chewy strands of liáng pí cold-skin noodles in a dank basement, or jockeying for elbow room in a microscopic East Broadway storefront, the stylish expanse of space at Flushing’s new Biáng! will come as something of a shock. The full-­service restaurant is the latest venture from David “Liang Pi” Shi and his marketing-whiz son, Jason Wang, the team behind Xi’an Famous Foods, the Northwest Chinese noodle-joint chainlet that’s taken New York by storm. Biáng!, named for the thwacking sound made by dough hitting the work surface, seems a world away from Xi’an’s humble origins one block south in the unreconstructed Golden Shopping Mall. But devotees will find all of Xi’an’s greatest hits—the flatbread burgers, the cold-skin and hand-ripped noodles, all permeated with Shi’s cumin-forward “proprietary spices”—at the most modest of markups. New dishes befitting the dressed-up space have been added: a trio of mantou crostini of sorts, topped with sausage and quail eggs; cooling salads of lotus root and fiddlehead ferns; and best of all, boiled lamb dumplings so remarkably rich and juicy we’d eat them anywhere. What to Get: Lamb skewers, $3, plus lamb dumplings, $5, plus liáng pí noodles, $5; total, $13.
53 Bond St., nr. Bowery; 212-529-2990 (See the Listing) If you’re already familiar with Noah Bernamoff’s work at Mile End Delicatessen in Brooklyn, you know this ain’t your bubbe’s sandwich shop. If you’re not—and your idea of nirvana is a Carnegie Deli triple-decker—you’re going to wonder whether you’ve inadvertently wandered into a tramezzini bar. Size, you see, is not the point at Mile End. Flavor, balance, and proportion is, and these sandwiches are as beautifully precise as if they were engineered in some modernist Jewish-deli laboratory under Nathan Myhrvold’s watchful eye. Which is not to say they aren’t a little messy around the edges, more than substantial, and mind-bogglingly good. Almost every one of the classics, in fact, redefines its category. Take, for instance, the chicken salad. It comes on schmaltz-toasted challah topped with gribenes and pickled peppers, and the question you ask yourself as you chomp along is, why hasn’t it always been so? Ditto the chopped liver on pletzel, the skirt steak with grilled asparagus, and the breakfast burger with apple butter and maple syrup. Even the tuna (fried capers, red onion, parsley, celery leaves, and soft-cooked egg on a pumpernickel roll) is a revelation. It eats like a Jewish pan bagnat, and thus finally bridges the gap between the Bowery and the south of France. What to Get: Tuna sandwich, $10, plus heirloom carrot salad, $7; total: $17
268 Clinton St., nr. Verandah Pl., Cobble Hill; 718-422-0065 (See the Listing) Alex Raij and Eder Montero are two of New York’s biggest names in tapas and Spanish food in general, and the married co-chefs have a habit of telling stories through their cooking. La Vara’s tale revolves around the culinary legacy of La Convivencia, a 700-year span of purported peace, harmony, and recipe-swapping among Spain’s Muslims, Jews, and Christians (not everyone buys this theory). On the menu and the plate, that theme translates into a series of unfamiliar but inspired dishes: savory anchovies dressed with a rough sesame-hazelnut paste, akin to Egyptian dukka; gurullos, a gnudi-soft pasta enhanced with ground goat and lemony sumac; a salt-cod-and-citrus salad called remojón that’s studded with pistachios, olives, pomegranate seeds, and orange wedges that’s as vibrant in flavor as in hue. In the best tapas tradition, there is no set structure to your meal. Pick and choose freely among the categories, interrogate the friendly servers for wine suggestions, but whatever you do, be sure to conclude on a compulsory sweet note—the crumbly date-walnut tart called Egipcio, crowned with lemon curd and freshly whipped cream. What to Get: Fried chickpeas, $3, plus remojón, $14, plus Egipcio, $8; total, $25.
248 Mulberry St., nr. Prince St. 212-993-7189 (See the Listing) Imagine for some reason that you’ve never tasted or even heard of chicken cacciatore, baked ziti, fried calamari, meat gravy, mozzarella sticks, pizza knots, and pork chops pizzaiola. Let’s pretend this is because you were raised by wolves in some lonely hinterland without an Olive Garden. Then imagine stumbling upon Parm one day. “What do you call this sensational new cuisine?” you inquire in canine-accented English. “And what is this glorious substance you refer to as red sauce?” To which Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, the classically French-trained but Italian-American-obsessed co-chefs, shrug and reply: “It’s just the stuff we grew up with.” That’s not far from what it’s like to eat at Parm for the first time. Practically every dish tastes like a new and improved version of itself. The turkey in the turkey hero, you’ve undoubtedly heard, is preternaturally moist. That perfectly crisp calamari is as light and fresh as a Ladurée macaron. The mozzarella sticks are an entirely separate species of mozzarella stick. Our favorite platter is the chicken francese, a dish that food writer John Mariani has called one of the “real clichés of Italian-American cookery.” Here it tastes familiar, granted, but also transcendent, as if prepared by a Brooklyn nonna who did a stage at Del Posto. What to Get: Spicy rabe, $6, plus chicken francese with baked ziti, $17; total: $23.
606 Vanderbilt Ave., nr. St. Marks Ave., Prospect Heights; 718-230-0125 (See the Listing) To call what Ilene Rosen serves comfort food does it a disservice. Not because it isn’t—what’s more comforting than rotisserie chicken and cake doughnuts, anyway?—but because that sort of easy pigeonholing disregards the flashes of wit and flights of ethnic fancy that make her menu so distinctive. It’s not every modest little neighborhood joint that offers kimchee omelettes with sweet Sriracha vinegar alongside celery stalks stuffed with “Jewish chicken liver.” And then there’s the ingenious Horse & Pig, a sandwich that combines pungent grated horseradish with thick, smoky slabs of Benton’s bacon. Rosen’s appetites are as ecumenical as the borough in which she was born and where she returned to build her first restaurant, after a fifteen-year tenure reinventing and restocking City Bakery’s legendary salad bar. But if it’s comfort you want, it’s comfort you’ll get at the weekly Sunday Supper, when twenty bucks buys you a family-style feast. The menu rotates; if you’re lucky, there’ll be that moist, flavorful chicken, a big green salad, and Rosen’s signature mac ’n’ cheese. As for dessert, given a choice of plain, powdered-sugar, or cinnamon-sugar doughnut, the correct answer is one of each. What to Get: Sunday Supper, $20.
3183 Broadway, nr. 125th St.; 646-559-2862 (See the Listing) Are we suggesting that you, the downtown ramen connoisseur, pop out of the DMV waiting room that doubles as the bar at Ippudo—how many hours, by the way, did they say it would be?—hop on the N/R, transfer at 42nd Street to the No. 1, then ride the rails up to 125th Street for a bowl of soup? Yes, we are. “Why would I want to do that?” you ask, while giving us a funny look. Because, in the time it would take to be seated at Ippudo, you could globe-trot up to Harlem, sup like a prince at Jin, pat your belly contentedly, pay your nominal check, and be on your merry way. An even better reason: Some rookie ramen dude named Mark Viloria is making tonkotsu of such distinction there that if we were a Michelin inspector, we would say, “Vaut le voyage!,” or whatever it is that Michelin inspectors say. This broth, you see, is deep and creamy and mysteriously alluring. It’s like spooning down liquid foie gras. You want to jump over the counter and dive into the pot like Jacques Cousteau. The noodles—as firm and springy as they come—are terrific, too, and the whole thing is tied together with the usual fixings, including those obligatory bamboo shoots and a couple of slabs of first-rate pork belly, should the soup itself fail to sufficiently harden the arteries. Also worth noting are Jin’s excellent kara age (what Chicken McNuggets dream of becoming) and the lip-smacking gyudon (like a cheeseless Philly cheesesteak in the guise of a Japanese beef-and-rice bowl). What to Get: Kara age, $6, plus tonkotsu ramen, $11; total: $17.
224 Lafayette St., nr. Spring St.; 212-510-8550 (See the Listing) This is New York’s best—if only—café specializing in what we’ve taken to calling South African Israeli Jewish Grandma cuisine. The mom-and-pop owners, Dean Jankelowitz and his wife, Maya, emigrated from South Africa and Israel, respectively, and their restaurant is where you’ll find the soul-soothing dishes that remind them of family and home. So what are the defining foodstuffs of the SAIJG genre? Fried “giblets” (chicken livers and sweetbreads seasoned with peri-peri sauce), green (tomatillo) shakshuka, deep-fried panko-crusted fish balls made from smoked whitefish and hake, matzo-ball soup, a crisp-skinned half-chicken (also given the peri-peri treatment), and what has to be the finest cheeseburger in Soho. What to Get: Peri-peri giblets, $9, plus Jack’s burger with hand-cut fries, $14; total: $23.
127 Columbia St., nr. Kane St., Columbia Street Waterfront District; 718-923-9322 (See the Listing) Forget Wall Street: Prepare for Occupy Pok Pok. On any given night, hungry pilgrims descend on Pok Pok Ny, the second phase of the East Coast expansion by Portland, Oregon’s renowned chef-restaurateur Andy Ricker and his Thai-food brand. (A smaller takeout shop, Pok Pok Wing, opened on the Lower East Side in January.) A line forms long before the doors open at 5:30; soon after that, the wait-listed are dispersed to a Christmas-lights-strewn addition round back that calls to mind an Army tent on M*A*S*H. The staff speaks into mouthpieces clipped to their T-shirts, handling crowd control like rock-concert security guards. It’s as if, you’d think, we haven’t had Southeast Asian food before. And maybe we haven’t, at least not like this—the everyday fare served in restaurants, pubs, and homes of northern and northeastern Thailand and Vietnam, where Ricker has traveled and studied for almost two decades. His devotion to the regions’ foods comes across in everything from an exuberantly dressed papaya salad to the crispy, salty hoi thawt, a sort of shredded omelette studded with mussels and garlic chives. Ricker might be famous for his lemongrass-infused rotisserie chicken and fish-sauced chicken wings, but it’s his utterly satisfying one-pot dishes, like his rendition of the turmeric-and-dill-powered Hanoi catfish classic called cha ca “la vong,” and a creamy, soothing khao soi, that are truly worth the wait. What to Get: Hoi thawt, $14, plus cha ca “la vong,” $14; total: $28, but you’ll share.
597 Manhattan Ave., nr. Driggs Ave., Greenpoint; no phone (See the Listing) Part of the fun of dining out at this Greenpoint dive bar with a secret noodle-slinging sideline is the ordering process. It’s not quite Regulation Soup Nazi Rules, but there is a method. Here’s how you do it: Go to the bar and ask the bartender for the food menu. Make your selection. (You want the seasonal greens—Red Russian kale with sesame vinaigrette one recent evening—and the lamb cumin noodle plate, which is not unlike the deliciously clumpy stuff you get at Xi’an Famous Foods.) The bartender will give you a ticket and direct you downstairs to the basement, where from behind a steam-filled counter, a friendly young woman will pop up as if from a trapdoor. “Here I am!” she says. Her name is Lindsay Salminen, and she is the chef. Give her your ticket, go away, and check back with her at a prescribed time. When your noodles are ready, you can eat them along a narrow ledge in the grim basement or out back in the garden under the Brooklyn sky. Either way, they’re magnificent. What to Get: Seasonal greens, $6, plus lamb cumin noodle plate, $12; total: $18.
94 Ave. C, nr. 6th St.; 212-228-2972 (See the Listing) Bobwhite has everything you could ask for in a breezy little southern-style luncheonette: eighteen seats (six of them counter stools), the Allman Brothers on the sound system, and a choice of sweet iced tea (authentic) or unsweetened (Bloombergian). And then there is the crisp and craggy-crusted fried chicken—slightly chewy, faintly sweet, virtually greaseless, and abundantly juicy. You get three nice pieces (dark meat upon request), plus a flaky biscuit and side salad for a pittance. Also delicious: the chunky housemade pimiento cheese, best served straight from the fridge and spread lavishly onto Orwasher’s white bread instead of panini-pressed. What to Get: Fried-chicken supper, $11.50, plus black-eyed peas, $3.50; total: $15
254 S. 2nd St., nr. Havemeyer St., Williamsburg; no phone (See the Listing) Breakfast-taco snobs would say that this closet-size coffee bar–cum–taquería does everything wrong. The tortilla is corn, not flour. The chorizo is chunky, not loose and fresh. And the vegetables (a highly seasoned stew of peppers, onions, and tomatoes) have absolutely no business being anywhere in the vicinity of that scrambled egg and Oaxaca cheese. (Not to mention the jalapeño potato chips crumbled on top.) And yet this singular concoction is as fine to eat as it was inventively conceived, by a French-trained Ecuadoran chef entirely unshackled by rigid breakfast-taco convention. He has recently taken to offering weekend taco specials, like a Jamaican-inspired curry goat, a shrimp ceviche, and a BLT. For our money, though, you can’t beat the No. 1 taco, a Whirlybird (and possibly planetary) exclusive. What to Get: No. 1 taco, $3.50, plus cortado espresso drink, $3.50; total: $7.
79 Clinton St., nr. Rivington St.; 212-253-2527 (See the Listing) Yunnan Kitchen might be the least Chinese Chinese restaurant we’ve ever been to, and that’s not meant as a put-down. Rather, it offers the sort of fare one can’t imagine finding on Bayard Street: a sprightly mint salad with frisée and cherry tomatoes, for instance, or a simple dish of scrambled eggs. We should mention, though, that said salad is dressed with an intoxicating substance known as mountain-flower oil, and the eggs studded with jasmine-flower buds—both compelling proof that the kitchen at this stylishly spare Lower East Side establishment truly does specialize in the cooking of Yunnan, China’s southwesternmost province. As interpreted in locavore-small-plate fashion by chef Travis Post, late of Franny’s and Bklyn Larder, the cuisine tastes light and fresh, conspicuously herbal, and delicately seasoned. Salads, especially, shine, like chrysanthemum greens with nutty sesame vinaigrette, and a tangle of tofu-skin ribbon dressed with cilantro and mint. The cumin-spiked Yunnan spice mix invigorates everything it touches, from crispy-creamy potato croquettes to juicy skewered lamb meatballs. What Post doesn’t import, he sources scrupulously: ham from Allan Benton, sausage from Salumeria Biellese, and vegetable specials from Greenmarket farmers. What to Get: Mint salad, $8, plus marinated-tofu skewers, $5, plus ham rice cakes, $10; total: $23.
552 Vanderbilt Ave., at Dean St., Prospect Heights; 718-576-6701 (See the Listing) We wouldn’t go so far as to say that this cozy Brooklyn ramen shop neglects the pig—not with such an artfully garnished pork bun, a murky tonkotsu-broth variation, and a nearly combustible kimchee ramen with spicy ground pork. Still, the brick-walled, blond-wooded noodle bar is the rare ramen joint we’d recommend to a hungry vegetarian. The owners, a trio of former Morimoto cooks, have provided two compelling reasons for this: an atypically rich, meat-free broth made from kelp and miso, and a kale salad (half-raw, half-deep-fried, dotted with pickled yellow raisins and drenched with white-miso vinaigrette) that just might be their signature dish. What to Get: Kale salad, $7, plus vegetarian ramen, $12; total: $19.
342 E. 6th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-375-8989 (See the Listing) Four words: cashew-butter bacon burger. Three more: toasted bao bun. That’s the way they do things at the Toucan and the Lion, with deep-fried pickles on the side, and while the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Pat LaFrieda Patties may not like it, we do. A lot. But that’s not all this self-styled Asian (though seemingly quasi-­Latino) gastropub has to offer. There’s duck confit in the mofongo, curried beef short rib in the tacos, and Kaffir-lime “pie” served in a glass for dessert. If that’s not Asian-gastropubby enough for you, try the soft-boiled, five-spiced, duck-sausaged, Kaffir-lime-aïoli-ed Scotch egg. What to Get: Burger, $17, plus kale slaw, $7; total: $24.
31 W. 8th St., nr. Macdougal St.; 212-777-7131 Gourmet free-range chicken fingers? Really? Could you come up with a worse single-item, fast-casual restaurant concept? Sustainable fish sticks, perhaps? Farm-to-­table baba ghannouj? Yet we have a confession. Sticky’s is where we go (under the cover of darkness) when we crave that staple considered by discriminating toddlers to be the ne plus ultra of the kid’s menu. Why? Because the chicken is actually pretty good—you want the “crunchy,” or fried, as opposed to the “naked,” or grilled—and the kitchen has a knack for making the most sinister-sounding chicken-finger varieties, like crushed-pretzels-and-salted-caramel, work. The Buffalo-balsamic-maple, against the odds, is another winner. Our policy, as always, however, is stick to the classics, and in this case, that would be an order of plain old “crunchy” fingers with the Sticky (white barbecue) sauce for dipping. What to Get: Three “crunchy” chicken fingers, plus slaw, two sauces, and green-bean “fries,” $10.
The Underground Gourmet’s 2012 Cheap List