Cheap Eats Q&A: Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite on Assembling the Ultimate Underground Gourmet List

A sampling of Han Dynasty.
A sampling of Han Dynasty.

Last week, New York published the 101 Best New Cheap Eats Restaurants in New York, and now that the writers have awakened from their food comas, we thought it would be a good idea to get them to sit down (or, in this case, up) to talk to each other about how they did it.

Robin Raisfeld: This year, we took a different approach to our annual Cheap Eats report. Instead of highlighting trends and evaluating the past year’s crop of modestly priced restaurants, you proposed revisiting our 101 best, ranked in order. Why?
Rob Patronite: Everyone loves to hate a listicle, to argue and debate why a certain place should or shouldn’t make the cut, and whether the listicle writers ought to be tarred and feathered in the town square for their outrageous opinions. And anyway, we needed to do it. Of the restaurants we included in our last 101, which ran eight years ago, about two thirds had closed or changed significantly, or priced themselves out of contention.

What does that say about the restaurant scene?
It says that, as everyone knows, you have to be slightly insane to want to open a restaurant in this town. That the statistic you hear, that 60 percent of restaurants fail within a couple of years of opening or something like that, is probably even higher in New York. Part of the problem, I’d wager, is the unrealistic notion many people have about what it takes to run even a marginally profitable restaurant in New York. The demand for cheap food or low prices puts independent restaurateurs and the mom-and-pop shops we like so much at a competitive disadvantage with, say, corporate chains, who are increasingly the only ones able to afford the rent. The irony is that the same folks who insist $11 is an unconscionable amount to charge for a sandwich or a plate of pasta or whatever, regardless of ingredient quality, labor, rent, what have you, often seem to be the first ones to gripe about the advent of the chains.

We’ve had this discussion before. You do realize that for a lot of people $11 is a whole lot to pay for a sandwich, don’t you, moneybags?
Yeah, but for a lot of people, including New York Magazine readers, it isn’t a lot of money, when you look at what consumers giddily shell out for, let’s say, the latest phone upgrade or tech gadget. And cheap is, to some extent, a relative term. When we put together these lists, we always include a range of price points, from dirt cheap to moderate, and state as much. Cheapness alone isn’t the best criterion, after all, for assessing the quality of a restaurant. What I’m interested in, in addition to relative affordability, is what most anyone looks for in a restaurant, which isn’t any one thing but the whole package: Is the food delicious? Is the service friendly? Is there someone in the kitchen or the dining room who’s passionate about what he or she is doing?

Yeah, but as I’ve argued before, the title of the list is still Cheap Eats, and when you say cheap, people assume cheap, or what you’d call dirt cheap.
Okay, I admit it, it would be more accurate to call it the 101 Best New Cheap and Moderately Priced Unpretentious Restaurants That Offer Great Value and Friendly Service. But that doesn’t exactly have a ring to it.

Let’s talk about how we went about our ranking. What made Neerob the best?
I guess the question is: Is No. 1 really better than No. 3 or 5 or 10? And the answer is, well, it depends on whom you ask. It’s subjective. And admittedly, we placed a premium on the unexpected and/or unique, on restaurants that some readers may not have heard about and that we think deserve more attention.

Right, places like Gaia and El Rey are pretty much like no other restaurants you’ll find in New York. But you can’t deny that we were both immediately blown away by Neerob, with its bountiful steam table, lively vibe, organized chaos, and mysteriously efficient service. I remember two or three bites into the goat biryani, looking at each other, and basically blurting out in unison: This is it.
I know I’ve come across something special when I find it impossible to limit myself to just tasting, and feel compelled to gobble everything in sight — no matter how hungry I was previously, or, as is sometimes the case, I wasn’t. That’s the sort of hypnotic spell I found myself under at Neerob

One of the things people seem to always want to know, when we do one of these listicles, is how often we eat out, and what it’s like to eat so much.
Well, I’d say it’s like being in a Groundhog Day-like time loop where every morning you wake up to find yourself enrolled in a series of competitive eating tournaments. But instead of trying to learn how to live a more meaningful day-to-day existence and win the affections of Andie MacDowell, your ultimate goal is to crush Joey Chestnut at the Nathan’s Famous hot-dog-eating contest and take home the Mustard Belt.

You could say that we’ve been preparing for this issue for the past eight years; actually, it was a strict regimen of concentrated gorging for the past several months, spot-checking older places and sampling new ones at a rate that varied between a manageable five to seven meals per week to a more harried and frantic three or four a day as the pub date approached.
Right, which reminds me of what A.J. Liebling said about the problem with writing about food: that there were only two opportunities a day — lunch and dinner — to collect material. Apparently, Liebling wasn’t a morning person, and had never been assigned a listicle.

Yes, eating on deadline, a highly unusual profession. What are your all-time favorite cheap eats?
I have a weakness for Sammy’s Halal and the 53rd-and-Sixth chicken-and-rice carts, a.k.a., the Halal Guys. And La Taza de Oro in Chelsea has always been a favorite.

Mine was Bleecker Luncheonette, no question, which I found by reading Sylvia Carter religiously. They were famous for fantastically comforting, super-green minestrone and whole-wheat bread from Zito’s. Considering that you immediately went to street meat and I rhapsodize about vegetable soup, how do you think we were ever able to agree on placement?
It’s a give and take. For every Victory Garden that you insisted upon, I chose a Taquitoria.

I love Taquitoria!
I know. That’s true. I think people are always surprised by how simpatico we are about the places we write about. Despite your strange predilection for goat’s-milk soft-serve with crumbled halvah, we actually have very similar tastes.

Earlier: The 101 Best (New) Cheap Eats, Ranked

Cheap Eats Q&A: Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite on Assembling the Ultimate