I recently spent almost 2 months in New York without cooking a single meal. Discounting a few meals cooked for me, about 15 mostly average pizza slices, 10 New York (pumpernickel) bagels with (scallion) cream cheese, 2 hot dogs, and 1 bag of nuts, I had many meals with which to explore New York’s vibrant cheap foodie scene and gastronomic institutions. Here are some of my new-found favourites:
Manhattan (Village/E. Village/LES)
Vanessa’s Dumpling House 118 Eldridge St (between Grand St & Broome St)
This is the only restaurant I’ve ever been to where you can get a three-course meal for under $5. Four pan-fried dumplings for $1, sesame pancake with pickled veggies, cilantro and meat for $1-$3, and generous vats of soup for $1-5. Everything on the menu is decent, but favourites include the fried pork and cabbage or chive dumplings (guotie), the Peking duck sesame pancake, and the cucumber salad. Order at the counter and listen for your number. It’s nice to know that there is still a place where panhandlers can get their fill of fairly healthy, tasty fare for a handful of change.
Prosperity Dumplings 46 Eldridge St (between Canal St. & Hester St.)
Vanessa’s competition right down the street. Heard the dumplings here were better so I had to try it. Prosperity is much smaller, literally a hole in the wall, with about 4 chairs and a much smaller menu. I’d say that what they both do, Prosperity does just a teeny bit better, and cheaper (5 dumplings for $1). The dumplings were just a little juicier, with slightly thinner skins, and the pancake with veggies, which I waited 10 minutes for because they were making it fresh, blew my mind. The differences are slight though, so Vanessa’s wins for more variety and more seats.
Rai Rai Ken 214 E 10th St (between 1st Ave & 2nd Ave)
Affordable, tasty Tokyo-style ramen bar. It’s sometimes hard to justify paying $15 for a bowl of soup, but all the ramen at Rai Rai Ken is under $10. Not too salty, which is also often a problem, and a nice uncomplicated menu. Didn’t try the appetizers but they looked interesting. The cook takes your order, gets to work behind the counter, and places a bowl of ramen in front of you within 5 minutes. I’m sure there is better ramen out there but this is pretty darn good for the price.
N.Y. Dosas – Food Cart, 50 Washington Square S
Absolutely delicious, fresh, and healthy South-Indian/Sri Lankan vegetarian food sold from a cart next to Washington Square Park. Places like this are enough to make you want to live in New York. For $6 you can choose from a number of dosa (sour crepe made of rice and lentils) preparations and other ‘lunches’, served with coconut chutney and other accoutrements. Be prepared to wait in line. He is only there around lunchtime and runs out by mid-afternoon.
Artichoke Basille’s Pizza and Brewery 328 E 14th St (between 2nd Ave & 1st Ave)
The richest, most filling slice of pizza you’ll ever have, which is good because they cost a steep $4.50. But rest assured, one slice is a complete meal. They only have 3 or 4 kinds (Artichoke and Spinach, Marguerita, Crab…) but sticking to what they know and do well seems to have paid off. I hear the Marguerita and Crab are great, but they are most famous for the Artichoke slice, which somehow tastes like a creamy, rich artichoke soup on top of the thick, crispy crust. Definitely a unique pizza experience.
Led Zeppole 328 E 14th St (between 2nd Ave & 1st Ave)
Same owners as Artichoke, so though I didn’t eat here this deserves a mention because it is right next door. Zeppoles, funnel cakes, fried oreos, and other artery-clogging goodness. Not sure what happens when combined with a slice of artichoke pizza.
Otafuku 236 E. 9th St (between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave
A take on Japanese street food. Choice of a combination of okonomiyaki (savoury pancake filled with cabbage and your choice of protein, topped with mayonnaise, special sauce, dried bonito flakes and seaweed powder), takoyaki (octopus fritters) and yakisoba, all delicious, fresh, hot, and hovering around $8.
8th St. Kitchen 22 W 8th St (between 5th and 6th Ave)
Casual Korean specializing in small plates like pajeon (Korean-style pancakes), noodle and rice dishes. While some dishes are on the pricier side, the full-meal-sized stews (I had pork and kimchi), served with rice and all-you-can-eat Banchan (side dishes), are mostly priced under $10 and really hit the spot. Go during their happy hour (5-7ish) for half-priced specialty cocktails (like fresh watermelon juice and Korea’s national distilled beverage, Soju).
Bahn Mi Saigon 138 Mott St (between Grand St & Hester St)
Look for the the jewelry store that has a sign at the door that says “Vietnamese Sandwich” with a big arrow pointing inside. Easily the best Bahn Mi that I’ve ever had, and the go-to for many New Yorkers, the sandwiches are generous, fresh, and popping with flavour. At $3.75, the #1 (BBQ ground pork) is a classic, but their other fillers include Sardine, Paté, and Beef Stew.
Brennan and Carr 3432 Nostrand Ave (between Avenue V & Gravesend Neck Rd)
A Brooklyn institution serving ‘hot beef’ sandwiches since 1938 and not much else. Rumour has it, they’ve just been adding to their roast beef jus with every new batch for years. You can have your sandwich 3 ways: gravy on the side (jus comes in a small cup) double-dipped (roast beef is dipped twice in the jus) or KFJ (knife-fork-job: the whole sandwich is dunked in the jus, becoming a soggy delicious mess within seconds). Onion rings and cheese fries are decent, and they have Dr. Pepper. A fun outing, definitely worth the trek to Sheepshead Bay.
L & B Spumoni Gardens 2725 86th St (between 10th St & 11th St)
Another South-Brooklyn institution famous for gigantic square/Sicilian pizzas. Sweet, tangy sauce atop a crust that’s crispy on the bottom and pleasantly undercooked on top, with the cheese under the sauce. I’m not usually a middle-piece kind of gal, but I just couldn’t get enough of that sauce. A 24-slice pie, served in 2 boxes, sets you back $36. There are dozens of picnic tables out front on which to enjoy your meal. Finish it all off with the classic spumoni ice, a perfect mix of creamy and grainy, choc-ful of pistachios. Ask for plenty of rainbow sprinkles.
Brunch in Brooklyn
Egg 135 N 5th St (between Bedford Ave & Berry St)
One really nice thing about having brunch in New York is the availability of eggs and cheeeeesy grits. A lot of great and unique menu items and touches here, like kale and boiled tomatoes. There are also crayons on every table to draw on the paper tablecloths.
Roebling Tea House 143 Roebling St (between Hope St & Metropolitan Ave)
Tom’s 782 Washington Ave (between Sterling Pl & St Johns Pl)
This is the diner on the corner where Suzanne Vega sat waiting for the man to pour the coffee. Didn’t make it here but apparently it’s good, cheap, and when there are lineups they bring you free orange slices, sausages, and coffee outside.
Junior’s 386 Flatbush Ave (there are 2 other locations as well)
Good hearty breakfast that comes with a basket of daily pastries and rolls, but they are especially famous for their cheesecake. Some of the bow-tie-clad waiters have probably been there since it opened in 1950.
There are a couple of delis where you can get great $1 tamales and other delicious Mexican fare:
Original Mexican Food Deli 3011 29th St
Temascales Deli and Bakery 25-22 30th Ave
La Cabana 3318 30th Avenue (deliver until 3 AM…tamales on weekends only)
El Rey Del Taco Truck – parked on 30th ave and 33rd St most nights
Hands down tastiest tacos I had in New York. Tender lengua (pork tongue), juicy Al Pastor (pork marinated with pineapple) and hearty carne asada (roasted meat) on a hand-made tortilla, only $2 each, topped with sour cream, guac, salsa, radishes, chopped onions and cilantro, and some limes for squeezing. Open late into the night.