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Über-Cheap Eats That Will Melt Your Brain: Pao & Cha Cha, Gude Gude, and Kofte Piyaz

Eater's critic Robert Sietsema offers recommendations for cheap and delicious empanadas, wontons, banh mi sandwiches, and Turkish coffee.

Queens has its Peruvian chifas, and several other South American countries are represented in the borough by their Chinese restaurants, too, the food altered for national tastes. Now a Venezuelan-Chinese restaurant has sprung up in Astoria, Queens. Named for its husband-and-wife proprietors, Pao & Cha Cha is the tiniest restaurant imaginable, with only one table and two seats barely fitting inside, and a more commodious four-seat table out front. The snacking menu represents a mixture of street food and home-style specialties, both Chinese and Venezuelan. Oh, and there’s some Japanese in there, too.

Empanadas at Pao and Cha Cha

The empanadas ($3) are delicious, blistered from the fryer and offered with a choice of four fillings: cheese, chicken, pulled pork, and molida — ground beef dotted with vegetables (shown). The green salsa that comes alongside tastes positively Indian, and is on the sweet side.

Dumplings at Pao and cha

Four to an order, the dumplings (wontons, really, with delicate wrappers) bulge with pork and scallions, and come with a novel sauce made from tropical fruit puree, rather than the usual soy-sauce-and-ginger dip. Playeros ($6) is a more formidable feed — four thick slices of fried plantain gobbed with green sauce and cheese, with a squirt or two of hot sauce, real Venezuelan street food and ultra-filling.


More substantial meals, mainly for carryout and delivery, run to fried fish with a coconut crust, various teriyakis, roasted chicken, and ceviche, with full meals in the $10.60 to $12.60 range. If the day is warm, or even if it’s not, consider one of the fruit beverages, especially lulo, also known as naranjillo: It looks something like a small orange, has arresting green flesh, and tastes a little like pineapple. Other choices include passion fruit, soursop, and mango. As if the menu weren’t already strange enough, Vietnamese coffee is also available, cold or hot, at this unusual and remote refectory. 23-03 Astoria Blvd., Queens, (646) 494-6770

Gude Gude

On the Lower East Side and in Chinatown, the Vietnamese sandwich called banh mi remains one of the greatest bastions of cheap eats. In fact, there are over a dozen places where this belt-busting sandwich is available in multiple permutations at $5 or less. Now, another banh mi has appeared that is perhaps lusher than the rest.

Gude Gude

Gude Gude

Gude Gude (pronounced "Good Good"?) is a small neighborhood café across from Sara Roosevelt Park that specializes in bubble tea and mixed Eastern and Western fare that includes hamburgers, chicken nuggets, spring rolls, fried seafood, and steamed dumplings. Around 3 p.m., the doors burst open and the place floods with school kids who share servings of french fries and tropical-fruit milk shakes. But hidden among the colorful placards advertising fast food is an offer of banh mis. Best is BBQ pork, which consists of a demi-baguette well coated with mayonnaise and stuffed with warm, crumbly star-anise sausage and the meat often referred to as pate, which is really more like bologna. Cilantro and plenty of pickled and shredded veggies complete this wonderful sandwich ($4), which is shown with a mango milk shake. Yum! 70B Forsyth St., (212) 219-0820

Kofte Piyaz

Kofte Piyaz

In a region of Sunset Park that’s staunchly Mexican, Dominican, and Salvadoran, a Turkish joint comes as a surprise. Kofte Piyaz plainly states its specialties in its name: the flame-grilled and skinless ground beef sausages (it’s a stretch to call them meatballs) known as kofte, and the creamy white beans called piyaz. The kofte go into very nice and inexpensive sandwiches ($5.80), while the beans appear in a number of salads. The pleasantly unambitious menu rounds out with potato and diced vegetable salads, and a few other grilled sandwich fillings such as chicken breast and shish kebab. A gravestone’s throw from both Green-Wood Cemetery and the park called Sunset Park, the dining room is ultra-comfortable, and one is invited to linger over an ornate demitasse of Turkish coffee. 881 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, (347) 227-7036

All Posts by Sietsema [ENY]

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