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Want Fries With Your Tacos? And Other Great Cheap NYC Eats

Three more awesome cheap eats recommendations from Eater critic Robert Sietsema.

One suspects that Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side was lined with working-class lunch counters 70 or 80 years ago. The most famous example remaining is Lexington Candy Shop at the corner of 83rd, a single Formica counter and line of green Naugahyde booths dating to 1925, still presenting a menu of jelly omelets, egg creams, hamburgers, tuna melts, and sandwiches on white or rye, in addition to a retrograde selection of candy. It's been said this picturesque spot persists if only to serve as a backdrop for period movies and TV shows; certainly the food is no longer rock-bottom cheap, though it compares well with many of the tonier establishments in vicinity.

Robert Sietsema

Two tacos with french fries and a Texas burger at Burger 1 NY.

If you want really, really cheap, check out another lunch counter that persists a few block south, without the picturesqueness and media fanfare that surrounds Lexington Candy Shop. Burger 1 NY is an even smaller establishment with no booths at all, with seating on twirling stools that line a short counter and an eating shelf on the wall opposite. Once, the place had a prosaic menu just like all the other lunch counters that remain in Manhattan, but five years ago a Mexican family from Puebla took the place over and concocted a menu that was half burgers and other standard lunch-counter fare, half tacos, tostadas, and burritos.

The food tends to be delicious, especially for the price. And all sorts of fusion creeps in here and there. For example, a popular order is two tacos served with french fries ($6.50); you can also get a burrito with french fries either inside the flour tortilla or outside. Burrito and taco choices run to chicken, steak, chorizo, or carnitas, of which the steak is particularly good. The tacos come dressed in the traditional Pueblan fashion with chopped raw onions and fresh cilantro, and a choice of salsas. There’s a full roster of hamburgers and triple-decker sandwiches, too. The hamburger that recently blew me away was the Texas burger, which comes with a runny fried egg on top. With fries and slaw, that comes to $7.90, and the burger is a full half-pound. And the family is so sure of their beef supply, they’ll cook it as rare as you want. 1150 Lexington Ave, 212-737-0095.

Above: Dosa and Temple Canteen exterior. Below: Upma with chutney.

Those accustomed to getting their dosa, idlis, and uttapams at the long-running Dosa Hutt in front of the Ganesha temple on Bowne Street in Flushing, Queens, may be surprised to discover there’s a second restaurant located right inside the temple building, open to the public. Known as the Temple Canteen, it occupies the basement and is accessed via a separate door around the corner on Holly Avenue. The room is vast and low-ceilinged, filled with dozens of collapsible tables, and it is open from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., seven days. A counter runs along one side of the room with photos of many dishes up above, and there's a menu that is both vast and inexpensive. The place is strictly vegetarian and mainly South Indian and Sri Lankan, and you will find a warm welcome there.

From a list of 25 dosas, my friends and I ordered a butter dosa filled with potatoes and paneer, and a Hyderabadi dosa that had herbs baked into the pancake. Both were delicious, served with a river of thin green coconut chutney. In addition, we had a serving of upma (a vegetable-studded wheat porridge) and dahi vada (lentil doughnuts swimming in yogurt). Not quite full yet, we also ordered an uttapam dotted with chiles, peas, and carrots. Like the dosas, it was served with yogurt and the soup called sambar. Everything was delicious, and perhaps a dollar or two less than the equivalent dishes at the Dosa Hutt – though the chutneys are thicker at the free-standing restaurant, and a chunky peanut chutney is provided in addition to coconut. 45-57 Bowne St, Queens,(718) 460-8484.

Above: Pi Bakerie exterior. Below: Pastitisio and salad.

Located in Soho on Grand Street, Pi Bakerie is a branch of the excellent Artopolis in Astoria. The original place carries a full line of Greek baked goods, though the specialty is the powdered sugar-dusted nut cookies called kourambiethes. While the original place has little seating, Pi is really more of a Greek coffee shop such as you might see in the vicinity of Ditmars Boulevard, and it carries many more savory items than its parent. Included are rich, large squares of pastitisio and moussaka, and as many as a dozen hand-held phyllo pies, some open-faced and ostentatiously bearing a sunny-side-up egg. Some constitute a sort of Greek pizza, while others are fully enclosed like an empanada. The interior is sumptuous, the products gleaming from a series of cabinets, but the staff is a little halting and clueless when it comes to serving their eager patrons.

Never mind, the food is worth the wait. In addition to savory pastries, a salad or two is available every day, often including olives, raisins, feta, and dandelion greens or spinach. There’s even a special available each day, matching a pie or casserole with a salad. The food is good and relatively cheap, and it’s one of my favorite places to grab a bite in Soho. 512 Broome St, (212) 226-2701.

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