Eater critic Robert Sietsema shares standout cheap restaurants.
With a very high proportion of vowels to consonants, pao de queijo is one of Brazil’s most famous dishes — bouncy little baked cheese balls, the elastic properties of which are attributable to the manioc flour they’re made from. They’re delectable and fun to eat, and — priced at seven for $2 — a really good deal. Pao de Queijo is also the name of a delightful snack shop just off of Broadway in Astoria, so close to the Broadway stop on the N and Q that it’s no trouble getting there from many parts of town. In addition to the cheese balls, oblong fritters called coxinhas are also available on a rotating basis: Check the glass warming case by the front door.
But the real raison d’etre for this cozy little place are the burgers, Brazilian style. Indeed, Cariocans are as serious about their hamburgers as Yankees are, but they have totally different ideas about how to dress them. Common additions include pineapple, fried eggs, ham, bananas, corn kernels, and potato sticks — you know, those fried spud toothpicks normally shaken from a can, and nearly forgotten in the United States as a snack. One of my favorite burgers here is the X Calabresa (does "X" stand for Extreme?) — a good-sized patty with two types of white cheese, lettuce, tomato, corn, potato sticks, an egg, and a slice of smoked sausage. The thing will set you back only $7.50, and you won’t miss the french fries. By the way, ask for specials when you go to Pan de Queijo. Sometimes there’s black beans and rice, sometimes an entire feijoada, the national dish of black beans stewed with various pig parts. 31-90 30th Street, Queens, (718) 204-1979.
When XO Kitchen opened in Manhattan’s Chinatown in 1999, it was one of the first establishments to champion the food of Hong Kong, which is like Cantonese with lots of European and Southeast Asian flourishes thrown in. That means a menu where your starch choices run not only to rice and baton-size crullers (which go with the rice soup called congee), but spaghetti and spuds in diverse guises. Yes, the spaghetti is way overcooked, but the Hong Kong club kids and adults who frequent this place like it that way. And while you’re at it, throw on a little Velveeta cheese. The two dining rooms affect a rustic demeanor; a little wooden footbridge with no other function but cuteness connects them.
Nowadays, the entire interior is plastered with photographs of the culinary offerings, many introduced in the last five years, effectively doubling the size of an already gigantic menu. The food is very good in a meaty and starchy sort of way, and the newer dishes often display Japanese and American influences — it’s what’s hip on the cheap end of the Hong Kong food scene. One dish a friend and I tried lately was a Japanese spin on fried chicken, offering a giant heap of nuggets freshly cut from the bird and squirted with a slightly sweet wasabi sauce. Tasting like something you might eat on a ship during a long voyage, planks of smoked beef jerky were offered with frozen vegetables in a tomatoey brown gravy over spaghetti. In a more traditional vein, we enjoyed a congee with plenty of abalone and sea snails in its depth, prettily decorate with chopped scallions. (This combo is said to be an aphrodisiac.) Afterward, we scrambled out into the drifting snow, feeling well satiated. 148 Hester Street, (212) 965-8645.
Of the handful of old-timey Spanish-Caribbean lunch counters remaining in what was once known as the Wholesale District, only a very few remain. Displaying a Dominican bent, foremost is Latin American Restaurant. Sit at the long counter in front if there’s room, because that’s where you’ll hear all the gossip of the day between the regulars, who dash in for a cup of café con leche, and the hardworking staff who gyrate behind the counter. The $7.99 collection of specials is one of the city’s great lunch deals, including a voluminous main course served with your choice of rice and beans or french fries. The platter is huge, and the food nearly overflows it.
The other day I had the pork hash called lechon, and today it was pollo guisado. The chicken was falling-off-the-bone tender, and it had been stewed in more garlic than you’ve probably ever tasted in one spot before. There are pressed sandwiches, and made-to-order (and consequently more expensive) dishes like chicharron de pollo, which is fried chicken that has been marinated in white vinegar for a nice sour tang. If you get there before 11 a.m., a cut-rate Dominican breakfast of eggs, yuca, cheese, and sausages is available. 29 West 26th Street, (212) 689-2570.