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The Amazing Focaccia Sandwich at Café al Mercato and Other Cheap Eats

Three great cheap eats suggestions from New York critic Robert Sietsema.

The concrete bunker of the Arthur Avenue Market has been in Belmont, Bronx, since Mayor Fiorella La Guardia established it in 1940 for the express purpose of getting pushcart vendors off the city’s crowded streets. Miraculously, it still persists with a jumble of stalls selling meat, produce, garden supplies, myriad types of dried pasta, and fish — and even a tiny cigar factory, where workers sit all day and roll, roll, roll. In the back of this fascinating structure lurks Café al Mercato, one of the city’s most under-appreciated restaurants, with prices pitched low to appeal to market workers, and a display of soups, sandwiches, pizzas, and braises behind its glass counters to delight the eye.

Mercato's sandwich on focaccia; tripe.

Sure, you can get a great pizza there — thin crust or thick — and pastas galore with sauces that run from puttanesca to spicy Calabrese to white clam sauce with a pleasantly bitter edge. There are composed salads, too, and the kind of perfectly cooked vegetables like escarole and broccoli rabe that southern Italians are famous for. But why not go for one of the café’s novel sandwiches on focaccia, cut into fat wedges? The one featuring pounded and fried veal, along with melted mozzarella, tomato sauce, and slightly cooked spinach is absolutely delicious — and you won’t walk away hungry. The tripe soup is worth ordering as well, especially if you like your tripe with a slightly skanky flavor. 2344 Arthur Ave, Bronx, (718) 364-7681.

Soul Spot's exterior and fried chicken.

West Africans making soul food is a delightful idea, and that is what you’ll find at Soul Spot, via chef Yaya Ceesay. The fried chicken is exemplary — cut in smaller pieces than usual to increase the crunchy surface area — and its natural accompaniments are two vegetables also savored in Africa, yams and okra. The stewed okra is especially good, and so is the cornbread that accompanies this bargain plate of food. Depending on day and what hits the steam table, meatloaf, oxtails, smothered chicken, roast pork chops, and such Caribbean fare as curry goat and jerk chicken will also be available. Plenty of vegetarian sides to make a pleasing meal, too, but the fried chicken is the thing to get on a first visit. Very convenient to the Barclays Center. 302 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, 646-229-3105.

Tandoor Place's haleem and exterior.

We’re so obsessed with the influx of regional Indian cuisines, especially from the southern reaches of the country, that we’ve pretty much let old-guard Punjabi fare — from the borderlands of northern India and Pakistan — fall by the wayside. That’s a shame, because it remains one of the best sources of cheap, humongous lunches. Wall Street old timer Tandoor Palace is just such a place. Accessible by stairs and a cluttered catwalk that makes you feel like you’re overseas, the restaurant boasts a steam table room where you pick up your victuals, and a large, labyrinthine dining room. The ground-lamb dish called haleem is particularly flavorful, and vegetarians will particularly enjoy the palak paneer, luxuriant with rubbery cheese chunks and nicely spicy. Pick the tandoori bread over the rice on the $7.50 special — it’s as large as a small child, and much crisper. 88 Fulton St, 212-349-7643.

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