Eater critic Robert Sietsema brings back a Classics Week favorite, his third roundup of 12 of the city's best long-standing cheap eats.
These are restaurants that have provided inexpensive meals day in and day out, often for decades, like an old friend always there when you need her but often overlooked. And for the price, the food is good to excellent. (Note: the restaurants are presented in alphabetical order.)
Banh Mi Saigon — It started on Mott Street as a small sandwich counter in the back of a jewelry store, but soon caught on and moved around the corner, at which point it became a giant sandwich shop with jewelry as an afterthought. Secret of success is that the shop bakes its own crisp baguettes, much lighter than regular baguettes, from which Vietnamese sandwiches are made using house-pickled vegetables and plenty of fresh cilantro. Order #1 and discover that the crumbly pork sausage is also fabricated on the premises. Vietnamese snacks are also available in profusion, including crisp taro bird’s nests with a shrimp instead of a bird, cooling summer rolls wrapped in rice paper (shown), and pork sashimi squares. 198 Grand St, (212) 941-1541
Bennie’s Thai Café — This modest premises in a concrete subterranean ditch below Fulton Street — which started out 15 years ago as a small sideline in a Blimpie’s — is by far the best Thai restaurant in the Wall Street area. The ground pork or chicken salads called larbs (see picture) are especially refreshing in summer, ramped up with more chiles than you might expect in a café catering to office workers. Also frequently extolled are the pork green curry and the grilled chicken, which comes with a hot sweet sauce. And for a change, the pad Thai doesn’t suck. 88 Fulton St, (212) 587-8930
First Oasis — With a history that goes back to 1974, this modern Syrian restaurant is the soul of hospitality, and a good place for a leisurely meal not far from the R terminus in Bay Ridge (pre- or post-meal, stroll over to see New York’s Lower Bay). Recommended dishes include the bread salad called fattoush, a garlicky hummus irrigated with olive oil and heaped with grilled lamb tidbits; the domed lamb pie called ouzi; and, especially, the raw kibbeh, which mixes bulgur, herbs, walnuts, and spices with ground lamb, and provides vegetables on the side for scooping. [Photo: Marcus V./Yelp] 9218 4th Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 238-4505
Hornado Ecuatoriana — The opulent and well-lit interior features vases of yellow artificial flowers, a well-stocked bar, and a panoramic photo of Quito, ringed by the Andes Mountains. Specialty of the house is roast pig, which comes on a huge platter with salad, cheesy potato patties called llapingachos, and mote — white kernels of hominy corn. The meat is copious and richly textured, with a bronzed swatch of skin surmounting the heap. Belt-busting platters run in the neighborhood of $13, and there are snacks, too, including quimbolitos (meat-and-raisin-stuffed tamales), ceviches, meal-size soups, and salchipapas — a toss of little hot dogs and french fries. 7618 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, (718) 205-7357
John’s Fried Chicken — Inwood mainstay John’s fries up some of the best chicken in town. Steps from the 207th Street stop on the elevated 1 train, it offers the bird from a Dominican perspective: first marinated in white vinegar, giving the poultry a pleasantly sour tang. The fries are of the shoestring variety and exemplary, and the menu fills out with inexpensive ceviches, roast pork, rice with pigeon peas, boiled yuca, and such Dominican desserts as rice pudding, dulce de leche, and of course Jello. 512 W 207th St, (212) 567-6489
Kelso — This long-running holdout against the hipsterization of Crown Heights’ Franklin Avenue peddles the African-Caribbean cooking of Panama, quite a wonderful Central American micro-cuisine. (The name suggests the place might have been, before the current establishment was founded in 1969, Scandinavian.) The menu features ojalda (a West African fritter), jerk oxtails (Jamaican style), curried liver and onions, escovitch fish (in a vinegar-laced pepper sauce that originated in Spain), and — don’t be surprised — spaghetti and meatballs, reflecting the indirect influence of Brooklyn’s Italian population. And the food is several notches better than one might expect given its hyper-eclectic nature. 648 Franklin Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 857-4137
Leo’s Latticini — Though Nancy DeBenedittas, the "Mama" of this ancient Corona cheese store and sandwich shop, died in 2009 at the age of 90, the place soldiers on, making absolutely lush heros, both hot and cold. There are daily hot lunch specials, but most patrons opt for the sub sandwiches, including a particularly cheesy eggplant parm. Lovers of spicy food might pick the Extra Hot, with hot cappy, pepperoni, and hot pepper cheese, though the sentimental favorite remains Mama’s Special (shown): Genoa salami, prosciuttini, and fresh mozzarella on a semolina roll. 46-02 104th St., Queens, 718-898-6069
San Antonio Bakery — This rare Chilean establishment is a combination bakery and dining room, an informal spot where you collect your eats at a counter and then find a table in a dining room that furnishes views of the Grand Central Expressway. If you haven’t had one before, the South American dressed hot dog called the completa is a wonderful introduction to the cuisine: a fat frank heaped with guacamole, mayo, tomatoes, lettuce, and sauerkraut. Other sandwiches are named for Chilean politicians, and each day a small menu of hot main courses is offered including grilled fish, meal-size chowders, and an abalone-and-potato stew. 36-20 Astoria Blvd, Queens, (718) 777-8733
Tacos Rodriguez — This modest taqueria with a window right on bustling Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights and a comfy dining room in the rear shares space with a beauty parlor. The ambitious menu includes all the Pueblan standards, such as chiles relleno by the pair, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, huaraches with a variety of toppings squiggled with copious amounts of crema, and the vegetarian delight chicharron de harina: a humongous artificial pig skin made of wheat topped with avocado and a half-dozen other things, as shown in the picture. 8904 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, (718) 426-7156
Taim — You can sample chef Einat Admony’s upmarket take on Israeli cuisine at either Balaboosta or Bar Bolonat, but before either of those there was her determinedly downscale falafel stand in the West Village. Located near the corner of Perry and West 4th, it offers little in the way of seating and lots in the way of flavor, featuring three types of falafel in rich sandwiches made with puffy pitas — not the penurious kind that crumble when you open the pocket. Another cravable pita sandwich is called sabich, filled with fried eggplant slices, a boiled egg, chopped Israeli salad, and amba, a sharp mango pickle. 222 Waverly Pl, (212) 691-1287
Terry’s Gourmet Foods — Know where to get a Trinidadian roti? Well, though they abound in Flatbush and Crown Heights, these proto-wraps of an Indian flatbread stuffed with chicken, potatoes, and chickpeas (other filling combinations available) are as scarce as hen’s teeth Manhattan. One place to get a great version is at this modest deli in Chelsea, where the fillings run to chicken curry, beef curry, or, for vegetarians, just the curried potatoes and chickpea mixture that normally accompany the other fillings. Request the Scotch bonnet sauce be put in by the spoonful (three is hot as hell), and don’t get it on the side, because you’ll make a mess trying to unwrap the roti to add it. 575 6th Ave, (212) 206-0170.
Vanessa’s Dumpling House — Along with the now-defunct Fried Dumpling on Essex Street, this is the joint that started it all a decade ago, a cheap eats craze for Chinese dumplings that has persisted to this day. The current premises represents an aggressive branding and factory-style take on the phenomenon, with rows of ladies fashioning the luscious pork-and-vegetable dumplings, still only four for a dollar, that can be had fried or steamed. In addition, there are sandwiches made with a spongy sesame flatbread, hot and sour soup, over-noodle dishes, and don’t forget the side of kimchi, showing the affection for that condiment in northern China. 118 Eldridge St, (212) 625-8008