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The Best and Cheapest Pho in Brooklyn, and Other Great Bargains

Installment number 26 in Robert Sietsema’s "Great Cheap Eats" series.

Most Vietnamese places have big menus, extending to 100 or more dishes. Hell, the multiple variations on pho alone are enough to drive you crazy. Which is why it was such a pleasure to stroll into Bensonhurst’s Little Saigon Pearl. This small café on a side street has only five tables and a sparse menu of 20 dishes, and picking what to eat is easier as a result. The bill of fare evokes the food of Ho Chi Minh City’s Cho Ben Thanh Market. As the menu advises of the market, "Go here for real Vietnamese food…there are many vendors and food stalls, most of them preparing food freshly made to order."

Little Saigon Pearl's exterior and pho. Pictured above: Kim Tien.

Number one on the menu, the rolls called kim tien are a "don’t miss" dish. Each consists of a shrimp wrapped along with vermicelli and pork sausage in rice paper and deep fried, served with nuoc cham, a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. Accompanying are oak leaf lettuce and fresh mint, used to bundle up the rolls prior to dunking. Available in only one version that contains all the usual beefy inclusions plus bouncy beef balls, the pho is superb, with a broth a little lighter and sweeter than usual. The price is $6.95, making it one of the cheapest phos in town, and the rice noodles are especially fragrant. A chalkboard lists two or three specials per day, recently including fiery bun bo soup from Hue, and a bahn mi. 9 Bay 35th St, Brooklyn, 718-996-8808

Above: Food Hut's escovitch fish. Below: Exterior and jerk chicken.

As Harlem gentrifies, Jamaican eateries are not getting any easier to find. One stalwart (it would qualify as a Cheap Eats Classic) is the plainly monikered Food Hut, located in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood just south of 145th Street. Order at the Plexiglas window and sit at one of a half-dozen or so comfortable tables as you wait for your order. The jerk chicken is great — though not as smoky as some — and that choice is complemented by 10 steam-table selections per day, running to oxtails, curry chicken and goat, brown stew chicken, and cow foot soup.

All main courses come in three sizes, of which the cheapest, at $6.95, includes two vegetables and a profuse heap of rice and peas. You can also get snacks such as beef and vegetarian patties from a glass case on the counter (though there’s a bakery across the street devoted almost exclusively to patties and coco bread), and sweets like coconut drops. Breakfasts are served in the morning, such as liver and porridge and saltfish and ackee. The most summery dish is a sweet-and-sour fish escovitch that includes two fried and pickled filets. 1709 Amsterdam Ave, 212-491-4492

Chennai Dosa Express exterior and butter dosa.

There must be 20 restaurants in Jersey City’s Little India that serve dosas — now there’s one more. Appearing recently right on Kennedy Boulevard, cater corner from the White Castle, Chennai Dosa Express is smaller than the other places, though the list of dosas, specialty dosas, and rava dosas is no less long. The space already has a pleasantly lived-in look and a friendly couple presides behind the cluttered order counter.

On a first pass a friend and I took a couple of unfilled dosas for a road test. One of the fieriest of the species is the gunpowder dosa, in this case a long, crisp brown cylinder with red pepper powder inside, which spilled from the end onto the tray and table. No matter, it was as hot as we’d wished. We also checked out the butter dosa, which arrived tasting faintly but satisfyingly of butter. Why go to Chennai Dosa Express rather than one of the other places? Well, the dosas are just as good and priced slightly less ($3.50 to $6), though you may miss the ambiance of competitors such as Sri Ganesh’s Dosa House. 2986 Kennedy Blvd, Jersey City, NJ, 201-963-8900

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