Eater critic Robert Sietsema rounds up another series of picks for standout old-school meals in New York City.
This series explores the durable mainstays of the cheap eats demimonde, an oft-neglected collection of spectacular places that have provided inexpensive meals, often for decades. These are New York restaurants that can be depended on day in and day out.
A-Wah — This small but labyrinthine space offers Chinese food from a Hong Kong perspective, with little of the spaghetti-and-spam outlook of more modern Hong Kong cafes. Its specialty is rice casseroles prepared on a special stovetop and served in a pre-soaked ceramic crock so the rice stays moist. Choices include eel, chicken leg, butterfly fish, and minced pork. Skip the charcuterie and head for the congee, available in 16 variations, or the Hong Kong-style lo mein. Clam soup with mei fun noodles is pictured. 5 Catherine St, 212-925-8308
Chao Thai — Though its more ambitious sibling Chao Thai Too sadly closed, the orange-awninged original just north of the Long Island Rail Road viaduct in Elmhurst remains open. For years it was one of the few purveyors of Isan food in the city, with a farflung menu that would scald your mouth when you wanted it to. If the catfish larb made with lattice-like dried specimens is available, grab it! The yen ta fo noodle soup is another revelation, colored pink with fermented bean paste. Anything you pick here is likely to be spectacular. 85-03 Whitney Ave, Queens, (718) 424-4999
Ecuatoriana — Most Ecuadorian restaurants in NYC are a little short on space and service, but this Hamilton Heights spot boasts two dining rooms, counter seating, and a juice bar. The ceviches are particularly trustworthy, especially the cebiche mixto con conchas negras (shown), which contains six seagoing ingredients including black clam. Also worth traveling a great distance for is the fried corvina, a mild fish native to South American waters served in huge filets. Wow! Bigger appetites will turn to one of the all-in platters, such as bandeja paisa. 1685 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 491-4626
Ennju — If you think there’s no such thing as fast and cheap where Japanese food is concerned, think again. Ennju has lingered near Union Square for over a decade serving as a sort of clubhouse for Japanese expats. A line of sushi chefs carve away as you enter and their output is displayed in a self-serve refrigerator case — but devotees know they can also request their fish freshly cut. Ennju additionally offers set hot meals that change on a daily basis (katsudon is pictured). 20 E 17th St, (646) 336-7004
Fried Dumpling — This younger sibling of the city’s first dollar dumpling stall on Allen Street is every bit as good as its now-defunct sister, serving up wonderful homemade chive-and-pork pot stickers at the almost unbelievable price of five for a dollar. (Many of its competitors have raised the price to four for a dollar.) The amazing thing apart from the price is that the place has avoided the menu sprawl of its competitors, so that the entire bill of fare comprises only six items. Find it on the incredibly obscure Mosco Street. 106 Mosco St, (212) 693-1060
Inca Chicken — A chorus line of nicely browned birds kicking and flipping is the first thing you spy looking in the smeary windows of this Peruvian joint, one of several emporia in the neighborhood specializing in rotisserie chickens. The poultry is spectacular — moist, spice-rubbed, and falling-apart tender — and the accompanying french fries are perfectly adequate, especially when dipped in the mysterious green sauce provided on the side. Apart from a few other options like a club sandwich and a handful of salads, not much else is available besides various cooked permutations of plantain and yuca. 122 Wyckoff Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 366-3763
Joe’s Lobster House — Often styled Lobster House Joe’s, this long-running Italian seafood shack in the Midland Beach section of Staten Island excels at fresh fish and shellfish in elegantly simple preparations. The double dining room, perpetually filled with families, faces Hylan Boulevard and is sunny during the day; dining room appointments are rudimentary and nautically themed. Any cold seafood salad is a delight, and the lobsters are steamed just enough and not too much, so the flesh is sweet and tender. Red-sauced linguine with various sorts of seafood is also recommended. 1898 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island, (718) 667-0003
John’s Famous Deli — This so-called deli — more of a full-menu steam table joint, dating to 1968 — perfectly captures the terroir of its Gravesend location, with some of the best southern Italian fare in the borough. Flagship of the food fleet is the roast beef hero, topped with scintillatingly fresh mozzarella that melts over the hot sliced meat, still pink in the middle, as the counterman ladles over the brown gravy. Other favorite choices: potato and egg hero (working-class brunch), baked ziti, and the Friday-only shrimp parmigiana hero. 2033 Stillwell Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 372-7481
Peppa’s Jerk Chicken — A Flatbush fixture for two decades (originally across the street and known as Danny and Pepper), Peppa’s purveys some of the neighborhoods finest, the jerk bird dipped in a vinegary spice rub with lots of ground pimento (known also as allspice), native to Jamaica. Pick the jerk sauce made from Scotch bonnet peppers and carry your container of chicken out to nearby Prospect Park, since there are no seats in Peppa’s. Sides include festival, a sweet linear doughnut. 738 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, (646) 683-6012
Rural Restaurant — Pine nut and corn succotash (shown), preserved cabbage noodle soup (tastes just like sauerkraut), dry spicy bean curd, and a tart salad known simply on the English menu as coriander herb — all these infinitely delectable dishes taste like they could have come from anywhere but China. Welcome to the wacky world of Dongbei cooking. Flushing’s Rural Restaurant is an intimate spot with only a few tables, but the perfect place to acquaint yourself with a cuisine that entails Sichuan, Russian, and German influences galore. 42-85 Main St, Queens, (718) 353-0086
Sapthagiri — What may be Little India’s most distinguished restaurant of the two dozen that line Newark Avenue and surrounding streets is named after seven sacred hills in India, each representing a Hindu sage. This strictly vegetarian restaurant specializes in South India cooking, but throws Gujarati and Northern Indian into the mix. Begin with fleecy, turmeric-laced Kanchipuram idli (shown), then gobble a serving of pani poori and go on to aloo gobi, washed down with a lassi or chai tea. Biggest surprise: cashew curry. All-in meals called thalis are also available. 804 Newark Ave, Jersey City, NJ, (201) 533-8400
Tabata Ramen — This four-year-old tucked behind the Port Authority has one of the most creative ramen menus in town, and fantastic apps and side dishes at comparatively low prices. The voluptuous black sesame ramen with a porky broth ("dark men," see picture) is dramatic and delicious, and so is the menu’s signature Tabata ramen, which features soybean powder and coconut milk. But such classics as shoyu and shio ramen are also splendidly prepared. The fried chicken, nose-clearing wasabi shumai, and tofu with dashi sauce are recommended as starters. 540 9th Ave, (212) 290-7691