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The Past, Present, and Future of Cheap Eats in New York City

For Cheap Eats Week, Eater critic Robert Sietsema looks forward.

Robert Sietsema

At Eater New York we find ourselves preoccupied with the real estate market and the effect it has on restaurants. On a daily basis, reports surface of well-liked establishments going under due to ridiculous rent increases. Meanwhile, places that are able to stay in business often do so by means of spiraling menu prices, so that modest bistro-level establishments that once charged an average of 50 bucks a head now deliver checks in the $75 to $100 range, pricing out many potential customers. Other eateries have resorted to sky-high prix fixe menus to make ends meet, making us wonder: Who can afford to spend $100 to $200 for meals on a regular basis? And buy a $75 bottle of wine on top of that?

But at the lower end of the dining spectrum, in the sainted realm of cheap eats, things have remained relatively stable over the same period. As old favorites go out of business for a variety of reasons, new ones inexorably pop up with equally low prices, in a sort of urban miracle. Twenty years ago you could eat a full meal in Chinatown for around $4; now, approximately paralleling inflation, $5 gets you the same huge plate of rice with duck or roast pork and a side of veggies. Yes, the vegetable has changed from bok choy to the cheaper steamed cabbage, but the plate functions just the same to fill you up nicely and leave you licking your lips.

Hot dog joints — strategically placed every quarter mile or so — continue to provide immediate culinary satisfaction with food that is relentlessly meaty and salty. While the upscale restaurateur wants to charge $18 and more for a single small, damp, droopy pie, the neighborhood pizzeria remains a bastion of cheap eats, with two-slices-and-a-soft-drink specials still firmly in place at $5. And showing how resourceful and price-conscious restaurant proprietors can be at the extreme lower end, dollar-slice joints started materializing in major urban traffic areas five years ago, making a cheap meal available to even the most cash-strapped customers.

Chains like Five Guys provide hamburgers good enough for most foodies at discount prices, and the excellent fries are an even better deal. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn such as Coney Island and Ditmas Park have become famous for their shawarma counters, whereat a fully loaded lamb or chicken sandwich — almost too much for one person — runs $5 or less. Falafel is another staple of discount dining and the mainstay of vegetarians across the five boroughs, where sumptuous condiments and bread dips such as hummus, babaganoush, and garlicked yogurt increase the pleasure of the inexpensive menu tenfold.

We've seen an earth-shaking multiplication of Mexican taquerias

And during the last decade or so, we’ve seen an earth-shaking multiplication of Mexican taquerias, with epicenters in Bushwick, Sunset Park, Corona, East Harlem, Manhattan’s Upper Broadway, and Hell’s Kitchen, where a pair of big meaty tacos and a Jarritos run $6, and burritos provide even bigger feeds at a similar price. In fact, newly opened immigrant cafes from all corners of the world continue to be the city’s most durable cheap eats havens, places where you can always depend on a belt-busting meal for $10 or less — and that often includes tax.

At a slightly higher price, neighborhood Thai restaurants also emerged in the same time period, partly replacing but never completely eclipsing our traditional Chinese-American spots, which have been discount dining fixtures in most neighborhoods since the late 1940s. There you can still get over-rice meals for $5 to $10, and many of those places have been doing superb fried chicken and french fries for the last score of years, in addition to the stray Thai and Japanese dish. Speaking of Japanese, their grocery stores have become a reliable source of cheap eats in various parts of Manhattan.

Competing with dollar slice joints are the northern Chinese dumpling stalls, where a single Washington gets you four (or five!) pot stickers stuffed with scallions and pork, or a cup of hot-and-sour soup, or a quartet of steamed buns, and two gets you a sesame-bread sandwich. Increasingly, these places have branched out in their dumpling choices so that those who don’t relish pork can choose a dozen other fillings, some of them vegetarian. In Chinatowns especially, other dollar possibilities abound, including stalls and storefronts selling cooked meat assortments, dried shrimp or vegetables wrapped in rice noodle, freshly made tofu with ginger syrup, fried spring rolls, and little Hong Kong cakes almost unbelievably descended from the waffles of East Asian Dutch colonialists four centuries ago. A conventional tuna sandwich can be had for $2 at many Chinese bakeries.

As 19th century crusading journalist William Thomas Stead noted, "The people must be fed." Cheap eats continue to be everywhere you look in the city, belying rent increases, inflated food costs, and customers increasingly devoted to online ordering services. One can only conclude that, as long as there’s a New York, we will always have delectable and inexpensive food.

And for more of Eater's cheap eats coverage, look here.