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The Contest Day 2 Dinner: Keeping the Hunger Wolves at Bay

The cheap eats challenge keeps chugging along — but things ares starting to get frayed around the edges.

[Falafel sandwich with extra tomatoes by Jarret Meskin]
[Falafel sandwich with extra tomatoes by Jarret Meskin]

Welcome back to the down-n-dirty cheap eats extravaganza known simply as The ContestSince Monday, seven Eater editors have been spending $10 per day on meals. All their food was purchased from restaurants, carts, and guys in alleyways peddling dollar kebabs from their raincoats. One editor, Devra Ferst, tapped out last night.  Here's a rundown of what everyone else ate for dinner.

If you're playing along at home, please share your day three meals in the forums, and don't forget to tag any photos on Instagram or Twitter with #thecontest.

Dinner on Tuesday, July 14:

Player: Sonia Chopra

Purchase: Jhal muri ($1.50), iftar box ($2.50), ube ice cream sandwiches ($2.75), all prices have been split in half. Remainder: $0

Order/Strat: A friend of mine lives in Jackson Heights, so we met up after work with a tentative game plan and a combined $13.65: a Bangladeshi snack, Tibetan noodle soup or momos, and kulfi falooda — an Indian dessert made with kulfi, vermicelli, rose syrup, tapioca, and basil seeds. We grab the snack,jhal muri (puffed rice, chickpeas, and sev mixed with tomatoes, green chiles, onions, tamarind paste, mustard oil, lemon, and spices), from a cart on the street and it comes in a pretty sizeable container for $3. We can't finish it.

From then we walk around a bit trying to decide what to eat. A lot of the halal restaurants are offering iftar box specials because it's Ramadan — iftar is the meal eaten to break the fast each evening. Ours is $4.99 and comes with two dates, biriyani, kala chanas, aloo, two onion and two mixed veg pakoras, and a piece of fried chicken. It should have had fish but they were sold out, which worked in my vegetarian favor. Because it's customary to break fast with dates, I thought about eating mine first, but I hate dates so instead I ate it in the middle of my meal, quickly followed by more pakora.

Of course our falooda has increased in price from $5 to $6, and after a quick regroup my teammate and area expert suggests a walk to a Woodside Filipino restaurant, House of Inasal, where we get an order of very pretty ube (purple yam) ice cream sandwiches served with halaya, coconut, and toasted rice flakes for $5.50 (also up from $5 but what can you do?).

What I really want for breakfast is fruit chaat, chopped up pieces topped with cumin, chili powder, and chaat masala, a common Indian snack that I normally avoid at costs. What is this contest doing to me?

Baul Dada Jhal Muri Shop. 37-07 73rd St, Jackson Heights.
Al Araf Halal Fried Chicken. 76-03 37th Ave, Jackson Heights. (718) 779-7375.
House of Inasal. 65-14 Roosevelt Ave, Woodside. (718) 429-0709.

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Player: Vince Dixon

Order/Strat: Wrapping up street food day, I went to Rafiqi's food truck on 39th and 5th. Rafiqi's is one of the best halal food trucks in the city — just check the rave reviews on Yelp. It's cheap ($3 falafel sandwiches), fast and flavorful. I ordered a chicken platter over rice, which comes with a side salad. Everything is topped with Rafiqi's famous "white sauce."

It was all just $5 (it's usually $5.50, but I arrived at the very end of the day when the truck almost ran out of chickpeas for the salad and the operator was in a good mood). That left me with $1 left, which I used to buy munchkins from Dunkin' Donuts.

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Player: Jarret Meskin

Purchase: falafel sandwich: $3.50

Strat: With $4 remaining for dinner, I find myself at Mamoun's on St. Marks waiting in an unusually long line for my falafel sandwich. I eat at Mamoun's pretty regularly, so this is standard fare. However, I'm desperate for anything even remotely resembling a vegetable, so I ask the employee to give me "extra salad" in my sandwich. A bit perplexed a first, he kindly obliges. Take a look at all those beautiful tomatoes.

Mamoun's Falafel | 22 St. Marks Place, New York, NY 10003 (multiple locations)

Player: Robert Sietsema

Order/Strat: I scrimped and saved to retain $6.75 for Tuesday's dinner. But when I got to Christopher Golden Woks, the dish I was angling for — shrimp egg foo young, a personal favorite — was priced at $8.25, considerably over my budget. I considered trying to find someone to share dinner with but was so hungry, I started trolling the menu for another signature Chinese-American dish.

My eye fell on shrimp Szechuan [sic] style, a classic consisting of baby shrimp in a gooey red sauce. It was much admired when it was introduced to the city on the Upper West Side in the 70s, where, with no small irony, Sichuan food first appeared in New York.

The pint (small) size was $6.50, which perfectly fit my budget. What arrived, was far different from the classic dish, with big crustaceans in a sweet, soy-driven sauce, and oodles of vegetables. It was really very good, and voluminous, too. I wolfed it down in under five minutes.

Total expenditure for the day: $9.75

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Player: Amanda Kludt

Purchase: one frijole y queso papusa, one tamal de pollo
Place: Bahia

Cost: $4

Strat: My theory on the contest when we conceived it was that it would push me to explore all kinds of new and delightful neighborhoods outside of where I live and work. But in fact, due to a combination of busy-ness and laziness, it's actually forced me to find great deals in the places where I often spend $15 for lunch (Midtown) or over $25 for dinner (Williamsburg). So, still a win.

My husband and I usually go to this wonderful Salvadoran restaurant Bahia when we're sick because they have a killer chicken soup. But I also remember loving their papusas (corn cakes filled with things) and their chicken tamal (which tastes just like my husband's granmother's hallacas that she used to make at New Year's). So I got one of each — they came with a bonus cup of marinara sauce — and had a hearty, fairly greasy, and delicious dinner. 
Remainder: $.49

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Player: Daniela Galarza

Purchase: a glass of Chablis at Balthazar (+ free bread & butter!); a single apricot macaron at Lafayette

Cost: $2.50; Remainder: $1

Strategy: I was still pretty full from lunch so I decided to 1) take advantage of the booze loophole; 2) celebrate (?) Bastille Day; and 3) visit an Eater favorite now and forever: Balthazar. The Chablis was lovely on a humid night, the bread and butter were serviceable, and the bartender was tops. I may have glared at the German family next to me that ordered three desserts (crème brûlée, warm chocolate cake, and a trio of ice cream; "You're not going to finish your ice cream, Hans?"), but I stayed strong and did not bow to the almost piercing desire to order one of every dessert off the menu. Plus, I had plans for dessert.

Andrew Carmellini's Lafayette is an 8 minute walk from Balthazar, and pastry chef Jen Yee makes some of the city's best eclairs. I had my mind set on one (chocolate, or perhaps coffee) until I arrived to find the pastry case almost empty. I comforted myself instead with a single apricot macaron. (nb: the apricot macarons at Lafayette are filled with a sort of apricot ganache with chunks of actual apricot inside! superb technique.) I wanted about 11 more.

Mood: Sugar-deprived, but totally chill. This party is just getting started.

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Player: Greg Morabito

[The Arepa Lady menu]

Order/Strategy: I set out on the 7-Train from Midtown with the goal of scoring one of The Arepa Lady's corn cakes for dinner. I had exactly five dollars in my wallet, and as fate would have it, I somehow left my debit card at home, for the first time since lord knows when. [A Cheap Eats Week miracle?] So, I had to acquire dinner for $5 even — no leeway where tip, tax, or drinks were concerned.

All the Arepa Lady menus I'd seen online listed the signature dish at $4, but when I got to the restaurant, I saw that they were actually $5, and what's more, the restaurant had waiter service. There was no way this was going to work out with what I had in my wallet.

I aimlessly wandered down Roosevelt Avenue searching for something to eat. A few of the streetside taco/torta carts looked promising, but most of the things I wanted to get were over $5, and many of the taquerias along that stretch were also full-service operations.

After about five minutes of bumming around the block, I realized that I was near an Indian restaurant where I'd once purchased some excellent samosas and other fried items after getting shut-out of Phayul around the corner, when it was closed for renovations. The menu board inside listed two chicken samosas for $2.99, and that's what I got. After handing over my three dollars, I crossed the street and entered a pedestrian plaza to snap a pick of these hot, crispy triangles and the container of green sauce that was included with the order.

Exactly one second after snapping this pic, I realized that — entirely by accident, or perhaps some weird form of cheap eats kismet — I was plagiarizing Robert's lunch from earlier in the day, and the picture that he took of these same dishes. Although I don't feel great about unconsciously ripping off Sietsema's lunch, in the end, I'm glad things transpired the way they did, because these really hit the spot.

Instead of heading back to the train, I wanted to find some novel way to spend my last $2, so I went into a nearby restaurant called Namaste that listed a chicken kebab for $1.50. The friendly guy at the subterranean deli counter asked if I wanted my kebab hot, and I said yes. He then pulled something out of the fridge, put it in a paper bag and nuked in the microwave for 45 seconds. Back on the street, this is what I found when I opened the bag:

tube

A steamy orange poultry tube. I thought it tasted not-too-bad, but then after six bites I questioned just why this big, bland thing was so cheap and whether I should really be eating it if I wanted to stay in the race till Friday. The texture was disturbingly flaky, kind of like plywood that's been warped by months of heavy rain. I chucked the second half, hit the train back home, and ate the last two bananas I'd purchased the day before. Bananas! They provide little joy, except for the relief that you feel by putting something in your mouth that's not hot garbage.

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And running out of competition:

Player: Helen Rosner

Order/Strat: I had a really late, somewhat sloshed dinner last night — after a panel discussion about body image (so weird to preach about feeling good about yourself after a day of eating nothing but a dozen doughy dumplings filled with mystery meat and grease!), we went to weird Financial District cocktail bar Cedar Local, where I three-way-split a plate of "Cedar Nachos": a pile of potato chips and plantain chips, covered in black beans, cheese, and sliced hot-dog-style andouille sausage. My third came to $4, which added to my $3 worth of dumplings earlier in the day (and the $1.75 wonton soup I didn't actually eat) brought me in a buck-twenty-five under the limit.

Find all of Eater's cheap eats coverage here.

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