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The Contest Day 4: Blood Sausage, Cheese Sandwiches, and an Extra Helping of Ennui

Catch up on all the action of New York's greatest budget dining competition.

[Pizza from Vinny Vincenz by Jarret Meskin]
[Pizza from Vinny Vincenz by Jarret Meskin]

Eater's 10-dollar-a-day dining challenge keeps chugging along, like a freight train bound for economy pizza mountain.  About half of the editors that started The Contest have tapped out by now, but there are still six players left in the game. Will they make it to the finish line tomorrow evening? Only time will tell. Here, now, is a report on what everyone ate for lunch today.

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

Lunch on Thursday, July 16:

Player: Sonia Chopra

Purchase: Grilled cheese with avocado ($4.50). Remainder: $2.50

Order/Strat: My entries are getting a little long, so I'll keep this one short: I needed a quick, cheap lunch not too far away from our Midtown office. Whittled down my options to Margon, a Cuban restaurant on 46th. Prices online looked promising ($4 for a media noche, so logically speaking even cheaper for the meatless grilled cheese with avocado I wanted), but when I got there — wait for it — everything was about $1 higher. I thought about just ordering a side of rice and beans, but took a chance on the grilled cheese. It clocked in at $4.50 for two pretty sizable halves with so much glorious, fresh avocado. HUGE downside: In my rush I forgot to specify a type of cheese.

Margon. 136 W 46th Street. (212) 354-5013.

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Player: Robert Sietsema

Order/Strat: Sometimes the best successes are snatched from the jaws of defeat. The summer day was perfect, sunny with cooling breezes, as I set out for Bushwick. I didn't want to repeat a neighborhood, but had seen an amazing new place on my postprandial stroll after eating at Taqueria Izucar Monday night. What was spotted was a promising new Salvadoran pupuseria located in a corrugated lean-to on the southeast corner of Maria Hernandez Park.

Yet when I stepped off the L, my hopes were dashed. The gate was pulled down tight. My emergency plan soon had me heading east up Knickerbocker. I looked at an old pizzeria, empanada wagon, and shopping cart filled with what were doubtlessly delicious tamales, rejecting all because they've been done already in The Contest.

My steps finally took me to La Isla Cuchifritos in the shadow of the M tracks, where I practically pressed my nose against the glass admiring the chicharones, rotisserie chickens, and alcapurrias warming in the windows under a row of light bulbs. A fact began to itch at my mind as I stared, and that was the realization that in the old-fashioned Puerto Rican world of the cuchifritos, certain pig-borne ingredients are always much cheaper than anything else. Even though fancy chefs may be hawking these things at premium prices, here they would be mind-bogglingly inexpensive.

Accordingly, I sat at a twirling stool and ordered a blood sausage ($1.50) and a pig tongue ($1). The waitress asked, "Do you want gravy on both?" to which I replied "Si." And received one of the most flavorsome meals it has been my privilege to eat all year. The morcilla was dark and loamy, with a spiciness that went against type, while the tongue was tender as tender could be, and the oregano-laced gravy united all the porky tastes. If I could get by with it, I'd eat the same meal for breakfast tomorrow.

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Player: Jarret Meskin

Purchase: Three slices: $3

Strategy: The dollar-pizza routine continues into Thursday, picking up three slices from Vinny Vincenz on First Ave. This is some of the higher quality dollar pizza I've tried. I would go as far as to say that I would actually pay $2 OR MORE for this slice. The sauce is a tad bland, but there's plenty of golden brown cheese and the crust is thick and perfectly chewy.

Had it not been for #thecontest, I'm not sure I ever would have given Vinny Vincenz a try. I now might have discovered my second favorite dollar slice in NYC, placed only behind my dearest 99 Cent Fresh Pizza.

For the record, I am not yet sick of pizza.

Slice count: 10

Vinny Vincenz | 231 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003

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Player: Vince Dixon

For lunch I went to KatiJunction (Indian kitchen) in Midtown for a 6-inch egg kati roll for $3.40. The grease and egg should be enough to get me by until dinner. Have to say that finding cheap local-international food has been one of the toughest, especially when avoiding street food and sticking with brick and mortar-based businesses in Midtown.

I'm glad I skipped breakfast because now I have $6.60 for dinner.

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Player: David Yee

12:30 PM, $4: I walk in the door at Punjabi Grocery and Deli, an old haunt from my LES record store employee days, when one could spend two dollars on a small container of rice and two vegetable dishes and save the rest of the paycheck for vinyl. Upon arrival, I discover that the price has gone up a bit—it’s now four dollars.

Punjabi’s business is suffering at the hands of an unusual foe: the Department of Transportation’s traffic and pedestrian safety initiative, which has been redirecting traffic and installing new medians at the intersection of Houston St and Essex St for over two years. As a result, the service road that used to pass just a yard or two from Punjabi’s downstairs entrance is now blocked, which is a major inconvenience for both Punjabi’s core constituency—South Asian cab drivers—and Punjabi’s bottom line. I am a huge fan of cab drivers, but I am an even bigger fan of restaurant counters that serve them, and Punjabi is the sine qua non of cab counters. For that reason, I committed to eating here over a week ago, and goddammit, I’m spending that four bucks.

I take away a small plastic container of chickpeas, spinach, and basmati rice. I’m down to one dollar. It’s literally my worst nightmare, but I feel right with the world.

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Player: Greg Morabito

Order/Strat: I was trapped in Brooklyn for the second time during The Contest, so I decided to return to an old favorite that I hadn't visited in a while: Yummy Taco. It's no great shakes, but this place was in heavy rotation for many years of my life and I definitely have a soft spot for its cut-rate, wholly inauthentic tacos, nachos, and Mexican combo plates.

One time around Christmas many years ago, the owner gave me and my then-girlfriend a calendar for the upcoming year (2011, I believe), that was emblazoned with the logo of their new side business, operating out of the same space: Aloha Teriyaki Grill. The tagline was, "Just hang loose, and let us do the cooking."

You can still get Hawaiian food there, but today, I ordered a bowl of grilled chicken over rice from the Mexican menu for $5 even. Really, I'd wished this whole container was full of meat, but it was heartier than some other meals I've ingested this week. I don't think I'll order it again, and I don't know when I will return, but I will always have a soft spot for Yummy Taco/Aloha Teriyaki Grill.

And now I'm living in a $2.50 world.

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Not in Contention Player: Amanda Kludt

Dish: Fried whiting sandwich on wheat pita, $4.50

Place: Aunt Kim's Kitchen Cart

Remainder: $4.50

One of the great pleasures of The Contest is being forced out of your comfort zone and routine. Thus I found myself wandering a whole six blocks up from our office to a string of street carts on 46th St. that included a stand selling fried fish sandwiches. They were out of heroes so I settled for a wheat pita (but ended up eating the fish out of the pita). It didn't exactly take me home to New England, but it was pretty damn satisfying: two pieces of fried whiting on a bed of shredded lettuce, wan tomatoes, and tartare sauce. Give me a cold beer and some ocean breezes and we're almost home.

Bonus: I passed some ladies handing out mini Clif bars, and by going twice I snagged 5 (which I'm sharing with my still in the running compatriots).

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