In honor of Cheap Eats Week, Eater critic Robert Sietsema rounds up his fifth 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 and New Jersey restaurants that can be depended on day in and day out, hopefully for eternity.
Nha Trang — One of three antique Vietnamese restaurants on picturesque Baxter Street, Nha Trang offers a menu rich in French-Vietnamese fare, including a meal-size salad of frogs’ legs with "French butter," and myriad beef-containing dishes that are also a legacy of long colonization. The pho is good, too, available in the usual multiple permutations, and a favorite on a recent revisit was the so-called Vietnamese ravioli: miniature rice enchiladas stuffed with wood-ear ‘shrooms heaped with salty slices of pork pate (shown). Ooh la la! 87 Baxter St, (212) 233-5948
Albert’s Mofongo House — Many go for the mofongo here, a softball of smushed plantains and pork tidbits flavored with garlic, paired with a goat stew, pork roast, fried eggs, shrimp, or just plain cheese. All are delicious, but then you’d be missing the sour seafood soup called asopao and the wonderful fried chicken known as chicharron de pollo. Choices abound on the menu of this Dominican landmark at the gateway to Inwood. 4762 Broadway, (212) 569-3441
Sol de Quito — This Bushwick old-timer excels at massive Ecuadorian set meals in a faded dancehall setting. Dine heavily on a plate of seco de chivo (a goat stew served with oiled rice and a fried sweet plantain) or llapingachos (a platter containing two poached eggs, pile of savory pork tidbits, sausage, plantain, and a pair of the eponymous cheesy potato patties). Lighter appetites will savor a humongous bowl of cow foot soup (shown), rich in collagen and engagingly gooey. 160 Irving Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 417-4174
John’s of Bleecker Street — One of the original coal oven pizzerias founded nearly a century ago, John’s is still going strong, with thin-crust pies at reasonable prices in a pair of dining rooms in which you can see the ovens at work. The list of ingredients is blessedly short, of which our favorite pizza features Italian sausage, black olives, and extra garlic. Never go to any of the franchise branches — the original place is many times better. Share a rudimentary salad while you wait, and wash the pizza down with pitchers of draft beer. 278 Bleecker St, (212) 243-1680
Taste Good — The city’s best Malaysian restaurant is a closet of a place with perhaps eight tables, located in the shadow of the Long Island Rail Road tracks in Elmhurst. The satays (pick pork!) are carefully crafted to be just the right size for nibbling, and the chunky peanut-coconut dip is a revelation. Lemongrass-scented assam laksa is a good soup choice, and for medicinal purposes (got a cold?), the casserole called bak kut teh can’t be beat. On a recent revisit, the rojak salad of jicama and pineapple came with taco chips instead of shrimp chips: Now that’s progress! 82-18 45th Ave, Queens, 718-229-1991
Bronx Alehouse — This venerable pub with a handsome wood barroom is just steps south of Van Cortlandt Park, making it the perfect pit stop after a race around the park. There’s a long list of draft beers with a locavoric bent and a fairly long menu of bar food favorites, including massive burgers served with delightful, skin-on fries. Quesadillas, potato chip nachos, mini-heros called bombers (three to an order), and a too-ambitious brunch list fill out the bill of fare. 216 W 238th St, Bronx, (718) 601-0204
Tehuitzingo Taqueria — Starting out life as a counter in the rear of a Mexican bodega on 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, this place moved a couple of years ago to a narrow space behind Port Authority. In doing so, the menu expanded to include all manner of antojitos, soups, moles, tacos, and tamales, now perpetually available rather than sporadically. The bad news is that there are only a few tables, but one is sure to open up as if by magic if you stand in line. Recommended dishes: chicken mole tamales, suadero (brisket) tacos, and the fiery soup chilate de pollo. Open 24 hours. 578 Ninth Ave, (646) 707-3916
Ibby’s Falafel — Since 1996 Ibby’s has been slinging perfect falafels in downtown Jersey City just across from City Hall. The trim premises also features outdoor seating, and a full Lebanese menu, including homemade dessert pastries. Best of all, perhaps, is the overstuffed lamb shawarma sandwich, dressed with tahini and hot sauce (see picture). By the way, the owner of Ibby’s, Adnan Kwara, is the nephew of Mamoun Chater, founder of Mamoun’s. 303 Grove St, Jersey City, NJ, (201) 432-2400
Bobwhite — Named after a short, fat bird, a member of the quail family with a distinctive cry, Bobwhite specializes in lunch counter fare with a Southern bent. Many of the selections involve either fried chicken or fried catfish, both scrupulously cooked and fully flavorful. The buffalo chicken sandwich is a spicy wonder, and the biscuits ain’t bad, either. For vegetarians, there’s pimento cheese and black-eyed peas with chow-chow. 94 Avenue C, (212) 228-2972
Café Glechik — While the typical Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach is a Casio-driven dancehall with bottles of vodka mired in ice, and often expensive as hell, this modest establishment (founded in 1998) specializes in Ukrainian home cooking, which means soups, soups, and more soups — which is why it still sports a giant crock high up on its façade, probably visible to planes landing at Kennedy Airport. Other desirable dishes include cold tongue, herring with sour cream, sturgeon Moscow style with cheese, and lamb rib kebabs. 3159 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 616-0766
Songs Family Food — A few blocks east of the Murray Hill Station on the Long Island Rail Road lies Songs, specializing in kimbap, the outsize Korean version of maki rolls — exceedingly popular for a snack or fast meal in this part of Queens. Rolls generally contain at least five or six ingredients, of which one typical configuration deploys spinach, avocado, chicken, chile sauce, pickled carrot, and fishcake, leaving you wondering who dreamed up these strange combinations. 162-20 Northern Blvd, Queens, (718) 445-4717
Azuri Café — This tiny cafe in an obscure corner of Hell’s Kitchen has been offering flavorsome Israeli fare for decades. The crisp falafel and chicken shawarma are both top notch, and an especially good deal when deposited in one of the place’s puffy pitas with a full range of toppings and condiments that includes pickles, chiles, hummus, tahini, and the tart Sephardic mango sauce called amba. The deep-fried cauliflower and flaky triangular pies known as borecas are also recommended. Warning: The proprietor is famously grumpy. 465 W 51st St, (212) 262-2920
Check out the previous edition of A Dozen Cheap Eats Classics