Of the handful of ancient Vietnamese restaurants that line tree-shaded Baxter Street on the western edge of Chinatown, with the jail known as the Tombs looming overhead, New Xe Lua is the newest. It has a jazzier interior than the others, with a tropical wall mural, cane furniture, clouds painted on the ceiling over lazy fans with woven rush blades, and strings of tiny lights that confer a festive air. The menu is more daring than most, with a long list of beverages and desserts — of which rainbow ice is the most popular, a bowl of crushed ice topped with green and red squiggly things drenched in coconut milk. Interesting drinks include durian shakes and avocado smoothies and hot salted lemonade.
Platings have been modernized, too, so that banh cuon, the Vietnamese rice-noodle rolls, glisten on a bed of sliced pork pate with chopped mint leaves and pickled carrots scattered on top as if blown there by warm breezes. The over-broken-rice com dia also shine, with the one featuring charcoal-grilled pork chops, eggy crab cake, and shredded pork skin tasting several notches better and fresher than usual. Other menu hot spots include clay pot cookery, egg noodles, and an extensive section of strictly vegetarian dishes called "No Meat Allow." New Xe Lua is undoubtedly among the five best Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown. 86 Mulberry St, 212-577-8887
There have long been inexpensive Brazilian cafes in Astoria, peddling pao de queijo, elaborately dressed Cariocan burgers, and big Saturday servings of feijoada, the national dish of black beans and pig parts. Now a new one has scampered over to Jackson Heights. Aroma Brazil replaces the Mexican honkytonk El Bombon and seeks to at least partly emulate the great churrascarias of Newark’s Ironbound. There’s a half-hearted buffet offering do-it-yourself salads with bottled dressings, a few different types of rice and beans, fried yuca and plantains, and a handful of hot casseroles involving chicken and flank steak.
This buffet clocks in at $5.99 per pound, and it’s easy to fill yourself up for six bucks or so. But you’ll likely be distracted by the order window at the end of the room, and it may be your nose that leads you to it. Therein find a guy working a gleamingly new charcoal oven with a dozen vertical spits, on which skewers of meat are pinned. This selection costs $7.99, or you can combine salad bar and barbecued meats for $6.99. The skirt steak, pork sausage, and chicken legs are terrific in that order, though the roast beef proves gray and tough. Still, a little reflection will teach you ways to game this generally good and cheap new Brazilian buffet. 75-13 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, (718) 672-7662
We have a few very satisfactory Sri Lankan restaurants in New York, mainly in Manhattan and Staten Island, and a dude with a cart on the south side of Washington Square doing his dosas from a Ceylonese perspective. But now up pops a stranger Sri Lankan, a place that basically restricts itself to one dish and offers it in multiple variations. The Lower East Side’s Kottu House makes black curry chicken kottu, grilled shrimp kottu, lamb kottu, and a fried tofu kottu that is strictly vegetarian. The tofu develops a pleasantly spongy texture, and like the other recipes, stir fries a main ingredient with torn tidbits of flatbread and various slivered vegetables to make an impromptu bread pudding.
You can have a runny fried egg with a crisp brown bottom flopped onto any of the kottus, which is a good idea unless you’re a vegan. Apart from the kottus, the pickings are slim, including some very nice round shrimp fritters, some lentil cakes that were a little dry and hard when my friends and I tasted them, and a range of unusual hard fruit ciders that originated in Sweden and include passion fruit and pineapple, along with the usual selection of craft beers and wines. One $7 serving of any of the kottus is enough to fill yourself up; the larger size is really too much of a good thing. 250 Broome St, (646) 781-9222