The 40th installment of critic Robert Sietsema’s Three Great Cheap series
Lava Kitchen — Sichuan peppercorns are rolling across the city’s landscape like tiny marbles, as New York diners have learned to become obsessed with the tingly and numbing flavor. And new places offering them are turning up in some unexpected neighborhoods. Lava Kitchen arose four months ago on the Upper West Side’s Broadway, glowing late into the night with bright lighting and spicy food. A sign in the window throws down the gauntlet: Do You Dare To Try Ma La Tang? — referring to the Chinese expression for the zippy peppercorns.
The menu is mainly northern Chinese, and classic dumplings, bao, cold salads, and grilled meat skewers form part of the menu. But the real action is in the section called Ma La Tang, which presents noodle soups in three levels of spiciness, from No Spicy to More Spicy. The heat is achieved with chile oil, chile flakes, and, of course, Sichuan peppercorns. The section of the menu called Noodles also offers several spicy dishes, including a wonderful “chilly and sour rice noodle soup,” which features mung bean thread, peanuts, and ground pork in a bright-red slurry. Also delicious is a boiled-beef sandwich made with flaky scallion pancakes standing in for bread, called “beef pastry.” 2656 Broadway, 718-489-9917
Fouta — Much of the city’s Senegalese population has apparently moved up from Harlem’s West 116th Street to the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood, and Fouta — named after an arid region on the Senegal River — is their flagship and clubhouse. On any given weekend afternoon, one is likely to see men in long robes and skullcaps watching soccer or current events while downing plates of cheb (a celebratory fish paella with lots of vegetables) and mafe (thick peanut sauce with lamb or chicken). Half the menu is devoted to Guinean fare, mainly deep-green, leaf-based sauces served with fluffy polished rice. Recently, a Guineas sauce de feuilles was made with manioc leaves dotted with chunks of beef and dried fish. It’s good — but beware the Scotch bonnet pepper that comes alongside! Open 24 hours. 1762 Westchester Ave, Bronx, 718-792-1700
Dera — This Jackson Heights Pakistani favorite recently established an outsize Curry Hill outpost, and gee, is the food good! At the longest steam table the lively neighborhood has yet seen, one is encouraged to select curries, tandooris, kebabs, dal, and biryanis from among about two dozen selections — nearly half of them vegetarian. Full-plate meals including raita, salad, chutney, rice or biryani, naan, and three meat or vegetable selections for around $10. On a recent visit, standouts included meaty goat biryani, slippery okra curry, crunchy samosa chaat, and a sugary serving of carrot halwa from a large dessert and sweets section. Open until 4 a.m., seven days. 103 Lexington Ave, 917-648-6232