Three Great Cheap is a weekly series from critic Robert Sietsema that seeks to find and popularize New York City’s most interesting and inexpensive food in the five boroughs and beyond. Also consult the compact guide and map 60 Cheap Eats Destinations You Should Know About in NYC.
Lots of Vietnamese restaurants are springing up in unexpected places, not just on the fringes of Chinatowns as many were in the last century. Hello Saigon is Greenwich Village’s own, a rambling and comfortable place along the strip where NYU students go to party. While the menu has few surprises, it excels at familiar Vietnamese food with prices geared to student budgets.
The pho is top notch, an unfussy version with a broth that’s dark and flavorful without being overly salty. Don’t miss the giant beef balls that come with some versions and can be added as an option to others. (The place opens at 10:30 a.m., so pho is available for breakfast, as it should be.) Other menu highlights include bun bo Hue, the spicy, beef-based soup from the port city of Hue; the clay pot chicken with quail eggs; and the bun vermicelli with pork chops, served with a spring roll. Banh mi, especially the fried catfish version, are also worth ordering. 180 Bleecker St., between MacDougal and Sullivan streets, Greenwich Village
Mofongo Del Valle
Hamilton Heights is rife with Dominican restaurants, many stuck away on side streets and of ancient vintage. Mofongo Del Valle is one of the better ones, with a long and comfy marble lunch counter, and line of bicycle personnel waiting to zoom off with delivery orders. The place has a way with meal size soups — including ones made with cow foot, beef, and mixed seafood — but the best features a tough old hen stewed into total tenderness. The specialty is mofongo in a dozen variations, including a chicharron de mofongo that matches thick slices of pork with the crunchiest skin imaginable with the classic Dominican-style, deep-fried mofongo. 3340 Broadway, between 135th and 36th streets, Hamilton Heights
El Comal Pupuseria
This long running Salvadoran restaurant not far from downtown Jamaica makes some of the city’s best pupusas: a corn masa- or rice-flour flatbread filled with some combination of beans, pork tidbits, and cheese. Some also contain loroco flowers, which taste something like pickled oregano. The pupusas at El Comal are often hand-patted before being cooked to order on a griddle called a comal, hence their freshness. Also check out the corn kernel tamales, fried chicken, the pork salad called salpicon, and yuca con chicharron — skin-on pork with fried yuca, something of a national dish for Salvadorans. 14860 Hillside Ave., at 150th Street, Jamaica, Queens