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. Find the back catalog here. Also consult the bigger cheap eats guide, with maps, walking tours, and other resources.
This matriarchal café — which flies the flags of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, reflecting the shifting Latin population of its East Village neighborhood — has been around since at least the late 70s, when it was called the National Café. The space looks pretty much the same, with three tables and a row of padded stools along a lunch counter. Behind the counter are steam-table tubs containing the café’s daily dishes. There’s no printed menu, so check the chalkboard outside before you walk in. The other day the offerings included stewed pig’s feet, paprika roast chickens, and a codfish casserole. Available every day, though, is the roast pork leg or shoulder called pernil.
I chowed down on the braised pork ribs, the meaty bones cooked with onion, green pepper, and garlic. It came with a mountain of yellow rice and black beans, but I could have picked white rice and red beans. The full plate set me back $8.70 — indeed, all the luncheon size plates cost less than $10 — but I couldn’t resist a small cup of sancocho, a fragrant soup with variations across Latin America. Here, it’s oregano-laced and contains chicken as well as pork. 210 First Ave., between 12th and 13th streets, East Village
There are a handful of branches of this military sounding restaurant in Brooklyn; I’ve eaten at three, and all but one have been converted to serve-yourself buffets. The menu is mainly served hot, and centers on Jamaican fare, though one also finds Latin, African-American, and the occasional West African dish. You can’t go wrong with soul food classics like fried chicken, collard greens, candied yams, and mac and cheese. But why not try Jamaican oxtails; pork, beans, and curly dumplings; or curried goat with a fair amount of scotch bonnet heat? Make your selections carefully, spoon them over rice, and go to have them weighed at the rear counter. Expect to pay $6.49 per pound. A table or two are provided on the premises. 1444 Fulton St., between Tompkins and Throop avenues, Bedford-Stuyvesant
Seven Coffee Shop
Industrial areas of the city used to be dotted with tiny coffee shops, often occupying a corner of a manufacturing building on a side street with little in the way of signage. Seven’s worn premises look vintage, with scant decoration, a long Formica counter, and a chalkboard menu, which has recently been updated. To the usual list of sandwiches and burgers, Seven has added its own menu obsession: chicken teriyaki. Cooked to order, it can be served over rice, placed in a sandwich, or rolled into a burrito, and is quite wonderful, with the poultry set off by crunchy cabbage. The sandwiches are good and cheap, too. 43-40 34th St., 43rd Avenue and Queens Boulevard, Long Island City