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.
The soaring cost of real estate makes for strange bedfellows on restaurant menus. Near the bustling corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, Bagel Buffet was just one of many nondescript bagel stores in the city, serving up decent bagels with the usual treatments and toppings, in addition to omelets, Danish sweet rolls, several types of croissant, and, at lunch, hamburgers, toasted cheese, wraps, and paninis. But more recently Mexican food was added to the bill of fare, and it quickly outshone everything else.
At $3 apiece, the overstuffed tacos (each made with two corn tortillas) are a steal at these latitudes, dressed only with chopped onions and fresh cilantro in the southern Mexican fashion. The usual roster of stuffings is available, and for an extra 50 cents you can have lengua (tongue) or barbacoa (lamb), both exemplary. The torta ($7.50) is an even better deal. Dressed with beans, avocado, jalapeños, cheese, and tomatoes, the milanesa comes with a very thick chicken cutlet, like the one found in a chicken parm hero. Tamales are available every day, and so are quesadillas. Made with flour tortillas rather than hand-patted masa flatbreads, they’re more like bar quesadillas than the massive Pueblan version, but at three for around $10, make a very filling lunch anyway. 510 Sixth Ave., between 13th and 14th streets, Greenwich Village
A couple of newish spots have appeared on Bed-Stuy’s Nostrand Avenue, including Madame Poupon, a creperie run by Jean Christophe. He’s a native of Brittany, where the folded and stuffed pancake originated. Most run $10 or less and constitute a fine light meal. These are not stunt crepes, but offer fairly doctrinaire fillings. Highly recommended is the classic “complete,” which folds a buckwheat wrapper around a wad of ham, sunnyside-up egg, and river of melted Emmental cheese. Every day there’s a special or two, including a savory crepe topped with a pair of seared scallops on a recent Sunday evening. An equivalent number of sweet dessert crepes are concocted, made with white wheat flour instead of brown buckwheat flour. Grab anything that features the homemade caramel sauce. 387 Nostrand Ave., between Madison Street and Putnam Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvesant
Taco Mix Queens
In an aggressive expansion plan, there will soon be a total of four Taco Mixes, three recently descended from the legendary closet taqueria in East Harlem on 116th Street that specializes in al pastor — intertwined pork fragments turning on a vertical spit marinated in pineapple juice. A friend and I learned not to come too early to the new Jackson Heights branch, since the day’s pork cylinder might not be fully operational yet, and your al pastor taco filling may be pulled from a drawer and reheated on the griddle. It’s still good, but you may want to opt for the barbacoa instead, which is as spectacularly flavorful as barbacoa (steamed lamb or goat) gets. Ask for the house-pickled vegetables, which include onions, carrots, cauliflower and jalapeños. It was one of the best tacos we’ve had all year. 90-04 37th Ave., between 90th and 91st Streets, Jackson Heights