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.
Memo Shish Kebab
The volume of new shawarma, gyro, and doner quick service cafes opening up in Manhattan and Brooklyn is astonishing. These three terms designate nearly the same twirling meat cylinder cooking on a vertical spit, originating respectively in the Middle East, Greece, and Turkey. Sandwiches made therefrom, often priced below $10, are rapidly becoming one the city’s foremost cheap eats. This column recently reported on Fle Fle Grill and the Yeero Joint, but even newer is Memo Shish Kebab, a Turkish cafe occupying a busy Chelsea corner.
It’s an offshoot of a Kings Highway establishment also called Memo Shish Kebab founded in 2000. Both places are owned by Mehmet Avci, whose grandfather was nicknamed Memo. The restaurant is both well lit and well windowed, with raised table seating. Order at the register, which doubles as a pastry counter, and then pick up your order at the grill counter. Two doner kebab cylinders spin in the window, one chicken and one lamb, the last powerfully flavored with onions and highly recommended. The meats, along with other flame grilled kebabs like lamb or chicken adana, can be had in regular pita sandwiches, on Turkish bread textured like a thick pita, on a wrap, or on a platter with rice pilaf. Salads and bread dips available in abundance, too, and hot apps like calves liver and sigara boregi — delicate, cheese-filled pastry flutes — making the perfect hot winter snack. 100 West 23rd St., at Sixth Avenue, Chelsea
Doner Kebab Mediterranean Grill
Is New York City becoming like Berlin, where doner kebabs were invented by Turkish immigrants in the 1960s and remain wildly popular? Downtown Brooklyn’s Doner Kebab is a deep narrow space with a cafeteria line in back and raised, cramped seating on hard stools in front. This place concentrates on doner and little else is available, except for falafel. The chicken doner is beyond excellent, flavorful meat in profusion whether you pick a sandwich or a wrap. The other doner is a beef-lamb combo, which I don’t like as well; I prefer pure lamb. Pick the sandwich instead of the wrap, because the Turkish pita is freshly baked and big. There’s a choice of chopped vegetable toppings, and the pickles and garlic sauce knock the sandwich for a home run. The simplicity of this place is refreshing, and you don’t have to spend a half hour studying the menu. 34 Willoughby St., between Jay and Pearl streets, Downtown Brooklyn
Union Square’s Panorama is a Lebanese cafe that seeks to present Middle Eastern food in a new light. All the recipes and sauces are there, including tahini, spicy harissa, and the wonderful garlic aioli called toum, but many of the dishes shout “Fusion!” The chicken shawarma, for example, can be ordered in a pita sandwich or on a platter, but why not try the chicken shawarma quesadilla? It is heavy with garlic sauce but also contains lots of white cheese that glues the thing together. The same shawarma tops Panorama fries, which might be called Lebanese poutine. The place is uncommonly comfortable for a fast-casual restaurant, and beer and wine are available. But skip the falafel, which is lacking in flavor. 820 Broadway, between 11th and 12th streets, Union Square