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.
Boi Noodle House
A pho and banh mi revolution has swept the city, and it’s a rare neighborhood that doesn’t have some sort of restaurant offering Vietnamese fare. This handsome spot near the Port Authority has a large dining room with ample seating, with subdued décor consisting of textiles and modernistic light fixtures. Despite the pleasant ambiance, most of the action is in carryout, and prices there are about 25 percent less — so if the weather’s fine, or you live or work nearby, take out.
The pho is solid (my favorite features beef balls), but perhaps more interesting is the bun bo Hue, a spicy beef noodle soup from the Central Vietnam city. The flagship version boasts beef shin, pork pate, and brisket, seasoned with mint, scallions, and chile oil. The banh mi are a bargain for this neighborhood, of which the smoked duck breast is worth the extra dollar for both flavor and novelty. Bun noodle bowls and steamed bao mini-sandwiches smeared with mayo and hoisin are two more of the menu’s hot spots. 240 West 40th St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues, Midtown
Joe’s of Avenue U
It’s time to pay a return visit to this budget Sicilian restaurant in Gravesend, where a pair of graveyards and an old manor house reflect the British colonial presence in Brooklyn. The dining room is painted with murals showing Sicilian history and folkways. A glass case in the front room demonstrates the emphasis on seafood and fresh vegetables in the island’s cooking. Go for a simple plate of baby artichokes or broccoli rabe, such signature pastas as bucatini with sardines and fennel, or a vastedda sandwich featuring two types of cheese and sautéed cow spleen. For the fainter of heart, there’s an excellent vegetarian sandwich made with ricotta and the chickpea fritters called panelle. 207 Ave U, between Lake Street and McDonald Avenue, Gravesend
The city’s need for Mexican breakfast tacos remains largely unfulfilled, satisfied mainly by carts and trucks rather than freestanding restaurants. This van, which parks just east of Park Avenue from 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day but Wednesday, routinely hands out formidable tacos, quesadillas, and burritos, but a menu of overstuffed breakfast tacos is also available from early morning to the end of lunch. My favorite enwraps spicy chorizo and eggs, with a catalog of extra ingredients (including guacamole and cotija cheese) that distinguish this taco from the Austin-style ones. Other choices include a steak and eggs taco, an egg-filled wrap, and an omelet flecked with onions and peppers. 52nd Street and Park Avenue, Midtown