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.
Zen Yai Pho Shop
Nowadays, when you hear “pho” and “East Village” in the same sentence, you expect invented cocktails, a sumptuous build-out, and bistro prices. Not so at newcomer Zen Yai Pho Shop, a narrow storefront on East 6th Street spawned by another small Vietnamese restaurant in Sunnyside, Queens. A raised table with stools and a counter provide seating, which looks into a busy kitchen that constitutes most of the square footage. The menu concentrates on pho, but also offers bun, banh mi, and snacks that include spring rolls, curry puffs, steamed dumplings, and fried fish balls.
The pho noodles are of admirable delicacy, and the broth is a little lighter and less salty than most — which is a good thing, because it encourages you to suck down the dregs in the bowl. Those bowls run $8 to $14, with a couple of my favorites — chicken pho and beef ball with tendon pho — falling at the lower end of the price range. Bun are the best deal of all, with the under-$10 price including meat, noodles, and a bonus pair of spring rolls. An unexpected section of the menu lists various forms of smothered french fries, such as a banh mi version that includes pickled veggies, cukes, and Sriracha mayo — call it Vietnamese poutine. 518 E. 6th St., between avenues A and B, East Village
F. Ottomanelli Burgers
David’s Brisket House
And while we’re on the subject of beef, maybe it’s time to pay another visit to David’s Brisket House, perhaps the only halal Jewish-style deli in town. Located near the Nostrand A train stop at Bed-Stuy’s great crossroads, the deli does corned beef and pastrami quite well, but the gem of its meat collection is the roasted beef brisket, served with half-sour pickles. The meat comes out nicely caramelized on the edges and modestly fatty, and is available in three sizes at prices less than you’d normally pay at other delis. Get gravy on the side, dip as you would a French dip sandwich, and spring for the side of cole slaw. 533 Nostrand Ave., between Herkimer Street and Herkimer Place, Bedford-Stuyvesant