At the end of the last millennium, if you wanted something cheap and fast, you got a pizza, a bowl of noodles, a burger, or a basket of fried chicken. In the interim, something profound happened. Many formerly cheap meals rocketed upmarket, repositioning themselves as luxury fare. Suddenly, some restaurants were putting big price tags on dishes that had heretofore been super-affordable. I once described this process as the “glamorization of plebeian foodstuffs,” and the phenomenon has continued to this day.
It was inevitable, as raw materials, labor, and restaurant rents spiraled, restaurateurs would cast around for dishes that cost less to produce. And we enthusiastically accepted the substitution of, say, burgers for steaks at a comparable price point, because we wanted to eat reinvented comfort food anyway and didn’t mind being charged more for it. Daniel Boulud set the burger ball rolling in 2001 when he stuffed a ground beef patty with morsels of foie gras and beef rib, and the price shot through the ceiling. Today, his burger sells for $35, which still seems expensive.
When Naples-style pizza hit town around the same time — first at La Pizza Fresca, and eventually at dozens of other places — its salient point was not how the pies differed from those of our neighborhood slice joints (not really by much), but how expensive they were for a product whose main ingredients were white flour, canned tomatoes, and a few splotches of cheese. This year we’ve seen a 12-inch margherita soar to $25 plus tax and tip at Una Pizza Napoletana, while Sorbillo charges $35 for a small pie featuring canned mushrooms.
Seemingly, every day brings a new example. Jonathan Cheban applied gold-plating to chicken wings, for which he charges up to $1,000 for 50. Even at apparently inexpensive places like Anchor Bar, the hyped-up wings — really, half wings — now cost well over $1 apiece. Today, instead of a basket of fried chicken, the standard way to consume poultry is as a heavily breaded patty on a puffy white bun with maybe a pickle chip, often costing more than the basket of bone-in fried chicken once did.
And then noodles, once the prop-up of the poor, have been repackaged as semi-luxury ingredients, with a small bowl artfully embellished with an edible flower or two selling for $15 or more. Do they taste any better than the $5 bowl once did? Now, Italian restaurant Don Angie offers a $64 “lasagna for two,” a dish that once graced steam tables all over the city due to its ability to survive repeated reheatings. What can Don Angie be putting between the noodles to make it so expensive? As Kramer pointed out in a Seinfeld episode, “You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.”
Yet, in spite of expensive remakes of familiar dishes, many restaurateurs still manage to turn out spectacular food at more modest prices, and I’ve found myself eating as well this year as in any other. In fact, better. Here are some of my favorite dining experiences since January.
Central Asian restaurants in Brooklyn and Queens still have the capacity to thrill us with their budget kebabs carefully cooked over charcoal, making them as smoky as Texas barbecue. My current favorite is Palmyra on Brooklyn’s Coney Island Avenue, where the hefty brochettes of ground lamb called lula still cost less than $5, with skirt steak and lamb rib kebabs only slightly more. Across the street from Palmyra, smaller cafes like Foteh’s Tandoor and Tandir Rockhat exist as well, offering Uzbek and Tajik breads and pastries cooked in the iconic Central Asian oven, and presented in a setting that recalls a Silk Road teahouse. No better place to relax with a pot of tea and some savory pastries. 2663 Coney Island Ave., between Crawford Ave. and Avenue X, Sheepshead Bay
Mexican food continues to diversify as new regions find culinary representation in New York City. One of my favorite places currently is Jackson Heights restaurant Taqueria Sinaloense, from the western state of Sinaloa, where pork is stewed with bright red chiles to make chilorio, while the dried beef called machaca is scrambled with eggs and served in tacos. Meanwhile, freshly minted taquerias continue to appear in Bushwick and Ridgewood grocery stores, most recently at Victoria Deli, where the weekend soups like pancita and pozole couldn’t be better. 40-08 Case St., between Roosevelt and Elmhurst avenues, Jackson Heights
La Tranquilite & L’Impressioniste
A Sunday afternoon feast at Haitian restaurant La Tranquilite & L’Impressioniste amazed me with the quality and quantity of food for $10 or less. At that price, you get a salad, plate of rice and beans, and main dish of griot, a delightful confit of pork. You can also get a dish called legumes, which is vegetables stewed with beef into a supremely tasty sludge. The place also made me determined to spend more time eating in Brooklyn’s Canarsie, where the collection of Caribbean restaurant is unrivaled anywhere except perhaps Flatbush and Crown Heights. 9128 Ave. L, at East 92nd Street, Canarsie
As the number of Filipino restaurants dwindles in Woodside, they seem to be reappearing in other neighborhoods. Mama Fina’s is a branch of a New Jersey restaurant that specializes in the pork hash called sisig, reconfigured to showcase other main ingredients. Its traditional menu — which also includes palabok noodles, such vegetable-centered dishes as bicol express and laing, and all-day breakfasts — came as a surprise in the East Village, where most Filipino hangs function more as gastropubs or cocktail bars. 167 Ave. A, between 11th and 12th streets, East Village
Anyone who loves pizza has found this a good year so far. Not only are pies at the upper end — such as Una Pizza Napoletana’s margherita — quite good in spite of the price, but Roman pies called pinsas have flourished at Camillo. In addition to specializing in negronis, Camillo offers a half red, half white pinsa, with Amatriciana sauce on one side and cacio e pepe on the other; I’m particularly fond of the latter. Detroit pies continue to have their day in the sun, while dollar slice places still attract crowds — even though some of these slices now cost $1.25. 1146 Nostrand Ave., between Rutland Road and Midland Street, Flatbush
Far from heading for extinction, neighborhood bistros in many Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens neighborhoods continue to thrive, even though all-in prices for a meal now hover around $75 per person. Many of us are using them as special occasion destinations these days, rather than for frequent meals. The menus often cobble together French, Japanese, and Italian elements, with some welcome global dishes, too. Some of my faves at Pheasant include roasted octopus, fried polenta with mixed mushrooms, and a juicy cheeseburger topped with slices of kielbasa, in a tip of the hat to Greenpoint’s proximity. I also used Chez Ma Tante as a favorite brunch destination. 445 Graham Ave., between Richardson and Frost streets, Greenpoint
This is the era of East Asian cuisines, and no neighborhood better exemplifies that than the East Village, where Chinese noodle shops and hot pot places have joined the Japanese ramen parlors and sushi bars that already dominated the neighborhood. Some of my best meals so far this year has been at those sorts of places, including a wonderful evening at Le Sia, which established the crawfish boil with a fascinating array of brochettes and side dishes. It’s East Village’s most memorable new meal. In fact, it’s amazing someone hasn’t cloned it yet, adding cocktails to the menu, a Cantonese dish or two, and doubling the price. Or maybe found a way to dip the crawfish in gold. 11 E. 7th St., between Third and Second avenues, East Village