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.
Where to dine on MacDougal Street’s teeming cheap eats strip, just off the NYU campus, is always a dilemma. Among dozens of choices, there’s a classic falafel joint (Mamoun’s), a banh mi and pho shop (Saigon Shack), a place specializing in Belgian fries (Pommes Frites), and a Turkish doner stall (Turkiss). One of my favorites is a tiny walk-up storefront called Thelewala specializing in the Bengali street snacks of Kolkata, once known as Calcutta. With only five seats precariously perched on the balcony, you’ll have to eat very carefully.
All priced less than $10, most of the 20-odd offerings are nizami rolls — meat, vegetables, eggs, or some combination wrapped in a thick, large roti. A favorite among vegans is the smoky gobi roll, which wraps up minced cauliflower, smoked chiles, and red onions with a good dose of cilantro. The chapli roll nearly bursts with a savory ground lamb, while the chicken phall roll enfolds the notoriously spicy curry. The menu fills out with snacks called chaats. Open till 2 a.m. on weekdays, 5 a.m. on weekends. 112 MacDougal St., between Bleecker and West 3rd Streets, Greenwich Village
Bao Bao Café
If you’re one of those people who likes to eat from a bowl, and favors food with Taiwanese, Korean, and Japanese influences, Bao Bao may be your FiDi place. The menu is evenly divided between noodle bowls and over-rice bowls. On a recent visit, I particularly enjoyed “beef over rice” (designated R2). At the bottom was a lot of perfectly cooked short grain rice, with a leafy crown of baby tatsoi that completely covered the rice. On top of that was thin sliced beef with a slightly sweet and spicy flavor. Ramens, hot pots, and snacks like tea eggs and enoki mushroom salads add depth to the menu. Though no dumplings, alas. There’s another branch on lower Lexington Avenue. 106 Greenwich St., between Rector and Carlisle streets, Financial District
Fiore’s House of Quality
Founded 105 years ago, Fiore’s is Hoboken’s oldest Italian deli, as old as any Italian deli in New York City. On its antique premises, lined with groceries of ancient vintage, the place makes its own mozzarella, known as “mutz.” It is best incorporated into a series of hero sandwiches. Besides the usual, like meat ball parm, pepper and eggs, and fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, a series of daily specials are offered and highly recommended. Thursday and Saturday’s rare roast beef with mutz and brown gravy is justifiably famous, but also consider Monday’s Virginia ham and mutz, and Tuesday’s corned beef and mozzarella dressed with mustard, an amazing Irish-American amalgam that says, “Hoboken.” 414 Adams St., between 4th and 5th streets, Hoboken, New Jersey