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.
One of the best places to look for Nigerian food in the city is in the vicinity of JFK Airport, ideal for travelers who want to stop for a snack or a beer in the area. Indeed, Nigerian restaurants are among the few West African establishments in New York City that offer alcoholic beverages. Such is the case at Tropical Grill, located among auto body shops and warehouses in Queens near Baisley Pond Park just northeast of the airport. In the afternoon, the gates are often pulled down tight, but try the front door and find the place open for lunch.
No better starter than puff-puff (free-form, just-fried doughnuts) or suya (peanut-dusted kebabs originating in northern Nigeria). Lighter lunch appetites will go for the goat or fish pepper soups, which are dark, flavorful broths fortified with grains of paradise, the African answer to Sichuan peppercorns. Most meals involve picking a starch like pounded yam or amala, which are delivered in a wrapped balls and matched with a sauce and a meat. Several friends and I recently enjoyed one bowl of bitter leaf, and another ogbono (also known as bush mango), which is a seed that gives its sauce a wonderfully slimy texture something like okra. For the less adventurous, stewed tilapia and fried chicken are available. 153-41 Rockaway Blvd., between 134th and 137th avenues, Rochdale Village
GRK Fresh Greek
This chainlet specializes in well-stuffed gyro sandwiches on pitas that are cooked in the flaming oven behind the counter, for less than $10. Meats include chicken, pork, and a beef-lamb combo; the slightly fattier pig is the best. Rolled for easy eating, the sandwiches are topped with lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and a choice of three yogurt tsatsikis, one of which is laced with habanero peppers. Yee-ha! For an extra charge, french fries can be added to make a platter, and kebabs or meatballs substituted for gyro for a couple of dollars more, too. The dining room is roomy, and frozen Greek yogurt and full-meal salads are also worth trying. 451 Lexington Ave., between 44th and 45th streets, Midtown
Harper’s Bread House
Harper’s is probably Chinatown’s best bakery, and it offers a Hong Kong sophistication in its menu of baked goods and other goodies. The place offers several versions of the classic egg-custard pies (dan tat in Cantonese), including a Brazilian version with coconut custard and one with a flakier crust and yellower filling intended to duplicate the Portuguese original. Super-cheap Japanese onigiri (rice balls, really rice triangles) have recently become a specialty with 16 choices; spicy tuna salad seems to sell out by the end of lunchtime. Many novel baked goods are for sale as well, such as matcha sponge cake, a taro waffle, and the “scarlian” hot dog. A few tables are provided for eating in, but most patrons carry out, and some sit in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, just across the street. 271 Grand St., at Forsyth Street, Chinatown