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.
Concealed beneath the Ganesh Temple (officially known as the Hindu Temple Society of North America) is the supremely wonderful Temple Canteen. The space looks like any church basement in the country, outfitted with collapsible tables and an order counter displaying some of the dishes available, with a gift shop loaded with cards, jewelry, and avatars of Hindu gods. Any weekend afternoon, the space fills with extended families enjoying the unusually large menu of South Indian vegetarian food.
“This is the best dosa I’ve had in New York,” exclaimed a friend who has bounced back and forth between India and the United States his entire life. He was talking about the paper dosa ($8), which requires two paper plates laid end-to-end to contain, and still hangs over the edges. It is brown and crisp, and the potato filling that usually finds its way into the rolled pancake is provided on the side, along with two cups of sambar (a spicy soup) and homemade coconut chutney. This is a dish for sharing. My own personal favorite at Temple Canteen is upma, like an extensively doctored cream of wheat, but really, you can’t go wrong here with anything you order. 45-57 Bowne St., at Holly Avenue, Flushing
Normally, you’d have to head to Bushwick or Astoria to get tortillas by the pound, fresh chiles and tomatillos, Mexican herbs, and corn husks to make tamales. But get all these things and more at Zaragoza Grocery, around the corner from the new Target on Avenue A. There’s a tiny dining room in back, too. Order at the counter, grab a bottle of Jarritos, and sit down. Zaragoza is famous for its potato flautas, which lay stacked on the counter, but also available are goat tacos, potato-and-chorizo enchiladas, and cheese-stuffed chiles rellenos. 215 Ave. A, between 13th and 14th streets, East Village
There’s no better Cuban sandwich in town than the one at Bermudez Bakery. The bright yellow façade draws you into a very old-fashioned and wonderfully cluttered bakery, where a Puerto Rican flag and a sandwich press are key elements, along with glass cases of colorful cakes and sweet rolls. When you order your sandwich ($5), the guy grabs a puffy, wand-shaped loaf of white bread from a tray in the back, splits it, and piles on slices of garlicky pernil, luncheon meat ham, Swiss cheese, and the all-important slivers of dill pickle, along with mayo and mustard. Into the sandwich press it goes till perfectly brown. For dessert there’s very good flan — but only if you can summon the appetite. Open 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days. 1875 Lexington Ave., between 116th and 117th streets, East Harlem