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.
It’s hard to point to a neighborhood that has the best Jamaican food in town, but my current candidate is South Jamaica (Queens, not the Caribbean). Barely a year old, this corner storefront has plenty of space, but a seating situation restricted to a single small table in the corner. No matter, most patrons dash in for carryout, and the L-shaped steam table is one of the loveliest sights in town. The classics are all there, including jerk chicken, brown stew chicken, mac and cheese, escovitch fish, curry goat, barbecue chicken, and jerk pork — which was the original meat jerked in Jamaica’s Boston Bay. (The island’s Arawak Indians, who originated the technique, favored wild boar.)
The long menu also features seafood, porridge breakfasts, African-American specialties like chicken and waffles, and “dreadlock pasta,” which consists of classic Jamaican dishes spooned over penne. The jerk chicken is above average for a Jamaican joint, appropriately sticky but only slightly smoky; the curried chicken spectacular; and the goat roti worth trekking across the borough to get. This is distinct from the Trinidadian dish, though made with a similar flatbread served on the side, plus a generous quantity of stewed goat in a separate receptacle and a scalding yellow hot sauce. Most dishes available in three sizes, and you can eat very, very well for $10 or less. 119-02 Sutphin Blvd., at 119th Avenue, South Jamaica
Another place you can eat well for less than $10 is Mighty Quinn’s. Its classic sliced brisket sandwich rings in just shy of that amount. Thick slices of smoked meat, rimmed with fat and crusted with black pepper and salt, are sliced and place on a brioche roll. And the carver then adds a sprinkle of flaky sea salt. This substantial sandwich comes with a choice of two slaws and some atypical pickles. Super yum! Quinn’s has spun off many branches in places as far flung as Dubai and Clifton, New Jersey, and I’ve found the barbecue uneven at some of these spots. But it has always remained top notch at the original location in the East Village. 103 Second Ave., at 6th Street, East Village
While you probably expect to go to Astoria, Bayside, or Whitestone, Queens for some of the best inexpensive Greek food, there remains a substantial Greek community in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That’s where you’ll find Plaka, an old corner diner right over the 86th Street R train stop, named after a historic Athens neighborhood. Meats are flame grilled in the front window and served in pita sandwiches with copious tzatziki. Other desirable orders include saganaki cheese set aflame; fried dogfish served with skordalia; appetizing platters laden with stuffed grape leaves, octopus, bread dips, and composed salads; the orange-scented sausage called loukaniko; and pastitsio baked casserole. Heck, you can even get a hamburger and excellent fries. 406 86th St., at Fourth Avenue, Bay Ridge