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.
Merit Kabab Dumpling Palace
This truly wonderful spot steps from the elevated subway station at 74th Street in Jackson Heights was descended from a once-ubiquitous New York deli chain called Merit Farms. Now only the Merit part remains in the name, plus a handful of snacks in the window that include breaded shrimp and pallid french fries waiting to be finished in the fryer. The balance of the sumptuous window display is devoted to such South Asian fare as giant chicken or potato samosas (priced at a mere $1 apiece including green chutney), chicken or vegetable rolls that resemble Chinese egg rolls in appearance, lacquered red chicken wings, and a split-pea-stuffed bread called dal poori, all at astonishingly cheap prices and freshly fried. Grab a snack on the way to the subway.
But wait, there’s more. Further in find a seating area, cramped but adequate, and a long, long steam table that specializes in biryanis and pulaos — wonderful single-dish rice meals sometimes decorated with colorful boiled eggs — plus many dishes, many of them vegetarian and featuring things like eggplant, bitter melon, summer squash, and multiple dals. You can eat well here for far less than $10. Even deeper inside the cavernous space (you’ll feel like a spelunker) is an independent Nepalese café called Gyanu Thapa, with its own luscious steam table and several momo deals, but we’ll save that recommendation for a further edition of Three Great Cheap. 37-67 74th St., between Roosevelt Avenue and 37th Road, Jackson Heights
Of the half dozen Ghanaian restaurants in the Bronx’s University Heights and Fordham Heights enclave, Papaye sits right on the Grand Concourse, close to the B and D subway lines, and is the place where you can most readily get a conventional restaurant meal. In other words, it feels less like you’re sitting in someone’s parlor, and more like dining in a modern café. A set of pictures behind the counter illustrates the menu, making it easy to make a choice, and most of the bill of fare is available most days. First choose a mash like banku, emotuo, or white yam fufu, then a soup such as peanut butter with lamb or egusi (crushed melon seeds) with fish. Then break off fingerfuls of mash with your right hand, dip them in the soup, and enjoy. Use the big spoon provided to cut up the meat and scoop up other bites, as necessary. Open noon to midnight, seven days. 2300 Grand Concourse, at East 183rd Street, Fordham Heights
Proong Noodle Bar
This nifty noodle bar with a Thai preoccupation across the street from Peter Cooper Village serves plenty of Chinese stuff too, including pork belly bao, savory stewed chicken feet, and shrimp shumai, plus dishes like stylish kale salads and edamame fritters. But go for the full-meal Siamese soups. My favorite is bang-rak baa mee, a deconstructed potage of egg noodles, sliced pork, shrimp wontons, and bok choy, with the broth served on the side. Try it at lunch, when special deals are available. 347 First Ave., between 20th and 21st streets, Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village