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. Prices range because the term “cheap eats” is relative, but a meal can be obtained here for less than $20. Find the back catalog here. Also consult the bigger cheap eats guide, with maps, walking tours, and other resources.
There are several types of easily accessible Brazilian eating establishments in the New York area, mainly in Manhattan, Astoria, and Newark’s Ironbound. Among them are white tablecloth joints, bakeries, hamburger shops, pizzerias, and expensive rodizios, where men dressed in gaucho costumes march around the room wielding skewers of meat. But the fastest growing category is small barbecues with steam tables attached that sell their meats, stews, salads, and fried snacks by weight at a series of nearly inscrutable fixed prices, depending on the mix of items you choose.
The basic price of a buffet with meat specials at Paladar — unexpectedly located in East Harlem, previously never a hotspot for Brazilian food — is $8.95 per pound, and one pound makes a very nice plateful. At one end of the steam table lies a small rotisserie built into the wall that offers a selection of four or five meats at one time. On the day I visited, it included top sirloin, chouriço (pork sausages), chicken drumsticks, and pork loin, and they all looked great. Don’t forget to dab them with the marvelous oily hot sauce shot with tiny yellow pimentas de cheiro.
At the steam table, find rice, black and pinto beans, round cod fritters, pork ribs, potato salad, mashed potatoes, green salad, canned beets, fish stew, steamed kale, and french fries, with toasted manioc to be sprinkled over anything you want. A separate glass case offers pao de queijo (bouncy cheese bread balls) and other savory baked and fried items. There’s a very comfortable dining room, though most patrons double park in front and dash in for carryout. 358 E. 112th St., between First and Second avenues, East Harlem
Tac ‘N Roll
One of the East Village’s greatest culinary sleepers is Tac ‘N Roll, a three-year-old fusion cafe owned and operated by chef Eric Wong, who traveled the world while in the Marine Corps and blends international flavors he was exposed to during service. While I generally run in the other direction when a restaurant is labeled “fusion,” in this case the term fits and the result is splendid. Here’s the gimmick: pick corn tortillas or a paratha, sandwich roll, burrito, salad, nachos, or rice bowl, and then choose from among six principal sauced ingredients to fill them. Beef with chimichurri goes well in the double tortillas, sending the taco spinning in an Argentine direction, while the chicken tikka belongs in the flaky paratha, which tastes more like the parathas eaten in Singapore than those found in India. All receive lush garnishes. Finally, there’s a notable pureed soup made with kabocha squash, smoothies, and a few more snacks. 124 East 4th St., between First and Second avenues, East Village
John’s Fried Chicken
This fried chicken emporium, showcasing a delectable tart Dominican version of fried chicken since 1974 in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and New Jersey, also offers steam table fare of distinction. And a $3.99 mini meal deal is available at the Marble Hill branch, which is easy to get to on the 1 train. The special includes rice, black or pink beans, and a main course, and makes a largish lunch or an adequate dinner. Choose from among roasted chicken, spare ribs, codfish cook-up, lamb stew, pork roast, and a half dozen other possibilities, which vary according to day. Gaze at the gleaming steam table and ask yourself, “Is this the best and cheapest all-day meal deal in town?” 5225 Broadway, between 225th and 228th streets, Marble Hill, Bronx