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.
This regional Chinese restaurant Yu Kitchen, at least partly aimed at Columbia students and faculty, recently replaced the Sichuan lunch counter Lava Kitchen, reconfiguring the menu to make it more upscale and broaden its appeal by providing a wider range of dishes. The space is a bit more formal now, including booths — though just as brightly lit — and you can now spend $25 or so per person on a shared meal with all sorts of Shanghai, Sichuan, Shaanxi, and even Cantonese specialties. But the menu under new chef Ding Ji continues to invite budget-conscious diners with a series of magnificent meal-size soups that hover around $10, with some even cheaper, and also offering generous plates of noodles, dumplings, and fried rice.
One of the best deals is a soup called “stewed chicken with Chinese dark mushroom noodle” ($8.95). Scads of dark meat chicken and black mushrooms bob in a thick broth with the flavor reminiscent of European gravy, and underneath are enough wheat noodles to satisfy anyone. The soup can be further improved with an infusion of chile oil and black vinegar from the caddy on the table. “Pita bread soaked in lamb soup with sweet garlic” is a wonderful Shaanxi soup also found at Xi’an Famous Foods at nearly the same price. The version here is more chef-ly and fastidious, with bigger pita dumplings and proper slices of lamb. The pickled garlic cloves on the side are green, though I’m not sure that’s what “sweet” means in this context. You’ve got to try both versions of the soup to see which you prefer. 2656 Broadway, between 100th and 101st streets, Upper West Side
You could do worse than judge a city by its 24-hour eateries, which constitute a consummate measure of its urbanity. And who doesn’t need a spot to get a hearty bite to eat at, say, 3 a.m. once in a while? That’s why Empire Gyro deserves our praise even if the gyros are perhaps not the best in the city. They’ll do just fine. Offered on three types of bread, chicken and lamb are available, of which the lamb is preferred, though a mix of meats is also a good choice. Starting at $6.95 for a pita or $7.95 for a Turkish pita, the former may actually contain a little more meat, while the herb-dotted bread of the latter is substantially tastier.
The new café occupies that weird storefront at the southeast corner of Allen and Houston that almost exists only in two dimensions; it’s that shallow. But the rear dining room is a pleasure to sit in, and the shepherd salad is up to par, as are the desserts like baklava and the fabled Turkish brown top pudding, kazandibi. Plus, the Turkish coffee is boiled fresh to order. This just might be your new late-night hang. 200 Allen St., at Houston Street, Lower East Side
Singh’s Roti Shop
For the Guyanese neighborhood of South Richmond Hill that lies either side of Liberty Avenue, Singh’s Roti Shop is something of an anchor. It possesses one of the few bars in the neighborhood, located to one side of the neon lit dining room, in which a DJ often presides and lines form around mealtimes that reach the front door. These lines lead to a broad counter, where attendants assemble orders and sometimes even cook entire dishes. They put together doubles and rotis, scoop up Chinese-Guyanese fare such as fried rice and lo mein, pour curries of chicken and goat and shrimp over rice, and assemble the sandwiches called bakes, often eaten at breakfast and featuring smoked fish or vegetables. If you’ve never been here before, start with a marvelous goat roti configured as a “bust up shot” (torn shirt), meaning the ragged flatbread is served on the side. And ask for pepper sauce and tamarind chutney. There’s no more satisfying meal in Queens. 131-18 Liberty Ave., at 132nd Street, South Richmond Hill