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.
You think Superiority Burger makes a great vegetarian burger? Well you probably haven’t tried the alu tikki burger at the strictly vegetarian USHA Foods, from Anil and Indira Mathur. A grilled potato patty stuffed with peas and other vegetables and brushed with a sweet tamarind sauce is pressed with lettuce and tomato inside a sleek wraparound bun which has a bit of a crunch. The whole thing leaves a mild chile burn, but it slides down easy, especially when dipped in the mint condiment on the side. Including potato chips, $7 is a great deal for this filling meal, and it is certainly one of the city’s greatest veggie burgers.
Other savory bites at this supremely wonderful northern Indian snack shop just inside the Queens border in Floral Park run to chaats, paratha rolls, and dosas. The most remarkable dosa, and the one that caused a friend and I to stop here, is cryptically dubbed the Chinese dosa. It turns out to be stuffed with the Chinese Indian dish known as Hakka noodles. It’s damn tasty, sided with a cup of thicker than usual sambar and a fine grained coconut chutney. This is a great example of the culinary whole being much greater than the sum of its parts. There’s also a sweets counter featuring various forms of the fudge called barfi, along with all sorts of other milk-based sweets. 255-03 Hillside Ave., between 255th and 256th streets, Floral Park
Spam is one of you four meat choices (the others: beef, lamb, and fish) to top the mini mala hot pots that are the stock in trade of relative newcomer Peppercorn Kitchen. Opened by Kirk Liu last September, the wide and shallow space is in the midst of the New York University campus and presumably aimed at budget conscious students. It mounts a limited menu and provides mainly window counter seating — though the place is dolled up with stylish neon. The hot pots contain numerous vegetables, as well as a nest of mung bean thread, with a starting price of $9.99. A chicken broth is used, but a vegetarian option is available, making for a perfectly satisfying vegetarian dish.
The slender menu also has a few other crowd pleasers, priced substantially below the bowls, the foremost of which is a carton of chile-dusted french fries. The dumplings in chile oil are similarly solid, but the actual amount of Sichuan peppercorns is on the low side, even if you order the soup extra spicy. Deploy the bottle of Sichuan peppercorn oil on the table to remedy that, if you dare. 289 Mercer St., between East 8th Street and Waverly Place, Greenwich Village
The name of this counter in Koreatown’s wonderful Food Gallery 32 food court refers to the spicy red sauce that’s a centerpiece of the national cuisine. The counter goes on to describe itself as “Korean School Food,” a label irresistible to those who never went to school there, and also for those who did. Leading off the menu is a dish called Korean-style soft rice cake ($7.99), which consists of bouncy tubular rice cakes in a red tide of gochujang with thin floppy fish cakes that might be mistaken for spam and a boiled egg. Dig in! The menu features several other things that may or may not be school lunch standards but are certainly comfort food: a plate of steamed and sliced blood sausage, and an assortment of fried goodies that includes porky wontons, squid tentacles, battered nori rolls filled with mung bean thread, and white and orange sweet potato slices. They’re greasy and delicious. Carry your food upstairs and eat on the spacious 3rd floor. 11 West 32nd St., between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, Koreatown