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.
With an estimated 130,000 Guatemalans in the New York area, you’d think there would be more Guatemalan restaurants. But there are only 10 or fewer that I know of, mainly in maritime Brooklyn within sight of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, or in Jamaica, Queens, mainly downtown. But as with Mexican taquerias 30 years ago, many small Guatemalan groceries are evolving into eateries. One that I dropped by recently is Karen Deli, on the border between Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.
Tightly packed shelves of Mexican and Guatemalan groceries, including lots of fresh produce, make getting to the back of the place difficult, but when you get there, you’ll discover a bustling kitchen with three cooks and a darling little dining room decorated with a colorful mural, attributed to several graffiti artists represented by their tags, including Moises, AKA, and Cesiar. A few tables are packed into the space under the mural. Two chalkboards over the kitchen list the day’s offerings, which run to 20 or so dishes. The large ones are priced at $8 or $9, including oil-slicked rice and soupy black refried beans, both exemplary.
One dish you shouldn’t miss is the often available pacayas forradas. Looking like a cross between an ear of corn and a squid, they are the male organs of a species of palm. The pacayas are dipped in an egg batter and fried, giving them a welcome crunch, though still slippery inside. Highly recommended. Another great dish is hilachas de res, a potato-bearing beef stew that will make you very happy with its scarlet mellowness, though bottles of Mexican hot sauces stand at the ready on the table. Apart from those, there are Guatemalan tamales, cauliflower scrambled with eggs, and hand-patted masa picaditas. 6116 Fifth Ave., between 61st and 62nd streets, Sunset Park
Hidden away on one of Chelsea Market’s many obscure byways is Tings, a newish micro-establishment that remains true to the flavors of Jamaican food, as served in Flatbush and in Kingston itself. The chef and owner is Sean John, and no, he doesn’t run a clothing company, too. Tings is a short, L-shaped counter with a few stools, and a seating area with tables that are shared with the mozzarella counter across the aisle.
The jerk chicken is great, thickly coated with spices. It comes with a pineapple chutney, and such a mountain of rice and peas, and such a quantity of chicken that $13 seems like a fair price. The oxtail is just as good, immersed in a midnight black gravy with lots of meat-fringed bones in a serving, which I readily shared with a friend at lunch. But perhaps the best offering is a beef patty with a particularly distinguished crust and the usual meat puree inside, tasting faintly of Scotch bonnets. For enhanced heat, grab the bottle of the orange hot sauce on the counter and pour to your heart’s content. Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Ave., Chelsea
Newark, New Jersey’s Ironbound is thronged with the Portuguese barbecues known as churrasquerias, most with limited menus. Chicken and pork ribs are cooked over charcoal, usually in view of the salivating customers. McWhorter Barbecue is the one closest to the PATH train terminus at Newark’s Penn Station and one of the best, an easy walking distance of six blocks. The meat is done on a hand cranked rotisserie right inside the recently renovated dining room, which is quite a sight in itself. A combination of chicken and ribs, easily enough to feed two people, is served with pickled vegetables and both rice and french fries, for a double carb wallop. Priced at an astonishing $12 per platter, the meat tastes mega smoky. 104 McWhorter St., at Green Street, Newark, NJ