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.
Santa Ana Deli
When it opened as a cafe in 2005, Bushwick’s Santa Ana Deli was one of the first Mexican taquerias the neighborhood, morphing from a bodega that dates to 1986. It was founded by Pueblan immigrant Polo Teco, and run with the assistance of his extended family, including his younger brother Marco, wife Benita, and daughter Blanca. The space still reflects its original use as a grocery store, with racks of dried chiles, cans of refried beans, and refrigerated cases of Mexican beer, sodas, and juices remaining. Comfortable tables are sprinkled around the sunny dining room, which is decorated with Aztec motifs, with a perfunctory sombrero here and there. It remains one of the best Mexican restaurants in town.
Step up to the order counter at the rear, above which a hand lettered sign offers tacos, tortas, cemitas, and hand-patted quesadillas, huaraches, sopes, and memelitas, in addition to plate meals featuring the dried beef called cecina, served with cactus strips, as well as steak with onions and egg breakfasts. Such is the profusion of the menu that you might miss a few of the best things, listed around the edges. There, find the taqueria’s namesake santanero burrito, with your choice of fillings, smothered in a trio of sauces that mimic the Mexican flag (eat it with a knife and fork), as well as tacos Arabes ($4 each), flour tortillas wrapped around a filling of pork al pastor lubricated with orange chipotle sauce and green guacamole. The dish originated as a rolled pita sandwich using mutton rather than pork, brought to the city of Puebla by Middle Eastern immigrants. 171 Irving Ave., at Stockholm Street, Bushwick
Many might think of Newark’s Ironbound as a neighborhood filled with old churrasquerias, marisquieras, and bakeries of ancient vintage, laid-back places for a belt busting meal and glass of red wine or two, or plate of pasteis de Nata (Portuguese egg tarts) and an espresso. But newfangled restaurants are arriving daily, places that reflect the Portugal of today rather than yesteryear. One such is No Pão (“on bread”), an amazing sandwich shop that describes itself as a “neighborhood oasis,” located off the beaten track not far from Highways 1 and 9, which bring budget conscious travelers to Newark International Airport.
All sandwiches are served with a large helping of very good fries and run from $5 to $11. The first figure gets you the country’s signature bifana sandwich (marinated pork cutlets in a garlicky orange sauce), while the latter pays for something called “grown up grilled cheese,” which features prosciutto, pepper jack cheese, and smoked pork loin with spicy aioli. The menu includes 26 sandwiches, one salad, and some miscellaneous snacks like rissois, which are geometrically distinguished croquettes stuffed with things like chicken salad, salt cod and potatoes, and blood sausage. 108 Jabez St., between Wilson and New York avenues, Newark, NJ
Despite the influx of bigger ticket Chinese restaurants in Flushing, plenty of great bargains remain, and not just in food courts. Chu Kee is an old fashioned dumpling stall featuring food from southern and northern China, such as appeared on the Lower East Side two decades ago, but with an updated and expanded menu of more than 30 items. Even if you can’t speak Chinese, you can point to the translations on the posted menu. There are fried and steamed dumplings in the usual permutations, scallion pancakes, preparations of soy milk and tofu, and soups like hot-and-sour, green bean jelly, and tremella, a fluffy white fungus. The sticky rice bundles known as zongzi make wonderful small meals in themselves. My favorite, called Guandong rice cake ($3), features tidbits of mushroom and pork, tinted brown with soy sauce. Eat it while walking to the subway, two blocks away. 40-52 Main St., entrance around the corner on 41st Avenue, Flushing