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.
As this column reported a few months ago, the number of casual restaurants in the city serving the Mediterranean sandwich variously called shawarma (Middle East), gyro (Greek), and doner (Turkey) has increased exponentially, with the biggest hot beds being the Lower East Side, East and West Villages, Chelsea, and Downtown Brooklyn. Heck, if you include the Mexican taco al pastor, which was inspired by shawarma in the city of Puebla 100 years ago, the number of related sandwiches here is even greater.
Latest example is Berlin Döner, occupying a prime spot on the Macdougal cheap-eats strip south of NYU. The name commemorates the invention of the doner sandwich, not in Turkey itself, but in Berlin. Two competing doner cylinders spin alluringly in the window, one with fragments of patched-together chicken, the other composed of oniony lamb packed into a kind of grease-oozing, tapering meat loaf. Both are recommended. (Neither is the currently common beef-lamb amalgam found in many new places, which makes a very dull sandwich.)
In fact, you should pick the combo of the two meats, available on a round Turkish loaf or wrapped in a big pita for $9.75, garnished with tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and raw onions, and dressed with one of four sauces. Pick the garlic-laced yogurt. To perfect the sandwich, pay extra to have some french fries tucked inside, which is how it’s done in Berlin. Plenty of salads, bread dips, and other main ingredients like adana kebab, grilled halloumi cheese, and chicken shish kebab also available. Open till 3 a.m. on weekdays and until 5 a.m. on weekends. 104 Macdougal St., between Bleecker and Third streets, Greenwich Village
This charming orange-painted spot on a side street in East Harlem is one of the few Mexican restaurants in the city specializing in tamales. All except the Oaxaquena — wrapped in a banana leaf instead of a corn husk — are priced at $1.50 each, served with a cup of chipotle dipping sauce. Briefer than most, the bill of fare is particularly strong on breakfast items, including chilaquiles with eggs; platters featuring a tamale, eggs, and home fries; and scrambled eggs with chorizo. Then there are tacos in Mexican and Tex-Mex styles, picaditas with meat or without, and glorious potato flautas. 154 East 112th St., between Lexington and Third avenues, East Harlem
The roster of Upper West Side kosher choices gets a boost with the arrival of this homegrown Brooklyn mini chain on Amsterdam Avenue. The kitchen has perfected the art of cooking breaded chicken cutlets so they become super crisp on the outside while remaining moist in the middle. Several coatings are available (including sesame and panko, and corn flakes, among the more extreme), as are several flavor themes. Stick with the simplest “holy schnitzel” ($12.99), which contorts the cutlet inside a foot-long baguette with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo, almost too much for a single meal.
Skip the more elaborate sandwiches like the “holy toasty,” which comes with a couple of slices of indifferent pastrami on top of the cutlet. But do go for some of the random non-sandwich dishes strewn around the menu, such as the hot dogs, hummus platter, avocado salad, or especially the potato cigar platter, which consists of fried flutes of pastry-wrapped potato with a tahini dipping sauce. 654 Amsterdam Ave., on 92nd Street, Upper West Side