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.
Jiang Xin Fan Tuan
The number of small cafes peddling Taiwanese specialties is on the rise in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and the latest example is Jiang Xin Fan Tuan, a restaurant that advertises itself as offering Japanese food despite the Mandarin name. Convenient to the departure points for several cross-country bus routes, it attracts passengers looking for an easy-to-carry snack. That snack is fan tuan, a showy roll of glutinous purple rice wrapped in dried seaweed and stuffed with diverse tidbits, including one main ingredient. The tidbits include yellow daikon pickle, lettuce, and cucumbers; and the main ingredients run to bacon, eel, shrimp, pork, and six others.
Bacon? Yes, regular breakfast bacon gives one roll a powerful salty and smoky flavor, while another is sweetened by means of eel that has been cooked in the Japanese manner. Those ordering octopus might be slightly disappointed, because these specimens are bright red, rubbery, and fishy tasting baby octopi. One the other hand, they add an intriguing texture to the stuffing. Priced at $3.30 to $4.30 apiece, the rolls are quite large, and two make a full meal. Jiang Xin Fan Tuan also sells several over-rice bowls using the same main ingredients; the chicken ($5.50) is a particularly good deal. 38 Allen St., between Hester and Canal streets, Lower East Side
An unusual hip-hop themed sandwich shop has opened in a relatively obscure location in Astoria. Named for founder Alex Compton, Compton’s plays with the ability of its name to evoke a famous neighborhood (and movie) in LA, facetiously hanging a neon sign that says, “Straight Outta Astoria.” Priced from $9 to $12, the sandwiches tend to be elaborately conceived. An example is the Christopher: roast beef, cheddar, beer battered onion rings, lettuce, tomato, and horseradish aioli on a semolina hero. Lots of hot heroes, too. My favorite so far is a breakfast sandwich that tangles two runny eggs, sausage, cheese, avocado, hash browns, and bright orange Sriracha mayo on a roll. Reflecting the terroir of the neighborhood, there are also good Greek french fries with ricotta and a tzatziki dipping sauce. 30-02 14th St., at 30th Avenue, Astoria
I Love Panzerotti
A panzerotto is a fried turnover something like a calzone made with fine white flour that cooks up light and fluffy, though not greaseless as the photos demonstrate. I Love Panzerotti is the latest purveyor of these treats, which taste like savory doughnuts. They can be filled with a variety of substances, though don’t expect much filling. At $7 to $9 each, one is probably enough, and lines have been forming at lunchtime in the small space, which offers only a little counter seating. I was intrigued by the mortadella and mozzarella filling, and a companion enjoyed the artichoke hearts, which also came with spinach inside. Indeed, the number of vegetarian options is one of the pluses of this place, and among those, the classico (mozzarella and tomato, with a marinara dipping sauce) is one of the best. Note that these taste much better when hot out of the fat, so don’t carry them too far before consuming. 220 Varick St., at Downing Street, Greenwich Village