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.
It’s been three months since Sebastian Perez and Sebastian Bangsgaard opened Smør, a very small and sunny Scandinavian sandwich shop on East 12th Street in the East Village. The furnishings are very Danish modern, comfortable and spare and hard-edged, and the menu concentrates on smørrebrod, those open-face assemblages the foundation of which is a slice of rich, crumbly rye. It almost doesn’t seem like bread. Naturally, some feature smoked and pickled fish, of which herring is queen.
The chicken salad with bacon is a classic, heaped high enough ($8) with mayo-laced poultry, and stacked with enough bacon accented with shredded beets and a frond or two of purslane, that it’s more of a small lunch than the kind of canape passed around at parties. Like all the smørrebrod here, much attention is paid to artistic presentations. Figuring out how to eat them is half the fun.
The menu also offers buckwheat noodles, yogurt and granola, pancakes, and — this being the East Village — both avocado toast and a kale bowl. 441 East 12th St., between First and Second avenues, East Village
La Nortena Express
In the past five years or so, many Mexican proprietors have taken over Queens and Brooklyn pizza parlors. They faithfully continue the Sicilian and Neapolitan pizza traditions, making the usual plain, pepperoni, Hawaiian (ham and pineapple) pies that are so popular among Latin residents of Middle Queens. They also turn out tacos and other antojitos. But the dream, at least on my part, was that they’d merge the traditions and start making cross-cultural pizzas with Italian crusts and Mexican toppings.
And of course they did, long before I stumbled on such a place. La Nortena Express is really just a very wide kitchen with prop-open windows that look onto the street, the space sealed in flapping sheets of plastic for colder weather. Sit at the counter and order a taco filled with cabeza or barbacoa or chorizo and wash it down with a champurrado (a rich, chocolate-based drink). Then get a slice of pizza. The plain cheese is nice, but why not go for the slice, displayed on the counter, featuring chile-laced ground beef, fresh jalapeños, and a sharp tomato sauce? The ground beef has been cooked so it might as well be chorizo, and the slice hangs together better than most, and you’ll be wishing you’d ordered a second one as you walk down the street, lips burning. Open 24 hours. 97-17 37th Ave., at 98th Street, Corona
While it lacks the spiciness of, say Ugly Baby, or the scholarly approach to Thai food that once characterized Pok Pok, Dannee Thai is just the kind of neighborhood Thai restaurant you’d love to have a few blocks from your apartment. First off, there’s a lunchtime special ($10, seven days) that launches with soup, fritters, or dumplings; leading to a very broad range of main courses, including drunken noodles, red or green curry, and a choice of meats in a basil stir fry, washed down with a free soda.
The curry puffs are particularly fine, crisp pastry bulging with a savory chicken filling. My favorite noodle dish so far is pad kee mao, sometimes known as drunken noodles. Though a choice of main ingredients is offered, go with the pork or the mock duck, which will be cooked up with eggs, basil, bell peppers, and chile paste, and finished with a squeeze of lime. 433 Dekalb Ave., between Classon Avenue and Taaffe Place, Clinton Hill