Three Great Cheap is a 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.
Founded last summer, the first PhoBar was a jazzy, walk-up café located in Greenwich Village near NYU. It mounted a menu with several kinds of pho, some plain, some unconventional. This past January, co-owners Mike Khuu and Li Pien opened a second spot on Mott in the middle of Chinatown in a space that had previously been a steakhouse. The cavernous interior features a modern design with an abstract tropical mural, including a yellow neon sign that reads “Crazy Rich Broth.” This is probably the branch you should visit, since the menu offers two options not available at the original, including a hot pot that allows you to cook your own pho, and the chance to choose broth that has been cooked eight hours, 16 hours ($3), or 25 hours ($5).
On the other hand, the eight-hour pho is perfectly fine, with a subtle broth inflected with sweet spices like star anise and cinnamon. At $9.95, it’s quite a deal, and you can have it with sliced raw beef or beef balls tossed in. A couple of other meat options cost a couple of dollars more, but it’s probably worth it to go for the oxtail pho ($15.95), which has a 16-hour broth and a pair of big thick oxtail nobs that take some pleasurable work to extract the meat from.
The 25-hour pho broth is probably not worth the extra money, though maybe you want to try it once. Vietnamese cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, who I took along with me on one visit, pointed out that “the long cooking actually suppresses the flavor of the spices and makes the broth bland.” So stick with the cheaper broths. The menu offers many appetizing and snacking options (such as a wonderful plate of stewed pig’s knuckles), and a beer list with dozens of Asian choices, including the questionable Lucky Buddha Beer from China in a Buddha-shaped bottle. 45 Mott St., between Pell and Bayard streets, Chinatown
Raan Kway Teow
Kway teow is a type of thin rice noodle that may have originated in Guangdong, China but has spread across Southeast Asia. Name checking those noodles, Raan Kway Teow is a new Jackson Heights Thai restaurant that has become wildly popular almost overnight, specializing in meal-size noodle soups. Despite an address right on Roosevelt Avenue in a block-long shopping complex, the entrance is concealed around the corner on 78th Street. The room is compact and elegant, the staff congenial and willing to hold forth on any of the menu offerings.
On a first meal there, and from a menu that offers noodle choices for many dishes, I picked tom yum pork sen tek ($11) made with kway teow. The broth was pink and spicy and scintillating in flavor, with plenty of sliced pork and ground pork, with a fish ball as bonus. Fried wonton skin croutons added crunch. Really, I could eat this almost every day. As an appetizer, I enjoyed a quartet of shrimp rolls with the usual sweet dipping sauce. Don’t miss this new noodle addition to Jackson Heights, Woodside, and Elmhurst’s massive complement of Siamese restaurants. 78-14 Roosevelt Ave., on 78th Street, Elmhurst
Yafa Deli and Grocery
Maybe it’s time to revisit this Clinton Hill Palestinian corner bodega, right above the Clinton-Washington stop on the C. For over a decade, Yafa Deli and Grocery has been turning out some of Brooklyn’s finest fried chicken. In the style popular in this part of the borough, the chicken parts are lightly coated with flour before being fried, allowing the skin, rather than a thick breading, to do the crunch work. No brining, either, meaning no marshmallow-ey texture. The trick is that small batches are periodically cooked, meaning that the bird is very fresh whenever you but it. Look for it in the glass case right next to the cash register. 907 Fulton St., at Clinton Avenue, Clinton Hill