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Sietsema’s 10 Quintessential NYC Cheap Eats

Eater's senior critic recommends his favorite inexpensive dishes around NYC

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With real estate values remaining at stratospheric levels, fancy restaurants keep getting more expensive and decreasing the size of their portions to survive, making the city's collection of classic cheap eats more important than ever. Because, let's face it, how many times in the course of a week can you afford to spend $100 on a meal?

How do they do it? Well, we're not sure, but these 10 spots offer menus that have remained cheap, in many cases for decades. And each place represents a whole class of restaurants, cafes, and carry-outs, so that if you explore further, you'll find many places serving similar things in various parts of town. Eateries are designated C for Cheap (around $10 and up), or SC for Super Cheap (less than $10).

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Banh Mi Saigon Bakery

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The Vietnamese hero sandwich appeared here 20 years ago in the back of a jewelry store on Mott Street. Sure we’d tried banh mi before, mainly as stale afterthoughts on Vietnamese restaurant menus. But Saigon Banh Mi specialized in them, making its own perfect baguettes having some rice flour mixed in with the wheat, and dressing them with fillings that ran from pâté to barbecued pork to roast chicken to canned sardines. Ask for “extra hot” and your banh mi will be further garnished with fresh jalapeños and sriracha. [SC]

Mamoun's Falafel

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Middle Eastern vegetarian fare and meaty kebabs have formed a nexus of New York City cheap eats ever since Mamoun’s opened south of the NYU. campus in 1971. That old fragrant but cramped premises still exists, but instead visit the expanded location in the East Village, where a falafel sandwich with all the fixins (don’t neglect the gritty hot sauce) is still one of the city’s most delicious and laughably cheap meals. [SC]

Merit Kabab & Dumpling Palace

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At the gateway to Jackson Heights and nearly on top of the E, F, 7, R, and M subway station, lies this ancient institution like a mountaintop temple in Lost Horizons. Once it was a Merit Farms convenience store, and the half-fried shrimp and French fries still sit palely in the window, along with humongous South Asian samosas (pick vegetable or chicken), lentil-filled pooris, and shredded-vegetable fritters. Deeper inside are Tibetan and Nepalese steam tables, with not-bad seating as part of the bargain. [SC]

Gray's Papaya

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Of the dozen or so working class hot dog stalls of Manhattan, why choose this Upper West Side one? It comes closest to fulfilling the hot dog principles that originated on the Coney Island Boarwalk in the 19th century: plainish, popping-skinned franks topped with a meager choice of ingredients, mainly sauerkraut and mustard (now supplemented with a few more). Skip the grainy and fruity drinks. Open 24 hours. [SC]

Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano

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One of the city’s original, coal-oven pizzerias (and hence one of the first pizzerias in the nation), Totonno’s dates back to 1924. It still turns out those perfect, slightly charred, thin-crust pies with little in the way of toppings or fanfare. Go early or late, and don’t expect apps or desserts. A walk along the Coney Island Boardwalk is the perfect post-prandial activity. Open Thursday through Sunday, and convenient to all sorts of subways. [C]

Sapporo

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Originally a ramen shop aimed at homesick Japanese expats, this Times Square stalwart attracts a mixed audience intent on cheap, authentic Japanese eats, including pork-juice-oozing gyoza crisped on only one side, katsu pork cutlets splayed over rice in a perfect katsudon, and, of course, ramen in a variety of old-country and newfangled styles. This is the Japanese equivalent of a Greek diner, with noise levels, bright illumination, and retro seating to match. [C]

Taco Mix

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A cylinder of pork al pastor twirls in the window of this recently revamped taqueria in East Harlem, surmounted by a whole pineapple marinating and tenderizing the meat. Made with tiny corn tortillas doubled up and stuffed with more meat than they can easily contain, then sprinkled with fresh onions and cilantro, the tacos made therefrom are some of the best in town, and so are the other stuffing choices, too. Open until 5 a.m., this place has a real urban jauntiness that recalls Mexico City. [SC]

Superiority Burger

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Not long ago Brooks Headley abandoned his post as a top pastry chef and decided to invent the world’s best vegetarian burger. Did he succeed? You can find out if you cruise by the East Village’s Superiority Burger, a mainly vegan closet where the menu changes daily (though burgers and tempeh sloppy joes are a given), and the gelato is some of the best in town. Remember, he was once a pastry chef. [C]

Kings Kitchen 金煌煲煲好

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Fujianese eateries held sway along Chinatown’s East Broadway for over a decade, then they gradually began to disappear and a new generation of Cantonese restaurants began to emerge with a Hong Kong flair. Kings Kitchen is one of these, offering bargain priced dumplings, congees, charcuterie, noodles, and, in the Hong Kong style, casseroles of eel, duck, and other creatures steamed over rice with sweet soy sauce and scallions. [SC]

Food Gallery 32

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Nowadays you expect food courts to be uncomfortable and expensive, but this multilevel Koreatown institution is cheap and comfortable, with plenty of seating on the second and third floors. Pick from among seven fast food counters that furnish Korean standards such as bibimbop and bulgogi, but also provide a Korean take on sushi, ramen, and other Korean-Japanese and Korean-Chinese food. And all at merciful prices. Open until midnight, seven days. [C]

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Banh Mi Saigon Bakery

The Vietnamese hero sandwich appeared here 20 years ago in the back of a jewelry store on Mott Street. Sure we’d tried banh mi before, mainly as stale afterthoughts on Vietnamese restaurant menus. But Saigon Banh Mi specialized in them, making its own perfect baguettes having some rice flour mixed in with the wheat, and dressing them with fillings that ran from pâté to barbecued pork to roast chicken to canned sardines. Ask for “extra hot” and your banh mi will be further garnished with fresh jalapeños and sriracha. [SC]

Mamoun's Falafel

Middle Eastern vegetarian fare and meaty kebabs have formed a nexus of New York City cheap eats ever since Mamoun’s opened south of the NYU. campus in 1971. That old fragrant but cramped premises still exists, but instead visit the expanded location in the East Village, where a falafel sandwich with all the fixins (don’t neglect the gritty hot sauce) is still one of the city’s most delicious and laughably cheap meals. [SC]

Merit Kabab & Dumpling Palace

At the gateway to Jackson Heights and nearly on top of the E, F, 7, R, and M subway station, lies this ancient institution like a mountaintop temple in Lost Horizons. Once it was a Merit Farms convenience store, and the half-fried shrimp and French fries still sit palely in the window, along with humongous South Asian samosas (pick vegetable or chicken), lentil-filled pooris, and shredded-vegetable fritters. Deeper inside are Tibetan and Nepalese steam tables, with not-bad seating as part of the bargain. [SC]

Gray's Papaya

Of the dozen or so working class hot dog stalls of Manhattan, why choose this Upper West Side one? It comes closest to fulfilling the hot dog principles that originated on the Coney Island Boarwalk in the 19th century: plainish, popping-skinned franks topped with a meager choice of ingredients, mainly sauerkraut and mustard (now supplemented with a few more). Skip the grainy and fruity drinks. Open 24 hours. [SC]

Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano

One of the city’s original, coal-oven pizzerias (and hence one of the first pizzerias in the nation), Totonno’s dates back to 1924. It still turns out those perfect, slightly charred, thin-crust pies with little in the way of toppings or fanfare. Go early or late, and don’t expect apps or desserts. A walk along the Coney Island Boardwalk is the perfect post-prandial activity. Open Thursday through Sunday, and convenient to all sorts of subways. [C]

Sapporo

Originally a ramen shop aimed at homesick Japanese expats, this Times Square stalwart attracts a mixed audience intent on cheap, authentic Japanese eats, including pork-juice-oozing gyoza crisped on only one side, katsu pork cutlets splayed over rice in a perfect katsudon, and, of course, ramen in a variety of old-country and newfangled styles. This is the Japanese equivalent of a Greek diner, with noise levels, bright illumination, and retro seating to match. [C]

Taco Mix

A cylinder of pork al pastor twirls in the window of this recently revamped taqueria in East Harlem, surmounted by a whole pineapple marinating and tenderizing the meat. Made with tiny corn tortillas doubled up and stuffed with more meat than they can easily contain, then sprinkled with fresh onions and cilantro, the tacos made therefrom are some of the best in town, and so are the other stuffing choices, too. Open until 5 a.m., this place has a real urban jauntiness that recalls Mexico City. [SC]

Superiority Burger

Not long ago Brooks Headley abandoned his post as a top pastry chef and decided to invent the world’s best vegetarian burger. Did he succeed? You can find out if you cruise by the East Village’s Superiority Burger, a mainly vegan closet where the menu changes daily (though burgers and tempeh sloppy joes are a given), and the gelato is some of the best in town. Remember, he was once a pastry chef. [C]

Kings Kitchen 金煌煲煲好

Fujianese eateries held sway along Chinatown’s East Broadway for over a decade, then they gradually began to disappear and a new generation of Cantonese restaurants began to emerge with a Hong Kong flair. Kings Kitchen is one of these, offering bargain priced dumplings, congees, charcuterie, noodles, and, in the Hong Kong style, casseroles of eel, duck, and other creatures steamed over rice with sweet soy sauce and scallions. [SC]

Food Gallery 32

Nowadays you expect food courts to be uncomfortable and expensive, but this multilevel Koreatown institution is cheap and comfortable, with plenty of seating on the second and third floors. Pick from among seven fast food counters that furnish Korean standards such as bibimbop and bulgogi, but also provide a Korean take on sushi, ramen, and other Korean-Japanese and Korean-Chinese food. And all at merciful prices. Open until midnight, seven days. [C]

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