I have a food problem. The friends who have met me on the road know that I will drag them across the city (and sometimes to neighbouring towns) in search of a new food. I will insist on copious time in local markets, at street stalls and crouched at roadside restaurants. I spend full days learning new recipes from the food stall owners I have met on my travels. I just love food. And from a half a world away, I still get emails about where to eat in New York. Specifically, where to find cheap eats in New York.
Why? Because I am, as I joke to friends, a low-class foodie: I love to eat good food, but enjoy the cheap eats instead. While I respect the artful talent involved in finer restaurants, why I travel through food and usually cheap food is that the experience of eating is not just the taste buds, but the whole shebang. The smaller busy stalls, the open kitchens, the chaos. I love it all.
I was saving up for this round-the-world adventure when I worked and lived in NYC, and thus I became the go-to person for friends and family who wanted find cheap eats in New York, but not sacrifice taste.
(Updated as of February 2012. For those arriving later, you can refer to this 2015 Eater map of their cheap restaurants for the city.)
Best Sake Bar
A good, fun izakaya bar is a serious treat, and Bar Hagi (152 W. 49th St., nr. Seventh Ave) does not disappoint. Located in the basement of a nondescript midtown building, Hagi has a hearty sake menu, great gyoza and yakitori and the best mini-udon hotpot in the city. Their spicy pork belly and cabbage dish is not to be missed and the sashimi tuna salad (one of the few light items on the menu) is always a hit. Best of all: the prices are great.
Best Japanese Street Eats
Otafuku, 236 East 9th Street, New York, NY. I am a huge okonomiyaki fan, and Otafuku never disappoints me. Though it’s essentially a food stall with no seating, I usually camp out on one of the many stoops lining East 9th street and happily chow on my Japanese pancake. The sauces are excellent, the bonito flakes are soft and light and the food is always delicious. Opt for Combo B, the okonomyaki and takoyaki combination plate.
There are many wonderful tapas restaurants in New York, but Tia Pol (205 10th Avenue, New York, NY) remains my favorite. Their patatas bravas comes with a spicy mayonnaise dipping sauce and both the chorizo al jerez and lamb skewers are impeccable. They also make a great tortilla española. Bonus: killer sangria.
Corner Bistro (331 West 4th Street, New York, NY) is rumoured to be the best burger in New York and it does not disappoint. I also love The Burger Joint in the Parker-Meridian hotel (119 W 56th St, New York, NY). Bonus points for walking into a fancy hotel and walking out having spent minimal money, and smelling like burger grease. Both of these spots serve their burgers on paper plates, and with no fanfare. Prices hit the spot too.
(NEW!) Best Chinese
Xi’an Famous Foods (81 St. Marks Place, New York, NY) a newfound discovery for me (but not for my friends, who were appalled that I hadn’t eaten here prior!) this hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves spicy, lamb-filled dishes at unbeatable prices. From the burgers served on thin buns to the spicy, cumin-doused lamb over thick rice noodles, everything I’ve eaten here has been delicious. Other options include taking the 7 train to Flushing, Queens and wandering around the street stalls there. Bubble tea, dumplings, hand-pulled noodles – you name it, Flushing has it.
Iron Chef House (92 Clark St, Brooklyn, NY) and Nana (155 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY) in Brooklyn are both delicious, well-priced and serve consistently fresh fish. Iron Chef has a creative selection of maki rolls to choose from, tempered by a long list of sashimi and sushi options. Nana has a patio out back and a fun bar in the front, which makes it a great choice in the summer months. I have many sushi faves in the city itself, but the value of the food at these Brooklyn options made them consistently worthwhile.
Kashkaval (856 9th Avenue, New York, NY) has a fantastic lineup of small plates, including hummus, creamy artichoke dips, stuffed grape leaves and tzatziki. Their meat and cheese options don’t disappoint either: the each compliments the other, leaving you wanting more. Bonus: a sparse but good wine selection, and fondue.
(NEW!) Best Kebab
Kabul Kebab House (42-51 Main St., Flushing, Queens, NY) tucked away amid variety of cheap Flushing eats from Asia is this delicious Kebab house on Main street. With great grilled meat and saffron-infused chicken, the tiny restaurant features an open kitchen to see your food as it is being cooked, friendly staff and some of the best dill-filled basmati rice this side of the Atlantic. Don’t miss the ice cream with hints of rosewater for desert.
The Bedouin Tent‘s leg of lamb with onion, tomato & homemade lemon-mint mayonnaise in fresh pita is hands down the best sandwich for me (405 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY). A close second: the banh mi sandwiches from Ba Xuyen (4222 8th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY) – they have a surprisingly plentiful set of sandwich options, including meatballs, and the bread is always fresh.
Ippudo (65 4th Avenue, New York, NY) is always packed, but worth the wait: you’re in for rich, complex soup broths and perfectly cooked noodles. Bonus: get the pork buns while you wait, they are superb. Another favorite is Menchanko-tei (45 W. 55th Street, New York, NY), especially in the summer months when they serve cold soups with slices of roasted pork and noodles.
Piola (48 East 12th Street, New York, NY) A pizza chain based in Italy, Piola offers thin crust and Neapolitan style pizzas that I absolutely love. For any deep-dish pizza fans, this is not your place. But for those of you who, like me, want their dough to be crispy and light: this might just be your new pizza destination.
Zibetto Bar (1385 Avenue of the Americas, nr 56th street, New York, NY). Zibetto is the perfect espresso bar. It is standing room only, with a long marble counter and expert baristas who make excellent coffee. They also serve biscotti and teas, and sell Illy products. I worked nearby and this was a weekly treat. You won’t find a better espresso in the city – except at their other location on Fulton street.
Nha Trang (87 Baxter St, New York, NY) has reliably delicious pho soups, huge summer rolls (including a grilled pork version that I cannot resist) and great prices. There are a slew of other Vietnamese restaurants on Baxter, but I keep returning to Nha Trang.
Best Indian Food
My friend Sarah introduced me to Banjara Restaurant (97 1st Avenue, New York, NY) and I was hooked. Mouth-watering, creamy curry dishes, amazing palak ghost, light and crispy naan breads and a huge menu to choose from. It isn’t the cheapest option in New York’s “Little India”, but it is by far my favorite.
Best Bubble Tea
I started drinking bubble tea in Montreal and it quickly became an addiction. St. Alp’s Teahouse (39 3 Avenue, New York, NY) has a great selection of flavours and their tapioca ‘bubbles’ are not soaked in honey water (unlike Ten Ren) so the tea is not unbearably sweet. My favorite is the taro milk bubble tea.
(NEW!) Best Arepas
Arepa Arepa (160 Havemeyer St (between South 2nd and 3rd Sts) Williamsburg, Brooklyn) its name may be overkill (we get it, you serve arepas) but the main star of the show is not. Plenty to choose from, none too oily or too dry, this restaurant gets it right. Favourites include the chorizo and cheese pile-ons.
newly opened Peacefood Cafe (460 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY) serves fantastic veggie food, in a bright, no-frills atmosphere Try the chickpea fries or the Shanghai-style dumplings – you will not regret it.
I love everything about Mandoo Bar (2 West 32nd Street, New York, NY). Located in the middle of Koreatown, it is surrounded by all night karaoke joints and as astounding selection of frozen yoghurt places. Its mandoo (Korean for dumplings) are always cooked to perfection and can be purchased boiled or fried. Best of all, however, is the dolsot bibimbap, a mix of rice, vegetables an egg and a protein of your choice mixed to crispy perfection in a hot stone bowl.
and, my absolute “must eat” category for last:
I have been to Tasty Dumpling (54 Mulberry Street, New York, NY) and Fried Dumpling (106 Mosco Street, New York, NY) more times than I can count. I have a food problem, but foremost on my food list are dumplings – and these two hole-in-the-wall shops make the best dumplings in the city, at amazing prices.
Update: 2011’s summer brought me a new fave in Brooklyn, the adorably named Dumplings and Things (375 5th Avenue, Brooklyn NY). Cheap, choice of fried or boiled and some delicious soup options to accompany them, I stopped in at least once every few days when I was in town.