It’s been a very good year for the budget gourmet, what with the profusion of easy-on-the-wallet small plates, value-packed prix fixes, and cut-rate kitchens opened by top-notch chefs. In fact, there are so many great, inexpensive meals to be had at the moment, picking our favorite new ones was no easy task, but it was a delicious one—from succulent short-rib skewers in Alphabet City to duck-confit quesadillas in Park Slope; from vegetarian South Indian in Curry Hill to Brazilian beefsteak in Long Island City. In addition, we’ve ranked New York’s best iconic cheap eats, and we can already hear the dissenting opinions pouring in. But life is short—why waste time arguing when you could be eating?
409 Atlantic Avenue, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn
When you market yourself as a bistrot à vins, you might consider postponing your opening till the liquor license arrives. Bacchus didn’t, and it’s a testament to the quality of the cooking and the congeniality of the owners and staff that it’s already become such a beloved, albeit temporarily BYOB, Boerum Hill fixture. A rustic, cozy dining room, a tranquil garden, and a menu that deftly combines the classics (coq au vin, $10; steak-frites, $18) with the more contemporary (baked salmon with tomato jam and artichokes, $12) make the dry spell more than tolerable.
111 Avenue C
Don’t let the gangly young models and their scruffy escorts deter you. Even these diet-dazed divas can’t resist what emerges from chef Michael Huynh’s Vietnamese kitchen: Exceedingly fresh, Hulk-size summer rolls ($7). Plump chicken wings that come with a Scotch-bonnet dipping sauce that elicits a warning from the waiter ($7). And grilled short ribs skewered onto lemongrass stalks ($11)—a highbrow steak-on-a-stick that may make you wonder whether Jean-Georges has a moonlighting gig. Fusiony entrées creep past the $20 barrier, but the noodle and “traditional style” portions of the menu fall well beneath the mark (try the sputtering ironpot chicken, $14). And save room for sublime desserts like black-sticky-rice pudding, just like the models do.
671 Union Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Two-dollar tamales and superior café con leche are reason enough to patronize this seven-seat sliver of a Park Slope café, but happily for local fans of the cheap, delicious Mexican snacks called antojitos, the dexterous kitchen doesn’t stop there. Zesty avocado salad ($4.25) is enlivened with lime juice and cilantro. Pressed sandwiches ($5.75 to $6.50) are stuffed with savory fillings like chicken mole and roast-pork guajillo. Corn masa is put to every conceivable use—most of them involving sour cream, Oaxacan cheese, black beans, and tangy tomatillo salsa. Thirst-quenchers like lime lemonade and tamarind water are made in-house, as is cinnamon-spiced Mexican hot chocolate, served in rough earthenware mugs.
575 Hudson Street
You don’t need to be an Anglophile to love this cozy West Village café, with its rustic wood tables and plenty of room between them, but it helps. The kitchen lays claim to “cross-channel cooking,” a sort of Pan-European fusion, but what it really does is celebrate the best of—don’t laugh—British food. Rib-sticking fare like Guinness-braised beef brisket ($14), a lavishly rich, potato-and-cheese-crusted cottage pie ($10), and superior fish and chips ($14) go down easy with a pint of beer ferried in from the myriad taps of the adjacent Irish pub.
129 East 27th Street
By now, kosher-vegetarian-Indian is almost a cliché, but longtime restaurateur Pradeep Shinde claims to have coined the concept years ago at a Curry Hill kitchen around the corner from his current colorful digs. Back then, a rabbi’s certification and a meatless menu rendered the premises safe for Orthodox Jews, cow-abstaining Hindus, pork-eschewing Muslims, and vegetarians alike. “I had Farrakhan and Jewish people next to each other. I had Kevin Nealon,” says Shinde. After a Florida sabbatical, he and partner Neil Constance returned to take on the increasingly heated competition. The kitchen packs maximum flavor and superb value into its $5.95 unlimited lunch buffet (bread, two rices, four curries, multiple pickles and chutneys, and dessert), and turns out a respectable roster of uthappam, dosai, and iddly—a word that must have worked its way into an SNL sketch or two.
177 South 4th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Zak Pelaccio buys local and cooks global, a practice that sets him apart from the hipsterville competition. Organic salad greens come from the North Fork, kielbasa from Greenpoint. The sometime special of smoked fish is courtesy of a Hasidic neighbor. But Chickenbone has a lot more to offer than a p.c. philosophy: It’s got a hopping bar scene, a classic cocktail list, a sleek cabin-in-the-woods design, and low prices ($3 to $9.50). Not to mention ambitious daily specials like broiled eel over rice ($14) and roasted partridge ($16). Sandwiches are a particular strength, and come stuffed with everything from pork confit to bittersweet chocolate.
45-17 28th Avenue
There’s much more to Romanian food than steak, this friendly restaurant aims to prove. There’s polenta, for instance, and lots of it: mounded into a papa-bear portion and blanketed with sour cream and grated feta ($6); stuffed with sour cream and feta and served with sausages and a fried egg ($10); and as the sauce-sopping garnish for hearty dishes like spicy stuffed cabbage ($7) and juicy deep-fried Cornish hen ($11.50). Nearly as sweet as the Romanian rosé we sampled were the papanasi, perhaps the world’s most imposing doughnuts—doused, for good measure, with sour cream and apricot preserves.
165 Allen Street
This funky downtown quasi-diner divides its menu into “small dishes” ($7) and “big dishes” ($14.50 or $17.50)—a welcome gimmick, since the latter come with any two sides, making it easy (and thrifty) to skip the former. The kitchen dips into the comfort-food canon for revved-up versions of meat loaf, fried catfish, and pork chops, but the menu turns out to be as eclectic as the crowd—part Lower East Side hipsters, part middle-aged curiosity seekers from points north, all harmoniously tucking into crisp codfish tacos and house-smoked trout with shaved fennel. Unexpected grace notes abound, like a pickle-plate amuse bouche, candied pignolis on the chocolate pudding, and exceptional spiced sangria and vanilla-bean lemonade.
221 West 38th Street
This garment-district cafeteria makes the best and biggest boreks in town—titanic slabs of flaky phyllo pie hefted from the oven throughout the day. The spinach-and-cheese version is sublime, but the ground-beef is even better ($4 each). The kitchen also turns out great servings of stuffed cabbage and beef goulash (both $7.50) as well as cevapi ($8), tasty Bosnian beef sausages served with feta, sliced onion, and a peppery condiment so alarmingly bright red that in the absence of a flare, you could use it as a roadside distress signal.
1030 Second Avenue, near 54th Street
Like a Jack-in-the-box, the irrepressible Orhan Yegen keeps popping up in our pages—this time last year, we were lauding his marvelous meze and juicy doner kebab at Beyoglu. They’re just as delicious at the spiffy Turtle Bay storefront where Yegen materialized last winter, a (somewhat) changed man. Though still a despotic stickler for freshness and flavor, he’s rescinded some of his quirkier rules: Uptown, he’d bristle at requests for crusty pide bread; here, it comes with every order. And he’s expanded his single-entrée menu to include daily specials like succulent lamb-stuffed eggplant, luscious moussaka, and piquant stuffed cabbage drizzled with yogurt ($9.50).