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A Food Revolution for the People

Cheap eaters, unite! The city's ruling culinary class spreads the wealth, and here, at proletarian prices, are the year's most perfect unions of high and low.

This might be the year of the $500 omakase dinner and deep-pocketed gourmands filing into the Time Warner Center, but it’s also—perhaps less headline-grabbingly so—the year of the $2.50 Chicago-style hot dog, the $6 Philly cheesesteak (a burgeoning category), and Astoria’s first $7 tarte flambée. Omnivorous New Yorkers can, and do, have it both ways, from the five-hour, nine-course tasting menu at Per Se to the bowl o’ red from a standing position at Daisy May’s BBQ USA chili cart.

Of course, certain populist chefs and restaurateurs have been moving in a downwardly mobile direction for years. But 2004 promises the highest lows: Mario Batali scooping gelato from a cart in Washington Square Park, Daniel-trained Adam Perry Lang bringing his fleet of barbecue carts up to nine, and Tom Colicchio of Craft and Gramercy Tavern opening two new branches of his gourmet sandwich shop, ’wichcraft. A degree under Daniel Boulud isn’t required to make the world’s best French fry, but judging by Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson’s addictively crispy handiwork at Schiller’s, the frites tuition can’t hurt. Of our favorite new low- to mid-range restaurants—all of them here opened within the past year—even those that aren’t cheap in the strictest five-fried-Chinatown-dumplings-for-a-dollar sense of the word bring great values, from $3 tandoori chicken to $18 sea-urchin-sauced wild salmon en papillote.

In the most democratic of dining cities, even elite chefs love nothing better than a good deal, as we confirmed when we sent four of them out to spend the cost of their tasting menu or prix fixe on cheap food for a day. They all came back happy and full—and under budget, as can any smart-spending New Yorker these days. Name your price.

64 West 10th Street, 212-505-7777
Alta is the anti-tapas bar. Yes, its menu consists entirely of small plates, priced from $3 to $14, and yes, many of them—pungent boquerones with quail eggs and Worcestershire mayo, say, or grilled sourdough adorned with creamy Valdeon, salty serrano, and roasted pineapple—taste and sound Spanish enough. But chef Harrison Mosher's elegant, offbeat presentations come off more haute tasting menu than run-of-the-mill Madrid. Neighbors drop by the long, welcoming bar for extemporaneous goat-cheese fritters and lavender honey, or a glass of wine from a carefully curated old-world list. The rustic double-height dining room feels like a South American hacienda, and there's an intimate upstairs alcove that you reach by walking through the kitchen.

Bao Noodles
391 Second Avenue, near 22nd St.; 212-725-7770
The cut-rate spinoff of Alphabet City's Bao 111 specializes in the homestyle noodles, salads, and stir-fries of chef-partner Michael Huynh's Saigon youth. Steamy bowls of crab noodle soup and succulent stews are pure Southeast Asian comfort food, and zesty dressings enliven grilledshrimp and seared steak. For the most part, Huynh stifles the urge to fuse East and West—and the splendid dessert exceptions, like pandan-leaf panna cotta, are welcome. He designed the place, too, using artfully agedmirrors and floor tiles for an effect that's part French bistro, part Irish pub. Lively crowds pile into wooden booths and slurp soup and cocktails at the bar.

775 Washington Street, 212-924-9700
California-cuisine avatar Jonathan Waxman slips easily into casual-Italian mode at his most recent home, on the breezy ground floor of Industria Superstudio. Retractable garage-door walls and a concrete floor give theWest Village corner space a spare, industrial feel. Warming it all up are kitchen-towel napkins, a big communal table, and the wood-burning brick oven that yields whole roasted fish and Waxman's signature crisp-skinned, herb-flecked chicken. In the best Italian (and Californian) tradition, the menu changes seasonally, focusing on simple, satisfying vegetable contorni and impeccably fresh salads. Barbuto's affogato is a beautiful, high-octane thing: a scoop of Il Laboratorio del Gelato vanilla doused with espresso.

Top-shelf Jamaican at Greenpoint's Blue Drawes.  

Bleu Drawes Cafe
97 Commnercial Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn; 718-349-8501
In deference to his Greenpoint neighbors, Steve Brooks makes a toothsome kielbasa omelette for brunch. But the rest of the time, the chef-owner of this nineteen-seat café adapts family recipes for a lightened-up, modernized version of Jamaican home cooking. Codfish cakes are impeccably fresh and crisp; moist jerk chicken is deftly seasoned, if not incendiary. Every main course (or "real food," as the menu puts it) comes with fluffy rice and peas, plantains, and greens. Tenuous as this might make the prospect of dessert, try to do justice to the place's namesake, a dense steamed sweet-potato pudding served on a banana leaf and drizzled with coconut milk.

296 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-384-7770
Bozu chef-owner Makoto Suzuki has expanded the definition of Japanese tapas (if there is one) to include deep-fried kataifi-crusted shrimp, pumpkin risotto croquettes stuffed with mozzarella, and an unconventional version of sushi. Suzuki's "bombs" are the shape of things to come—small mounds of rice tinted red from cabbage or pink from codfish roe, and topped either traditionally (salmon, tuna, eel) or not (sun-dried tomato, olive, and caper). These light bites can be eaten at the bar, on epoxy tables ringed with Eames chairs, or on the back deck. Until the liquor license arrives and the fruit-infused shochu starts to flow, you'll have to wash them down with a six-pack from home.

Bread and Olive
24 West 45th Street, 212-764-1588
A dependable neighborhood falafel joint is a cheapskate's best friend—especially when that neighborhood is as uniformly overpriced and culinarily underwhelming as midtown. Bread & Olive inherited its narrow, brightly tiled premises and menu from the previous occupant, Bread From Beirut. Quality remains high and flavors exceedingly fresh in meze like lemony hummus, smoky baba ghannouj, and zesty tabbouleh. And there is still bread from Beirut baked on premises—most notably keshik, a puffy flatbread dusted with dried goat cheese, crushed wheat, and sesame seeds and rolled up, upon request, around yogurt as dense as cream cheese; plus the best chicken shawarma in town.

Carve Unique Sandwiches
760-8 Eighth Avenue, at 47th Street; 212-730-4949
A better name for Carve might be Crunch: Owner and French Culinary Institute grad Eban Ross was obviously the type of kid who liked to sneak potato chips onto his peanut-butter-and-bologna sandwiches. In the adult quest for new and unusual textural contrasts, he's progressed to cramming a latticelike layer of crunchy hash browns on his "steakhouse" roast-beef sandwich with blue-cheese dressing, and combining smooth guacamole and practically a whole side of crisp apple-wood-smoked bacon on his "New Cobb," a delicious vehicle for moist rotisserie-roasted turkey. Our favorite, though, is the super crispy fried chicken with grilled-corn slaw and barbecue sauce on a crusty Tom Cat baguette—Fourth of July on a bun.

Casa Monobar/ Jamon
52 Irving Place/125 East 17th Street; 212-253-2773
As tiny as Po, as packed as Lupa, and as distinctive as all the restaurants in Mario Batali's considerable portfolio, this newfangled New York tapas bar gives its collegially cramped clientele dinner and a show.In Casa Mono's minuscule open kitchen, chef-partner Andy Nusser fries impressively airy pumpkin-and-goat cheese croquetas, seasons spectacular patatas bravas, and grills seasonal vegetables to a caramelized crisp. The tasting-plate format keeps prices low and the wait long, but whetting the appetite with a glass of Albariño and garlicky pan con tomate around the corner at Batali's Bar Jamón isn't a bad way to kill time.