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Deals on Meals

We've got nothing against $34 black sea bass, and $26 burgers are fine, too. But who can resist delicious fare in unpretentious, unexpected places? From Vietnamese banh mi to budget-minded beefsteak, 80 great ways to eat on the cheap.

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Cheese whizzes: Blintzes at PSC Cafeteria.  

TRAY CHIC
Truly great cafeteria-style food

Now that the Condé Nast cafeteria has made busing a tray at lunch downright stylish, we've been reliving our junior-high days -- without the Tater Tots and mystery meat -- at the new AQ Café at the Scandinavia House, a natty concession run by Aquavit. On the menu: textbook Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes ($9), a luscious herring plate ($6.50), even that old cafeteria warhorse lasagna. Though this one's a rich salmon version with béchamel and tomato-caper salsa ($9).

We also happily get on line at lunch with the UPS delivery men, the beefy double-beeper-belted garmentos, even strappy-sandaled, Pucci-clad blondes (no doubt Condé Nast-cafeteria fugitives bucking the Si Newhouse-imposed garlic ban) at Veronica Ristorante Italiano. The place mingles a shabby sixties-era garment-district charm -- brown plastic trays; orange Formica tables; pre-poured red or white wine -- with a few unexpected refinements like homemade herb-and-fennel bread and good espresso. Defying the laws of steam-table physics, the pasta, in most cases, is just a bite shy of al dente. Shells in a creamy Bolognese sauce ($8.50) and linguine with two mammoth but surprisingly light turkey meatballs ($6.50) are favorites. "It's better than Le Cirque," we overheard a fashionista crow on a recent visit. "Well, the portions are better," demurred her garmento friend.

The portions at the spotless, skylit PSC (Polish Slavic Center) Cafeteria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are so much better than Le Cirque's that even the burly working men who congregate here wobble like tentative tightrope walkers as they carry their pierogi-packed trays back to their tables. Satisfying slabs of meat loaf, chicken cutlets, and beef-and-pork-stuffed peppers are a few of the hearty entrées heaped high with mashed potatoes and gravy, red cabbage, coleslaw, rye bread, plus a glass of compot (the room-temp fruit drink) -- all for under five bucks. Throw in a measly extra dollar and you get a big bowl of the soup of the day. Or splurge on dessert: perhaps the best cheese blintzes in Greenpoint served with a dollop of vanilla-sweetened sour cream.

AQ CAFÉ, 58 Park Ave., near 38th St. (212-847-9745); VERONICA RISTORANTE ITALIANO, 240 W. 38th St. (212-764-4770); PSC CAFETERIA, 177 Kent St., Brooklyn (718-383-5290).

FILLING STATIONS
All you can eat, and eat, and eat

Last time we made the trek uptown to Charles' Southern Style Kitchen, we had the great good fortune to arrive at the exact moment when the all-you-can-eat buffet ($6.99 at lunch, $9.99 at dinner) was being replenished with crackling-hot fried chicken, chef-owner Charles Gabriel's claim to soul-food fame. Suffused with the kind of distinctive flavor that comes from long, slow marination -- and sheathed in the sort of light, crispy skin that indicates expert frying -- this bird alone is worth the cover charge, which you pay up front, as if you were buying a movie ticket. Inside, a friendly waitress offers you individually wrapped, beyond-moist cornbread and a plastic glass of sweet lemonade ($1 extra, free refills), and then you're free to repeatedly pillage the steam table for beefy oxtails; smothered steak; okra succotash; fine macaroni and cheese; candied yams; first-rate collard greens tinged with turkey so smoky we swore we tasted pork; and barbecued ribs in a splendid sweet sauce that gives the fried chicken a run for your well-spent money.

Indian lunch buffets abound in this town, but we've narrowed the field down to two personal faves. Dimple, a kosher vegetarian restaurant and sweetshop, does deeply elaborate, delicious things with vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and yogurt. Seating is communal, at hard wooden booths, so if you'd rather commandeer a comfy booth of your own, head to Utsav, the ritzy restaurant located uniquely in an elevated bridge between two midtown office buildings. At $12.95, the spread is pricier than most, but the setting's posher (in a contemporary, tasteful way), with tablecloths and flowers and gracious waiters wearing chili-pepper-patterned neckties. Every day brings a selection of four vegetable and three meat dishes, plus a choice of cold salads, top-notch chutneys and pickles, nan, superb saffron pullao rice, and silky-sweet Indian puddings for dessert.

CHARLES' SOUTHERN STYLE KITCHEN, 2841 Frederick Douglass Blvd., near 152nd St. (212-926-4313); DIMPLE, 11 W. 30th St. (212-643-9464); UTSAV, 1185 Sixth Ave., near 46th St. (212-575-2525).

PRIX FIXATIONS
Set-price menus to fit your budget

We salute those generous kitchens that extend their $20.01 Restaurant Week lunches throughout the year, but they're not the only prix fixe game in town. Starting from the bottom (in price, not quality), you can get your fill for as little as $3.75 at Warteg Fortuna, an Indonesian hole-in-the-wall below the elevated subway in Woodside, Queens. That buys you a Styrofoam plate that is, alas, mostly rice but also includes smaller portions of tasty curried chicken on the bone (or beef, lamb, or fish) and stewed cabbage and carrots in a spicy coconut curry. There are five other dinner plates to choose from, and we recommend splurging on the $5 chicken satay -- four skewers of luscious coal-blackened meat marinated with sweet, thick soy sauce, served with rice and a petite portion of green beans, bean sprouts, and kale with peanut dressing. Es teler is a multicolored tropical drink that turns bright pink when you stir it up, a shade that complements the slivers of avocado and jackfruit floating on top ($1.50).

A thali is a full Indian meal served on a metal tray, which is how lunch ($6) and dinner ($10) arrive at Thali, a sliver of a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant in Greenwich Village. The menu changes daily, but you can safely expect tandoori roti, rice, a couple delectably spiced vegetable stews or curries, dal, and, for dessert, something like a delicate ras malai, or sweet cheese dumpling. For $10.95, Ayurveda Cafe provides a similarly scrumptious package deal for that rare Upper West Sider who doesn't mind letting someone else dictate what he's eating for dinner.

For a quarter of a century, La Petite Auberge has quietly endured the ascendance of nouvelle cuisine, celebrity chefs, and health-consciousness, remaining remarkably immune to every hostile threat to its classic style of French cooking. For the price of an entrée almost everywhere else, the $23.95 four-course prix fixe features such high-fat, old-school fare as steak au poivre with buttery potatoes and spinach, filet of sole meunière, and an enormous, wonderfully crispy duck a l'orange (for a $2 supplement). The vinaigrette on the leeks is more cream than vinegar, the pâté is robust, and the service is that practiced blend of proper and friendly that makes this wood-beamed chalet in the heart of Curry Hill such a sentimental fave. If our arteries could take it, we'd be regulars.

WARTEG FORTUNA, 51-24 Roosevelt Ave., Woodside (718-898-2554); THALI, 28 Greenwich Ave. (212-367-7411); AYURVEDA CAFE, 706 Amsterdam Ave., near 94th St. (212-932-2400); LA PETITE AUBERGE, 116 Lexington Ave., near 28th St. (212-689-5003).


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