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75 Under $20: Budget Gourmet

From escargots on the Upper West Side to clam cakes in Red Hook, some of the most delicious dishes in the city are as easy on the pocketbook as they are on the palate. An A-to-Z guide to the best meal deals in New York.

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947 Columbus Avenue, near 106th Street
(212-531-1643)
Even after an "expansion," this tiny BYOB café is as cramped as a car on the subway line it's named after, populated by a mellow mix of Columbia students and Upper West Siders communing over French-Caribbean-accented small plates with equally small price tags ($6–$10). There's a fiery kick to the escargots with cilantro-chili butter, and the hot grilled avocado with a dollop of spinach mousse where the pit used to be is a nutty experiment that works, smooth as butter in a puddle of shiitake-sesame vinaigrette.

aKa Cafe
49 Clinton Street
(212-979-6096)
The pressed hanger-steak slider on a bialy and the flaky pork empanada with cilantro-and-collard-green relish are just two of the reasons this multicultural snack shop remains our favorite place to eat on Clinton Street, despite the proliferating competition. There's also the eclectic wine list, the refreshing house cocktails, the relaxed, hospitable vibe, and the fact that only two dishes (the $13 "bigger hot plates") cost more than $8.

Aki
181 West 4th Street
(212-989-5440)
Chef-owner Siggy Nakanishi used to cook for the Japanese ambassador to the West Indies, which accounts for freaky fusion rolls like spicy tuna with fried banana. But fanciful sushi isn't all you'll find at this brick-walled aerie four stairs removed from the West 4th Street hubbub: There's also the daily roster of off-the-wall specials, every bit as inventive as menu staples like the eel napoleon with fried tofu and mashed pumpkin ($7) and the salmon-mozzarella-and-basil summer roll with a tiny gravy boat of balsamic sauce ($8).

Alfanoose
150 Fulton Street
(212-528-4669)
We love this three-stool, no-frills Lebanese-Syrian takeout spot, not just for the tastiest, tidiest falafel sandwich in town, and not just for owner Mouhamad Shami's pride and commitment to keeping everything fresh. We love it for dishes you rarely find in other Middle Eastern joints, like a spicy vegetarian kibbeh stuffed with Swiss chard, mint, and parsley -- not to mention occasional specials courtesy of Mrs. Shami, like kafta bil-saniyeh (a casserole heaped with potatoes, tomatoes, and minced lamb, $12) and a deftly spiced vegetarian moussaka ($7.50).

Alias
76 Clinton Street
(212-505-5011)
Hovering somewhere between aKa Cafe's glorified bar food and 71 Clinton Fresh Food's pricier productions, this nouvelle bistro serves creative comfort food to a hipster clientele. Chef Scott Ehrlich treads on hallowed Gus's and Russ's territory with Lower East Side–inspired dishes like a pickle plate and smoked sable, but he leaves the Zip Code far behind with crispy-crusted duck confit ($8), hanger steak with Yorkshire pudding, and smoky shrimp with a wild-rice pancake (both $18). The wine list is short, diverse, and user-friendly; the doughnuts served with their cream-stuffed holes are adorable; and despite what common sense dictates, avocado tastes great with crème brûlée.

An Dong
5424 Eighth Avenue, at 55th Street, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
(718-972-2269)
Ever wonder how the ingredients that go into a typical banh mi -- crunchy veggies plus all those mysterious pork products -- would work piled on something besides French bread? Between two slices of Wonder bread, say? Not so well, we imagine, texture being half the appeal of this great French-Vietnamese fusion sandwich. That's why we're so enamored of this Sunset Park snack shop's $2.50 "special" banh mi, which has all that wonderfully weird lunch meat plus homemade pâté, pickled carrots, cukes, cilantro, jalapeño, and gobs of thick mayo, all carefully wedged into a superior crusty baguette. Plus, the owner's daughter pours a mean Vietnamese iced coffee, and on weekends, Mom turns out an admirable duck soup.

Arunee Thai Cuisine
37-68 79th Street, Jackson Heights
(718-205-5559)
The secret to great Thai food is the artful intermingling of flavors -- hot, sour, salty, sweet. The secret to great tom kha gai -- that restorative chicken-and-coconut-milk soup -- is to cram it with flavor-enhancers like galangal and lemongrass, both of which are underrepresented in New York Thai restaurants. Not at this tin-ceilinged Jackson Heights standby, though, where the same attention to detail is applied to the refreshingly zesty salads (or "yum," $4.25–$9.95) and Thai classics like panang curry ($7.95), tantalizingly redolent of basil and kaffir-lime leaf.

BB Sandwich Bar
120 West 3rd Street
(212-473-7500)
The sole menu item here is a lip-smackingly great Philly-style cheese steak ($4) -- daringly served on an untraditional kaiser roll with a fistful of caramelized onions and a fancy red-pepper relish -- that's as neat as a cucumber sandwich. Unfortunately, to keep up with demand, BB has started making them ahead of time and keeping them warm in the oven. Under normal circumstances, that might be cause for alarm. Here, it's only a minor -- and we hope temporary -- setback. In any case, these babies are so damn good we'd eat them cold.

Beyoglu
1431 Third Avenue, at 81st Street
(212-570-5666)
Beyoglu is simply the best Turkish cooking in town, and if you don't believe us, chef-owner Orhan Yegen will tell you so himself. His steely-eyed braggadocio, delivered tableside in a perfect soft-spoken Bond-villainese, almost seems intended to cast some sort of hypnotic spell. You are getting hungry, very, very hungry. Have a kebab. Yegen's discourse, though, is no match for his kitchen's minty yogurt soup; tantalizingly good meze ($3–$8.50); and succulent doner kebab made from lamb and beef ($12.50), the only entrée available and perhaps the only version of this dish you may ever settle for again.


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