The Kati Roll Company
Somewhere between Lebanese-style shawarma and wrap sandwiches, the rolls at this Greenwich Village single-item specialist make superb (and, at $2–$5 a pop, cheap) street food. Kati means "skewer," which is how most of the flavorful marinated fillings (chicken or beef tikka, paneer-cheese cubes-and-peppers) are cooked before being rolled up in a wok-griddled paratha. Protein-packing unda rolls have a layer of egg cooked onto the paratha, and aloo masala is the spiced potato mixture familiar to fans of dosas, those fermented-rice-flour crêpes that had heretofore cornered the Indian fast-food market.
99 Macdougal Street, 212-420-6517
La Fonda Boricua
Even if you had a Puerto Rican grandmother, you'd be lucky if she could whip up food as hearty and soul-soothing as these sand-castle-size heaps of garlicky mofongo, densely packed with plantain and fried pork ($6.50); nicely seasoned stews with fork-tender meat ($5–$7); heaping helpings of perfect rice and beans (white, red, pink, or chickpeas); crispy, golden-brown fried pork chops ($7); and maduros sweet enough to give you cavities. And if you know La Fonda only from the days when a sign with the names of the previous owners, gina y george, defiantly hung outside, you'll be amazed at the transformation. Not only have the owners annexed the store next door and renovated both spaces into a comfortable two-room restaurant decorated with vibrant Puerto Rican art, but they've finally changed the sign. Happily, the ebullient El Barrio–community– center vibe and the Latin-love-song soundtrack haven't changed a bit.
169 East 106th Street, 212-410-7292
Le Zinc counters the will-you-marry-me? vibe of cousin Chanterelle with get-to-know-your-neighbor banquettes, a whadja-say? sound system, spicy lamb sausage, and $8.50 duck wings with a black-bean-chili sauce that bites back.
139 Duane Street; 212-513-0001
Lil' Frankie's Pizza
The irresistible offspring of Frank is distinguished by its custom-built brick oven, a tool used to sublime effect on everything from torpedo-size eggplants ($3.95) and lasagne alla Bolognese ($10.95) to whole fish and terrific thin-crust pizza ($5.95–$12.95). The dense, earthy fava-bean soup teeters deliciously on the edge of oversaltiness, but cut it with a juice glass of Montepulciano, or get your vegetables the traditional way -- in the unfailingly fresh Lil' Frankie's salad, a mound of zestily dressed arugula surrounded by neat piles of chopped vegetables and, to gild the Lil', cubes of Fontina cheese ($8.70).
19 First Avenue, 212-420-4900
Locanda Vini & Olii
Despite the sign outside reading lewis drug store, the burnished-wood apothecary drawers, and the rolling ladders, the only prescription this onetime pharmacy fills now is for satisfying, sometimes unfamiliar Italian food in an artfully preserved setting. Nibble on herb-seasoned olives and cheese, share a platter of cured-meat or seafood charcuterie ($10.95 and $12), dip saltless Tuscan-style bread into romaine-lettuce pesto, and sample the pasta tasting of the day ($8.75). The monthly wine-tasting dinners and the relaxing, highly civilized jazz brunch are worth a special trip.
129 Gates Avenue, at Cambridge Place, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, 718-622-9202
Long Island City Café
This friendly, spare café is mostly a lunchtime operation, but on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights, the lights are dimmed, candles are lit, and an American comfort-food dinner menu kicks in, with Tony Bennett on the stereo and entrées like roast halibut and filet mignon bordelaise running from $11 to $17. The fresh-mozzarella salad is distinguished by pre-season cherry tomatoes with decent flavor, and the garlicky stuffed artichoke would pass muster in any of the venerable Italian kitchens nearby.
5-48 49th Avenue, Long Island City, 718-361-2004
Extravagantly rich, oven-baked gnocchi alla romana, Lupa's Thursday-night special, goes for $15, leaving plenty to spare for a caraffina (quarter-liter) of Ramitello.
170 Thompson Street; 212-982-5089
If you've only experienced rodizio, that nonstop Brazilian barrage of grilled skewered meats, you'll be happily surprised by the refined elegance (and low prices: $12.95, tops) of this congenial restaurant's coconut-milk-and-palm-oil shrimp stew (moqueca de camarão); the tart, creamy passion-fruit mousse; and, on Fridays and Saturdays, the feijoada, the national Brazilian clay-pot black-bean stew packed with pork, sausage, and fatty bacon and served with white rice, garlicky collard greens, farofa (crunchy fried cassava meal), and -- in a seeming effort to cover all the major food groups -- a few orange slices.
25-35 36th Avenue, Astoria, Queens, 718-937-4821
Sometimes the best way to experience an unfamiliar cuisine is to defer entirely to the cook, to relinquish free will and idiosyncratic tastes and simply say "Feed me." That's the way dinner unfolds twice nightly at Mamlouk, the atmospheric Middle Eastern restaurant where the $30 six-course prix fixe menu changes daily, and where the only decision you need to make is whether to book a table at 7 or 9, the only available seatings. Dinner usually begins with great bread and terrific meze, including muhammara, a delicious walnut-pepper melange, followed by a minty fattoush salad, a tasty vegetable stew, and then two meat courses that might include anything from a Persian-style chicken with walnuts and pomegranate juice to an Iraqi lamb-and-okra dish. Factor in the wailing Middle Eastern music, the exotic furnishings -- tables so low that to dine at them requires an advanced knowledge of Pilates -- and the hookah pipes ($15 surcharge) that materialize after dessert and mint tea, and dinner is an entirely transporting experience.
211 East 4th Street, 212-529-3477
Park Slope has wholeheartedly embraced this poor man's Le Bernardin, and with good reason: Chef-owner Aaron Bashy and his wife, Vicki, deliver high-quality, inventively prepared seafood at neighborhood-friendly prices (most entrées run $16–$17). The cozy vibe and diverse wine selection are as much of a draw as the meaty fish cakes with toasted-paprika aïoli and the couscous-crusted scallops with chickpea fries. And between his periodic kids' cooking classes and his all-you-can-eat blue-crab fests, Bashy seems determined to turn his modest neighborhood restaurant into a full-fledged community center.
442 9th Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn, 718-832-5500
Neither shabby-cheap nor trendy-chic, Nam claims the sparsely populated Vietnamese-restaurant middle ground: understated Tribeca hip with handsome bamboo-and-wheatgrass décor and an appealing, surprisingly affordable menu (entrées, $11–$16). Rice-paper wrappers are as fresh as the whole shrimp they're stuffed with; stir-fried chopped monkfish on a black-seeded rice cracker is a terrific textural contrast; and the Hanoi-style barbecued pork is delectably charred and speckled, like most everything else, with chopped peanuts. Toasted coconut renders the homey warm banana bread just exotic enough.
110 Reade Street, 212-267-1777
From the noodle pros at Menchanko-Tei comes a joint with a gimmick: The name stands for Original Noodle for You, and the kitchen lets you customize your own steaming cauldron of ramen ($8.75) to your exact specifications. Pick the broth (the murky, rich spicy miso, say) and the toppings, which might include herb-flecked salmon balls, kimchi, fried tofu skin, or raw egg ($1–$2 a pop). If it's too hot for soup, try the soba salad ($7.75) or the sushi, which turns out to be much fresher and tastier than you'd expect from the noodle-parlor premises. And there's probably nothing that isn't improved by a jolt of the yuzu chili sauce.
357 Sixth Avenue, 212-414-8429