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Cheap Eats

75 Under $20

Panino Giusto
• 11 Stone Street; 212-785-8006

Panino'teca 275
Wine and light Mediterranean fare for Smith Street's bar-hoppers and boutique shoppers.
• 275 Smith Street, Brooklyn; 718-237-2728

The French wine bar makes a mean pressed sandwich of duck rillettes and capers, and is perpetually packed.
• 8 Little West 12th Street; 212-463-8345

Patio Dining
Sara Jenkins cooks with the seasons and shops at the Greenmarket, which makes her small daily menu (entrées range from $12 to $22) fresh, unpredictable, and Chez Panissean in spirit -- think Jonathan Waxman's Washington Park on an East Village budget. Earthy, comforting soups; rich, veggie-strewn pastas; boutique free-range pork and veal; and fresh, expertly cooked fish sound simple but are elevated by first-rate ingredients -- even the house olive oil makes a bold, aromatic statement. The décor is thrift-shop funky and the kitchen is tiny, but what emerges from it is often creative, always satisfying, and a refreshing break from the pervasive cook-by-numbers approach.
• 31 Second Avenue, 212-460-9171

Pearson's Texas Barbecue
Like fading rock stars who find blue instead of green M&Ms in their dressing rooms, some of the city's new self-styled barbecue connoisseurs are impossible to please. And it's not only the meat that has to be just so; it's also the ambience, which according to these experts should approximate something like Fred Sanford's front lawn. Pearson's has both requirements covered. The new location in the back of a Jackson Heights bar isn't as screen-door funky-grubby great as the old Long Island City one with its backyard picnic tables, but it's got a working man's vibe, a jukebox, and an occasional Hell's Angel with a motorcycle mama in tow. On the other hand, the wood-smoked pork ribs, pulled chicken, chopped pork, brisket, and hot links ($12–$14.50 per pound) -- all available as sandwiches on excellent Portuguese rolls ($5.95– $6.45) -- are so damn good, and dare we say authentic, you'd be happy eating this grub off of a Frette-linen tablecloth with an asparagus holder at Ducasse. Pearson's is the closest New York comes to a quibble-free 'cue zone.
• 71-04 35th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens, 718-779-7715

Phi Lan
This is the sweetest little spot you'd never expect to find in midtown, with heartfelt Vietnamese home cooking in a cozy coffee-shop setting. When Tudor City nail-salon owner and chef Lan "Nancy" Tran decided to get into the restaurant business, she enlisted practically the whole Lan Tran clan -- her sister's fiancé, her aunt from California, a great uncle or two. The family pride shows in dishes like bo xao chua, sautéed strips of beef with red peppers and onions on a mound of watercress ($10), and subtly spicy dark-meat chicken with lemongrass and chilies over rice ($6). Pho fiends might quibble that the soup doesn't include all those optional add-ins like beef tendon and "navel," but the broth is delicious, redolent of star anise and clove. And even if it weren't, there's such a friendly vibe here, you'd come back anyway.
• 249 East 45th Street, 212-922-9411

There's life after Mario Batali, the original chef-partner of this vest-pocket trattoria, where crowds still flock for affordable, enticing Italian fare. Chef Lee McGrath shares his predecessor's fetish for chili pepper, which punctuates everything from lemony anchovies over a bed of faro ($9) to a refreshing, Greek-like cucumber-and-olive salad under a blanket of shaved ricotta salata ($8). Pastas are generous and satisfying; quail and lamb taste char-grilled ($12.50–$18). Try to score a window table -- it always feels like the most romantic spot in town.
• 31 Cornelia Street, 212-645-2189

Park Slope panini shop.
• 195 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-857-1950

Press Cafe
Panini... in the Bronx!
• 114 East 157th Street, the Bronx; 718-401-0545

Rai Rai Ken
If you're nearsighted and have the option, wear contact lenses to this narrow fourteen-stool ramen bar. Otherwise -- especially in winter -- the fragrant heat pouring off soup cauldrons large enough to impress Macbeth's witches will seriously steam up your eyeglasses. Then all your senses won't be able to fully appreciate the tremendous bowls of ramen noodles in flavorful broths chock-full of various delicacies, like fish cakes, roast pork, bamboo shoots, and crispy garlic. There are also a few appetizers, including expertly fried gyoza, or Japanese potstickers, on the tiny menu, and from May to September, when the windows aren't completely fogged over, a couple of cold noodle dishes nearly as delicious as the soups (all noodles, $6.95–$8.30).
• 214 East 10th Street, 212-477-7030

With pastas hovering in the teens and entrées breaking the $20 barrier, this festive macaroni mecca near Arthur Avenue doesn't seem particularly cheap -- until the waiter begins spooning pasta into plates family-style, with a flourish that puts Carmine's to shame. Roberto's is great for dates, but as the rustic farmhouse tables and the massive portions attest, the more the merrier. Order like the regulars do, off the specials blackboard, and you might find yourself on the receiving end of corkscrew-shaped pasta cooked in foil that sails to the table like a schooner, full of juicy cherry tomatoes, earthy porcini, and rich ricotta ($18). The pollo caprese ($14) is a plate-eclipsing chicken cutlet under a blanket of diced tomatoes and dabs of melted mozzarella, enough protein to feed a family of four.
• 632 East 186th Street, the Bronx, 718-733-9503

Despite the demure Upper East Side– townhouse setting, the clientele of dapper gents and their well-preserved consorts, and the suave, proper service, Rouge is really a bargain bistro masquerading as a big-ticket restaurant. Nothing on chef-partner David Ruggerio's eclectic menu breaks the $20 barrier, decorative dabs of sauce and baby boutique-greenery garnishes notwithstanding. The framework is French, with occasional forays into trendy Italian and Asian territory, like the spicy miso-marinated Chatham cod with fanned slices of roasted eggplant and raw cucumber ($16.95). The "chef's wine list" is a bonanza of equally affordable bottles at laughably low mark-ups.
• 135 East 62nd Street, 212-207-4601

Rue B
As Left Bank as you'll get on the right bank of Manhattan.
• 188 Avenue B; 212-358-1700

Live by the skewer, dine by the skewer -- that might as well be the culinary motto of this bustling kosher Uzbeki joint on the fringes of Forest Hills, where the charcoal-grilled main event arrives on long, lethal blades after a parade of salads and spreads, best devoured with an order of puffy "national bread." After sampling the fare -- vinegary carrot salad, creamy hummus, fluffy baba ghannouj, a sumptuous lamb-and-vegetable noodle soup that could make Soup Nazi throw in his ladle -- we discovered why fourteen tough guys, seated at a long table and incessantly toasting one another in Russian, seemed so jubilant. It wasn't just the vodka.
• 63-42 108th Street, Forest Hills, Queens, 718-275-6860

We only hope this teeny Greek taverna's newly arrived wine-and-beer license doesn't encourage too much lingering; it's tough enough to score one of the five postage-stamp-size tables at dinner. But the cheap, fresh meze ($12.95 for three), the flaky boureki filled with chicken and olives ($7.95), and the hearty one-pot meals like lamb stifado ($14.95) and pastitsio ($12.95) are worth the wait -- which should be ameliorated when the owners find a second, larger location. Until then, come early, come late, or take your vegetarian souvlaki or braised-lamb sandwich to go -- or to eat alfresco on the bench outside.
• 105 Thompson Street, 212-925-1040

The newest branch of a burgeoning Thai chainlet challenges the conventional wisdom that the authenticity of an ethnic restaurant can be measured by its grubbiness (the more worn the Formica, the better the food). The deft kitchen here overcomes a strikingly mod décor, a persistent electro soundtrack, and fancified presentations to turn out well-seasoned, extremely tasty versions of classics like sweet-and-sour crispy-duck salad with a flurry of peanuts ($6); panang beef curry flecked with aromatic lime leaves ($9); soft, wide rice noodles in an addictive black-bean sauce ($8); and a roster of fresh-seafood specials.
• 60 University Place, 212-982-3758

Spicy & Tasty
The name says it all at this spartan but clean, bright, and accommodating Sichuan restaurant a few blocks removed from Flushing's Main Street fray. There are no better adjectives to describe the red chili oil that characterizes this cuisine and ignites springy ma-la noodles, pork wontons, and dumplings ($2.50–$3.95). Standards like twice-sautéed pork ($8.95) and tea-smoked duck ($10.95) are salty, succulent, and spectacularly flavorful. Even the tea, often a watery washout elsewhere, impresses: Finish your pot over a dessert of flaky red-bean pastries while an intense card game rages in the back room.
• 133-43 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing , Queens, 718-939-7788

Why trek to Queens for Thai food when it can be had on almost any Manhattan corner, you ask? The answer reveals itself with one bite of this unassuming Thai kitchen's spectacularly seasoned, expertly balanced, unflinchingly spiced larb ($6), panang curry ($7), or fried-catfish salad ($10.50). Don't be fooled by the utter lack of frills -- this is mecca for anyone who relishes clean, sharp flavors and can live without such trifles as ambience or a liquor license. The boxy room fills up fast, but there's a dining room downstairs and a rose-bordered garden out back, and once you've devoured dinner, you can peruse the dessert display case, savor a Thai iced coffee, and plan your inevitable return visit.
• 64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside, 718-899-9599

Frank Prisinzano of Frank and Lil' Frankie's couldn't stop at two cheap, lively neighborhood joints. He had to go and open this comparatively sprawling new spot with a Northern Italian spin, a serious wine list, plenty of communal tables, and a different risotto every night. Not that we're complaining: We're too busy devouring his perfect veal milanese ($12.95), his tangy panzanella ($5.95), his green-pesto-powered minestrone ($4.25), his strozzapreti marinara with rivulets of melting ricotta di pecora ($9.95), and, to top it off, his hazelnut panna cotta. The front room's a scene, the back room's quieter, and the bar's the perfect vantage point to watch Frank in action.
• 156 East 2nd Street, 212-477-7600

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