Queens, Staten Island & the Bronx
| Naan starter: Indian Taj is Jackson Diner's chief competition.
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.
37-68 79th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens, 718-205-5559
The heated competition of Jackson Heights's bustling Indian enclave makes it a compulsory bargain-buffet destination. A couple doors down from the bigger, better-known Jackson Diner, this plucky David undercuts the ballyhooed Goliath by a buck, charging $6.95 (weekday lunch) for its all-you-can-eat feast of golden-battered vegetable pakora, mixed grill, savory goat curry, a surpassingly rich chicken mekhani (the house specialty), and a lineup of vegetables that have been cooked into fragrant, spicy submission. Remember: No doggie bags and no sharing.
37-25 74th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens, 718-651-4187
Here's a "Cheap Eats" dining tip: Make sure you have the correct number before calling to ask directions to any eating establishment that happens to have the word jerk in its title. In particular, the question "Is this the Jerk Center?," we've learned, does not go over well with anyone who doesn't actually prepare or serve Jamaican barbecue for a living. No matter the difficulty of getting there, the Jerk Center, a shabby space located at the back of a defunct Bronx cell-phone-and-beeper store, is worth the effort. The joint's tenaciously spiced, minimally sauced jerk chicken (in $4, $6, and $8 portions, with cabbage, salad, and rice and peas) may be the deepest, smokiest, charcoaliest barbecued bird in the five boroughs. Danny Meyer should send a spy.
1296 East Gunhill Road, the Bronx, 718-547-1970
and Pat's Pizzeria
At the risk of enraging the Staten Island pizza mob, those who crave a true thin crust, a mildly sweet crushed-tomato sauce, and a delicate dose of mozzarella might consider bypassing the hallowed grounds of Denino's for this nondescript, unatmospheric pizzeria done up in pre-fab Greek-diner décor and staffed by what must be half the local sophomore class of idly gossiping high-school girls. But when one of them can be troubled to take your order and deliver your fourteen-inch medium pie ($9.75), the environs melt away like artful dabs of cheese into a winningly thin crust.
1758 Victory Boulevard, near Manor Road, Staten Island, 718-981-0887
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
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
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
Panini... in the Bronx!
114 East 157th Street, the Bronx; 718-401-0545
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
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
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
In the unfathomable fashion of his native countrymen, an expat Cypriot friend of ours demands practically all his food cooked just shy of incineration, and then, as if to enact a resurrection, squeezes an entire lemon over the ashy remains. But the man has a few discriminating tastes: To wit, he has his mother mail him a superior haloumi, the Cypriot sheep's-milk cheese, the way other mothers send cookies. When he runs out, he heads to Zenon, a boisterous, kid-friendly taverna where they grill thick slabs of the stuff and serve it with lemon and parsley. It's only one of several tasty meze dishes here ($2.95– $7.95), including scrumptious deep-fried zucchini and eggplant with garlicky skordalia, and spicy sheftalia (char-grilled pork meatballs) -- and the next-best thing to having a doting Cypriot mom with a FedEx account.
34-10 31st Avenue, Astoria, Queens, 718-956-0133