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The Best New Cheap Eats
 
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Other Cuisines

 
What a Crock: Sheperd's pie at Cafe Topsy. (Photo credit: Kenneth Chen).

Cafe Topsy
British
575 Hudson Street
646-638-2900

You don’t need to be an Anglophile to love this cozy West Village café, with its rustic wood tables and plenty of room between them, but it helps. The kitchen lays claim to “cross-channel cooking,” a sort of Pan-European fusion, but what it really does is celebrate the best of—don’t laugh—British food. Rib-sticking fare like Guinness-braised beef brisket ($14), a lavishly rich, potato-and-cheese-crusted cottage pie ($10), and superior fish and chips ($14) go down easy with a pint of beer ferried in from the myriad taps of the adjacent Irish pub.

Chennai Garden
Indian
129 East 27th Street
212-689-1999

By now, kosher-vegetarian-Indian is almost a cliché, but longtime restaurateur Pradeep Shinde claims to have coined the concept years ago at a Curry Hill kitchen around the corner from his current colorful digs. Back then, a rabbi’s certification and a meatless menu rendered the premises safe for Orthodox Jews, cow-abstaining Hindus, pork-eschewing Muslims, and vegetarians alike. “I had Farrakhan and Jewish people next to each other. I had Kevin Nealon,” says Shinde. After a Florida sabbatical, he and partner Neil Constance returned to take on the increasingly heated competition. The kitchen packs maximum flavor and superb value into its $5.95 unlimited lunch buffet (bread, two rices, four curries, multiple pickles and chutneys, and dessert), and turns out a respectable roster of uthappam, dosai, and iddly—a word that must have worked its way into an SNL sketch or two.

Cina
Romanian
45-17 28th Avenue, Astoria
718-956-0372

There’s much more to Romanian food than steak, this friendly restaurant aims to prove. There’s polenta, for instance, and lots of it: mounded into a papa-bear portion and blanketed with sour cream and grated feta ($6); stuffed with sour cream and feta and served with sausages and a fried egg ($10); and as the sauce-sopping garnish for hearty dishes like spicy stuffed cabbage ($7) and juicy deep-fried Cornish hen ($11.50). Nearly as sweet as the Romanian rosé we sampled were the papanasi, perhaps the world’s most imposing doughnuts—doused, for good measure, with sour cream and apricot preserves.

Slice of Heaven: Djerdan's belly-bursting boreks come stuffed with spinach, cheese, beef, or potato. (Photo by Kenneth Chen)

Djerdan
Bosnian
221 West 38th Street
212-921-1183

This garment-district cafeteria makes the best and biggest boreks in town—titanic slabs of flaky phyllo pie hefted from the oven throughout the day. The spinach-and-cheese version is sublime, but the ground-beef is even better ($4 each). The kitchen also turns out great servings of stuffed cabbage and beef goulash (both $7.50) as well as cevapi ($8), tasty Bosnian beef sausages served with feta, sliced onion, and a peppery condiment so alarmingly bright red that in the absence of a flare, you could use it as a roadside distress signal.

Efendi
Turkish
1030 Second Avenue, near 54th Street
212-421-3004

Like a Jack-in-the-box, the irrepressible Orhan Yegen keeps popping up in our pages—this time last year, we were lauding his marvelous meze and juicy doner kebab at Beyoglu. They’re just as delicious at the spiffy Turtle Bay storefront where Yegen materialized last winter, a (somewhat) changed man. Though still a despotic stickler for freshness and flavor, he’s rescinded some of his quirkier rules: Uptown, he’d bristle at requests for crusty pide bread; here, it comes with every order. And he’s expanded his single-entrée menu to include daily specials like succulent lamb-stuffed eggplant, luscious moussaka, and piquant stuffed cabbage drizzled with yogurt ($9.50).

Fast & Delicious
Brazilian
48-19 Vernon Boulevard, Long Island City
718-729-9988

Restaurants with adjectives for names rarely live up to them: One often discovers, for example, that while Pepe’s Fresh and Tasty Taco does stuff a soft corn tortilla with various savory fillings, the end result is neither fresh nor tasty, and, furthermore, the owner’s name is Josh. Fast & Delicious, though, delivers on both counts. The specialty of this spotless Brazilian takeout canteen is a top sirloin churrasco ($14.95) deftly carved from the spit and finished on the charcoal grill. It’s six or seven good-sized slabs of beef, remarkably flavorful and tender enough to cut with a plastic fork (though you get the deluxe steakhouse model if you dine in). Sautéed collard greens and black beans and rice make fine accompaniments. And good rotisserie chicken ($7.50)—?arinated in Corona beer,” boasts the cook—not to mention Saturday’s feijoada ($12.95) are likewise swift and satisfying.

First Hungarian Literary Society
Hungarian
323 East 79th Street
212-288-5002

The good news is that the owners of A Touch of Hungary, the terrific College Point source for home-style Hungarian cooking in portion sizes fit for a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, have moved closer to home—our home, that is—taking up residence at the First Hungarian Literary Society on East 79th Street. The bad news is that the portions—to suit the less ambitious appetites of the elderly club members, most of whom have never participated in a frankfurter-eating contest—have shrunk a little. Never fear: A single $16 four-course meal, typically including an appetizer like pickled herring, cold sour-cherry soup, a toothsome goulash or sliced pork with sour cream and bacon, and dessert, still has the potential to completely destroy your 30-days-to-killer-abs regimen. The club dining/card-playing room is open to the public, but you need to call a day in advance to reserve a table.

Ivo & Lulu
Caribbean
558 Broome Street
212-226-4399

Marc Solomon and Blue Grant have a habit of opening tiny, intimate restaurants off the beaten track, first launching A on upper Columbus, then this kindred-spirited spinoff on Soho’s farthest fringes. But their fans seek them out as much for the dinner-party-caliber hospitality as for the exceedingly affordable, mostly organic French-Caribbean fare, like wild-mushroom cassoulet with coconut cream and curried tofu, and free-range-rabbit-and-ginger sausage with carrot-miso sauce. The menu’s got a mere eight items, and the $6–$10 price range can’t be inflated by bar tabs—it’s BYOB.

La Maison du Couscous
Moroccan
484 77th Street, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
718-921-2400

Devoid of the usual “atmospherics,” this terrific Moroccan restaurant focuses on the food—succulent tagines and fluffy couscous—instead of exotic décor and shimmying entertainment. Even so, it would take an especially hyperkinetic belly shaker to distract us from juicy kafta sandwiches adorned with garlicky peppers ($5), a flaky, aromatic chicken b’steeya ($8.50), or a fragrant lamb tagine ($8.95), its meat as soft as the plump raisins and prunes it’s cooked with. Local expats congregate here for strong coffee and honey-steeped pastries, and if we lived anywhere nearby, so would we.

La Pollada de Laura
Peruvian
102-03 Northern Boulevard, Corona
718-426-7818

This Peruvian hole-in-the-wall ups the ante on the rotisserie-chicken competition with a beyond-the-bird menu featuring fresh seafood. Seviche is the specialty of the house: octopus, mussels, crab, shrimp, and conch in various outsize kitchen-sink combinations all get the “cooked”-in-lemon-juice treatment. One of the best is expertly sliced fillet of corvina smothered with red onions and served with a stack of fried calamari ($11). Almost as tasty are the sweetly marinated rotisserie-chicken combos ($4.45 to $22) and fried seafood ($9 to $15).

Parish & Co.
Global
202 Ninth Avenue, near 22nd Street
212-414-4988

A superb if undersung disciple of the small-plate school, this smart, globally inspired kitchen makes it easy to eat well and inexpensively, provided you dodge the odd pricey pitfall or two. Almost everything comes in tasting and sharing portions; stick to the former, tack on some warm ricotta crostini ($5) and grilled flowering chives ($5), and you’ve got yourself a feast. The tahini-dressed cabbage salad ($6), sesame-seeded soba noodles ($7), and luscious double-cut lamb rack ($14 for a chop you won’t want to share) merit unqualified praise, and the fluke seviche gets its unique brand of tart heat from grapefruit and horseradish ($10). The menu’s all over the map, but the farmstead cheeses are all American and first-rate, especially Cypress Grove’s award-winning Midnight Moon.

Soy Luck Club
Health/Vegetarian
115 Greenwich Avenue
212-229-9191

If you can’t see yourself saying “chai tea soy latte,” this isn’t the place for you. Which is too bad, because the sunny, stylish café isn’t only a refuge for the health-minded subset of the laptop-toting, coffee-drinking subculture—it’s a source of delicious (but not exclusively) soy-based food and drink. If that’s a foreign concept to you, consider pressed bagels with banana, honey, and soynut butter ($4.50), avocado-and-tofu-salad sandwiches ($6.75), and vegan pumpkin-praline tarts you’ll want to order for Thanksgiving dinner ($4.75). Turkey, tuna, and curried-chicken salad insinuate their way into the menu, so carnivores won’t feel left out.

That Little Cafe
Israeli/Brazilian
147 East Houston Street
212-475-5303

The fare at this eclectic Lower East Side café ventures way beyond Illy espresso and Ceci-Cela pastries into South American and Middle Eastern territory. The co-chefs are from Israel and Brazil, and so are their recipes for egg-and-vegetable-stuffed bourekas ($6.25) and “Romeo & Juliet” guava-and-cheese panini ($3.50). A front for a catering company, the fifteen-seat café drums up future gigs with enticements like warm panzanella salad with pancetta and poached eggs ($7.95) and prosciutto sandwiches with mascarpone-fig spread ($7.25).