947 Columbus Avenue, near 106th Street
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.
49 Clinton Street
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.
181 West 4th Street
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).
150 Fulton Street
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).
76 Clinton Street
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.
5424 Eighth Avenue, at 55th Street, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
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
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
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.
1431 Third Avenue, at 81st Street
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.
Bistro St. Mark’s
76 St. Mark’s Avenue, near Flatbush Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Every Monday night, chef Johannes Sanzin composes a four-course tasting menu for $25, a spectacular bargain when you see what tasting portions look like in Brooklyn. (Skip lunch.) Sanzin, an alumnus of Bouley, inherited that kitchen’s way with fish and the perverse knack of its ultrarich potato purée, which came one night alongside seared black bass with littleneck clams. He revels in unexpected touches, like toasted walnuts and Asian pear in a woody mushroom salad, and a summer succotash of limas, tomato, and corn with the rack of lamb. The high-ceilinged space is an echo chamber, and the staff gets stretched thin, but nothing seems to faze the multicultural clientele of brownstone renovators, bam-goers, and the upstairs neighbor making a solitary dinner of oysters and beer at the bar.
128 East 4th Street
Borobudur is worth a trip just to slurp down the sweet Indonesian drinks: There’s susu soda gembira (condensed milk, a sweet red syrup, and club soda), which tastes like an Indonesian egg cream; es teh Borobudur, iced tea with a cinnamon-clove bite as sharp as ginger beer; and es teler, an iced Pepto-Bismol–pink concoction made with coconut milk, syrup, basil seeds, and Gummi Bear–size pieces of sugar-palm fruit. The food here is equally intriguing: Don’t miss the sensational batagor, crispy-skinned deep-fried tofu with dueling Indonesian-soy and peanut sauces ($4.50); rendang padang, briskety beef in a hot, murky coconut sauce ($8.95); and superb satay ($8.95), that dish being to Indonesian cuisine what the shish kebab is to Turkish. Hot, sweet ginger tea makes a fine finale.
Brick Oven Gallery
33 Havemeyer Street, near North 7th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
If there’s a certain nostalgic quality to this off-the-beaten-track Williamsburg pizzeria, it comes from the 119-year-old brick oven. So do the crisp, flavorful thin-crusted pies ($7–$12), the wood-fired chicken panini with roast tomatoes and goat cheese ($8), even the extra-thin, herb-crusted flatbread used to scoop up “Brooklyn caviar” (a smoky melange of eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, $6). A sidewalk table on the preternaturally quiet block is an unpretentious oasis in the midst of hipsterville.
The City Bakery
3 West 18th Street
Known for its minimalist tarts and iconoclastic pretzel croissants, this gourmet emporium is also home to the city’s best salad bar and a lunch counter that chef Ilene Rosen playfully calls Lucille. Her Lucille Lunch menu is an inspired collection of dishes never before brought together under the same roof: miniature cream-cheese-and-guava tea sandwiches ($4.50), Lebanese yogurt with Cypriot cheese and Indian bread ($7.50), a Greenmarket mixed fry of tempura vegetables ($10), even a corn dog ($2.50). Drink coconut water from the shell, and don’t skip the homemade peanuts-and-beer ice cream for dessert.
163 East 33rd Street
Arriving at Cosette on a dark Murray Hill side street is like being lost in the French countryside and stumbling upon a warm and welcoming sleepy-village bistro. From the moment owner Bernard Massuger insists on putting the Côte de Brouilly on ice when he senses it hasn’t hit the perfect serving temperature, you know you’re going to be well taken care of. Things only get better from there with chef Boubaka Segda’s tasty phyllo-dough aumôniére filled with chèvre and grilled portobellos ($9), a gut-busting wintertime cassoulet ($19), and first-rate steak-frites ($18).
43 Carmine Street
Deborah’s is one of those seemingly generic menus – meat loaf, pork chops – that provoke several minutes of indecision outside the restaurant. “Well, whaddya think?” you mutter to your cohort. “Umm, I don’t know, what do you think?” she mutters back. Just move it inside. You’ll be glad you did once you tuck into some seriously fresh, aggressively seasoned, just-tweaked-enough American comfort food: grilled-shrimp-and-avocado salad; a juicy cheeseburger with roasted tomato, chipotle mayo, and some of the best hand-cut fries in town ($9); beer-battered fish and chips to make a Brit blush ($10); and a cool Key-lime tart that even Steve Tarpin, Brooklyn’s Key-lime-pie kingpin, would tout. You won’t hesitate outside this door again.
432 Union Avenue, at Devoe Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Judging by the ancient tiled floor and the weathered tin ceiling and walls, you’d never guess DuMont is a relative newcomer to the Williamsburg scene. But it’s already become a popular destination for brunch, for takeout, or to while away a solo dinner with a book at the bar. Settle in to friendly service, Sancerre by the glass, and tasty renditions of glorified diner food like lardon-studded “DuMac and cheese” ($9), hearty vegetarian entrées, and blackboard specials like crispy roast chicken slathered with garlicky salsa verde over a salad of fennel, radish, and watercress ($13.50).
511 West 181st Street
We were stunned to learn that this tiny Washington Heights Ecuadoran joint had recently been renovated: With only two tables and an open kitchen crammed with peppers, simmering stockpots, and bags of rice, what could it have possibly looked like before? Regardless, if you’re interested in tasty, aggressively seasoned Latino fare at rock-bottom prices, make a pit stop here on your way to or from the Cloisters for big bowls of soupy, citrusy seviche ($11), pollo guisado ($7), and, on Saturdays, a selection of Ecuadoran snacks like empanadas and llapingachos. Beware what looks like homemade coleslaw – it’s full of aji pepper, and will blow you away.
7 Seventh Avenue South
Endure clueless service and discomfiting staff imbroglios for what amounts to an Israeli vegetarian feast, starting with gratis pickles and olives, followed by an appetizer sampler and thick pita bread, and dominated by liberal (if painful) applications of z’houg, the Yemeni hot sauce. The lemon-and-oil-drenched appeal of Middle Eastern food shines in starters like spicy red-pepper-and-tomato Moroccan salad ($4) and smoky baba ghannouj ($4.50). And how can you resist a place that makes such transcendent hummus? Leave room for malawach ($6), the flaky fried flatbread, and jachnun ($7), the Saturday special of 24-hour-baked cylinders of dough.
Hope & Anchor
347 Van Brunt Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn
Red Hook is a culinary backwater ripe for gentrification – especially with the prospect of a Fairway satellite on the waterfront, a French brasserie under construction nearby, and the recent opening of this friendly diner, a beacon in the Brooklyn wilderness. Stop in for all-day breakfast, a BLT ($5), or inventive, gently priced dinner entrées ($9–$12) like cauliflower ravioli with raisins and capers. Anything deep-fried is (predictably) delicious, even if the clam cakes have a batter-to-crustacean ratio of about ten to one. Plus a decent wine list, service without attitude, and a superb ice-cream sandwich.
37-25 74th Street, Jackson Heights
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.
9 Jones Street
The trick to dining at Anne Rosenzweig’s comfortable, cut-rate sequel to boom-year bistros Arcadia and Lobster Club is to avoid filling up on delectably lethal bar snacks like deep-fried bacon-wrapped dates, fried oysters, and a mustardy grilled cheddar-and-ramp sandwich. That way, you can savor chef–co-owner Charleen Badman’s seasonally inspired salads, homemade pastas, and charismatic comfort food, like roast chicken over a pungent field of spaetzle and “lilies” (a lyrical and botanically correct name for onions, garlic, and shallots) for $16.
The Jerk Center
1296 East Gunhill Road, the Bronx
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.
Joe and Pat’s Pizzeria
1758 Victory Boulevard, near Manor Road, Staten Island
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.
The Kati Roll Company
99 Macdougal Street
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.
La Fonda Boricua
169 East 106th Street
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.
Lil’ Frankie’s Pizza
19 First Avenue
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).
Locanda Vini & Olii
129 Gates Avenue, at Cambridge Place, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn
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.
Long Island City Cafe
5-48 49th Avenue, Long Island City
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.
25-35 36th Avenue, Astoria
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.
211 East 4th Street
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.
442 9th Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn
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.
110 Reade Street
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.
357 Sixth Avenue
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.
31 Second Avenue
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.
Pearson’s Texas Barbecue
71-04 35th Avenue, Jackson Heights
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.
249 East 45th Street
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.
31 Cornelia Street
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.
Rai Rai Ken
214 East 10th Street
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).
632 East 186th Street, the Bronx
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.
135 East 62nd Street
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.
63-42 108th Street, Forest Hills
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.
105 Thompson Street
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.
60 University Place
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.
Spicy & Tasty
133-43 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing
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.
64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside
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.
156 East 2nd Street
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.
349 East 12th Street
The menu at this New Age noodle parlor should employ quotation marks to let you know when the kitchen’s being cute. The slick “chicken linguine” seems more Tokyo than Tuscany ($9), and the “tower of wontons” reveals itself to be a stack of fried wonton skins, a single tender shrimp tucked between each pair of layers ($7). Everything’s light, impeccably fresh, and full of flavor, especially the citrusy green-papaya salad ($7) and the fluffy, delicious peanut sauce that makes the mushroom rolls a compulsory order ($6).
240 Park Avenue South, near 19th Street
According to the menu at Via Emilia, tortellini came about centuries ago when an innkeeper caught a keyhole glimpse of a beautiful woman undressing, inspiring him to fashion her navel in dough. We’re not sure what that pervy pasta-maker would think of modern-day belly-button-baring Manhattan, but in any case, he’d heartily approve of this spare but homey trattoria’s soulful tortellini in brodo ($7.50) and its perfectly sauced homemade tortelloni – tortellini’s supersize siblings – variously stuffed with spinach and ricotta, pumpkin, or chicken and wild mushrooms ($11–$12.50). The inspiration for some of the other Emilia-Romagnan delicacies here – gnoccho fritti, the puffy fritters served with cured meats, and calzagatti, a sort of stuffed polenta, both $6.50 – is left to the imagination.
Yeah Shanghai Deluxe
65 Bayard Street
Like motorists looking for a highway diner with a bottleneck of big-bellied truckers, most Chinatown wanderers seeking a good Shanghai supper follow the long lines to New Green Bo or Shanghai Cuisine. Directly across the street from the former, though, and a soup dumpling’s toss from the latter, year-old Yeah Shanghai Deluxe outdoes both with terrific service, a talented kitchen, beautifully presented dishes, and, of the three, the coolest name. Plus – for now, at least – no lines. You’ll be guided by your waiter to the soup dumplings (No. 21, $5.95), the de rigueur Shanghai-joint appetizer, but they’re just one example of the kitchen’s dexterity with dumplings (check out the meticulous stuffing and crimping going on at the front window). Fried or steamed, stuffed with pork or, as a special, springy snow-pea tips, the dumplings alone are worth the detour. But once you’re there, it would be a pity to miss the crispy turnip pastries flecked with bits of salty ham ($3.25), the multilayered tofu-skin mock duck ($4.50), or the luscious, tender, eminently fatty pork shoulder glazed with a red honey-soy sauce and surrounded by a ring of baby bok choy ($10.95). Yeah, baby!
34-10 31st Avenue, Astoria
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.
PLUS: How Much Can You Press?
Mario Batali sets off on the great New York panini-bar crawl.
With the city’s top toques opening cheaper outposts to lure the everyday diner and build a franchise, chef groupies needn’t wait for special occasions to indulge their upscale appetites.