* Not to be confused with our first hairsplitting, new five-star ranking system, in which we ranked New York’s 101 best not-so-cheap restaurants in January.
Some months back, our colleague Adam Platt bestowed New York Magazine’s first restaurant stars and has been enlightening diners and infuriating chefs ever since. For the most part, the worthy recipients of his inaugural ratings were the big-ticket, deep-pocket establishments you might expect—the Masas and the Per Ses, the Escas and the ’Cescas. But who’s to say that New York’s best cheap eats—the burgers and dogs, the noodles and ribs, that most of us, including those celestial chefs themselves, eat every day—don’t deserve the same starry treatment? Certainly not two obsessive eaters as ourselves, who, truth be told, spend most waking (and sleeping) hours joyfully reminiscing about past cheap meals and avidly planning future ones. And so it was decided that this year, instead of dedicating our annual issue to surveying the “Best New Cheap Eats of 2006” (the very best of which you’ll still find here, on page 39), we’d introduce our own set of stars—winsome red-rimmed white ones, rather than Platt’s solid reds. And to kick things off, we’d give them to our 101 favorite restaurants, ranked, one by one, in order.
Although 101 sounds like a lot, it really isn’t, a fact that becomes painfully clear when you realize that for each beloved Latin lunch counter or vegetarian Indian buffet you include, you’re forced to leave another out. Eventually, we hope to star every appropriately priced restaurant in town and then, having eaten everything there is to eat and passed thoughtfully considered judgments, keel over in some honorable fashion, mission accomplished.
Our criteria, of course, differ from Platt’s in some respects. When you rate a falafel shack, for instance, it’s hard to take into account the finer points of ambience or the sangfroid of the maître d’hôtel when there isn’t any. But that’s not to say a goat taco or an Uzbeki kebab doesn’t merit the same scrutiny and appreciation as a Wagyu beefsteak, or that a margherita pizza can’t be judged on its own merits. All delicious things are worthy of the star treatment (See “What the Stars Mean,” page 8).
And what, exactly, do we mean by cheap? A little clarification is in order. For the purposes of our monthly “Underground Gourmet” column and this “Cheap Eats” issue, we mostly limit ourselves to restaurants where entrée prices seldom exceed $20. On rare occasions, we make allowances for the compulsory splurge—or bottom-feed at the lower end of a pricier menu. But even the most literal-minded penny-pincher must agree that in this town, cheap is a relative term. Madison Avenue cheap is very different from Red Hook cheap (unless you’re Tony Dragonas, No. 86 on our list, whose estimable pushcart stands kitty-corner to Hermès, at Madison and 62nd). In our world, and in the greater context of the New York food scene, cheap is sometimes five-dumplings-for-a-dollar dirt cheap, sometimes fancy-chef-tackles-burgers-and-dogs cheap, and sometimes, as at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, not cheap, per se, but still a heck of a good deal. In our book, they’re all stars. Next: Get the Cheap Eats 2006 List
We’re not unreasonable people. We wouldn’t send you to the ends of the earth (not the earth, maybe, just the R line; it’s the third-to-last stop) without good reason. That reason is spice alchemist Rawia Bishara, whose métier is the cuisine of the Middle East, as her mother cooked it in Nazareth and as Bishara brilliantly reinterprets it. The modest storefront’s display case contains treasures untold, garlic-amped parsley-ringed platters that challenge long-held perceptions about the true nature of things as pedestrian as hummus and baba ghannouj. Eggplant is a means to many sublime, deeply smoky ends. Lamb is chopped and encased in a crunchy kibbeh shell, or braised for hours on the bone. As you savor your meal in a kind of stunned silence, try to discern the individual components of the signature Tanoreen spices that Bishara scatters about like pixie dust.
7704 Third Ave., Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; 718-748-5600
2. Momofuku Noodle Bar
Your average noodle bar might merit two stars on a list like this, if it’s lucky. Momofuku is no ordinary noodle bar. It’s what happens when a young Korean-American chef trains at top New York restaurants like Café Boulud and Craft, soaks up some local culinary culture in Japan, and builds an unassuming nook in the East Village, where he proceeds to cook precisely the type of food he likes to eat. Hence, a third star for the house ramen enriched with succulent Berkshire pork and a barely poached egg. Another for the inventively seasonal menu, which raids the Greenmarket for combinations like tofu-and-cherry-tomato salad with shiso, or kimchee Brussels sprouts. And one more for sourcing artisanal ingredients like Benton’s country ham, which makes its way into southern-style country masa cakes with red-eye gravy. The vibe is rock-and-roll, the service intuitive and agile, and the crowd full of wide-eyed fellow chefs.
163 First Ave.; 212-475-7899
3. Una Pizza Napoletana
How can you give the best pizza in town anything less than five stars, pizza being the backbone of the cheap-eats genre? This is true Neapolitan-style pie at its best—light and fragrant with a delicately puffy, flavorful crust and limited to four classic toppings from which owner-pizzaiolo Anthony Mangieri will never stray. Special requests are anathema to the single-minded Mangieri, whose slogan might well be “the customer is frequently wrong.” Let’s just say you make allowances for genius, and leave it at that.
349 E. 12th St.; 212-477-9950
Is this town big enough for two five-star pizza- makers? Absolutely, when you consider Andrew Feinberg’s charred wood-oven-baked pies topped with environmentally sustainable meatballs fashioned from grass-fed Maine beef. And what other Brooklyn pizza parlor turns out such sparkling hyperseasonal salads, crisp fritti, and inventively conceived, rigorously executed cocktails? Pizza might be the medium, but a Chez Panissean passion for local agriculture and a deep-seated artisanal bent, on display everywhere from the curing room in the basement to the house-made lovage syrup at the bar, is the message.
295 Flatbush Ave., Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; 718-230-0221
Sripraphai has come a long way since its early days as the no-frills holy grail of New York Thai food. Expansions and renovations have brought a beautiful patio out back, replete with burbling fountain and leafy apple tree, and actual (if not Wallpaper-worthy) décor. The takeout menu gives a phonetic spelling (see-pra-pie), and servers ask, unprompted, if you’d like “Thai spicy.” Happily, these new and somewhat self-conscious developments have had no deleterious effects on the food, which is, indeed, Thai spicy, but also multilayered and nearly impossible to stop eating.
64-13 39th Ave., Woodside; 718-899-9599
6. Bouchon Bakery
Despite being plopped down in the mall thruway like a food-court Arby’s, despite the Great Samsung Sign Horror, and despite the critics who say don’t go expecting Per Se at a discount (which is a bit like saying don’t go to Mario Batali’s GelOtto cart expecting Babbo), Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery brings a moderately priced, multi-star boulangerie experience to the Time Warner Center. Like God, Keller is in the details, and from the marble-topped tables set with Christofle flatware to the whimsical pastry concoctions to what might be the world’s finest tuna sandwich, you sense his divine fusspot presence. The service is highly polished. There’s a boffo view of Central Park South, and, unlike chez Arby’s, an air of civilized serenity, one that you wouldn’t expect to find nestled between Aveda and J.Crew. If this is the future of mall food, we’ll take it.
10 Columbus Circle, third fl.; 212-823-9366
7. Tía Pol
New York has plenty of tapas bars (and plenty more that prefer the term “small plates”), but none that match Tía Pol’s cozy warmth, spirited bonhomie, or surreptitiously ambitious kitchen. The regular menu delivers all the characteristic Iberian tidbits—the irresistible patatas bravas, the moist tortilla española—but it’s the specials board that shows chef Alex Raij’s true range. It’s modern, exciting, ultraseasonal cooking, with haute flourishes and eclectic flavors you’d expect to pay twice as much for.
205 Tenth Ave.; 212-675-8805
8. Frankies Spuntino
The two Franks, Queens-bred, French-trained chef-partners who swapped haute cuisine for southern-Italian comfort, may well be the patron saints of cheap eats. For the fresh, veggie-heavy spin on a menu that also showcases a soulful, fork-tender braciola, for their nicely edited, well-priced wine list, and for exporting their laid-back Brooklyn-perfected concept to a tiny annex on the increasingly slick Lower East Side, they get four stars, two per Frankie.
457 Court St., Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, 718-403-0033; 17 Clinton St., 212-253-2303
9. Red Hook Ballfields
Nowhere else in the city will you find food as cheap and delicious and in such titillating profusion as at this glorious outdoor feedlot. The portable kitchens that materialize around the soccer and baseball fields weekends from late spring through early fall, marked by their blue tarps and billowing plumes of charcoal smoke, all purvey food from Central and South America at the average going rate of $2.50 a plate. There are tacos galore, and great greasy quesadillas. There is seviche from Ecuador and pupusas from El Salvador. Factor in the cost relative to the remarkable quality and freshness of the food, and the makeshift market—a triumph of ingenuity and flavor over remote locale and vending-permits red tape—easily achieves four-star status.
Bay St. bet. Clinton St. and Court St., Red Hook, Brooklyn
10. Spicy & Tasty
Still our go-to pick for vibrantly seasoned Sichuan cuisine, S&T 2.0 (the second, spiffier location of a Flushing favorite) is the perfect place to initiate a novice into the mystical realm of red-chile oil and Sichuan pepper. Clean and comfortable and generally overrun, the place is renowned for its regional classics—flawless dandan noodles, rich twice-cooked pork, and the sweat- inducing ma po dou fu (a.k.a. pockmarked Mother Chen’s bean curd).
39-07 Prince St., Flushing; 718-359-1601
11. Casa Mono
At this most minuscule of Mario Batali’s restaurants (excepting the even tinier Bar Jamón around the corner), Andy Nusser imbues sterling seasonal produce with pungent Spanish flavors. The plates are allegedly small, but, truth be told, they’re quite filling, making the joint a relative bargain. If you’ve never tried coxcombs, this is the place to go, and the vegetables are uniformly stellar, from fall’s caramelized Brussels sprouts to summer’s first corn. Needless to say, the selection of Spanish wines and sherries is staggering, and a convenient excuse to draw out your meal over some final morsels of manchego.
52 Irving Pl.; 212-253-2773
With five stools and a ledge, Lassi is not a restaurant in the true sense, a fact that won’t prevent us from raving about the intricately seasoned, fresh-tasting Indian fare concocted by chef-owner Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez. Her lassis, in flavors from cardamom to coffee, are dependency-inducing. Braised greens pack a pungent vegetal punch. And mains like lamb in pickling spices or roasted pork (a not-so-Indian nod to her Dominican husband) will spoil you for similar dishes anywhere else.
28 Greenwich Ave.; 212-675-2688
13. Degustation Wine & Tasting Bar
The latest project from Team Jewel Bako is an elegant sixteen-seat tasting bar, where the small plates have a modern Spanish spin and a very nice touch, courtesy of chef and Perry St. alum Wesley Genovart. The menu might ring a tapas-bar bell, but nothing, from the Spanish “tortilla” to the roast-beef sandwich, is what you might expect. Dishes range in price from $4 to $16, and every seat in the house has a good view of the open kitchen where Genovart flits about like a prepossessing Iron Chef. Factor in the cost of the free entertainment and call it a four-star bargain.
239 E. 5th St.; 212-979-1012
14. The City Bakery
In a city of insipid—if not downright dangerous—salad bars, City Bakery’s is a thing apart: gorgeously eclectic, culinarily inspired, effortlessly seasonal. When Mother Nature gives us juicy heirloom tomatoes, savory chef Ilene Rosen gives us delicious tomato sandwiches. She also gives us caramelized French toast and a mildly spiced Mexican tortilla soup, among too many other delectable things to mention. And once you’ve had your tofu-skin-and-edamame salad, you can reward yourself with a cup of Maury Rubin’s signature chocolate, hot or cold. Like its pretzel croissant, the City Bakery is a true original.
3 W. 18th St.; 212-366-1414
15. Di Fara Pizza
This is the kind of pizza people think about when they think about New York–style pizza. Old-fashioned slice-joint pizza. The pre–duck-confit-and-Gorgonzola stuff. Nothing else like it in the world. Almost an endangered cuisine. Which is why Di Fara gets a solid four stars (the general dishevelment of the place and lack of any coherent ordering system take it out of five-star contention, although many would argue that that’s part of its charm). Try whatever is available by the slice (the thin-crust Sicilian is a knockout), or order a whole pie. Either way, be prepared to wait among a gaggle of reverent pizza pilgrims, near an overflowing trash can, and under a ceiling fan that always seems to be on the fritz. You won’t be sorry.
1424 Ave. J, Midwood, Brooklyn; 718-258-1367
Blame ’ino for the Great Panini Proliferation that took the city (and country) by storm several years ago. The trendsetting nook of a wine bar is every bit as good as the day it brought Italian-style grilled ham-and-cheese to these receptive shores. The competition has gotten stiffer, but no one can match the crustless finesse of its tuna-and-olive tramezzino, the piquant balance of a sun-dried-tomato-and-walnut-pesto bruschetta, or the brunch perfection known as truffled egg toast. An ample wine list and good espresso complete the experience, which never fails to satisfy.
21 Bedford St.; 212-989-5769
17. Shake Shack
Is it worth waiting in line all afternoon like a Russian peasant? Is it worth dashing the summer intern’s hopes for a meaningful career experience and sending her out to do your bidding? And, more relevant to the discussion, is it worth its No. 17 position on this list? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. The simple reason being the glory that is the Shack Burger. The hot dogs aren’t bad either, and if you like ice cream, the frozen-custard express line is usually short.
Madison Square Park, southeast corner nr. 23rd St.; 212-889-6600
18. Al di Là
For all the praise the pasta gets at this Park Slope Venetian sensation, the entrées might be even better. If pork ribs are on special, pounce. The house-made gelati are wonderful, too. But unless you don’t mind waiting, come very early or very late—or resign yourself to passing the time over a few glasses at the wine bar next door.
248 Fifth Ave., Park Slope, Brooklyn; 718-783-4565
19. Fatty Crab
Located just around the corner from his pricey, attitudinal 5 Ninth, this friendly Malaysian hash house is where Zak Pelaccio does penance for making the Faustian move from Williamsburg’s cheap and quirky Chickenbone Cafe to the hellish leper colony known as the meatpacking district. It’s loud, it’s crowded, and unless you score a seat at the bar, you’ll be shoveled into a back-breakingly hard antique wooden chair. But everything—from the deep-fried hunks of “fatty duck” to the man-versus-beast slopfest that is the Chili Crab—shows that Pelaccio hasn’t made any concessions to timid meatpacking-district palates.
643 Hudson St.; 212-352-3590
With its adrenaline-fueled bustle and sophistication on a shoestring, Lupa is the embodiment of a hip New York restaurant for people who love to eat. It’s also Babbo’s baby Roman-osteria brother, of course, and shares its culinary DNA. House-cured meats and fish, terrific seasonal contorni, and simple but satisfying pastas are the backbone of a solidly four-star menu that also dips into familiar Batali territory like tripe and sweetbreads.
170 Thompson St.; 212-982-5089
21. Kuma Inn
It’s a relief to escape the yammering hyenas and bar monkeys of Ludlow Street and ascend a steep staircase to Kuma Inn, a tiny Pan-Asian tapas joint where chef-owner King Phojanakong seamlessly fuses the cooking of his Filipino mother and his Thai father with his own classic French training. The simplest things are some of the most delicious, like a pungent Chinese sausage served with zesty Thai-chile sauce, and an exceedingly satisfying garlic fried rice. The Asian citrus fruit kalamansi makes frequent inspired appearances, especially in a semi-frozen tart that could give Key lime an inferiority complex.
113 Ludlow St., second fl.; 212-353-8866
Considering its location (Industria Superstudio) and its resulting clientele, this breezy West Village boîte needn’t take its food so seriously. Happily, it does, as evidenced by rustic bean soups, fresh seasonal salads, and the impeccably sourced beef, poultry, and whole fish that issue from the wood-burning oven. It can get awfully loud and the service can be a bit scattered, but no one seems to mind. If you do, come at lunch, when the setting is almost serene.
775 Washington St.; 212-924-9700
23. Room 4 Dessert
Is a $12 dessert cheap? Maybe not, when it’s punctuating an elaborate meal at some temple of gastronomy. But here, at this uniquely entertaining and festive dessert bar, where it encompasses a four-part tasting and can serve as the centerpiece of a night out, we’d call it a good deal. Pastry provocateur Will Goldfarb experiments with texture (foams, gelées) and flavor (tomato and vanilla, “Lucky Charms”), sending out sweets that are sometimes literally lighter than air.
17 Cleveland Pl.; 212-941-5405
24. Otto Enoteca Pizzeria
Mario Batali’s most casual Italian restaurant is part buzzing wine bar, part glorified pizzeria, with an always appealing selection of fresh salads and smartly seasoned vegetable antipasti that arrive in small ceramic bowls on a snappy tray. True, we pine for the fritti Molto yanked from the menu to make room for the pasta people clamored for, but the pizza is indeed delish—thin-crusted, creatively topped, and cooked, ever so controversially among the Pizza Police, on a griddle. The gelati creations are sophisticated grown-up sundaes, anchoring this fun neighborhood hangout firmly in four-star territory.
1 Fifth Ave.; 212-995-9559 Next: Three Star Cheap Eats
This perpetually under-the-radar Village sleeper is a civilized oasis in the boozy Bleecker–West 4th corridor. The cooking is seasonal American, which these days can mean almost anything, but here translates to sturdy wheels of fried green tomatoes with a thick, tangy Green Goddess dressing, crisp-skinned roast chicken on a bed of buttery spaetzle, and perhaps New York’s most fiendish snack: almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, coated in some presumably controlled substance, and baked to a crisp.
9 Jones St.; 212-229-9999
26. Blue Smoke
The authenticity arguments could go on forever, but there is no question that much of the food served at Danny Meyer’s G-rated “joint” is eminently cravable, from the juicy cheeseburger to the best mac-and- cheese in town to the incongruous Greekish chopped salad. Speaking as non-Texans, we often find the brisket to be pretty good, and as non-Southerners, we deem the fried chicken as delicious as it is underrated. It’s not the best barbecue in town, but it’s a great restaurant nonetheless.
116 E. 27th St.; 212-447-7733
27. Tulcingo del Valle
A Hell’s Kitchen Mexican deli made good, Tulcingo annexed the store next door for a full-fledged sit-down restaurant—tablecloths, white Zinfandel, and all. The setting is nice and the service nicer, but you’re here for the food, which is fresh, well seasoned, and extremely filling. Skip the antojitos and soups (except maybe for the soothing posole) if you want do full justice to a plato, which you will. Especially if it’s the pipian de pollo, a couple of long-cooked chicken parts in a verdant sea of creamy pumpkinseed sauce that is so ample it will employ every single steamed tortilla in the basket. Of the three abnormally fresh, flavorful house salsas, green is best.
665 Tenth Ave.; 212-262-5510
This seasonal American restaurant in French-bistro clothing (the effortlessly suave owner, the flawless breakfast croissants) might be single-handedly keeping any number of local farmers in business. Purveyors figure big on the menu, from Cloonshee Farm chicken to Flying Pigs pork, and the chef gives adulatory credit where credit’s due, be it Added Value farm in Red Hook for collard greens or Il Laboratorio del Gelato for a custom-crafted bitters-flavored ice cream. In a day and age when local-and-seasonal sounds more like advertising copy than a culinary philosophy, does that fact alone merit three stars? Yes, when the cooking’s so heartfelt, the flavors as so bold, the wines so affordable, and the garden so peaceful.
246 DeKalb Ave., Fort Greene, Brooklyn; 718-789-2778
Residing in indecision-provoking proximity to Sichuan-favorite Spicy & Tasty, Sentosa celebrates the characteristically pungent, sometime incendiary flavors of Malaysian cuisine. Experience them in the roti canai—a delicate, flaky flatbread vehicle for scooping up chicken-potato curry—and the complexly spiced beef rendang, which has enough heat to make a strong impression but not enough to scare you off.
39-07 Prince St., Ste. 1F, Flushing; 718-886-6331
A medieval crust, a sloppy splash of sauce, and the sweetest, freshest mozzarella make the pie at this famous pizza shack the best of its coal-oven kind by a wide margin. The occasional pizzaiolo outburst, the casual policy concerning store hours (open until the dough runs out), and the no-frills, airplane-wine-bottle selection only add to the charm. Forget about the Manhattan branches and their foggy affiliations. Every self-respecting pizza-loving New Yorker should visit the Coney Island original at least once in his lifetime. Go soon before they run out of dough permanently.
1524 Neptune Ave., Coney Island, Brooklyn; 718-372-8606
31. Bar Jamón
There are veal-calf pens more spacious and forgiving than this tiny tapas bar’s U-shaped dining hutch/torture chamber. A yogi master, a Romanian gymnast, and the Human Pretzel from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! would find it difficult to sup here simultaneously. It doesn’t help matters that the baying young crowd is territorially aggressive like junkyard dogs. But the food, if you can find a place to put it, is terrific—more traditional and less expensive than Casa Mono next door. Especially the chorizo with piquillos, the ham-and-cheese bocadito, and the house-cured tuna served in a pickled- fennel boat. If you go off-hours—right before the 2 a.m. last call, or on a weekend afternoon—you lessen your chances of being jabbed in the ribs or poked in the eye.
125 E. 17th St.; 212-253-2773
Somewhat eclipsed by the Grocery, its Zagat-sanctified neighbor to the south, Chestnut is a Smith Street gem, its seasonal menu infiltrated with the random Mexican dish or two. The achiote-chicken soup is spicy as advertised; the charred-octopus salad a marvel of unrubbery flesh showered with chickpeas, kale, and feta. The garden, the drink list, and the homemade-bread-and- pickle plate earn the humble Chestnut a third star. L 271 Smith St., Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; 718-243-0049
33. Congee Village
This is New York’s premier Cantonese restaurant, and for a place that traffics in goose intestines and fish maws, it’s surprisingly popular with a multiethnic crowd. Skip the congee unless you have a thing for hot breakfast gruel and opt instead for House Special chicken, crisp and juicy and showered with fried garlic. Flounder in Two Tastes is really two textures—steamed and fried—both delicious. And who can resist the giant sautéed crab with ginger and scallion? If you’re with your entourage, try to commandeer a table on the upper deck, with the lazy Susans and chair backs carved into giant eagle heads.
100 Allen St.; 212-941-1818
With a George Costanza–like flourish, make a show of tipping the counterman a dollar. Provided you don’t annoy him too much, he’ll hand you a slice or two of hand-carved meat—not to see whether you approve, but as a kind of reverse tip. “Here you go, buddy,” he’ll say, flinging it over the counter like a zookeeper tossing a sardine to a seal. That’s just one of the Old World niceties that still distinguish this ancient delicatessen. Pastrami is the way to go. But the hot dogs and the garlic-laden sausages known as knoblewurst (stukel to old-timers) are first-rate, too. Fressers order a pastrami sandwich with two dogs on the side.
205 E. Houston St.; 212-254-2246
35. Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen
With his Harlem empire and his partnership in the new Rack & Soul, it seems a bit reductive to identify Charles Gabriel only with his golden-brown, skillet-fried chicken, a thing of uncommon beauty and savor. After all, the man must be praised for the rest of his oeuvre—his oxtails, his salmon cakes, his barbecued ribs, and all the textbook soul-food sides that accompany them on one of the best $11.99 all-you-can-eat buffets in town.
2841 Eighth Ave.; 212-926-4313
36. The Queen’s Hideaway
This Greenpoint curiosity has more personality than it has seats, so be prepared to wait. The menu changes weekly with the vagaries of the season and the whim of the chef, whose eclectic cooking is at once homey and worldly and often inspired by the bountiful plates of the American South. The garden is a bit ramshackle and overgrown, but there are few more atmospheric places to linger over a bottle of wine or a slice of home-baked pie.
222 Franklin St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn; 718-383-2355
The bigger, brasher offshoot of tiny ’ino expands upon the panini-and-tramezzini theme with a handful of main courses and delectable fritti, and the joint is so popular that visits must be timed to the off-off hours. But snag a table and all’s well in your highly trafficked corner of the Lower East Side, with a savvy wine gal guiding you through the all-Italian list and an engrossing urban spectacle passing you by.
98 Rivington St.; 212-614-0473
38. Nick’s Pizza
Nick Angelis isn’t Italian, and his ovens run on gas. Despite those obstacles, he has earned a spot in New York’s pizza pantheon, alongside Gennaro Lombardi and Totonno’s Jerry Pero. Not only is his Forest Hills pizzeria consistently excellent, he’s parlayed his success there into a mini-empire that includes Adrienne’s downtown and a Nick’s on the Upper East Side. Killer cannolis, too.
108-26 Ascan Ave., Forest Hills; 718-263-1126
In this post-tapas world of the multiethnic, foam-speckled small plate, Alta has managed to stay both relevant and delicious, thanks to the efforts of Harrison Mosher, the genial chef whose kitchen one passes through on the way to the best seat in the house, a second-floor perch overlooking ridiculously quaint West 10th Street. The extremely eclectic selection guarantees there’s always something new to try—unless you opt for “the Whole Shebang,” all 45 plates for $320.
64 W. 10th St.; 212-505-7777
One of Red Hook’s first destination restaurants, 360 retains its idiosyncratic atmosphere and pioneer spirit, even if its chefs seem to change as often as the $25 prix fixe menu. But owner Arnaud Erhart maintains strict quality control, not to mention one of the more unique wine lists in town, showcasing organic and biodynamic bottles from small French producers.
360 Van Brunt St., Red Hook, Brooklyn; 718-246-0360
41. Via Emilia
Like those Irish pubs you can send away for and build from a kit, most casual Italian restaurants follow a tired old formula. That’s not the case at this low-key trattoria, where chef-owner William Matteo delves into the regional delicacies of his native Emilia-Romagna like gnoccho fritto, puffy pillows of fried dough to wrap around prosciutto di Parma; cotechino sausage with lentils; and all manner of tortellini and its supersize cousin, tortelloni. It’s rich food best accompanied by a bottle of fizzy Lambrusco, of which Matteo has the widest selection in town.
47 E. 21st St.; 212-505-3072
Hipness and deliciousness tend to be mutually exclusive, but not, surprisingly, at this taxidermy-happy pseudo-lodge at the end of the Lower East Side’s most heavily trafficked alley. The service is warm, the bartenders accomplished (try the tart, tangy house cocktail), and the food unexpectedly satisfying, if simple. Brunch is best, when the crowds abate and the kitchen turns out variously fashioned eggs, horseradish-creamed trout, and that unlikely retro signature dish, hot artichoke dip.
End of Freeman Alley off Rivington St. bet. Bowery and Chrystie St.; 212-420-0012
Now that the pioneering 71 Clinton Fresh Food and aKa Café have closed their doors, Alias is the sole survivor of the restaurant family that made Clinton Street’s culinary name. Maybe that’s because the prices are low enough and the menu flexible enough to keep the locals coming back. But the kitchen’s genuine reliance on seasonal ingredients, and the offbeat way it combines them, as in a recent salad of Greenmarket strawberries, fried capers, and Di Palo’s ricotta, gives it a distinct identity on a block where it’s gotten much tougher to stand out.
76 Clinton St.; 212-505-5011
44. Grand Sichuan St. Marks
This great Sichuan chainlet has blazed a chile-pepper trail from Chinatown, up Ninth Avenue to Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, crosstown to Murray Hill and over to Second Avenue, and now to St. Marks Place, where the newest branch features all the old favorites, from the eminently fatty Red Cooking pork with chestnuts to the humble but delicious shredded potatoes with vinegar sauce. Is this branch the best? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it’s the one in our neighborhood.
19-23 St. Marks Pl.; 212-529-4800
English chef Annie Wayte is the guiding culinary force behind Nicole Farhi’s transatlantic in-store cafés, and at 202 at Chelsea Market, her seasonal salads and sophisticated sandwiches provide just the Mediterranean-inspired, Brit-inflected sustenance you’ll need after browsing the racks. Wayte’s guacamole-slathered tuna burger is superb, and cheaper here than at sister restaurant Nicole’s uptown, and her savory chicken curry is a model of flavorful—but not belligerent—spicing. A little-known fact: 202’s baked goods are delicious, and available to go.
75 Ninth Ave. (in Chelsea Market); 646-638-1173
46. Li Hua
For some, comfort is best found in a bowl of chicken soup. That’s only because they haven’t tried Li Hua’s kimchee jjigae, an incendiary pork-and-cabbage stew. This isn’t one of those raucous table-grill Korean barbecue joints you’ll find in midtown, where its sister restaurant, Mandoo Bar, is located, but an unassumingly serene (and seemingly overlooked) oasis on the edge of Chinatown. Unlike many of its pork-loving ilk, Li Hua offers some vegetarian options, including one of the better tofus out there.
171 Grand St.; 212-343-0090
47. Rack & Soul
It used to be you had to go much farther uptown—42 blocks, in fact, to Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen—to find skillet-fried chicken this good. But now that Charles Gabriel himself has become a poultry-consultant partner at this cozy new soul-food spot, downtowners have a shorter trip. Once they make it, though, they shouldn’t overlook the rest of the menu: flavorful pulled pork, melting short ribs, and saucy baby backs are all worthy digressions, served with the customary two sides and glazed biscuits almost as sweet as the tea.
2818 Broadway; 212-222-4800
There are few better places to be a vegetarian than southern India, the region that gave us spongy steamed idlys, crispy fried vadas, and those titanic rolled and stuffed crêpes called dosas, all of which can be found with their attendant chutneys and sambas at this bare, bright Curry Hill spot. The experimental (or indecisive) can order a thali—a round tray ringed with small metal bowls of soups, curries, rices, and sauces, of varying and harmonious degrees of spiciness. Nice wine list, too, courtesy of Best Cellars’ Joshua Wesson.
81 Lexington Ave.; 212-679-0204
49. Bar Carrera
New York restaurants have stretched the definition of tapas almost beyond recognition, but not this narrow nook of a late-night hangout, where the seating is tight, the music a bit loud, and the focus resolutely Spanish. Plates are small and, at $3.50 a pop, priced accordingly, and despite a tip of the beret to the Spanish avant-garde—a tomato sorbet here, a brûléed pork belly there—the simplest things are best: smoky chorizo tucked into a crusty mini-baguette like an Iberian frankfurter; piquillos stuffed with tuna-and-red-pepper mousse; oozy, ultraripe Torta del Casar slicked on bread and topped with gooey candied chestnuts.
175 Second Ave.; 212-375-1555
50. Rai Rai Ken
You won’t find a better East Village alternative to the perpetually mobbed Momofuku than this traditional ramen bar. The flavorful broths come chock-full of various delicacies like fish cakes, roast pork, bamboo shoots, and crispy garlic. Show the chef you appreciate his handiwork and attack the bowl in proper ramen-connoisseur fashion—lowering the noggin to within an inch of the steaming broth and slurping away as if you suddenly remembered you had a bus to catch.
214 E. 10th St.; 212-477-7030
51. Bouillabaisse 126
Chef-about-Brooklyn Neil Ganic has settled down (for now) at this bigger, better version of the cult-favorite fish house he opened over a dozen years ago. Certain concessions have been made to public demand: Credit cards are accepted; wine and beer are served. But very little has changed about Ganic’s food—the meaty, succulent crab cake, the aromatic fish stews—or the way it’s advertised, on portable blackboard menus that have neighboring diners craning their necks for a peek.
126 Union St., Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; 718-855-4405
52. Kabab Cafe
There’s a menu at Kabab Cafe, the most distinctive of Steinway Street’s Middle Eastern joints. Regulars never look at it. Instead, they strike up a conversation with chef-owner Ali El-Sayed, who ambles over and intuits what they feel like eating. Meals seldom commence without an improvisational meze plate, and touch down in such unfamiliar territory as Latin-American humitas and Egyptian fava-bean falafel.
25-12 Steinway St., Astoria; 718-728-9858
The seating is tight, the service brusque (but efficient), and the cash-only policy absurd when you consider the length and breadth of the all-Italian wine list, but Frank still manages to charm and satisfy. The menu celebrates red sauce in all its unabashedly retro Italian-American glory with “Grandma Carmela’s tomato and meat gravy” and the polpettone, a hefty hunk of seasoned meat loaf. Seldom have riper tomatoes graced a bruschetta.
88 Second Ave.; 212-420-0202
54. Daisy May’s BBQ U.S.A.
Judging by the riotous red-faced crowd stuffing their maws in the back room of this Hell’s Kitchen rib joint, you’d never know New York was such a (purportedly) barbecue-challenged town. Adam Perry Lang, veteran of the estimable rib joints Daniel and Le Cirque, has a fleet of chili-packing pushcarts and is also responsible for the X-rated steaks at Robert’s, but this is his home base, the place where he smokes his first-rate Memphis-style ribs. Sides are almost uniformly goopy, if you like that sort of thing, and the pulled pork dry. But the special-order whole hogs and pork butts are full-fledged Falstaffian affairs. Call ahead and prepare to don plastic surgical gloves and bibs.
623 Eleventh Ave.; 212-977-1500
55. La Pollada de Laura
Tragically underappreciated, Peruvian food has yet to scale the ethnic-cuisine heights occupied by Thai, Japanese, and Indian, despite its uncontested superiority in the crowd-pleasing realms of rotisserie chicken and seviche (not to mention that estimable libation the pisco sour). This cozy Corona storefront ladles up some of the best citrus-juice-marinated seafood in town, including a version that’s half corvina seviche, half fried calamari, and all tangy, onion-smothered goodness.
102-03 Northern Blvd., Corona; 718-426-7818
Follow the sweet smell of the Frialator into this kitschy Carroll Gardens burger joint, and be prepared to quiver, if not with Proustian emotion, then at least with Augustus-Gloopian glee. The giant murals of hot dogs and Carling’s Black Label beer set the nostalgic tone. From the kitchen come snappy skinned frankfurters and various sausages made by old-school butchers as well as succulent sliders served on mini-buns. You can wash it all down with a beer milk shake. But whatever you do, don’t miss the onion rings—not so much a side dish, as an all-you-can-eat buffet of fried-onion clumps, spectacularly crunchy and shamelessly salty.
122 Union St., Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; 718-855-2879
Tom Colicchio’s gleaming, industrial-chic chain of sandwich shops is the textbook example of an haute chef’s attempts to fill a downmarket need. Downmarket, of course, is a relative term, considering the quality of ingredients and the skill with which they’re combined. Lately, we’ve been on a breakfast-frittata-with-roasted-tomato-and-cheddar bender, but the muffaletta-style salami-and-cauliflower number and the white-anchovy-and-egg curiosity have yet to lose their potent charms.
Various locations; wichcraftnyc.com; 212-780-0577
58. Hummus Place
It might be a one-trick pony, but turning out such consistently rich and creamy, oil-dappled chickpea paste is one mighty fine trick. Get the version called foul, enriched with stewed favas and a hard-boiled egg, and you’ll exceed your protein quota for the week. For the full Israeli fast-food experience, scoop it up with puffy pita, wash it down with mint-sprigged lemonade, and don’t stint on the hot sauce and pickles.
109 St. Marks Pl.; 212-529-9198
Unlike establishments that offer breakfast as an afterthought, Williamsburg’s Egg has made the morning meal its raison d’être. The menu has a southern slant—as does, in a way, the ramshackle, un-air-conditioned premises—and celebrates artisanal foodstuffs like Anson Mills grits, free-range eggs, and the saltiest, smokiest, meatiest Kentucky ham, best tucked into a buttermilk biscuit with Grafton Cheddar and a swipe of fig jam. Eggs are fried and pancakes flipped only until the stroke of noon, when the space transforms into Sparky’s burger-and-hot-dog shack.
135 N. 5th St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-302-5151 Next: Two Star Cheap Eats
60. Marlow & Sons
Sometimes, all you want is a plate of oysters or a platter of perfectly aged cheese, a bowl of olives or a wedge of a Spanish tortilla, and at those times, you head for Marlow, a vaguely nautical back-room restaurant so perfectly constructed it fairly glows. There are heftier plates, too—stews and sandwiches, and good desserts—but to us, Marlow is a grazer’s paradise, with a nice wine list and the best lighting in Williamsburg.
81 Broadway, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-384-1441
61. Yakitori Totto
Avian-flu obsessives, read no further. Everyone else, make haste to this second-story theater-district yakitori bar, where all-business grill chefs skewer and cook every conceivable poultry part, from skin to tail. There are thighs, hearts, livers, gizzards, necks, and the ever-popular “soft knee bones.” It’s all delicious, especially the skewered chicken “meatballs,” tender torpedoes of minced meat prepared three ways: plain, glazed with sauce, or stuffed in shishito peppers.
251 W. 55th St.; 212-245-4555
Convivial and convincingly French, with charming waiters and a multilingual crowd, this Long Island City bistro is snappily run and perpetually packed. The food’s good, too, and just offbeat enough to keep things interesting. There’s steak-frites, of course, but also cheesy tartiflette (an occasional special), and a mysterious affinity for un-Gallic garnishes like pineapple. Unlike many of its Manhattan brethren, Tournesol has managed to avoid the dreaded price creep—a boon for the neighborhood and romantic skinflints everywhere.
50-12 Vernon Blvd., Long Island City; 718-472-4355
63. La Taza de Oro
WE SERVE MARGARINE reads the sign affixed to the wall behind the Formica counter. Whether that’s a boast or a warning, you get the feeling that little if anything, including the butter substitute, has changed over the years at this venerable Puerto Rican luncheonette. Not that anyone’s complaining. Even the prices of the main courses, which come with a heaping plate of rice and beans, seem held over from another era. The daily specials keep things interesting: Feast on stewed codfish on Monday, goat stew on Tuesday, and roast pork with its occasional bonus snout (this is a nose-to-tail kind of joint, after all) on Wednesday.
96 Eighth Ave.; 212-243-9946
64. Buenos Aires
Always a challenge for the penny-pinching epicure, steak seldom fits the Underground Gourmet’s budget. That’s where Buenos Aires comes in, with its myriad cuts of Argentine-style grass-fed beef (procured, thanks to a ban on the genuine article, from Uruguay and Nebraska). While you won’t mistake it for Kobe, you probably won’t find a better inexpensive steak-frites (be sure to request your fries blitzed with garlic and parsley). And even if your harried waiter can’t elaborate on the subtle differences between the various Malbecs, they’re cheap enough for you to find out for yourself.
513 E. 6th St.; 212-228-2775
65. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
It’s not that the pork ribs, the beef brisket, and the Texas hot links aren’t good. It’s just that the giant spice-rubbed and pit-smoked chicken wings—as toothsome an appetizer as ever was dipped into a tiny plastic cup of blue-cheese dressing and chased back with a celery stick—are such a hard act to follow. Considering the raucousness of the crowd, the hostess and the servers are surprisingly in control, like professional rodeo hands. And despite the faux-roadhouse décor, there seems to be an abundance of genuine honky-tonk women barreling about the premises, which is pretty much what you want in a barbecue joint.
646 W. 131st St.; 212-694-1777
66. Azuri Cafe
In the hierarchy of most-feared food figures, Ezra Cohen falls somewhere between the Soup Nazi and Alessandro, the retired sandwich maestro of Melampo Imported Foods. That reputation might not be deserved, but the one for Mr. Cohen’s falafel certainly is. His platters teem with delectable Middle Eastern salads and spreads, and his soups, a lesser-known but equally precious commodity, have a devoted fan club.
465 W. 51st St.; 212-262-2920
67. Super Taste
This tiny soup shack at the edge of Chinatown makes what is indisputably a five-star bowl of beef noodles for a paltry $4. Try No. 2, or “Hand-Pull Noodle w. Beef In Hot & Spicy Soup”—about a quart of deeply flavored, sinus-clearing broth with an anchor of perfectly chewy noodles. Alas, the mood, as set by the glum slurpers who patronize the establishment, is as cheerful as a July 4 picnic at Guantánamo Bay and weighs in at zero stars, giving Super Taste an average of two stars.
26 Eldridge St.; 212-625-1198
68. Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery
Don’t be fooled by the jewelry-store facade: This schitzophrenic Chinatown storefront is actually home to some of the city’s best Vietnamese sandwiches. In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, imagine a baguette-style roll toasted and anointed with mayo and hot sauce, then stuffed with various pig products—in this case, paté, pork roll, and succulent roast pork. The coup de grace is the lovingly applied vegetal matter: sliced cucumbers, hot peppers, pickled carrots, and cilantro. No less a connoisseur than chef Sara Jenkins gets her bánh mì fix here, after grabbing her ticket at Di Palo across the street.
138-01 Mott St.; 212-941-1541
With its tiny tabs and casual converted-pub vibe, Chino’s gives a good name to two much-maligned trends: Pan-Asian and small plates. Thanks to bright, fresh flavors, the combination works, especially in the genius Lilliputian roast-pork sandwich slicked with mustard and kimchee. Nothing seems frightfully authentic, just undeniably tasty.
173 Third Ave.; 212-598-1200
70. Rajbhog Sweets
A big name in the Indian-kulfi-and-sweetmeats business, Rajbhog also operates a modest vegetarian kitchen specializing in the cooking of Gujarat, a region renowned for its tradition of snacking, its characteristic sweet-and-sour flavor profile, and its expertise with pickles. The selection changes daily, featuring vegetables unknown to even the most intrepid Greenmarketeer, and if you’ve never had khaman dhokla (steamed chickpea-flour cakes dotted with black mustard seeds), you’re in for a pleasingly spongy, zestily spiced surprise.
72-27 37th Ave., Jackson Heights; 718-458-8512
71. Rickshaw Dumpling Bar
There are cheaper dumplings. Chinatown’s full of them. But it’s the polished accoutrements that set Rickshaw apart: the sprightly salads with vibrant dressings; the insanely rich black-sesame mochi stuffed with molten chocolate; the heat-beating watermelonade. The space is cleaner and more comfortable than the dumpling houses below Delancey. And the dumplings (the steamed vegetarian and the fried pork, in particular) happen to be delicious.
61 W. 23rd St.; 212-924-9220
Sometimes you just want a burger or a grilled cheese—but not just any burger or grilled cheese. Cramped, convivial Westville improves on coffee-shop standards with better, sometimes organic ingredients, the kind of pies you’d find at a roadside stand, and, to justify that slice, a chalkboard “market menu” of vegetables and salads.
210 W. 10th St.; 212-741-7971
A burger and a beer or cayenne-dusted almonds and a copita of sherry—the choice is yours at this old, atmospheric Prospect Heights tavern turned tapas bar. Beast serves small plates that really aren’t. Portions, in fact, are quite generous, and quite affordable, with sliced skirt steak the biggest splurge at $13. Sticky toffee pudding in a puddle of cream isn’t particularly Spanish, but it is delicious.
638 Bergen St., Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; 718-399-6855
74. Blue Ribbon Bakery Market
“Have bread, will toast” should be the motto of this shrewd bakery and general store, where any loaf may be sliced, toasted, and topped to order. The high-quality combinations fall generally into three categories: the French-ish (paté, duck confit); the sweet-ish (manchego and honey, hot fudge); and the Jewish (whitefish salad, cream and onions). There’s a ledge to lean against, a sidewalk bench, and all the makings for an ultra-gourmet picnic.
14 Bedford St.; 212-647-0408
Imagine a falafel shack made over by Martha Stewart and you’d have something like Taïm, where the fresh flowers and exotic fruit displayed throughout make you feel healthier before you order anything. When you do, though, be sure to get a sampling of salads, which are fresh and crunchy and perfect for offsetting the creamy richness of the hummus and dense nuttiness of the falafel, which come in three flavors (original is best). The date-lime-banana smoothie evokes the Arabian desert but vanquishes New York’s summer swelter just as well.
222 Waverly Pl.; 212-691-1287
76. Adrienne’s Pizza Bar
Two stars for bringing excellent pizza to the mozzarella no-man’s-land known as the financial district. After making his name with tender, puffy-crusted Neapolitan-style beauties around the greater metropolitan area, partner Nick Angelis has delved into the rarefied world of thin-crust square, or “grandma”-style pizza, and for the first time, to the eternal gratitude of Wall Street, this formerly staunch whole-pie-only guy is serving slices at lunch.
54 Stone St.; 212-248-3838
77. The Good Fork
Some of our favorite things at this cozy new mom-and-pop spot (he built it, she’s the chef) are Asian-inflected, like the juicy pork dumplings and the kimchee rice that accompanies the Korean-style steak and eggs. The rest of the small menu skews seasonal American—a meaty crab cake here, a roasted free-range upstate New York chicken there—but what’s really special is the unexpected charm of the setting, a neighborhood restaurant you wish were in your own.
391 Van Brunt St., Red Hook, Brooklyn; 718-643-6636
78. Sip Sak
According to Orhan Yegen, the passionate, pony-tailed chef-owner of this Turtle Bay café, Turkish cuisine gets no respect. It’s misunderstood and mangled—by everyone but him. Having tasted his hot yogurt soup and dill-flecked stuffed cabbage, we’re inclined to agree. The menu is extensive and varied, but after following the guy around town from kitchen to kitchen, we’ve come across a foolproof ordering protocol: the appetizer sampler, followed by the invariably lamb-based special of the day.
928 Second Ave.; 212-583-1900
The point of an izakaya is to drink sake, which can easily be done in this spare but welcoming East Village spot. So can snacking on traditional Japanese pub fare, like creamy goma tofu and chicken wings that challenge Buffalo’s supremacy. There are comforting bowls of rice soup, small plates of marinated seafood, delicately dressed vegetables, and a laid-back, neighborly vibe that earns this humble izakaya two stars.
647 E. 11th St.; 212-777-1582
Nothing against the all-you-can-eat melee known as the Brazilian rodizio, where skewer-wielding waiters saunter from table to table plying carnivores with carved-on-demand meat. But for a calmer introduction to the pleasures of the Brazilian table, try this white-tablecloth restaurant set down upon a leafy Astoria street. Chef-owner Herbet Gomes turns out all sorts of rustic but refined recipes like the moqueca de camarao, a fragrant stew of shrimp simmered in coconut milk and palm oil. Saturdays are reserved for his lavish feijoada, the classic black-bean-and-meat extravaganza, which takes all of Sunday to work off.
25-35 36th Ave., Astoria; 718-937-4821
81. Joe and Pat’s
If Staten Island had an official dish, it would be pizza. It would be round, it would be thin, and it would be served, most likely, in a dimly atmospheric bar setting, like Lee’s Tavern or the legendary Denino’s. Joe and Pat’s offers a lighter, brighter alternative, with plenty of spacious Formica booths. There is no thinner pie to be found in the borough, and it’s splashed with a sweet, bright sauce and gobbed with puddles of milky mozzarella. It’s an understated pie for a culinarily overlooked borough.
1758 Victory Blvd., Staten Island; 718-981-0887 Next: One Star Cheap Eats
The bigger, better version of the Middle Eastern joint that stole the financial district’s heart still rolls a terrific falafel, crunchy with neon-hued pickles and enlivened with hot sauce. But it’s the specials, like a delicate vegetarian kibbeh, that make the place shine.
8 Maiden Ln.; 212-528-4669
Anyone who has ever worked there knows that there is nothing to eat in midtown. Not a morsel. Mangia may seem like lunchtime nirvana the first few times around. A hundred or so salad-bar visits later, you want something else. That’s when it’s time to amble over to Oms/b, which stands for omusubi, the variously shaped and stuffed Japanese rice balls and cakes. We like the triangular ones wrapped in nori and filled with a modest amount of spicy tuna or salmon. Two or three will buck you up and remind you that New York’s culinary delights can be found anywhere—even midtown.
156 E. 45th St.; 212-922-9788
84. Pio Maya
Giving the lie to the presumption (by Californian know-it-alls, mostly) that there’s no authentic Mexican food in New York, this tiny, unassuming taquería proceeds to grill up smashing chorizo tacos and roast some of the cheapest and tastiest rotisserie chicken in downtown Manhattan. No booze, no room for large parties, and no atmosphere, but get it to go, and don’t forget extra green sauce.
40 W. 8th St.; 212-254-2277
The way the young droopy-drawers crowd gathers outside this mod Thai canteen, you’d think there was high-quality crack in the pad prik king. But no, it’s just the deft spicing and clean presentations that stand out in a Siamese sea of contenders. We’re suckers for the greasy (in a good way) curry puffs, the crispy-duck salad, and the drunk-man noodles, which are as good delivered as they are on premises.
60 University Pl.; 212-982-3758
Join the lunch-hour line leading up to Tony Dragonas’s East 62nd Street pushcart and you may find yourself in the company of young bankers in shirtsleeves, hotel maids in uniform, beefy FedEx men, even a master cobbler for ritzy men’s custom-shoe store John Lobb, in from Paris to measure some feet. Tony, the Sirio Maccioni of street food, deftly manages the proceedings as he’s done for nearly twenty years. Everything is good and cheap, but the thing to get is Tony’s signature charcoal-grilled chicken plopped down on a pile of rice with a side salad and a goodish gob of tsatsiki, which everyone at Tony’s calls “white sauce.”
62nd St. at Madison Ave.
87. Pepe Rosso To Go
The teeny-weeny trattoria that launched an army of loosely affiliated Pepes around town is still packing them in. (With five tables, it’s not that hard.) The menu hasn’t changed, but why should it? If you can’t choose between the spaghetti pesto with potato and string beans or the penne arrabbiata, get the oddly tasty (and doubtfully Italian) chicken panini with bacon and guacamole, and splurge the extra buck for homemade focaccia. As it says on the menu, “No Diet Coke. No Skim Milk. Only Good Food.”
149 Sullivan St.; 212-677-4555
88. Tuck Shop
An Aussie snack shop determined to infiltrate the local fast-food market with individual-sized savory pies and sausage rolls, Tuck Shop stuffs its buttery pastry with seasoned ground beef, creamy chicken stew, or curry vegetables. This is Down Under drinking-man’s food at its best, designed to provide late-night sustenance for further drinking, and traditionally eaten out of hand, in the manner of a mid-race triathlete gulping down a banana. But you needn’t be drunk nor Australian to enjoy it.
68 E. 1st St.; 212-979-5200
89. Zucco Le French Diner
In a city of cookie-cutter bistros and Balthazar clones, Zucco stands out with its esoteric décor and personal style, dictated by chef-owner Zucco himself, a hipster Frenchman lithe enough to navigate a bar and restaurant that’s probably smaller than some tenement bathrooms. The fare is classic French with all the characteristic flourishes—crusty bread and good butter, salads moistened with good vinaigrette—and if you can stand the wait for a seat, you’ll feel like lingering all night.
188 Orchard St.; 212-677-5200
This is where it all began, where Gennaro Lombardi first shoveled a blob of dough into a coal oven and never looked back. No serious pizza aficionado has never been to Lombardi’s. The clan was so dedicated to its art that, according to Gennaro’s grandson (also named Gennaro), his grandfather, his grandmother, and his father all “dropped dead behind the oven”—but not at the same time, of course. The oven in question finally collapsed (subway tremors), and although the new one reaches an infernal 800 degrees, it has yet to kill anyone. Sadly, quality has slipped a bit since a recent expansion. But nowhere outside of New Haven will you find a better white clam pie.
32 Spring St.; 212-941-7994
This Japanese street-food shack specializes in two delicious snacks you won’t find on just any street: takoyaki, a.k.a. “octopus balls,” the light and airy croquettes that come with a chewy chunk of octopus hidden in their centers; and okonomiyaki, which literally translated means “as-you-like-it fried thing,” the fried thing part being a glutinous pancake made from eggs and shredded cabbage, the as-you-like-it part referring to the choice of toppings: squid, pork, beef, corn, or shrimp. Both come with lashings of a sweet brown sauce, a shower of bonito flakes, and a squiggle of mayonnaise.
236 E. 9th St.; 212-353-8503
92. Burger Joint
The paper-wrapped burger is fat and juicy. The brown-bagged fries recall McDonald’s (once the gold standard in certain fast-food circles) before they switched from frying in beef fat. But the best thing about this nondescript, booth-lined hole-in-the-wall is its quasi-clandestine location off the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, one of the ritziest hotels in midtown.
118 W. 57th St.; 212-245-5000
93. Hong Kong Station
There may be better bargain bowls of soup noodles (see Super Taste, No. 67), but none that are served in such a bright and shiny setting—more Noho bubble-tea shop than Chinatown soup shanty. The menu gives you a choice of nine noodles (from e-fu to ho fun) and 32 steam-table add-ons (from squid balls to chicken gizzards), all as attractively displayed as anything served cafeteria-style from a steam table can be.
128 Hester St.; 212-966-9382
When the craving strikes for Uzbeki kebabs and lamby noodle soups, one could make a day of it in Rego Park, where Salut and Cheburechnaya compete for the Bukharan-food-loving business. As for us, we take a quick foray to the diamond district, where this third-floor café delivers crusty loaves of bread called lepeshka; a satisfyingly greasy, cilantro-green pilaf called baksh; and a bit of an Orthodox Jewish wheeler-dealer clubhouse vibe. Should you feel like punctuating all the charcoal-grilled meat with a nice piece of raw fish, there’s a new kosher-certified sushi chef on premises.
41 W. 47th St., third fl.; 212-768-8001
95. Dumpling House
Look under the cushions of your living room couch and you should be able to come up with enough change to order half the menu at this Eldridge Street snack shop. The crisp fried pork-and-chive dumplings are plump and juicy and, in the best Chinatown-dumpling-dive tradition, are served five for a dollar.
118 A Eldridge St.; 212-625-8008
96. Caracas Arepa Bar
How do you feel about crispy corn-flour pockets? There may be no better place to find out than this slightly less tiny post-expansion East Village arepera, where the menu is devoted to various doughy snacks, mostly stuffed with savory fillings and eaten with your hands. These include dense and spongy arepas (try the de pabellón, a virtual square meal of black beans, plantains, and shredded beef nicely contained within), deep-fried empanadas, and the real sleeper, the cachapa, a sweet cheesy pillow of a corn pancake.
93 1/2 E. 7th St.; 212-529-2314
Any time of day, this cacophonous airline hangar of a noodle bar still packs in a Benetton-ad crowd of the young, the hip, and the soon to be deaf. Its main attraction is its budget-priced Pan-Asian menu, concocted in split seconds by a platoon of bustling chefs and delivered instantaneously to the cafeteria-like communal tables. Fusion noodles (try No. 14—the spicy coconut chicken) might be old news now, but they weren’t back when this pioneer blazed the trail over a decade ago.
37 Union Square W.; 212-627-7172
Mexicans have the burrito and Americans have the wrap (our loss). Indians have both beat with the roti roll, a thin griddled flatbread coated with egg, then stuffed with skewer-grilled chicken or lamb, soft mild cheese or spiced potatoes, and rolled up into a savory, delectably greasy cylinder. It’s superb street food, and just as good consumed in the snug, spare dining room.
97 Lexington Ave.; 212-679-8900
99. Donovan’s Pub
We usually wouldn’t condone risky gastronomic behavior like dining in an Irish pub, but Donovan’s presents a compelling argument in the form of its remarkably flavorful burger. The secret might be the fried onions, a wan fillip elsewhere, but here, rendered uncommonly sweet and pungent.
5724 Roosevelt Ave., Woodside; 718-429-9339
On a street of beer bars, the subterranean Jimmy’s stands out—not for its beers, which are interesting and diverse, nor for the dramatic rehearsals or swing-band hootenannies regularly scheduled in the back room. What makes Jimmy’s unique is its small, often seasonal menu, which ranges from East Village Polish sausages to a lobster, corn, and tomato salad. It might merit a second star if portion size didn’t fluctuate and the chef didn’t go awol on slow nights.
43 E. 7th St.; 212-982-3006
101. Gray’s Papaya
The best of the Papaya Posse, Gray’s (the one located at Sixth Avenue and 8th Street, mind you) griddles the tastiest, snappiest 95 cent dog in town. No less a connoisseur of scrap meats than Mario Batali is a fan. The jury is out, though, on the mysterious Papaya drink: Is it just us, or does that stuff smell uncannily like a cheesy slice of pizza?
402 Sixth Ave.; 212-260-3532 Next: Top 5 New Cheap Eats, Pizza Places, and Prix Fixe Meals
Top 5 New Cheap Eats of 2006
Mall food to trump all mall food, the salmon rillettes and fluffy quiche served at Thomas Keller’s elegant Time Warner Center café are good enough to transcend the chain-store surroundings. His take on the Oreo cookie? Even better.
FRANKIES 17 SPUNTINO
Just like its Carroll Gardens twin, this cozy Italian wine bar serves exactly what today’s New Yorker feels like eating, from simple, impeccably fresh salads to better-than-Grandma’s meatballs and braciola.
Zak Pelaccio’s ode to Malaysian food doesn’t pull any punches, despite its trendy meatpacking-district location. The bustling open kitchen, the ambitious wine list, and the enthusiastic waiters add to the charm.
This is where serious foodies go to sit at a dining bar and sample chef Wesley Genovart’s small, exquisitely prepared plates of innovative Spanish-inspired food, like short-rib-stuffed squid and quail-egg tortillas.
ROOM 4 DESSERT
And this is where they go for dessert—another bar, farther downtown, where Will Goldfarb’s intriguing offerings include four-part themed tastings and lighter, multilayered desserts in a glass.
Top 5Pizza Places
UNA PIZZA NAPOLETANA
Pizza aficionados say it’s as good as—if not better than—any you’d find in Naples, and that’s why it may seem expensive ($18.95 a pie). For authenticity and purity of flavor, no other pizza in town comes close. It’s worth every penny.
Everyone talks about the Michael Pollan–esque ingredient sourcing—and rightfully so. But chef Andrew Feinberg is also a pizza virtuoso. Thanks to a superb crust, his pies would be terrific even if they weren’t topped with coppa made from sustainably raised Heritage Acres pork and locally-grown-parsley pesto.
DI FARA PIZZA
In his monklike devotion to his craft—if not his shabby, flour-splattered appearance—owner Dom De Marco is the Masa Takayama of pizza, and he’s been at it for over 40 years. The Sicilian slice is the best in town or anywhere else, for that matter.
Mecca for any serious student of pizza. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: No one—not John’s, not Lombardi’s, not even Patsy’s uptown—does the old-school coal-oven blistered-crust style as well. May the dough never run out.
This is the best charred-crust pizza ever to come out of a plain old gas oven operated by a Greek-American pizza man.
Top 5Prix Fixe Meals
The spare, utilitarian room isn’t much to look at, but chef Daniel Eardley, who worked at Washington Park, more than compensates with a Tuesday and Wednesday $25 prix fixe that feels like a gift.
CHARLES’ SOUTHERN STYLE KITCHEN
The famous fried chicken alone is worth the price of the $11.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. But save room for excellent oxtails, smothered steak, collards, and macaroni and cheese. Wash it down with a glass of lemonade ($1 extra; free refills).
Although he could get away with a lot more, owner Arnaud Erhart, to his credit, hasn’t raised the price of his $25 prix fixe dinner, even in the midst of the current Red Hook renaissance.
The three-course $25 Sunday Supper showcasing chef Shane Philip Coffey’s quirky seasonal style is the best deal on Clinton Street.
Consider the venerable $2.75 Recession Special (two succulent dogs and one medium-size drink—except for pineapple, of course) as the cheapest prix fixe meal in town. Dine over by the window ledge next to the mustard dispenser. Next: The Top 5 Burgers and Brunch Spots
A stinging slap in the face of the Great Gourmet Burger Movement from a few years back, the Shack Burger is a thing of simple beauty, made from a freshly ground mix of sirloin and brisket, loosely packed and served on a squishy bun that quickly becomes one with the crisp-edged meat.
This is the second-best burger in town, and it’s no surprise that, like the Shack Burger above (to say nothing of the great burger at Union Square Cafe), it comes from a Danny Meyer kitchen. Meyer is known as a groundbreaking restaurateur, but his greatest legacy might be his contribution to the burger pantheon.
A no-frills char-grilled burger, well proportioned and modestly accoutred, that never fails to hit the spot.
The city’s premier bar burger. Order it with grilled onions and American cheese, and have it at the bar, a room thick with history and the occasional impenetrable brogue.
You can order up to four 1-ounce Schnäckie patties stuffed into a single house-made mini-bun. But it’s more fun to order a whole pile of singles as if you were training for a competitive-eating contest.
Top 5Brunch Spots
There’s much to love about Charleen Badman’s seasonal comfort-food menu, not least the signature matzo brei owner Anne Rosenzweig brought downtown with her from Lobster Club.
Besides being your best chance of penetrating this hipster hangout, brunch is the time for poached eggs with golf-ball-size lamb sausages, a terrific roast-pork sandwich, and tasty if geriatric yogurt with stewed plums.
Mellow and low-key, Alias gives the jaded bruncher some offbeat options: goetta, for instance, the Cincinnatian pork-scrap delicacy, and one of the few fried-chicken-and-waffles you’ll find below 110th Street.
Chef Annie Wayte’s “full English breakfast” is more dainty than hearty, as befits the setting: a café plunked down in the middle of a chichi boutique. The scones are highly recommended, as is the homemade jam.
Grab an outdoor table at this Prospect Heights tavern–cum–tapas bar and make your way through the Sunday papers with a mug of rich, Brooklyn-roasted Gorilla coffee and the excellent fried polenta. The so-called small plates aren’t—not at brunch, anyway. Next: What the Stars Mean
What the Stars Mean
The categorical best
In the “Cheap Eats” world, restaurants aren’t assessed on the ply of their linen or the luster of their flatware (though we might take note of an egregiously stained fork). Even more than our peers on the fine-dining circuit, we’d venture to say, we focus on the food. Having said that, though, infinite intangibles come into play when you’re eating out, no matter how ambrosial the chow. Our star system is a measurement of the entire dining experience, from the greeting at the door (or lack thereof) to the care taken in assembling an interesting (and affordable) drink list, be it devoted to Italian soda or Australian beer, as the case may be. Places needn’t have an interior designer’s idea of atmosphere, but they do need to make one feel welcome, happy, and well fed. We have felt this way in the humblest taquería as much as in the poshest café. To the usual system of measures, we’re adding another, one we call the FWII Factor (For What It Is). Hereby, a frank is judged on its own terms, not against a USDA prime T-bone. Pizza can achieve perfection, and on our list, it has—twice. The FWII Factor recognizes that all food—even the cheapest—is capable of greatness.
Five stars is categorical perfection—the best in its class. (There’s no five-star hot-dog stand, but we’re still looking.) Four stars is reliably, consistently excellent. Three means you can be assured of a generally delicious meal. Two means very good all-around, and one, although not an endorsement of everything on the menu, is a reflection of a particular strength or point of interest. It’s a place that’s well worth visiting, that improves New York’s culinary landscape, and that deserves recognition. For what it is. Next: Back to the Beginning