The Burger Correction
One good thing about a crumbling economy: cheaper burgers. No one really knows why. One theory holds that prior to a burger-correction period like the one we’re in right now, some sort of culinary-regulatory-group intervention secretly takes place, and the so-called innovators of the burger-boom years—the $29-burger barons and their ilk—are taken away during the night like Bear Stearns employees and sent off to a hamburger rehab facility. Once there, through tough love and arts-and-crafts workshops, they’re cured of their perverse desire to top hamburgers with all manner of luxury ingredients including foie gras, truffles, quail eggs, beluga caviar, French songbirds, diamond necklaces, and $100 bills.
The result is a rash of new burger joints whose names alone signal a return to sound burger economics, like the Wall Street Burger Shoppe (30 Water St.; 212-425-1000), for instance, which opened in the financial district earlier this year. Here, in a space done up like Nat’s Peach Pit from Beverly Hills, 90210, hordes of bonus-starved stock touts take refuge in old-fashioned four-ounce cheeseburgers adorned with nothing more than lettuce and the house special sauce for just $4 a pop.
An equally good deal can be found on Sunday nights at The Smith (55 Third Ave.; 212-420-9800) in the East Village. Bargain-hunting pleasure seekers both young and old begin arriving here in droves around 5:30 p.m. for the $12 draft-beer-and-burger special. And who can blame them? The plat du jour is a bulging half-pound bacon cheeseburger just barely contained by its bun, much in the manner that the Incredible Hulk often finds himself just barely contained by his Fruit of the Looms. This Hulklike beef bomb doesn’t actually turn green and rumble around angrily on the plate, but it does come with a mountain of pretty good fries included in the price.
Alphabet City is where you’ll find the U.G.’s favorite new mini-burgers, at the breezy, spacious eight-month-old burger bar Zaitzeff (18 Ave. B; 212-477-7137), an outpost of the financial-district burger joint of the same name. The mini-burgers, a brand-new addition to an already stellar full-size-hamburger menu, come three to an order for $12 and are simply superb—plump and juicy and topped with sharp Cheddar and fried onions. The grass-fed sirloin that the brothers Zaitzeff use to make their patties is fresh and flavorful, but the key to these delectable Scooby Snacks is the miniature toasted Portuguese muffins they get from a bakery in Fall River, Massachusetts. These slightly sweet super-buns combine the sturdiness of an English muffin with the burger-melding ability of a delicate brioche and have made the Underground Gourmet reconsider a preference for the squishy supermarket variety.
One of our all-time favorite cheeseburgers is the one Ryan Skeen, working like a culinarily inclined Dr. Frankenstein, concocted from a mix of beef cheek, hanger steak, and pork fatback and unleashed at Resto a while back. Skeen has moved on, but it seems that you can’t keep a good burger-man down. We spied him recently looking tanned and fit while expediting dinner orders in his flip-flops at the recently opened Brooklyn restaurant The General Greene (229 Dekalb Ave., Ft. Greene; 718-222-1510), where he consults on his friend Nicholas Morgenstern’s terrific menu. As you might have guessed, there’s an excellent six-ounce char-grilled burger here ($11), and in keeping with the back-to-burger-basics trend, it’s made wholly from freshly ground Angus sirloin.
Sometimes you have to suffer for your art, even if your art is eating hamburgers and then scribbling your impressions on the back of a paper napkin. Take, for instance, the recent visit the U.G. paid to the Dram Shop Bar (339 9th St., Park Slope; 718-788-1444), a beer-soaked romper room of sorts with a pool table, a shuffleboard, and a crowd of drunken revelers so loud we could barely hear ourselves think, let alone focus on burger chomping and napkin scribbling. No matter. The toothsome burgers here remain permanently etched in our minds. The house style is to shove two three-ounce, square-shaped patties—loosely packed and nicely browned on the griddle—into one round sesame-seed bun, the same way Dram Shop partner Clay Mallow’s father and his father before him used to do it back at the old grocery store in South Dallas. The result, a well-proportioned double burger abundantly accessorized with two slices of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, mustard, and mayo, will run you $9. Included in the price are thick hand-cut fries and a ringing in your ears that lasts for days.
Finally, if you ever find yourself adrift in the wilds of Greenwich, Connecticut, take Exit 2 off I-95, turn left on Byram Shore Road, and then follow the unmistakable scent of sizzling beef-burgers to 302 Delavan Avenue. That is where you’ll find the ten-month-old Burgers, Shakes & Fries (203-531-7433) and where you can get a deliciously drippy one-third-pound cheeseburger simply fashioned from good old ground chuck. It comes on griddle-toasted white bread and goes for the bargain price of $3.77, which, of course, is less than the price of a gallon of gas these days.
When aspersions are cast upon the locavore movement, as they often are these days, it’s usually owed to perceived elitism, the steep tabs that folks associate with devout practitioners like Chez Panisse and Blue Hill, and a stubborn refusal to accept the rutabaga as a foodstuff you can build a meal around come February. Happily for ecominded misers, the local-and-seasonal school of cooking has had a trickle-down effect, making farmers’-market menus available everywhere from East Village rathskellers like Jimmy’s No. 43 to outlying pizzerias like Roberta’s (261 Moore St., Bushwick; 718-417-1118), where Greenmarket-inspired improvisations like wilted sucrine lettuce flavored with artisanal bacon are offered alongside quirky wood-fired pizzas topped with things like spring garlic and basil pesto.
The U.G. would also like to draw your attention to the downwardly mobile efforts of chefs like Peter Hoffman and Marc Meyer, both of whom spun off cheaper—if not exactly cheap—versions of their popular locavore establishments this year, offering barnyard-on-a-budget specialties like, at Meyer’s Hundred Acres (38 Macdougal St.; 212-475-7500), chicken-fried rabbit ($18, and made from contented bunnies, no doubt), and lightly battered fried squash blossoms ($11). At Hoffman’s Back Forty (190 Ave. B; 212-388-1990) you can wash down your grilled Catskills trout and cilantro salsa verde ($18) with milk-bottle mini-carafes of wine that go for the bargain rate of $9 to $10. (We have heard distressing reports, though, that the bean counters at Hundred Acres have seen fit on occasion to break their self-imposed $20 price ceiling, and on behalf of cheap eaters everywhere, we beseech them to come to their senses.) Another green-minded offshoot, Community Food & Juice (2893 Broadway; 212-665-2800), has transported its sibling Clinton St. Baking Company’s blockbuster blueberry pancakes to Morningside Heights, where it tosses its heaping house salad with North Fork greens from Satur Farms ($10) and shakes its martinis with organic gin and garnishes them with organic olives, and also offers a decent Oregon white wine whose sales, naturally, benefit the dwindling wild-salmon population. The common denominator of these places, besides good intentions, is the grass-fed burger, usually accompanied by hand-cut fries and boutique bacon and cheese.
Arepas and Empanadas
Typically cheap and almost always tasty, these stuffed Latin American snacks have been turning up all over town of late. At the excessively woody Habitat (988 Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint; 718-383-5615), chef-partner Ashley Engmann makes four flaky varieties of empanadas and serves them two to an order with greens ($6 to $7). We’re partial to the pickle-packing Cuban ($3 each), which has not only survived the transformation from sandwich to stuffed pastry, but might, dare we say, even benefit from it. Melissa Fox is another master of the empanada art, and plies her trade at her hacienda-away-from-home A Casa Fox (173 Orchard St.; 212-253-1900), where the best stuffings are spiced beef and tomato, and pulled pork studded with caramelized onions ($5 apiece, or $8 for a curiosity-satisfying sampler of six minis).
Empanadas are typically wheat and baked; arepas are usually corn and griddled or fried. Except, that is, at Shachis (197 Havemeyer St., Williamsburg; 718-388-8884), where both are made from corn flour and bountifully stuffed. Shachis’ empanadas are smaller and deep-fried, and its denser grilled arepas enfold various fillings to make ten delectable sandwiches, of which the most delectable is the pabellón ($6), encasing savory shredded beef, plantains, black beans, and cheese—all the elements of the Venezuelan national dish save the rice. This classic combination can also be found across the Pulaski Bridge at Arepas Cafe (33-07 36th Ave., Astoria; 718-937-3835), where the stuffed corn cakes are more compact, the cilantro-garlic sauce addictive, and the avocado-tinged reina variety the apotheosis of a chicken-salad sandwich ($5.75).
Who could have predicted that this year would see a mini-boom in great pizza-making as well as the reemergence of the Manhattan slice as a citywide contender? And who would have thought that the pizza story of the year would be about two cousins from Staten Island, Sal Basille and Francis Garcia, who took one of those pedestrian-counting clickers over to a seedy strip of East 14th Street one day, and after determining—click, click, click—that foot traffic on the block was sufficiently robust, set up a humble little slice shack called Artichoke Basille’s Pizza & Brewery (328 E. 14th St.; 212-228-2004)? The place became an instant hit among not only pedestrians but also celebrities, including that old slice hound Keith Richards, who tottered in one night, tucked into various items on the menu, and then leaped up on the counter as if it were a coconut palm tree and gave an impromptu performance on his air guitar. Now the lines are long and the wait is up to an hour, some say. But when the Underground Gourmet stopped by one recent afternoon, there was no line at all. A paper-plate sign taped to the door and referring to the pizzeria’s unique signature topping read no artichoke pies until 5:30. This unfathomable gumbo of creamed spinach and artichokes really has no place on top of a pizza, but it does have its fans. The thing to get, though, is the $3.50 Sicilian slice—a colossal square of crisp-edged dough fairly oozing with a sweet-and-tangy tarp of tomato sauce and four types of cheese. If there’s room at the counter, you can wolf this substantial specimen beneath a weird, toothy portrait of the Kennedys. Or if, like us, you enjoy dining alfresco with rivulets of orange grease dripping onto your shoes, there’s a concrete ledge a few doorways down that serves as a rustic picnic table.
If you like your pizza served at an actual table as well as baked by a Salerno-born hotshot pizzaiolo named Riccardo, you can do no better than to leg it up to the Bronx and visit the sprawling trattoria Zero Otto Nove (2357 Arthur Ave.; 718-220-1027). That’s where Riccardo Risvaldo has been practicing his pizza voodoo since late last year. His twelve-inch margherita pies ($14.95) are the real deal—light and fragrant, tender to the bite, dabbed with melted blobs of buffalo mozzarella like a painter’s palette, and in the same pristine Neapolitan class as the ones at the great Una Pizza Napoletana in the East Village. That Riccardo has taken a temporary leave of absence, and is set to return in September, is no reason to postpone a visit: The U.G. has done his pizza-eating homework and sampled pies cooked by both the young master and his faithful understudy, and we can say that Riccardo has trained his staff well.
The Bronx, of course, has nothing on Brooklyn in the pizza-making department, as recent additions to the U.G. checklist attest. At South Brooklyn Pizza (451 Court St., Carroll Gardens; 718-852-6018), an annex of the Irish bar P.J. Hanley’s, you can get a lumpy pie ($12) baked in a restored coal-burning oven by a real-estate developer turned pizza baker named Jim McGown. He serves these ovoid disks one way and one way only—with a crust that’s heavily charred (some would say burned) and topped with nothing more than a simple sauce of crushed San Marzano tomatoes, a little fresh basil, and a medley of four cheeses. South Brooklyn, incidentally, is the only place in town that serves coal-oven-baked chocolate-chip cookies (unburned) for dessert.
The trend toward disguising Brooklyn pizzerias as Irish sports bars continues at Toby’s Public House (686 Sixth Ave., South Slope; 718-788-1186), where the management, instead of setting up a rack of potato chips behind the bar, has seen fit to install a shapely beehive brick oven and enlist the services of a Calabrian pizzaiolo named Nicola Bertolotti to stoke its wood-burning fire. Here, you can tuck into your Bufalina D.O.C. pie ($15)—which has a fine balance and a flawless cheese-to-sauce ratio—while watching the game du jour on one of three flat screens, or, if you like, you can just observe the athletic gyrations of Bertolotti and his team as they flit about the open kitchen, twirling rounds of dough and turning the pies around the oven’s hot spot.
Tribeca has never been anyone’s idea of a pizza mecca, but things are looking up for the neighborhood with the addition of the third branch of Dean’s Family Style Restaurant & Pizzeria (349 Greenwich St.; 212-966-3200), which has a loose connection to the great Greek-American pieman Nick Angelis, of Nick’s and Adrienne’s fame. It’s already become a bustling social center for the drooling infants and gurgling tots who gather there nightly for a taste of the grandma or “old-fashioned square” pizza, which is served on a big sheet pan along with a handy pizza spatula.
When Gonzo’s Vincent Scotto died last year, the restaurant world lost not only a great Italian chef but the man often credited with introducing grilled pizza to New York. His legacy carries on at Gonzo, which is run by his sister, Donna, and also at two new Italian restaurants that dabble in the mysterious art of plopping dough onto a hot grill and not having it fall through the cracks and into the fire like an errant campfire marshmallow. At Campo (2888 Broadway; 212-864-1143) on the upper Upper West Side, Gonzo alum David Rotter does his old boss proud with a telltale crisp crust made from a mix of flours (including whole wheat) and a restrained hand in the toppings department (pizzas are $9.90 to $11.90). And over in Williamsburg, the natives are getting their first taste of the grilled stuff ($9 to $11) thanks to Fiore (284 Grand St., Williamsburg; 718-782-8222), a homey, budget-minded trattoria with a dining room festooned with all sorts of Italian-grandma tchotchkes and a breezy backyard garden. You can wash these wafer-thin, featherlight pies down with any number of regional Italian wines, some priced so refreshingly low you needn’t worry too much about the fact that the house policy is cash only.
When we first encountered the enterprising Andy Yang, he was ladling up fish-ball soup under the watchful eyes of his godmother at the short-lived East Village Thai joint Rochjin. Earlier this year, he surreptitiously converted the Greenwich Village branch of his partner’s family’s Malaysian chain, Penang, into Rhong-Tiam (541 La Guardia Pl.; 212-477-0600), an inconspicuous little spot that has been building a slow but steady buzz on the food blogs, even earning the occasional (and inevitable) comparison to Sripraphai, the Woodside wonder. But while Srip is Thai through and through, Rhong-Tiam, with its Malaysian vestiges, like a nicely spiced roti canai ($4), plus some Chinese-tasting black-bean-and-oyster-sauced stir-fries, has more of a Pan-Asian feel. As if in atonement, the menu takes a hotter-than-thou approach, daring chile heads to prove their mettle with such accelerants as “Pork on Fire” ($13), “Watercress on Fire” ($10.95), and the southern-style chicken ($12)—not officially on fire, but plenty hot nevertheless. There is a certain pleasure to be had from debilitating pepper-spiked pain, it’s true, but we’re just as happy to play it a bit safer from time to time with kao soi ($12 to $14), also known as Chiang Mai noodles, which buries soft and chewy egg noodles in a rich, savory curry under a thatch of deep-fried crispy noodles, accessorized with onion, bean sprouts, lime, and pickled greens. When it’s too hot for hot soup, we’ll share the yum pla dook foo ($13), a chile-and-lime-dressed salad in two parts: fried grated catfish and cashews on one plate, crunchy slivered mango on another, united by a lively dressing. Although some swear by Singha or Thai iced tea with these flavors, you might find a glass of Hermann Wiemer Dry Riesling or Monterey Bay Gewürztraminer, both on the brief list—or even a bucket of water—do just as well.
In the pursuit of exceptional Thai, all roads, of course, eventually lead to Queens. Among the places that opened over the past year, we like Dee Thai Restaurant (46-17 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside; 718-786-3137), a double storefront on Queens Boulevard, which has a voluminous menu and a bar slinging tropical cocktails. Bring a crowd to share ka moo nam dang ($12), the mammoth stewed pork leg that comes with big spongy steamed buns to make sandwiches, somewhat akin to Momofuku’s lettuce-wrapped bo ssäm. The vibe at Dee is much slicker than that at Pa’Oun (53-21 Roosevelt Ave., Woodside; 718-205-6063), a lovable little joint that’s changed names and menus a couple times already this past year. In its current mango-walled, lime-boothed incarnation, it covers all the familiar bases, from satés and spring rolls to pick-your-protein curries. Steer your attention to the specials menu insert, though, for novelties like the young peppercorns on the vine that garnish a bony catfish curry ($8), and an herb-strewn, blackfish-flaked salad that, if it were offered at the aforementioned Rhong-Tiam, would easily be classified as “on fire” ($13).
In its hominess and the quirky appeal of its specials menu, Pa’Oun reminds us of Poodam’s (44-19 Broadway, Astoria; 718-278-3010), the last stop on the new-Queens-Thai tour. Its “signature” dishes reflect the kitchen’s Isaan, or E-san, bent, with a preponderance of salads and larbs that hail from Northeast Thailand. The flavors tend to be sour and strong, although the so-called Thai sour sausage ($8.95) wasn’t, but it was niftily garnished with deep-fried chiles and long beans. A minced-mackerel salad ($8.95) has a nice balance of flavors and a bit of heat, while the “hot morning glory” ($10.95), a heaping platter of crisp, crunchy sautéed stems and leaves, serves the same salubrious purpose as a bowl of pea shoots at a Chinese banquet.
Like everyone else, the Underground Gourmet brooded disconsolately over the long wait for the return of the Red Hook vendors to their sad, undernourished ball fields this year. Thanks to a spate of tasty new taquerías (and to a few vendors who temporarily relocated to the Brooklyn Flea), however, the task of filling the tortilla-wrapped void was less difficult and far more delicious than we’d expected.
Hecho en Dumbo (111 Front St., Dumbo; 718-855-5288), begun as a culinary art project of sorts, benefits from its ingredient-buying proximity to the fancy-foods purveyor Foragers Market and is where we repair for dainty, elegantly garnished tacos of locally raised, wine-braised steak or moist, meaty Berkshire pork (three for $8).
If Hecho, which operates evenings only in the flyer-bedecked confines of the Dumbo General Store, is meant to evoke the arty underclass of the D.F., then Pinché Taqueria (227 Mott St.; 212-625-0090), a no-frills Nolita nook, has more of a beachside San Diego vibe. Fittingly, its $3.75 fish taco, made from tender mahimahi lightly battered and tucked into a house-made corn tortilla, is its claim to fame, and comes adorned, tidily, with onions, cilantro, cabbage, guacamole, and salsa, with a proper flourish of radish and lime.
Although it will never achieve Sunset Park’s or Roosevelt Avenue’s tacos-per-square-foot density, Williamsburg has seen enough activity on the tortilla front this year to merit an expedition. Taco Santana (301 Keap St., Williamsburg; 718-388-8761), located in the shadow of the rumbling J/M/Z line, doesn’t look like much, but it’s already become a destination not only for its serious tacos, stuffed with the usual roasted and braised meats, but for its bounty of cheap, delicious snacks, like the sope sencillo, a thick, hand-patted round of corn masa warmed through and topped with refried beans, shredded lettuce, cheese, and cream ($2.50). Despite the bilingual menu, Spanish is the official language of Taco Santana, but a few short blocks away the comparatively gringofied Taco Bite (310 S. 4th St., Williamsburg; 718-302-1117) is thoroughly fluent in English, which your smiling waitress will use to gently push the cooling aguas frescas, in flavors like watermelon and hibiscus. Ideally she will also think to mention the daily specials, like a recent taco de chivo ($3.95), stuffed with some of the most succulent and flavorful braised goat meat around.
Goat is not on offer at Endless Summer Tacos (N. 6th St. at Bedford Ave., Williamsburg; 347-400-8128), but that’s not to say the mobile taquería, parked on Williamsburg’s main drag from 3 to 10 p.m. daily, doesn’t have specialties of its own. Where else are you likely to encounter a seitan taco ($3), carefully assembled by a hirsute hipster? If that prospect frightens you—the seitan, not the hipster—there’s always the classic beef, chicken, and pork varieties ($2.50), all surpassingly juicy, adeptly garnished with cilantro, onions, Cotija cheese, and crema, and cradled in a pair of soft corn tortillas.
In related vehicular vending news, the Patty’s Tacos truck (86th St. at Lexington Ave.; 347-216-9362) has found some prime curbside real estate on the Upper East Side, where commuters emerging from the 4, 5, and 6 trains have been bellying up to the window for what Patty’s menu calls “autenticos antojitos Mexicanos,” packed to go with little cups of zingy red and green salsa. The truck had previously resided on East 110th Street, where tongue tacos ($3), cow’s-foot tostadas ($4), and the chipotle-stuffed sandwiches called cemitas ($8) don’t stand out as much as they do at this bustling intersection, where half the folks toddling by are clutching cups of Tasti D-Lite. The conversion, we imagine, is imminent.
Pomme de Terre (1301 Newkirk Ave., Ditmas Park; 718-284-0005) is the sort of Gallic stage set you’d expect to find on Barrow or Jane Street, not the Brooklyn corner where it pops up like a mirage on the not especially charming horizon. Smith Street pioneer Jim Mamary has lined the walls with vintage posters and found objets, and compiled a menu so classic it’s almost a bistro parody, with not only steak-frites but duck confit, mussels steamed in white wine, skate with lemon and capers, and even a croque monsieur. It deserves mention that that croque monsieur ($11) is a golden-brown thing of melting, oozy beauty, and that that steak-frites, at $21, is not only a bargain but quite tasty. The food, in fact, is as much of a draw as the lively ambience, and the shorts-and-sweatpants-clad locals that mob the place in amorous twosomes and chattering groups are lapping up every bit of it, from the homemade butter to the banana-caramel pot de crème.
In the bistro-besotted West Village, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. The New French (522 Hudson St.; 212-807-7357) manages handily, with an offbeat menu and a rare multigenerational appeal that fills the faux-rattan chairs nightly with genteel locals, seemingly functional families, and couples in various stages of their relationships, from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to mute. They’re here, we’d wager, for satisfying, just-inventive-enough food like the pizza bianca with toppings that change daily ($9), brisket pho ($16), and a pulled-pork appetizer slathered with a mustard raita ($10).
Cafe Katja (79 Orchard St.; 212-219-9545) wouldn’t call itself a bistro, and neither would Nizza (630 Ninth Ave.; 212-956-1800), but as far as we’re concerned they serve the same purpose: Both function as sane, cozy oases in the respective wilds of the Lower East Side and the theater district. With its wursts ($7 to $10) and its spaetzle ($13), its reassuring goulash ($16), and especially its hot, crusty pretzel ($3), Katja satisfies our periodic craving for homespun Austrian fare. Nizza bills itself a wine bar, but it’s really a full-fledged restaurant with a stylishly mod décor and a handy proximity to Broadway theaters that tends to obscure its other charms, like its accommodating hours and markedly gentle prices. The menu, a Ligurian-Provençal hybrid, is big on small plates like the signature socca, a sage-scented chickpea-flour pancake ($8), and broccoli bruschetta with avocado and walnuts ($6). But fresh pastas like the herb-stuffed pansotti ($13) are worth the trip, whether you’re rushing to make a curtain, live up the block, or happen to be a tourist with the good sense to wander in off the street.
City Full O’ Noodles
Among the starchy-food cognoscenti, it’s pretty much agreed that, with Ramen Setagaya, Rai Rai Ken, Soba-ya, and now the new Ippudo NY (65 Fourth Ave.; 212-388-0088) all clustered within a few short East Village blocks of each other, things on the noodle front couldn’t be rosier. It’s also generally agreed that what to get at Ippudo—the first U.S. branch of the Japanese chain—is either one of the two $13 bowls of super-porky ramens, the Shiromaru Classic (the joint’s original, pork-bone-enriched recipe) or the Akamaru Modern (the Shiromaru plus all the fixings, and a touch of the house “special secret sauce”). Where to sit is another matter: Some like the bar, where you get the best view of the pajama-clad cooks. Others prefer the spacious booths. But we’re partial to the cushy white chairs at the dining counter, which, when pushed together cozily, form what GQ’s Alan Richman, writing on his blog, recognized as a Japanese love seat having experienced the sensation firsthand on his date with David Chang. The Upper East Side isn’t exactly Ramenville. But who knows whether the downtown-style ramen bar Naruto (1596 Third Ave.; 212-289-7803) will spark a trend? Here you sit in the traditional ramen-bar manner—on a hard stool wedged in tightly next to your neighbors as if you were taking the No. 4 train uptown during rush hour. The best day to visit is on a Monday, also known here as “Ramen Day,” when they knock a couple of bucks off the usual $8.50 price of a bowl of the soy-sauce-based house ramen, which comes fortified with half a hard-boiled egg, a slab of roast pork, and a slice of the signature pink-and-white processed fish cake known as narutomaki. If you like to eat good soba noodles in suave settings, consider midtown’s Soba Totto (211 E. 43rd St.; 212-557-8200), the latest from the team behind Yakitori Totto, Aburiya Kinnosuke, and Yakitori Tory’s, as a comparatively cheap alternative to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new Matsugen. The dish to get here is the goma-dare cold soba ($13), but only after indulging in a parade of appetizers and yakitori including the signature chicken meatballs shaped like little torpedoes and cooked on skewers over hot bamboo charcoal. Our favorite new noodles, though, can be found in Chinatown at Food Sing 88 Corp. (2 E. Broadway; 212-219-8223), where, through a dusty window outside the shop, you can catch a glimpse of a Fujianese noodle slinger who dispatches his noodle-making duties with something like the advanced roping skills of an old Texas cowhand crossed with the acrobatic aplomb of a young Romanian gymnast. That a bowl of these remarkably chewy but tender noodles, enhanced by a rich broth and everything from pork bone to beef tendon, costs only $4 to $6.50 and takes exactly 90 seconds to arrive at your tiny communal table only enhances the experience.
Cheap and Sort-of-Healthy Chinese
After years of dietary mayhem, the trend in Chinese restaurants is now toward health food. Or at least that’s what the owners of three new establishments would have the Underground Gourmet believe. Happily, as it turns out, it seems that they were only kidding. Consider the case of the new Grand Sichuan (15 Seventh Ave. S.; 212-645-0222) in the West Village, the latest, tiniest, and best branch yet of the popular chainlet. Here, in a break from Chinese-restaurant tradition, many of the dishes are offered not only in regular, piggy-size platters but also in smaller, cheaper, diet-friendly portions ($1.95 to $7.95), which, unless you pay extra, don’t come with rice—a circumstance, presumably, for which we have either Dr. Atkins or the owner’s accountant to thank. To get into the purported healthy spirit of things, we kicked off our dinner here the other night with a scallion pancake flavored with spinach juice, and a tureen of pumpkin-seed “gochi” soup ($4.25), a nourishing potage of puréed pumpkin festooned with little pink goji berries that our waitress identified to us as “Chinese medicine.” After that, unable to identify for ourselves anything else on the menu that, like the pumpkin-goji-berry soup, would sharpen our eyesight, boost our immune system, and improve our circulation, we reverted to old habits and tucked into a half-dozen or so small-size plates including our favorite, the twice-fried-beef tidbits buried under a blizzard of ground spices, and otherwise known as the majestic No. 94, “Beef w. Cumin Flavor.” Healthy or not, we have to give credit to this Grand Sichuan’s revolutionary small-plate menu structure—a major advance in the Chinese-restaurant world, if only because it allows you to order a greater variety of this sublime food without seeming overly gluttonous.
The owners of the new Cantonese restaurant Noodle Village (13 Mott St.; 212-233-0788), located at the southern tip of Mott Street in Chinatown, also have the health and well being of their customers on their minds. You realize this even before you set foot inside the place, when you notice a sign posted on the window that boasts no msg! The thing to get here is an MSG-free bowl of congee—which comes mingled with everything from sweet corn ($4.75) to frog ($6.75)—and with it, of course, a salutary fried cruller ($1.25). Among this rice soup’s many amazing attributes, according to the menu, is its ability to “harmonize the stomach and the spleen, the two most important organs involved in optimum digestion.” The various soup noodles, which like Grand Sichuan’s entrées are offered in both small and large sizes ($2.75 to $12.75), are also good, not to mention “an essential part of any weight-loss program.”
The similarly minded health nuts over at Grand Sichuan House (8701 Fifth Ave., Bay Ridge; 718-680-8887) in Brooklyn (a distant, separately owned relation of the aforementioned Grand Sichuan) may have taken the trend to the furthest extreme, having set up a smoothie bar of sorts right in the middle of their dining room. But on our visit, the market in smoothie sales was decidedly down, to the extent that the glum juicer who was running the operation spent most of her time outside on a bench smoking cigarettes. As it turns out, that was an ominous sign, as the juice bar, at press time, had suddenly been shut down and escorted from the premises—and without even the courtesy of having been Deathwatched by food blog Eater.
The Italian-Latino Connection
It should come as no surprise that some of the best new affordable Italian restaurants are run, at least in part, by Latin American chefs. That unsung segment of the restaurant force is the backbone of virtually every New York restaurant kitchen, from the temples of haute cuisine to the corner slice joint. What Sasha Rodriguez is cooking at Miranda (80 Berry St., Williamsburg; 718-387-0711), a rustic little trattoria, falls somewhere in between those extremes, and inhabits a unique culinary niche. Rodriguez is half-Dominican, and her front-of-the-house partner, Mauricio Miranda, is Mexican, but they’ve both spent years in Italian kitchens. The result is an Italianish menu full of subtle quirks you won’t find elsewhere: tasty risotto balls stuffed with Mexican chorizo ($9), pappardelle with braised short ribs and mole poblano ragù ($13 appetizer, $19 main), and a tender, juicy pork tenderloin with cumin-spiced risotto and a verdant blanket of mole verde ($22). Our favorite thing, though, can only be found on the brunch menu and isn’t Italian at all: a side of mangú, the mortarlike Dominican breakfast staple of mashed plantains, served here with pickled shallots and enriched with Parmesan cheese ($3).
Down in Tribeca, where a good cheap lunch is hard to find, Capri Caffé (165 Church St.; 212-513-1358) is a bit of a godsend. There is a real, live, genuine native of Capri named Graziano Lembo behind the place, but on our most recent midday visits, it was his Ecuador-born, Torino-trained partner, Eddy Erazo, whose cooked-to-order pastas infused the air with the most delightful aroma of garlic and herbs, and whose deep-seated dedication to la cucina Italiana seems to exceed that of the average Italian nonna. There are grab-and-go tramezzini at lunch, an antipasto case full of vegetables and salads, and soft, milky mozzarella that’s made in-house (as are the excellent olive-oil cookies). But if you’re smart, you’ll try two of the best pastas you’re likely to find downtown, or at least below Canal Street: penne tossed with sweet cherry tomatoes imported from Capri ($6.50), and tagliatelle awash in an olive-oil-based sauce of anchovies, walnuts, garlic, and pecorino ($7.50).
Bar (Food) Crawl
There was a time, not so long ago, when a bar crawl was a bar crawl. All it required from its participants was an inclination to stagger from one boozy establishment to another, and all it required from its boozy establishments was plenty of something to drink, usually beer, more often than not served in a frosty mug. Times have changed. Among today’s cheap-eats sophisticates, a bar crawl is just as likely to require good food as it is drink. If you want to experience the latest version of the New York bar-food crawl, begin in the East Village at Terroir (413 E. 12th St.; 646-602-1300), the closet-size bacchanal where chef-partner Marco Canora has resurrected a few ghosts from his Craftbar past, including his ethereal veal-ricotta meatballs ($17) and crisp panino of duck ham, Taleggio, and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms ($9). From 5 to 6 p.m., there’s a $6 wine-by-the-glass special—and your best chance of securing a seat for the night. It’s just as tight a squeeze at El Quinto Pino (401 W. 24th St.; 212-206-6900), home of the famous Korean-mustard-oil-enhanced uni panini ($15), the best use of sea-urchin roe that doesn’t require silverware. We also recommend the pimentón-seasoned chickpea-and-spinach stew ($6), and the ginger-infused garlic shrimp ($9), both of which were made for unabashed bread dunking. With these snacks you might indulge in a rum-spiked horchata, one of those sweet, deceptively strong frozen drinks that go down like Slurpees. You’ll find more of the same at the Rusty Knot (425 West St.; 212-645-5668), the nautical “dive bar” in those notorious dockworker hinterlands abutting the Richard Meier towers. Go at lunchtime, when it’s less of a scene, the pool table might be open, and you can linger over chef Joaquin Baca’s toothsome meat pies ($4), artisanal pretzel dogs ($4), and a chicken-liver-and-bacon sandwich ($9). From there, you’ll want to drop in at the cocktail lounge PDT (113 St. Marks Pl.; 212-614-0386). Actually, you’ll want to drop in only after having had the foresight to make a same-day reservation after 3 p.m. and conduct a celebrity-chef-hot-dog taste test between the bacon-wrapped Chang Dog and the deep-fried, mayo-enhanced Wylie Dog—both a bargain at $5. The crawl continues apace to Gottino (52 Greenwich Ave.; 212-633-2590), Jody Williams’s immensely pleasing gastroteca, for a rustic mason jar full of olive-oil-whipped salt-cod purée ($7), and perhaps a seasonal crostini ($5) or two; we’re partial, at the moment, to a mint-dappled fava-and-ricotta number. Unless, that is, you’re rationing your bread-and-cheese allotment for Bridge Urban Winery (20 Broadway, Williamsburg; 718-384-2800), the atmospheric shop and tasting room dedicated to New York State wines and foods, where the locavore oenophile can order up a tasting flight of four decent whites ($16) and a pressed panino of Ewe’s Blue and fig paste with radish-kohlrabi slaw ($12). Not too far away, at a newfangled gin joint called Huckleberry Bar (588 Grand St., Williamsburg; 718-218-8555), a dexterous chef dispenses sophisticated snacks like gin-pickled beets with Stilton and pecans ($7.50) from a makeshift kitchen amid the hooch. If all this small-plate business seems a bit precious, you might consider an old-fashioned Brooklyn beer-bar detour. Join the scrum of bonhomous Central European he-men knocking back steins of Staropramen at Eurotrip (667 Fifth Ave., South Slope; 718-285-9425), and order up a platter of halušky, the boiled Slovakian potato dumplings that are drenched in a creamy sheep’s-milk-cheese sauce, zapped with lardons, and showered with herbs and chive oil ($5). For a nightcap, in our dyspeptic experience, nothing beats a grilled bratwurst with sauerkraut and horseradish. Get yours fresh off the grill at Williamsburg’s Radegast Hall & Biergarten (113 N. 3rd St.; 718-963-3973), among the communal tables of merrymaking bar-food crawlers, and call it a night.
There’s no getting around it. This was the year that fro-yo ate New York. And whether or not you consider that tart, pale tangy stuff cheap, dessert is probably the one category where the most tightfisted, sweet-toothed New Yorker is willing to splurge (especially if, as in the case of the most devoted fro-yo fiends, dessert actually is dinner). If you want to know how deeply frozen yogurt has infiltrated the culinary scene, look no further than Momofuku Noodle Bar (171 First Ave.; 212-777-7773), where wily empire builder David Chang has, somewhat improbably, installed a soft-serve ice-cream machine, and includes fro-yo as a rotating flavor. The $4 small, topped with pretzel bits and available to go, is just big enough to last us a few blocks, until we reach Dessert Club, ChikaLicious (203 E. 10th St.; 212-995-9511), the takeout outpost of Chika Tillman’s sleek dessert bar across the street. Although the shop sells sophisticated puddings and an array of cupcakes, of which the ganache-filled, toasted-marshmallow-topped s’mores is the standout ($2.25), we tend to ignore these tempting distractions. We refrain from Dessert Club’s fro-yo, too, in favor of a simple unadorned cone of the superior vanilla-bean soft-serve ice cream ($2.90), whose pure, unalloyed flavor might be the best in town.
You don’t need to be vegan or lactose-intolerant to appreciate Kyotofu’s (705 Ninth Ave.; 212-974-6012) soy-milk soft-serve, an inexplicably creamy substance that’s available in such exotic flavors as white sesame, black sesame, and miso (the two daily flavors change every Tuesday). A small dish comes with a topping of your choice for $3.85, and we have found, through an exhaustive program of trial and error, that the very best match is the chocolate-black-soybean soft serve with fruit compote, a concoction that tastes far, far less virtuous than it sounds.
Speaking of virtuous frozen desserts, there’s a veritable bonanza at the moment. Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream (Greene St. at Prince St., afternoons; University Pl. nr. 11th St., evenings), the latest dessert truck to roll into town, appeals equally to the impulsive tot who dashes out into traffic after the Good Humor man and the politically correct environmentalist who applauds the biodegradable cups and spoons, the hormone-free milk sourced from pasture-raised cows on an upstate farm, and the organic cones ($3.50 for a small). The cones at the Odeon’s (145 W. Broadway; 212-233-0507) brand-new ice-cream cart are organic, too, not to mention crisp and wafer-light, and the ice creams, in flavors like peanut-fudge ripple and peppermint chocolate chip, are made in-house ($4). The fact that you can combine two flavors for the same price is a plus in our book. But don’t attempt to mix the refreshing lemon with zesty apricot-ginger or any other flavors at the recently reborn NYC Icy (628 Tenth Ave.; 212-977-3939) unless you’re willing to spring for a large ($3.50), as the counter curmudgeon will shoot you down, muttering something about the principle of “economy of scale.” Over in Boerum Hill, Blue Marble (420 Atlantic Ave.; 718-858-1100) describes itself as an “Earth-friendly eatery,” which means, among other things, that the ice cream is made with organic milk from a collective of Pennsylvania dairy farmers. Whether adding locavorism, green building materials, and Fair Trade coffee to the mix makes the ice cream taste any better is a matter of heated debate, which will no doubt be waged this summer over as many scoops, malteds, and sundaes as diet and decorum allow.
Visitors to Fort Greene’s weekly Brooklyn Flea (Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, Lafayette Ave. at Clermont Ave.) will find a Blue Marble kiosk tucked away amid the arty T-shirts and vintage settees. The Flea, in fact, should not be overlooked as a cheap-sweets hub. There’s the excellent cannoli stuffed to order with Salvatore Bklyn’s ricotta ($3), Calmer Sutra Tea’s silky smooth soy-milk chai with vanilla ice cream ($3), and the chilled chocolate-covered half-banana on a stick ($2) from Nunu Chocolates, a Brooklyn–via–South Africa confectioner that also turns out some mighty fine sea-salted caramels. On non-Flea days, the Underground Gourmet has been known to make pilgrimages to Almondine Bakery (85 Water St., Dumbo; 718- 797-5026) for a superb weekends-only raspberry doughnut ($3.50) or to Sullivan St Bakery (533 W. 47th St.; 212-265-5580) for one filled with vanilla pastry cream ($2.50), and to alight at Pichet Ong’s Batch (150B W. 10th St.; 212-929-0250) for a fat wedge of raisin-studded Vietnamese coffee cake ($3). And if you’re curious which of the proliferating fro-yo parlors we like best, we would have to pick Berrywild (427 Third Ave.; 212-686-5848) in Murray Hill, where the Caribbean Coffee and the Berry Smooth plain are not only creamy and delicious, but, according to the rabbinical document posted by the toppings display, certified kosher.