The Cheap List

Sel de MerPhoto: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

The Brooklyn Star
33 Havemeyer St., nr. N. 7th St., Williamsburg; 718-599-9899
Joaquin Baca has cooked in Texas, New Mexico, and, more recently, Momofuku Noodle Bar, where dishes like shrimp and grits and crispy pig’s tails bore his boldly seasoned, down-home mark. At the Brooklyn Star, his first solo effort, he ventures even deeper into regional-American territory with a concise menu of small and large plates, all exactly what you’d be thrilled to find at the end of a dirt road in Mississippi or an off-the-beaten-path stretch of Williamsburg. It is imperative that your meal begin with warm, flaky biscuits and honey butter, but after that, the choice is yours: a bowl of subtly spiced and exceedingly tender Dr Pepper riblets ($16), say, or collard greens with not only ham hocks but—a rare yet happy discovery—some green, springy life left in them. Baca puts his century-old brick oven to good use for skillet-baked cornbread, and also for a perfectly cooked, herb-packed whole trout with blistered skin and a toothsome side of creamed corn. Liquor license—and PBR on tap—pending.

Dinner at ’wichcraft
11 E. 20th, nr. Broadway; 212-780-0577
Tom Colicchio’s spiffy sandwich chainlet does gangbuster business at breakfast and lunch, but languishes at dinner. To correct that imbalance, his minions have instituted a pilot program at the Flatiron location with dedicated dinner service (and waiters, wine, and candlelight). While the not-so-small plates here don’t cost less than lunch, the miracle is they don’t cost much more—especially for such thoughtfully conceived, creatively executed food. Particularly impressive: an aromatic fluke seviche with green mango and watermelon ($9), pork and pickle (slow-roasted shoulder, with grain mustard and bread-and-butter pickles; $11), rich sweet-pea cannelloni brightened with lemon ($9), and a simple salad of sliced avocado with pickled onions, slivered radish, and a knockout black-chile garnish ($8). The wine list is varied and gently priced, and there’s limited seating on a roof deck that adjoins the second-floor dining room. For a sandwich shop, it makes a surprisingly nice date place, and we never thought we’d say that.

El Almacén
557 Driggs Ave., nr. N. 7th St., Williamsburg 718-218-7284
El Almacén, a rustic re-creation of an old-fashioned Buenos Aires general store, breaks the usual Argentine-menu mold by taking a broader Pan-Latino approach. So although the kitchen does proper justice to the grass- fed Uruguayan beef—in particular the juicy, flavorful entraña, or skirt steak ($18)—it rounds out the offerings with lively innovations like short- rib tacos drizzled with chimichurri ($9), lightly breaded calamari in a lulo-citrus vinaigrette ($9), and the textural miracle that is avocado fries, wedges of the buttery fruit coated in panko crumbs and deep-fried ($5). One way to celebrate summer (and the arrival of the long-awaited wine-and-beer license): Commandeer a table in the garden and share the “parrillada” ($38), a mixed grill of short rib, rib eye, and chorizo, carted out on a varnished tree stump of a serving platter and garnished with shishito peppers, chimichurri, and potatoes.

90 Worth St., nr. Broadway; 212-608-3222
A rare find in the culinarily barren Civic Center, this Italian bakery specializes in the four-foot-long Roman-style pizza al taglio that chef Alberto Cretara learned to make in the Eternal City. But we have a confession: Even more than the thin, crispy slices, we love his slightly sunken calzoni (especially the escarole-and-olive-stuffed Portalba; $7), and his sandwiches, served either on crusty focaccia or house-baked rustic white bread. The Cuma ($9.25), with its melting eggplant and smoked mozzarella, is especially winning—as are the Italian amenities, like Sanbittèr soda and good espresso.

Get Fresh Table and Market
370 Fifth Ave., nr. 5th St., Park Slope 718-360-8469
At this gourmet grocery–cum–restaurant, provenance is all. Your order will come, no doubt, with a spiel: the name of the woman who made the crackers, the man who made the bread, the farm that supplied the beet tops garnishing your heritage-pork tenderloin. Somehow, though, none of that comes off as TMI, maybe because it’s hard not to appreciate the care that goes into the cooking and the genuine enthusiasm of the staff (who include, by the way, former Top Chef contestant Mark Simmons). On the current menu, the lentil dal ($8) resonates with flavor, and impeccably fresh peas and mint enliven a simple plate of roast chicken ($16). It’s BYO for now, but a local wineshop makes deliveries, and the coffee comes from Stumptown and Intelligentsia. Snag a seat in the serene backyard, where a vegetable garden is planted with herbs and produce, and a neighbor’s grapevines creep over the fence.

Hunan House
137-40 Northern Blvd., nr. Union St., Flushing; 718-353-1808
Up to now, our exposure to Hunanese food has been limited to the Authentic Mao’s Food section of the Grand Sichuan menu. But no one focuses so narrowly on the region’s cuisine as this commodious Flushing newcomer, perched across Northern Boulevard from the historic Town Hall. This often spicy, sometimes sour style shows a predilection for pickled peppers, chopped and strewn liberally, and a heavy (and delicious) hand with the cumin. Two of the best things to eat are off the (translated!) specials menu: pork crusted with crunchy rice powder, meticulously wrapped up tamale-like in lotus leaves, and steamed until tender ($14.95), and smoky niblets of duck hacked on the bone and intermingled with chewy dried turnips and small, shrunken white peppers that looked like semi-dried grapes ($17.95). Should you have any questions about other obscure ingredients, the affable manager keeps a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook behind the counter.

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, Inc.Photo: Hannah Whitaker

La Superior
295 Berry St., nr. S. 2nd St.; Williamsburg 718-388-5988
The interior of this Williamsburg taquería resembles a bunker given a funky low-budget face-lift, and its diner-style setting and service can be charitably described as no-frills. But the Mexican street food, served in tapas-style portions, is vibrantly seasoned and generally satisfying, especially anything stuffed into a corn-masa casing. This includes the gorditas, the quesadillas, and the tacos, which come one to an order on a single corn tortilla, stuffed with savory morsels of things like chipotle-stewed chicken, poblanos and cream, or mildly spicy shrimp. The house is inordinately proud of its esquites, a kind of corn-off-the-cob snack served with mayo and lime in a Dixie cup, but the real signature, to our mind, is the torta ahogado, a “drowned sandwich” of carnitas and beans on a sourdough loaf, completely drenched in chile-spiked tomato sauce. You’ll need silverware or a bib—or both.

Mimi’s Hummus
1209 Cortelyou Rd., nr. Westminster Rd., Ditmas Park 718-284-4444
It is diminishing to call Mimi’s a hummus joint, even though that’s what it calls itself. That’s because the tiny, charming spot is capable of so much more (not to take anything away from the hummus, which happens to be nutty and rich, creamy and delicious, in all five variations; $8 and $9). Our best advice: Heed the specials. Especially if they happen to be a ground-lamb pie baked in a skillet and strewn with parsley and pine nuts, served with a tangy tomato salad; or a tart and lemony Iraqi beet soup showcasing plump farina dumplings filled with beef. Mimi herself has become a neighborhood fixture, especially among the toddler set, who seem drawn as much to the chef’s sunny disposition as to the jar of homemade peanut-butter cookies she keeps on the counter.

Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar
207 Second Ave., at 13th St.; 212-254-3500
The sweets and savories on offer at the newest addition to Momofuku Inc. seem to have emerged from the fevered imagination of a confectionery madman—or in this case, madwoman. Pastry chef Christina Tosi has a curious mind and an unapologetic palate, and has brought New York compost cookies and crack pie (both of which are in the process of being trademarked). She also stocks her pastry case with dense, crispy-soft cookies; elaborately constructed layer cakes; and envelope-pushing breads (subtly spiced banana-green-curry loaf; moist and savory summer-squash-and-grana-crusted cornbread). There is soft-serve ice cream, often in thematic flavors, and science-lab toppings like Ritz cracker crunch. But the standing-room-only space, which morphs at night into Ssäm Bar’s holding pen, also happens to be a good spot for breakfast and lunch, with a Gruyère-and-bacon riff on a knish she calls a Volcano, and a deep-fried soft-poached-egg sandwich on a homemade English muffin caressed with black-pepper butter.

Piattini Ristorante
9824 Fourth Ave., Bay Ridge; 718-759-0009
Gino Cammarata claims to have brought pasta con le sarde to New York, back when he was working at Siracusa in the East Village, and who are we to argue? Recently, the Sicilian chef had been spending his time crafting superb gelati and selling them wholesale to restaurants out of a Bensonhurst tanning salon. We’re happy to see him back in his element, especially this handsome corner spot with its carved wood bar and gelato stand tucked discreetly into the back. As a prelude to dessert, you might want to sample some of Cammarata’s small plates (piattini), like the fried zucchini marinated in vinegar, or a bitter chicory salad with anchovy dressing. You can’t go wrong with any primi, but we’re partial to that legendary bucatini con le sarde, the strands perfectly al dente and the sardine sauce distinguished by not only pignoli and raisins but tiny cauliflower florets. “I was getting $25 for this in 1985,” says Cammarata, who’s dropped his price to a modest $14. The gelato, at $6, is worth the splurge.

110 E. 7th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-777-2151
You don’t go to Peter Luger and order the chicken. And, by the same logic, you don’t go to Porchetta and order anything but porchetta. Or so you’d think. One of the surprises about this East Village nook, you see, is how well a vegetarian could eat here—should he get past the wafting aroma of pork loins wrapped in pork bellies roasting in the Electrolux oven. Not that we recommend skipping the main attraction or becoming a vegetarian, but the greens are always nice and garlicky, the beans cooked about as well as beans can be cooked. The mutz in the mozzarella sandwich is from Di Palo, so you know it’s good. And there’s always an excellent seasonal special or two: roasted Brussels sprouts with honey and lemon in the fall, for example, and recently, the best white-almond gazpacho we’ve ever had—rich and cooling, and about as thick as hummus.

Gelato at Piattini Ristorante.Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Prime Meats
465 Court St., at Luquer St., Carroll Gardens; 718-254-0327
The chef-owners behind Frankies Spuntino have gradually unveiled their newest project, a comfortable barroom with wooden booths, old-fashioned cocktails, and a Teutonic slant to the menu. For a place that’s nominally (and spiritually) a steakhouse, Prime Meats takes particular pride in wholesome salads like red cabbage and walnuts dressed with balsamic vinegar and walnut oil, or a crunchy toss of celery, celeriac, radish, and parsley ($8). In a refreshing break from the Italian salumi and formaggi hegemony, the cured meats are Mitteleuropean (with names like kassler, landjäger, and cervelat) and the cheeses, procured from Saxelby Cheesemongers, are exclusively American. Of the larger plates, the 36-day-dry-aged bone-in rib eye is priced at $1.70 an ounce and supplied by Pat La Frieda, as is the excellent Creekstone Farms grass-fed Black Angus burger ($13). But when in Bavaria-by-way-of-Brooklyn, we’re partial to the tangy beef sauerbraten, with a hot pretzel on the side.

Salumeria Rosi
283 Amsterdam Ave., nr. 73rd St.; 212-877-4800
True, Italian small plates are a dime a dozen these days, but Salumeria Rosi defies the competition with Cesare Casella’s quirky menu, a delightful hodgepodge of his greatest hits, shrunk down to match the tiny tables, along with some new concoctions. Everything is good, but we’re especially fond of the miniature lasagne ($8) that looks like it’s been flattened in a panini press, the little bowl of honeycomb tripe alla parmigiana ($7), and the sometime special porchetta sandwich swiped with a spicy Calabrese sauce. The room, like the plates, is small (just 32 seats), and half of it given over to an old-fashioned salumi counter where, among the encyclopedic selection of Italian pork products, you’ll find some excellent prosciutto di Parma: On regular trips to Emilia-Romagna, Casella handpicks them.

Sel de Mer
374 Graham Ave., nr. Conselyea St., Williamsburg; 718-387-4181
With its curtained façade, simple décor, and affordable menu, Sel de Mer reminds us of another cash-only Brooklyn seafood bistro: the original La Bouillabaisse during its Atlantic Avenue heyday. Like that crowd-pleasing spot, Sel de Mer is without wine and beer, for now. But that temporary drawback only helps keep tabs low for meals showcasing generous portions of fresh, imaginatively prepared seafood, like a recent halibut special served over coconut-milk-creamed spinach with crispy potatoes ($14), and a curried grouper ($15) that chef-owner Jeff Slagg dreamed up on a stroll down East 6th Street. There are three versions of moules-frites, and a selection of whole fish of the day. But the best deal might be the pair of so-called fish-cake sliders: two hefty hake burgers on toasted English muffins, served with a mound of cole slaw and the expectation that you’ll need a doggy bag ($12).

95 Allen St., nr. Delancey St.; 212-274-9595
Pâté de fegato isn’t a dish you’ll find at your standard wine bar, but Sorella is far from standard. It’s stylish, refined, and devoted to smallish plates with big, rich flavors. Take that expectation-exceeding pâté, for instance: a square of duck-fat-enriched English-muffin bread, spread with airy chicken-liver mousse, crowned with a fried egg and sugared bacon bits ($8). Pastas are also a particular strength, from diminutive cheese-sauce-bathed gnocchi ($13) to tajarin, the Piedmontese egg pasta served here with a demure lamb ragù ($13). And the graceful layout of the space allows you to choose how you want to dine (or nibble): at the sleek, comfortable bar, for qualcosina (“a little something”), or in the tucked-away dining room, to savor a two-course prix fixe that changes weekly. Either way, you’ll want the bicerin for dessert—a dense, delicious chocolate pudding—and one of the best restaurant espressos we had this year.

Souen Noodle
326 E. 6th St., nr. First Ave. 212-388-1733
Until recently, vegetarians and vegans have been rudely excluded from the ramen hysteria that’s overtaken the city, with its fatty pork parts adrift in unctuous pork-bone broths. To the rescue comes Souen, the macrobiotic stalwart that’s spawned a noodle outpost on Curry Row in the East Village. Here amid the chicken tikka masala hawkers is a bright, cheerful oasis where the menu abstains not only from red meat, eggs, and dairy but also refined chemicals and preservatives. Seitan, they’ve got. Not to mention yuba, sesame tofu, spicy edamame hummus, and a steaming bowl of miso-based curry ramen ($14.50) crammed with slivered squash, kale, napa cabbage, and carrots that’s so satisfying the staunchest pork-bone partisan won’t feel (too) deprived.

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles Inc.
1 Doyer St., nr. Bowery; 212-791-1817
In and of itself, the opening of another hand-pulled-noodle joint isn’t exactly major news. But this humble little spot has several things going for it: an open kitchen, where the young noodle-slinger is on full, athletic view as he bangs, twirls, and separates the dough into discrete strands; an extremely friendly staff who proffer apologies when your order doesn’t materialize in the standard three minutes; and table garnishes, like fresh cilantro and pungent chile oil, that transform the soup. The noodles are springy and tender, the broth meaty but not heavy in the least. And should you feel like forgoing hot soup on some occasion, we recommend the knife-peel noodles, thickish shards pan-sautéed with cabbage and scallions and topped with the protein of your choice. At $7, the seafood medley is the priciest thing on the menu.

The Brooklyn StarPhoto: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Tortilleria Nixtamal
104-05 47th Ave., Corona; 718-699-2434
It’s not just the superb chicken-mole enchiladas ($7) that merit a trip, or the hefty, moist tamales, including a fusion Italiano Special with sausage and peppers ($2.50), or the tightly rolled fried-skate tacos ($7) dressed with chopped onion and cilantro. It’s a combination of all of these satisfying snacks, plus the somewhat astounding fact that they’re made from masa, or corn dough, that’s produced on-site from nixtamal, or dried corn soaked in a lime solution and then freshly ground, a process that more and more industrial tortillerias, here and in Mexico, are bypassing. Partner Fernando Ruiz, a moonlighting Manhattan fireman and first-generation Mexican-American, wanted to revive this quasi-lost art, so he and his girlfriend, Shauna Page, imported machinery from Mexico and got to work. Part factory, part taquería, all lovably cobbled together, Nixtamal aims to serve the needs of the neighborhood’s fresh-tortilla-deprived immigrant population and spark the appetite and curiosity of borough-hopping foodies all over town.

240 Ninth Ave., nr. 25th St.; 212-242-4730
After cooking together at Meigas and Tía Pol, husband-and-wife chef-partners Eder Montero and Alex Raij have narrowed their culinary focus to Montero’s native Basque Country, the consonant-crazed source of inspiration for their contemporized pintxos (Basque canapés) and small-to-medium-size plates, all meant to be shared. Although some items will be familiar to frequent tapas barhoppers, don’t go expecting the same-old tortilla española and pan con tomate. There are tidbits here you’ve likely never come across: squid ribbons dressed in a creamy pine-nut-and-onion sauce, say, or a slice of bread topped with sofrito, shards of chorizo, and a runny quail egg. And then there are old standards given a welcome remake, like a classic Russian salad enhanced with terrific oil-packed tuna and homemade mayo, or a lunchtime double burger (the magisterial “el doble”) crowned with Idiazábal cheese and an Iberian-accented special sauce.

Vinegar Hill House
72 Hudson Ave., nr. Water St., Vinegar Hill; 718-522-1018
There is something Little House on the Prairie–ish about this cozy restaurant, with its salvaged décor, its wall-draped Colonial flag, and its cloth trivets. But geographically speaking, it’s more Little House on the Navy Yard, a culinary pioneer in a microneighborhood that’s been slow to gentrify. The concise menu, like the room, is homespun American, emphasizing local and seasonal ingredients, most of which are cooked in the open kitchen’s wood-fired oven. The selection changes often, but you can expect to find such signatures as a variously topped savory tart, a whole fish (rainbow trout recently, with carrots and turnips; $18), and the excellent roast chicken served in a cast-iron pan ($15). Cocktails and coffee, those potable signifiers of the new artisanal movement, are both taken seriously here, as is brunch, recently launched and best savored at a table out back, in a garden planted with fig trees and grape vines by a previous pioneer.

345 Grand St., nr. Marcy Ave., Williamsburg; 718-388-8451
You can’t judge a restaurant by its entrance. This one, you access by the front door of Rose Live Music, through what looks like a fire exit, down a flight of stairs, past the bathrooms—et voilà, a subterranean dining room that’s as charming (candlelit, wood-beamed) as it is unexpected. It has a sort of wine-cellar appeal, which makes sense, since every bottle on the list is available by the glass and quartino as well. The chef works in a culinary idiom that’s part Mediterranean, part Brooklyn: Room-temperature Spanish-mackerel escabèche ($10) is crispy-skinned and spice-rubbed, garnished with Cara Cara oranges and basil, and there’s Mast Brothers Chocolate in the airy mousse ($7). Winter’s creamy cauliflower gratin has made way for summer’s green-tomato version, and pole beans have replaced asparagus as an accompaniment for the whole roasted poussin, a flavorful bird that’s also served with buttery spaetzle as crisp as French fries ($17).

ZuZu Ramen
173 Fourth Ave., at Degraw St., Park Slope; 718-398-9898
ZuZu has brought ramen to Park Slope, which alone is cause for celebration among brownstone-dwelling noodle-heads. But on top of that, classically trained chef Akihiro Moroto, late of Lespinasse and Jean Georges, has taken several liberties with tradition, at the risk of infuriating some devotees and titillating others. Consider us thoroughly titillated, especially by the Thai-inspired green-curry-miso ramen ($10), a moderately spicy bowl of soup garnished with fragrant sprigs of Thai basil and stocked with the same springy noodles, runny egg, and blowtorched char shu (long strips of braised pork) that populate the classic smoky house “ZuZu” ramen ($14). Moroto also makes a comforting beef curry, available over rice or noodles, and a version of the increasingly ubiquitous pork buns—his stuffed with sticky, caramelized bits of pork shoulder, thick cucumber slices, and a sweet chile sauce ($8). There’s Japanese beer and sake, the traditional ramen quaffs, and bar seats that look directly into the glass-walled kitchen.

The Cheap List