New York, again?” people ask me all the time, wondering why I keep choosing to spend my vacations in the Big Apple.
There are many reasons I keep going back there and food is one of them. And I don’t mean Per Se or Daniel, where I would have to shell out over a hundred dollars for my meal. You will hardly ever find me dining in the city’s upscale restaurants. If the place uses a cloth napkin, it’s most likely too expensive for my meager travel budget.
New York may be one of the most expensive cities in the world, but that doesn’t mean your meals should drain your bank account. If you know where to go, you can have an exciting food adventure and still have money left for Broadway shows, concerts and a little shopping in Soho.
When NY-bound friends ask me for dining tips, this is the list I give them. These are my favorite cheap eats (a lot of them are under $10) along with a few splurges that are worth the extra dollars.
75 9th Ave.
This urban food court is a great place for dining discoveries. Let your appetite build by window shopping at Anthropologie and then hop from stall to stall, buying treats along the way.
What to order: Lucy’s Whey, which sells American artisanal cheeses and makes really good grilled cheese sandwiches. My favorite is the cheddar with fig spread ($8).
Tuck Shop, known for its Australian meat pies, makes a great spinach-and-ricotta roll ($4.50).
Pick up tacos (carne asada, $3.50) from the Los Tacos No. 1 truck and wash it down with Mexican soda (I went for a Strawberry Fanta, $2.50).
In need of a seafood fix? The Lobster Place doesn’t just sell fresh seafood, it also serves sushi (rolls are $8.95 and up), shrimp cocktail ($8.50) and clam chowder in a bread bowl ($8.50). Other stores and stalls at Chelsea Market serve Italian food, ramen, Thai food, cakes and more.
Bonus: Fat Witch’s brownies are so good that they were one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2002. Its Chelsea Market shop offers unwrapped brownies at 50-percent off starting at 5 p.m. every day. They’re just $1.50 each! Try the original, caramel, turtle, and walnut brownies. But who am I kidding? They’re all good.
On Saturdays, Fort Greene Flea, 176 Lafayette Ave. (between Clermont and Vanderbilt Avenues); on Sundays, Williamsburg Flea, 50 Kent Ave. (between N. 11 and 12 St.)
If you haven’t fallen in love with Brooklyn yet, this is a great place to start. Brooklyn Flea is a great reason to venture out of Manhattan on a weekend. You can also go to Smorgasburg (Saturdays at Fort Greene, Sundays at Williamsburg), a weekend market that’s devoted entirely to food. But I like Brooklyn Flea’s fun mix of eating and shopping.
What to order: Red Hook Lobster Pound’s lobster roll ($16). Most people go for the Main style (cold and tossed in homemade mayo) but I like it the Connecticut way (hot and buttery with a little lemon).
If a $16 sandwich is too pricey, go for the shrimp rolls (sweet Maine shrimp tossed in homemade garlic tarragon mayo) for $10.
Pork-lovers would enjoy porchetta sandwiches ($7)—chopped roasted pork stuffed into a chewy roll. Love the taste of garlic, sage and rosemary and the crunch from the crispy pork skin. The girl selling porchetta sandwiches said, “I’m like a good drug dealer. Everyone’s happy, they come back and tell me, ‘I need more!’”
Tacos get a Japanese makeover at Takumi Taco. I love the Spicy Shrimp (chilled poached shrimp, spicy yuzu kosho aioli, avocado and corn salsa, $5) while my friends are fans of the Japanese Curry Beef (curry beef, cotija cheese, Nappa cabbage, onion, cilantro, $5) and the Spicy Tuna (sashimi-grade big eye tuna, jicama, avocado, cucumber, spicy mayo, gyoza shell, $6). Takumi serves nachos, too.
Look for Milk Truck if you want grilled cheese ($5.95 and up) or mac and cheese that’s made with aged cheddar, gruyere, asiago and mozzarella, and topped with homemade bread crumbs ($6.50).
Another Flea must: Vaquero, which offers elote, corn prepared the Mexican way—grilled, covered with butter or mayo, rolled in cotija and topped with cayenne pepper, $3.
Bonus: This has nothing to do with food but you need to stop by Dan’s Parents House, my all-time favorite Brooklyn Flea vendor. I’ve found so many treasures there: New Kids On The Block trading cards, Garbage Pail Kids stickers; 1980s toys and old love letters.
The Halal Guys
Main cart: 53rd St. and Sixth Ave.
(7 p.m.-4 a.m.)
Other carts: the Southeast corner of 6th Ave. and 53rd St. (10 a.m.-4 a.m.); 53rd St. and 7th Ave. (10 a.m.-4 a.m.); and East 14th St. and 2nd Ave. (11 a.m.-4 a.m.)
I cannot stress this enough: Trying this legendary food truck is a must, even if you have the cash to splurge on more expensive places. Every single person I’ve introduced to this meal has loved it. I eat here at least three times every trip and I find myself dreaming about The Halal Guys when I’m in Manila.
Don’t be confused though, there are a lot of halal copycats. You need to find The Halal Guys. Read their shirts and look for the long lines.
This is my favorite cheap eat in New York—one $6 platter is more than enough for one meal; it can even be shared by two people if you’re not super hungry (I usually eat my leftovers for breakfast the next day).
This place is so popular that a guy once stabbed another guy who cut in line. And one of New York’s top chefs claims that he lined up for a platter for two and a half hours on Christmas Eve.
You can buy your food and grab a spot nearby and eat—yes, right there on the sidewalk. But you can also bring it back to your hotel.
The best part is that The Halal Guys stays open until 4 a.m. (5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays)—perfect for late-night hunger pangs or a post-drinking meal.
What to order: The chicken or the lamb, or the combination platter ($6). I usually get the combination platter—chopped chicken and lamb over basmati rice plus lettuce shreds and grilled pita. Ask for a lot of extra white sauce. A lot. And be careful with the red sauce, it’s really hot.
Bonus: The Halal Guys is planning to open a restaurant on 14th Street and 2nd Ave. soon.
Big Gay Ice Cream
East Village, 125 East 7th St. (between 1st Ave. and Avenue A)
West Village, 61 Grove St. (at Seventh Ave. South)
I first went to Big Gay Ice Cream because I promised a friend that I would try the Choinkwich, the ice cream sandwich with bacon marmalade. Though that’s no longer available, I still fell in love with the place. It’s heaven for ice-cream-lovers.
What to order: The Salty Pimp ($5). You know how when you eat an ice cream cone, you usually end up eating nothing but cone and air when the ice cream is gone? Not Big Gay Ice Cream’s Salty Pimp. They drizzle the inner cone with dulce de leche and sea salt, add a generous serving of vanilla soft serve, more dulce de leche and more salt and then dip the whole thing in chocolate. It’s so good I wish I can have one now. The other ice cream creations sound good, too, but I order the Salty Pimp every time.
Bonus: One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon in New York is going to Big Gay Ice Cream’s West Village store and eating my Salty Pimp while walking to Bleecker Street for a little shopping. Don’t forget to drop by Bookmarc, Marc Jacobs’ bookstore—it’s a great place to find pasalubong.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
189 Spring St.
This is the home of the chef who invented the cronut. If you really, really want to try the original cronut, you need to line up at the Soho store early, as in 5 a.m. or maybe 6, but no guarantees. The cronuts usually sell out minutes after the store opens at 8 a.m.
But if you don’t want to get up too early and you’re willing to skip the cronut, Dominique has plenty of other creations that the bakery serves all day.
What to order: If you’re a s’mores fan, you need to try Dominique’s cold version of the gooey campfire treat—the Frozen S’more (custard ice cream rolled in chocolate feuilletine encased in a special marshmallow and torched in front of you, $7).
His Cookie Shot (shot glass cookie lined with chocolate and filled with milk, $3) is also a big hit. It often sells out by 5 p.m. though, so go earlier if you want it.
Dominique’s Madeleines ($4.25 for 10 pieces, $7.50 for 20) are delightful, airy, little lemony treats that are only piped and baked after you order so they’re hot and fresh when you finally bite into them. They’re totally worth the wait.
Dominique’s newest creation is the Waffogato (vanilla ice cream “waffle” with Belgian waffle bits and warm maple syrup espresso poured on top, $7).
If you’d rather go for something savory, the Perfect Little Egg Sandwich ($5) is a good choice.
Rice to Riches
37 Spring St., between Mott and Mulberry Streets
I used to think I hated rice pudding until I tried Rice to Riches. The pudding is like cold champorado in delicious flavors. I love the store and the funny sayings (Two signs read: “If you say diet one more time, I’ll wash your mouth with soap!”; and “If there’s no rice pudding in heaven, I’m not going”). I even love the pudding containers and spoons. The Rice to Riches girls hardly ever smile but don’t be afraid to ask for a sample.
What to order: My all-time favorite is Sex, Drugs and Rocky Road. No need for toppings, it’s perfect on its own.
Coast to Coast Cheesecake and Hazelnut Bear Hug are great, too—a solo order goes for only $6.75.
Nha Trang One
87 Baxter St., between Canal and Bayard Streets, Chinatown
If you’re craving rice, this is the perfect place. This super-affordable Vietnamese restaurant serves pork chops that will keep you coming back for more. The service is super-fast, too.
What to order: The Barbecued Pork Chops (they’re super thin and super flavorful; a whole platter costs only $10), spring rolls ($5.25) and ice-cold coffee drip ($2.25).
If you’re dining alone, you can also get Barbecued Pork Chops over white rice for only $5.75.
Joe’s Pizza Greenwich Village
7 Carmine St., Union Square, 150 East 14th St.
This New York institution has been serving thin, crisp, New York-style pizza for almost 40 years. Yep, this was where Peter Parker worked in “Spiderman 2.”
What to order: Any of the slices. Even the plain cheese ($2.75) is delicious. I like adding garlic powder and chili flakes to my slice.
Original branch: 366 West 52nd St. (between 8th and 9th Avenues)
New branch: 464 West 51st St. (off 10th Ave.)
Totto Ramen serves good ramen super fast. The original branch, which looks like the rustic ramen shops you see in Japan, is really tiny. Try to snag a table at the counter if you want to watch the chefs torch the char siu. There’s usually a line, but its new branch (just a few blocks away) is more spacious and the waitresses are friendlier.
What to order: the Totto Chicken Paitan Ramen ($9.75). You can add extra toppings: seasoned boiled egg ($1), seasoned avocado ($2), kikurage mushrooms ($1), corn ($1).
The shredded char siu pork ($2.25) is so good. If you’re feeling really hungry, go for the huge Mega Ramen ($15.50).
Artichoke Basille’s Pizza East Village
328 East 14th St. Chelsea, 114 10th Ave. Greenwich Village, 111 MacDougal St.
The problem with Artichoke Bastille’s Pizza is it won’t allow you to grab a table if you’re not buying an entire pie. And that’s crazy because the pies are huge. So we just get our slices to go.
What to order: The artichoke pizza which is creamy and has white sauce. If you like tomato sauce, get my favorite, the vodka pizza. Slices are big and are $5 each.
Bonus: Buy slices from the Chelsea branch and then cross the street and picnic at High Line. You get to enjoy your pizza and cross out one New York attraction on your list.
More next week.