25 Best Cheap Eats in NYC
We're tracking down New York's finest food items for the budget set, from dollar dumplings to hot dogs (and no, not the dirty water kind).
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Bargain Bites in the Big Apple
There's a reason the cost of a slice in New York City has stayed largely in line with the cost of a subway ride. Because (despite what the cost of rent would have you believe), it's a profoundly egalitarian city; not to mention one that has the culinary influence of the waves of immigrants who've passed through. So in addition to all of the thrifty dishes that have been indelibly linked to the city, from bagels to hot dogs and yes, pizza, a variety of gently priced global staples have been added to the canon, including Chinese dumplings, Middle Eastern falafel, Polish pierogis and West Indian roti. So while the cost of a shared studio may threaten to exceed your salary, at least you can reliably fill your belly for $10 or less.
Falafel at Mamoun's
When in search of cheap eats, head for the college kids' hangouts. The Greenwich Village-situated Mamoun's is not only a favorite of NYU students, it's a reliable haven for anyone seeking good food at below-average prices. Dig into $3.50 falafel, hummus, tabbouleh or baba ganouj sandwiches (even shawarma, chicken kebob, shish kebab or kofta kebab cap out at a mere $6; a truly tough-to-beat price). Open since 1971, the family-owned shop is the oldest falafel restaurant in New York, and one of the first Middle Eastern eateries in the entire United States. So it's like getting lunch and admission to a history museum, for less than five bucks.
Cheesecake at Junior's
Restaurants all around the world purport to serve New York cheesecake, but when it comes to procuring a slice in the Big Apple, head over the bridge to Brooklyn, where the iconic Junior's flagship serves fluffy cakes in a 1950's-era diner at the commuter-thronged crossroads of Brooklyn's Flatbush and DeKalb. And while the neighborhood has steadily changed around it, to make way for glassy condos and office towers, an imposingly weighty slab of cheesecake, made in small batches from the same, straightforward recipe of premium cream cheese, vanilla, eggs and heavy cream, can be had for $7.75.
Cheeseburger at Paul's Da Burger Joint
The area surrounding St. Mark's in the East Village is essentially a low-budget culinary mecca. And the family-run Paul's (overseen by its namesake since 1989) is a pioneer for penny-pinching diners. Incidentally, the gentle price ($6.50 for a cheeseburger) in no way corresponds to size. These aren't smash burgers or sliders, but eight-ounce behemoths capped with metal domes on flat-tops, to ensure they cook all the way through.
Classic Ramen at Hide-Chan Ramen
Though supermarket ramen cups will always be a frugal diner’s go-to, the quality restaurant-procured noodle bowls can be pretty costly, thanks to long-simmered broths, heritage pork and hand-pulled noodles, among other reasons. At the two well-trafficked locations of Hide-Chan — a true office worker’s oasis in Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown East — traditional Hakata-style tonkotsu broth is culled from pork bones, cooked for hours on end to release iridescent pools of intensely meaty marrow, and firm, thin noodles are specially designed to absorb the soup without getting soggy. Yet while add-ins can up the price still further, Hide-Chan’s original bowl (made from a recipe dating back to 1963) is only $11.
Spaghetti and Meatballs at Pasta Flyer
Mark Ladner may have made his name as Executive Chef of the tony Del Posto, but his culinary POV is actually more in line with everyday dining. Following in the food steps of former Del Posto pastry chef Brooks Headley (who currently rules the veggie patty realm at Superiority Burger), Pasta Flyer reimagines rustic Italian noodles as a fast-casual, on-the-go meal, courtesy of mix-and-match bowls of fusilli with pesto ($7), creamy alfredo fettucine ($8), and good old spaghetti and meatballs ($8.50).
White Borscht at Karczma
Though it's become a hipster haven, Greenpoint has long been New York's pre-eminent Polish enclave. Sample some fortifying farmhouse fare at Karczma, including cheese and sauerkraut pierogi ($8.50), hunter's stew in red wine ($9.50) and white borscht soup, made from soured flour, kielbasa and spices, topped with hard-boiled eggs, bacon and mashed potatoes, and served in a bread bowl ($5.75). It is the ultimate antidote to late-night drinking binges.
The Johnny Roast Beef at The Original John's Deli
Open since the late 1960s, this Italian sub shop hails itself The Hero King for good reason: an epic, overstuffed list runs hot and cold, with colorfully dubbed iterations such as the Henry Hill, Adrian Balboa, Tony Manero and Al Capone. The kitchen makes a mean rice ball (try meat and pea or pistachio nut for $3.75), but John's is practically synonymous with what's colloquially called the roast beef with mutz ($7.75 for a roll, $10 for a 9-inch hero); featuring a good half-pound or so of thinly sliced beef, cheese, sweet caramelized onions and rivers of dark gravy, ladled with abandon from awaiting, bubbling vats. It's no wonder the sparse décor runs to rolls of paper towels, strategically positioned throughout the room.
Bagels and Bialys at Kossar's
Bagels are serious business in NYC, and residents hold deeply rooted -- sometimes generations-formed -- opinions on who makes the best rounds. But 80-year-old Lower East Side mainstay Kossar's has leg up. They not only traffic in seriously legit bagels -- made from brewer's yeast, flour, kosher salt and good old New York tap water -- but also the tougher to come by bialys ($1.25) as well. Affectionately referred to as Jewish English muffins, the chewy, airy orbs have gobs of roasted onion, sundried tomato, sesame or olives (in lieu of holes) in their centers, which make them ideal for eating as is; with or without the schmear.
Oysters at Maison Premiere
Come happy hour, many bars and restaurants around town shuck pedestrian Bluepoints for a buck. But for over-the-top oystesr, it's well worth plotting an early escape from work to hit Williamsburg's French Quarter-inspired Maison Premiere between 4 and 7 p.m. That's because almost any fresh-shucked oyster from the lengthy list (usually around 30 options) can be had for a mere dollar; from deep-cupped, full-bodied Moonstones to dainty, clean-tasting Kusshis via Deep Bay, British Columbia. Pair the slurps with absinthe drips, tableside martinis and sherry cobblers from the James Beard Foundation Award-winning beverage list.
Banh Mi at Ba Xuyen
Not only is Sunset Park's Chinatown a city-wide destinatino for dollar dumpling spots and dim sum palaces, it's also home to what many would call the best banh mi purveyor in the city, Ba Xuyen. Packed into perfectly crusty French baguettes, the Vietnamese sandwiches have the perfect proportion of savory meat (such as chicken, sardine, meatball or the mighty all-in combo of sliced ham, head cheese, pork roll and pate) and sprightly pickled vegetables (daikon, cucumber, carrot), and are priced evenly across the board at $5.
Fried Chicken at Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken
Harlem is home to some excellent Southern food, thanks in part to old-timers like fried chicken specialist Charles Gabriel. Being well past the average retirement age hasn't stopped Charles from tending skillets of pan-crusted chicken ($9.50) and constructing a slew of sides (collards, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese and more, at $2.54 each) almost every day of the year. This is the real deal when it comes to soul food, so your wallet won't lighten much to make your stomach full.
Beet Poke at Sons of Thunder
This sunny, So-Cal spot has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of menu. Some of the options are virtuous (a golden beet-dotted poke, $8.50), some are decidedly not (chili cheese dogs, $6) and others split the difference (Baja fish tacos with battered cod, $4.50 each). But happily, all contents are tasty and surprisingly wallet-friendly.
Dumplings at Tian Jin Dumpling House
For many locals, dumplings have overtaken pizza as the go-to cheap feed. Pork and chive still command $1 for five at a number of places, but it's worth expanding pan-fried horizons (and forking over just a tiny bit more cash) at Tian Jin, one of the many food tenants in Flushing's Golden Shopping Mall. Priced at $5 for a dozen, the dumpling menu is fully customizable, allowing patrons to mix-and-match fillings like lamb and green squash, pork and pumpkin, squid and seaweed or carrot and egg.
Liang Pi Cold-Skin Noodles at Xi'an Famous Foods
If the ever-expanding Xi'an dynasty is our present-day version of a fast food franchise, fast is where it's at. Managed and masterminded by Jason Wang (who jumpstarted the business with his father, pretty much right out of college), the quick-service Chinese chain is constantly expanding, with more than 10 locations. This means you can get cold-skin noodles ($5), a spicy cumin lamb burger ($3.50) or sour spinach dumplings ($6.50) in many different neighborhoods.
Pao de Queijo at Pao de Queijo
A dollar definitely goes far at this convivial Astoria-based Brazilian joint, thanks to empanadas ($3.25), pasteis (two for $5), peanut balls ($1.75), linguica sausage sandwiches ($7.50) and even acai bowls ($9). But it's always smart to hone in on a restaurant's namesake dish -- in this case, baked puffs of tapioca flour and cheese, served seven to a basket for a mere $3.
Sri Lankan Buffet at Lakruwana
There are numerous reasons to ride the ferry to Staten Island. The Manhattan views are one, but another is the wealth of terrific Sri Lankan restaurants, courtesy of the city's most-concentrated ex-pat population. At Lakruwana, $8 lunch specials of rice and curry or string hopper kottu (a stir-fry featuring pressed and steamed rice and/or wheat flour dough), are an economical way to get acquainted with the cuisine, but non-residents would do well do avail themselves of the elaborate weekend buffet, a $14 all-you-can-eat feast of deviled chicken, goat biriyani and assorted Sri Lankan specialties such as pittu, fish ambul tiyal and lamprais.
Knishes at Knish Nosh
When it comes to cheap and filling, it's hard to beat a palm-sized mound of pastry-wrapped mashed potato. The knish is king at Knish Nosh, a Queens-based temple of Eastern European fare, ranging from $3.70 for the classic version of straight-up spiced spuds, to $4 for kasha, mushroom, spinach or broccoli, and $4.25 for cabbage, sweet potato, or compressed crumbles of meat.
Recession Special at Gray's Papaya
The infamous Recession Special at this fleet of 24-hour wiener vendors isn't what it used to be -- it's up to $4.95 for two hot dogs and a drink, from $1.95 in the '80's and '90's. But considering the cost of a single frank at most sidewalk carts, it's still one of the best deals going. Gray's remains amongst the top destinations in Manhattan for hot dogs, with namesake papaya juice as a key refresher on hot summer days.
Tacos at Tacos el Bronco
Regularly hailed as the best tacos in Sunset Park, Tacos El Bronco staffs two trucks and a restaurant to keep up with the demand from locals and culinary nomads to journey into Brooklyn for their fix. The restaurant serves small tacos for $1.75 or regulars for $2.75, garnished with whole, grilled cambray onions, and stuffed with off-the-beaten-path proteins, such as veal head, pork stomach, tripe, tongue or goat, along with fantastic spit-roasted al pastor.
Slice of Pizza at Joe's
Most of New York's pre-eminent pizza parlors are actually better associated with whole pies; Joe's, however, is the rare spot enthusiastically devoted to a great slice. Cooked on gas decks instead of in fancy wood-fired ovens, the thin-crusted, gold-standard pies are made the same way -- and with the same ingredients -- as when Pino "Joe" Pozzuoli opened his Greenwich Village flagship in 1975. And though it's spawned three more locations since then, city-dwellers know that Joe's is still one of the most-satisfying and reliable places to burn $2.75.
2 Fresh Eggs Combo at Tom's Restaurant
Once an indelible part of city life, diners and luncheonettes are closing down and fading from memory. Yet crowds still congregate outside circa-1936 Tom's, meaning house tradition endures of handing out coffee, sausages and orange slices while customers wait. Consider it a consummately Brooklyn amuse bouche, preceding lemon-ricotta, mango-walnut or corn and cranberry pancakes ($9.50), combination egg breakfasts ($6.75) and of course, nostalgic egg creams or cherry lime rickeys ($4.25) to wash it all down.
Chicken Adobo at Papa's Kitchen
Sandwiches and pizza abound, but it's tough to find a protein-based, nutritionally balanced entrée in NYC for under $10. But Papa's Kitchen, a sibling-owned Filipino cafe, fills a void from its standalone micro-house in Woodside, Queens. Made from a treasured family recipe, the Philippines' national dish of banana leaf-wrapped chicken adobo ($9) is a paragon of form; comprising fall-off-the-bone chicken pieces braised in garlic, vinegar and soy, all over rice.
Fried Smelts at Johnny's Reef
City Island seems a veritable world apart from NYC, let alone part of the Bronx. Accessible only by bus, car or boat (the closest subway stop is the 6 to Pelham Bay Park), the impossibly quaint, frozen-in-time fishing village is fittingly dotted with seafood joints. And chief amongst them is Johnny's Reef, which has presided over the water-engulfed southernmost end for more than six decades. A brief selection of raw options runs to a half-dozen littlenecks or cherrystones for $6, but most everything takes a pass through the deep-fryer, including high-roller lobster tails, piles of tender-boned frog's legs ($10) and diminutive, mild-tasting smelts ($9).
Lunch Buffet at Haandi
They don't call the stretch of Lexington in the upper 20s Curry Hill for nothing: Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani options abound alongside spice shops ideal for recreating the flavors at home. The lunchtime standout remains Haandi, thanks to their $10 buffet of saag paneer, samosas, chicken tikka masala, lamb curry, aloo gobi, beef kabab and other dishes.
Beef Patty at Kingston Tropical Bakery
Rather incongruously, beef patties have become a mainstay at pizza parlors throughout the city, positioned behind glass-fronted counters, between rice balls and garlic knots. But why not go straight to the source? West Indian bakeries abound in NYC, and when it comes to patties, this almost-50-year-old Bronx stalwart turns out some of the very best. Dough is made on site daily, for folding and crimping around beef, chicken and veggie fillings flavored with fiery scotch bonnet chiles; and the best part is, you'll fork over only $2.25, for what's basically a hand-held meal.