We here at Serious Eats are always hungry. We’re also always on the lookout for great food that won’t break the bank. So we thought it would be a perfectly reasonable task to come up with a short roundup of our favorite cheap eats in New York City. Well, readers, we were wrong.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our initial stab at a list was so expansive that it would’ve taken us years to write up and photograph—that’s what happens when you send a half dozen serious eaters out to eat wherever they happen to be over the course of a couple of months. To whittle it down, we decided to introduce some rules: First, we limited ourselves to dishes that cost between $10 and $15 (stay tuned for an under-$10 and an under-$5 list as well). Second, we excluded baked goods, desserts, and other sweets. And finally, we stipulated that each of the dishes had to be substantial enough to qualify as a meal.
After revisiting old haunts and checking out more recent additions to the restaurant scene over the last couple of months, we came up with 15 exceptional picks—delicious, affordable, destination-worthy meals from Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.* And, though our finalists don’t encompass every cuisine available in New York City, you’ll find a huge range—good old American sliders, a richly savory Chinese noodle soup, a revelatory Mexican torta, and so much more.
* Sorry, Bronx and Staten Island residents: We also limited ourselves to the boroughs in which our staff members live—and we have a small staff. We promise to revisit some of our favorites in your ‘hoods and show you the appropriate love at a later time.
Of course, this list is by no means definitive. New York City is vast, and we’re well aware that there are phenomenal dishes we haven’t even tried that fall within this price range. We’re also confident, however, that whether you’re a tourist or a native, if you make it a goal to check off each item on this list, you’ll end up a very happy and satisfied eater with some new go-to restaurants under your belt (which may need a few new notches when all’s said and done). Here they are, in no particular order.
Grandma Chicken Mixian at Little Tong Noodle Shop
You could argue that this list was drawn up with Little Tong in mind. In this pristine, minimalist space in the East Village, Chef Simone Tong offers six bowls of noodles, all priced at $15. For an even better deal, head there for a weekday lunch, when you’ll also have a choice of five small plates to kick things off—think ghost chicken, made with pickled red onions and fresh herbs, or Chinese broccoli salad with citrus soy and smoked egg yolk.
All of the bowls feature mixian—the slippery, tubular fermented rice flour noodles from Yunnan province—submerged in a variety of broths that are as stunning in their complexity as they are delicious. But my favorite is the Grandma Chicken Mixian: Tender and moist pieces of chicken confit, a tea-soaked egg, house-made pickles, and edible flowers lie atop the mixian, all of it submerged in a dark chicken broth flavored with black sesame chili oil. Every spoonful of soup is a thunderbolt of flavor—salty, sour, and just a little spicy. It may be the best bowl of chicken soup I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s certainly the most interesting. Sorry, Grandma Ida: Simone Tong has you beat.
Breakfast Frankie at Pondicheri
For a contemporary-Indian restaurant, Pondicheri is unusual. First of all, it’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Second, it doubles as a bakery, serving up treats infused with Indian spices, like masala cookies, turmeric shortbread spiced with cumin, and cardamom sponge cake shot through with heavy cream. If you can’t resist any of these, we understand. But we’re here to talk about the Breakfast Frankie, Houston-based chef-owner Anita Jaisinghani’s take on the popular Indian street food commonly filled with potatoes, meat, or vegetables.
Though nominally a breakfast wrap, this frankie comes with none of the tough exterior, rubbery egg, or indeterminate nuggets of protein endemic to wraps served in fast-casual concepts around the country. At the bright and airy NoMad restaurant, Ajna Jai (Jaisinghani’s daughter) scrambles two eggs and mixes in the house-made masala, a slow-cooked blend of diced fresh peppers, mustard seed, and celery seed. Jai adds cilantro chutney before finishing the eggs in the pan with spinach and gently placing them into a flaky sweet potato roti. A standard-order Breakfast Frankie will satisfy in the extreme, but meat lovers can also opt for the addition of the ground lamb keema, which is very savory and only mildly lamb-y in flavor.
Whole Pie at the Original Patsy’s
Not all Patsy’s pizzerias are created equal. But the original Patsy’s, which opened in 1933, remains one of the best places in the city for a classic New York pie. There, you’ll find a sit-down restaurant/pizzeria, where you can order both standard Italian-American fare and the city’s best pizza bargain. For $12, you’ll get a perfect, smallish eight-slice plain pizza—thin-crusted, crispy yet pliant, with blackened edges, adorned with fresh mozzarella and simple crushed tomatoes in perfect proportions—made in an oven that looks like it hasn’t been replaced since the restaurant first opened. If you’re in a hurry, you can get the same pizza cut into six slices at the takeout window (more like a cubbyhole or a closet, really) next door, and you’ll save a quarter. You can use it to pay the meter. This is minimalist, old-school coal-fired-oven New York pizza, and you can’t find it anywhere else in the city at this price.
Dirty Shoyu Ramen at Ramen Shack
Shoyu ramen might just be the most classic form of the Japanese noodle dish, featuring a clear broth made from chicken (and sometimes pork) and dashi, flavored with soy sauce. While you can get a very good version of shoyu ramen at Keizo Shimamoto’s Ramen Shack in Long Island City, Queens, it’s his Dirty Shoyu Ramen that’s worth going out of your way to try. The clear chicken-and-dashi broth is spiked with a dark, inky tare, or flavor base, made from fried dried sardine heads and fried green onions, all blitzed up with soy sauce.
The result is totally unique, and the strong but by no means off-putting fish flavor is something of an anomaly in the current NYC ramen scene. Into the broth go Shimamoto’s noodles, made in house; they get topped off with tender rounds of braised and torched pork belly, blanched spinach, a sheet of nori, thinly sliced green onions, marinated bamboo, and a slice of the fish cake known as naruto. The city is blessed with all kinds of good ramen these days—Ivan Ramen’s two locations in Manhattan, Mu Ramen (also in Long Island City), and, of course, the legendary Jack Nakamura’s shop on the Lower East Side—but the Dirty Shoyu is one of the very best, and it’s also one of the cheapest. Even if you add one of their excellent marinated eggs, you’re still out only $15.
Meatball Sub at Frankies 457 Spuntino
Sometimes old standbys with long histories of serving quality food get lost in the never-ending New York City dining shuffle. And that means that a sandwich as good as the $12 Meatball Parmigiana from cozy Carroll Gardens restaurant Frankies 457 rarely gets its proper due. We’re changing that right now. Picture tender, lightly packed meatballs mixed with Pecorino Romano and studded with pine nuts and raisins; a generous ladle of tangy tomato sauce; and a blanket of melted cheese (you can get the recipe right here). The whole thing’s tucked into a split piece of Sullivan Street Bakery pizza bianca, a Roman-style flatbread topped with sea salt, olive oil, and fresh rosemary. When we ate here last, we left convinced that many sandwiches in this town would benefit from the pizza bianca treatment—it’s flavorful, delicious, and creates an ideal fillings-to-bread ratio.
Roast Pork Egg Foo Yong at La Dinastia
Roast pork egg foo yong is an old-school Cantonese-American gustatory pleasure from my childhood, when my parents would take us to the local Chinese restaurant every Sunday night. These disk-shaped omelettes, piled three to an order and filled with fried onions and roast pork, remain a fail-safe option at the old-school Cantonese-American restaurants left scattered throughout the city. They’re also a trademark of the few Cuban-Chinese restaurants left on the Upper West Side, which were opened by post-Castro Cuban-Chinese emigrés to the States.
Most orders of egg foo yong fill you up with a heavy dose of protein, saddling you with a bloated feeling and an increased cholesterol count as you leave the restaurant. But La Dinastia’s roast pork egg foo yong is light and remarkably fluffy, elevated by the omelette’s crispy burnished crust and the slices of fresh scallion that adorn it. When I asked how they accomplish this, my waiter said the chef makes it in a wok and knows what he’s doing. We recommend ordering it without the brown sauce, which is viscous and cloying—this egg foo yong is perfect on its own. The $14.75 price tag might seem like a lot, but the five eggs in every portion will feed two hungry people very well, and in terms of bites-per-dollar satisfaction, it’s undoubtedly a great deal.
Hummus Bowl at Dizengoff
For a long time, New York was adrift in a sea of decent but by no means transporting hummus. Then Philly uber-chef Michael Solomonov brought Dizengoff to Chelsea Market. There, he serves bowls of creamy, satiny, deeply flavored hummus, which come with pita, chopped salad, and pickles. The $10 classic bowl is excellent—much like in our hummus recipe, Solomonov soaks and cooks the chickpeas in water doctored with baking soda, which raises their pH level and promotes softening, and then whips them into a mousse-like consistency. But for a real meal, I recommend upgrading with one of the topping sets, like beets, apricots, and hazelnuts ($12); ground chicken, onion, and peas ($13); or a sabich-style bowl with hard-boiled egg, eggplant, and amba ($12).
I haven’t had a bad bowl yet, so you can go vegetarian or meaty, depending on how you roll. Just swirl your hummus together, mixing it with the good olive oil drizzled on top of it and whichever toppings you’ve chosen, and sop it all up with still-warm pita baked right on the premises. The crunchy Israeli pickles provide a little textural contrast and heat, and the small Israeli salad completes the virtuous meal. Or, if you’re more of a sandwich kind of person, order all of the above-mentioned ingredients and stuff them into a pita instead.
Pho Bac at Hanoi House
Great pho starts with the care and love that go into making the broth. At Hanoi House, in the East Village, John Nguyen starts his savory, more-northern-than-southern-Vietnamese-style broth (according to Nguyen, northern-style broth is more subtly spiced and may seem saltier) by simmering shin, neck, and oxtail bones for 12 hours. They’re then joined by ginger and charred onion, along with fish sauce, rock sugar, and a toasted spice blend—coriander, fennel, star anise, clove, and cinnamon—and simmered for another four hours. For those of you following the bouncing broth at home, that’s 16 hours of cooking time. Right before serving the $15 bowl of pho, Nguyen adds blanched rice noodles, thin slices of long-braised brisket, raw filet mignon, and a garnish of fresh cilantro, scallion, and slivered onion. The result is a heady brew so full of flavor, it really doesn’t even need the pickled garlic and house-made hot sauce condiments (though they’re so damn delicious, you’d be remiss in skipping them altogether).
A Vegan Feast at Bunna Cafe
Bunna Cafe doesn’t just serve some of the best Ethiopian food in New York City; it does so at unbeatable prices. Unless you’re truly craving a particular dish, look past the wat (stew) à la carte and place an order for one of Bunna’s Feasts. At lunchtime, $13 will get you seven wat served over a sheet of injera, the tangy, spongy Ethiopian flatbread made from teff. (You’ll also get additional rolls of injera to scoop it all up.) For another two dollars, get a Feast for 2: eight wat, served in slightly larger portions. Come dinnertime, you can swing a Meal (five wat) for just $12, or upgrade to the Feast for $16; larger groups can enjoy Feasts for two or three, at similarly reasonable prices.
All the dishes at Bunna are vegan, but omnivores shouldn’t shy away: Servings are extremely generous, and there’s a hearty richness to be found in dishes like misir wot (tender red lentils in berbere sauce); enguday tibs (sautéed mushrooms with onion, ginger, and rosemary); and kedija selata (a cooling mix of kale and avocado, tossed with tomato and lime). If you’re lucky, you’ll also catch one of Bunna’s regular traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, after which you can try a complimentary cup of the intensely dark, spiced brew.
Sliders at Shopsins
We’ve long appreciated the sliders at Shopsins (now located in the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side), which Kenny Shopsin and his son Zach were making long before the slider boom hit New York. They come three to an order on mini Martin’s potato buns, each one a mound of perfectly cooked ground chuck, well seared on a flattop grill, with enough fat in the mixture to keep it moist. They’re topped with properly melted cheese and onions sautéed to a golden brown. What more could you want from an order of sliders? Better yet, at $12, they’re perhaps the best bargain on the Shopsins menu, which can get surprisingly pricey given the kind of gonzo comfort food the restaurant specializes in.
Yum Pak Boong Grob at Look by Plant Love House
There are many things to love at Look by Plant Love House and its sister restaurant, Mondayoff, whether you opt for the fiery Thai boat noodle soup enriched with pig’s blood, the crispy chive cakes, or the poached pork strips dressed with chili, garlic, and lime and made to pair with a beer. But the real standout on either menu is yum pak boong grob: Small bundles of watercress, coated in a light, tempura-like batter, are buried under a cascade of fried and fresh sliced shallots, ground pork, crushed peanuts, and cilantro, with several plump shrimp thrown in for good measure. The whole thing gets dressed with fish sauce, lime, and chili. (Your server will ask you how hot you like it—fair warning, they mean business when they say “spicy.”) It’s one of those dishes in which every bite is different, but all of them are delicious.
Manakeesh Jebne at Balade
Manakeesh is a flatbread commonly found in the Levant, topped with anything from a simple sprinkling of za’atar to seasoned ground meat. At Balade in the East Village, the manakeesh jebne is the standout. The feta-topped dough is made in house and baked fresh to order, just like the city’s best pizzas. It’s an excellent starter to share with the table, but the dimly lit dining room, with its exposed brick and rustic beamed ceiling, will make you want to curl up on one of Balade’s cozy banquettes and keep this manakeesh all to yourself.
Crispy Fried Fish at Fu Run
No trip to Flushing, Queens, is complete without a visit to Fu Run, a laid-back restaurant that specializes in the spice-heavy dishes of China’s northeastern region of Dongbei. If you’re heading there with a crowd, you can’t go wrong with an order of fatty, funky deep-fried Muslim Lamb Chops, which come smothered in a layer of cumin seeds, chili powder, and black sesame, or the whole flounder in faintly sweet, not-too-hot bean paste. But I can’t get enough of the Crispy Sliced Fish With Chili Pepper and Cumin ($14.95). The seasoning adds warming undercurrents of spice without overwhelming the expertly cooked flounder, which comes tender and just-done, encased in a crispy batter. These are the grown-up fish sticks I wish I’d grown up with.
La Nueva Yucateca at La Loncheria
Chef Danny Mena may be best known for his restaurant Hecho en Dumbo, but La Loncheria, his newest contribution to Brooklyn’s dining scene, deserves just as much acclaim. The brightly lit, modern space boasts an extensive tequila and mezcal selection to accompany the menu of elevated Mexican classics, like guacamole with chapulines (spiced grasshoppers), and tacos de cabeza, which pair thin-sliced beef tongue with meltingly tender braised cheeks, salt-rubbed cactus, and spring onions.
But the best bang for your buck is undoubtedly one of the tortas, all of which cost $13 and can easily feed two. (You can also opt for a half order for just $7.) Lamb lovers will gravitate toward La Niña Popov, filled with absurdly rich lamb belly barbacoa and pickled tomatillo, but our favorite of the bunch is La Nueva Yucateca. The sandwich is inspired by a Yucatán specialty, chilmole: a large pork meatball formed around a hard-boiled egg that’s served in a brothy sauce. For his deconstructed take, Mena marinates porchetta in a chilmole marinade of blackened red chilies, clove, and other spices. It’s served, tender and crisp-edged, between two halves of a pliant roll, nestled between spicy pickled onions, sliced avocado, turtle beans, and vibrantly pink slices of lightly pickled hard-boiled egg. The resulting sandwich, particularly with a drizzle of the house salsa verde, is spicy, fatty, meaty, and tangy.
Chicken Pot Pie at Margot Patisserie
Chicken pot pie is like pizza—even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good. You may have to forgive the gloppy sauce, mushy filling, and greasy pastry, but in the end it’s still soul-satisfying. Truly delicious chicken pot pie, like the one sold at Margot Patisserie ($10.95, with a small, unremarkable salad), the tiny Upper West Side bakery/café tucked into the ground floor of an apartment building, is a cause for celebration. The golden-brown-topped crust is made with Margot’s light, crisp puff pastry (that’s why it’s called Chicken Puff Pie on the menu), kissed with sugar. The sugar took a little getting used to, but in the end I wholeheartedly embraced the notion. A properly proportioned filling features a delicate Mornay sauce, moist pieces of white-meat chicken, and chunks of potatoes, carrots, peas, and cauliflower. If you don’t have the time to make your own from scratch using Stella’s recipe, it’s comforting to know that you won’t ever have to settle for “pretty good” again.