Feature While some high-end restaurants in New York are offering special discounts, the best options for cheap and delicious dining are the old standbys.
Recession bites in NYC
New York's latest culinary fad is the "recession meal", a miserly sounding concept most people would associate with slurping cold beans around a flaming brazier. This being the city that it is, however, these meals are not quite that spartan - nor are they deals that anybody who's really hurting from the recession would actually seek out. Take, for instance, the "Madoff Menu" at the East Village restaurant Joe Doe. Honouring Bernard Madoff, the infamous Wall Street financier who recently pleaded guilty to cheating investors out of US$65 billion (Dh239bn), the three-course line-up might include celeriac soup with almonds and house-cured pork jowl, tempura skate wing with kimchi vinaigrette and a wildflower-honey custard accented with Turkish flatbread crisps. It costs $35 (Dh128). Bernie himself might have second thoughts before shelling out for that.
There's also the identically priced "Starving Artists Menu" at Manhattan's Shang, featuring the top-notch Chinese restaurant's signature braised beef cheek and Singapore Slaw (composed of 19 different ingredients). Then there's the $29 (Dh107) "Stimulus Package" menu at the Cub Room, another three courses packed with known hard-times staples such as crab cakes, rib-eye steak and lobster pasta. Why, that's practically bread and water.
Visitors to New York who want to conserve their cash and still eat well would do well to avoid any eatery trying to capitalise on Recessionomania. There are already lots of great, cheap places to eat in the city. In some cases they've been around for decades, making food tastier than that found in the highest echelon of New York's dining scene. Here is a list of out-of-the-way destinations well worth seeking out. All you'll need to find unforgettable food is a few bucks, walking boots and a good map:
1. Cuchifritos The lines can stretch out to the pavement, where customers wait under the restaurant's neon and blinking lights as if for a meat-based Broadway production. What's the draw? Well, the cuchifritos (fried pork products) are said to be the best in upper Manhattan, but that's not the only star at this purveyor of Puerto Rican comfort food. A mere $1.50 (Dh5) gets you an order of lengua (cow tongue), or morcilla (blood sausage), or oreja (crunchy pig ear), or boiled green banana. A member of the red-and-white-pinstriped staff fishes out your pick from a steaming vat, snips it into bite-sized pieces, then lays it on you're plate in a pool of tomato-flavoured broth. You might not always know what you're eating, but you'll be sure to come back for more - the hours of simmering make the tongue in particular rich and velvety smooth. Also, drinks you won't find at many other places in New York abound: try the sesame seed-based ajonjoli and the mavi, the Puerto Rican national drink made from the bark of soldierwood trees.
168 East 116th Street, Manhattan 001 212 876 4846 2. Piece of Chicken Not to be confused with another Manhattan eatery called Piece-A-Chicken, Piece of Chicken is a soul-food catering business that operates in what looks like a garage a few blocks away from Times Square. The place used to be attached to a fancy restaurant serving $10 (Dh36) Grand Marnier-drenched bread pudding, but the restaurant closed and only the kitchen remains for a strictly takeaway business. A dollar (Dh3) gets you the titular "piece of chicken"- which piece, that is, seems to change by the hour, but it's always expertly breaded and deep-fried. Any soul-food joint is only as good as the quality of its sides, and luckily Piece of Chicken has nice ones, including spicy collard greens and candied yams (both $1, or Dh4). Or, if you don't care for vegetables, you could also order the chicken-and-waffles combo for $3 (Dh11) and pretend that's a side, too.
630 Ninth Avenue, Manhattan 001 212 582 5973 3. Artichoke Debating with a New Yorker about who serves the best slice of pizza can easily devolve into finger pointing, eye rolling and maybe even some finger-on-eye poking. The fact is, however, the location of the fabled "best slice" changes - and right now it's being dished up at a new joint in Downtown Manhattan, Artichoke. Run by two pizza-making veterans, the restaurant arrived this year with an insane amount of buzz. New York magazine even reported that the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards was "playing air guitar and jumping around" after downing a sample. At around $4 (Dh15), the slices are pricey compared to other pizza shops but their luxurious composition and unusual thickness make up for it. The Sicilian is topped with four types of cheese, while the spinach-and-artichoke harbours a tasty but calorie-filled sauce made from butter and white wine. And if you think that's unusual, they also make crab pizza.
328 East 14th Street, Manhattan 001 212 228 2004 4. Punjabi Grocery & Deli Punjabi Grocery remains the best place in Lower Manhattan to get either a taxi or cheap food from the Subcontinent. The 24-hour restaurant is a regular pit stop for the city's drivers-for-hire, as evidenced by the double-parked yellow cabs out front and the motor oil and Pakistani pop music cassettes sold from the walls. There's no meat here, only a rotating display of vegetable curries and fried, potato-based delicacies that the cooks heat up for you in one of four microwave ovens. Space is scarce, so you'll probably wind up eating while standing with others at a counter - but nobody seems to care; the food's that good. The spinach saag is buttery and sharp, and the excellent samosa can be upgraded with a topping of stewed chickpeas, garlic-infused yogurt and a dusting of garam masala. Either dish can be had for about $3 (Dh11). Plastic bins and tin cans dot the counter space; they're filled with incredibly pungent pickles resting beneath layers of oil. And, best of all, from olives to cauliflower to baby aubergine, they're all free.
114 East 1st Street, Manhattan 001 212 533 9048 5. Vanessa's Dumpling House This restaurant is a Chinatown favourite for good reason. A mere $2.50 (Dh9) buys eight ghostly white dumplings sunk in a hot broth wisped with leafy vegetables. If you're cheap, four fried dumplings, browned and crispy on one side, costs $1 (Dh4) and comes with gratis packets of hot sauce. But the best reason to visit Vanessa's is for the sesame pancake sandwiches, which are made with fried, sesame-coated dough. The bread comes warm and fluffy beneath a chewy crust so unctuous it has to be packaged in wax paper. Fillings include thinly sliced cucumber and carrot and a meat of your choice: the Chinese-style roast beef is good ($2; Dh7), but better yet is the crispy-skinned Peking duck drizzled with plum sauce ($2.25; Dh8) for a delightful sweet and savoury treat.
118A Eldridge Street, Manhattan 001 212 625 8118 6. Hadramout Though the engineering isn't exactly explained on the menu, the chefs at this all-night Yemeni restaurant have somehow managed to hew out a one-metre-deep hole in the kitchen floor, which they use to cook lamb under steam pressure. The time-consuming process allows the meat's natural flavour to blossom and leaves it as tender as filet mignon. A portion big enough for two people costs $13.95 (Dh51) and is easily among the best lamb in the city. Other national dishes are handled just as competently, from the selta - a bubbling-hot gravy teeming with boiled egg, okra, ground beef and tangy fenugreek foam, to the jute-based mulukhia, which the uninitiated may think resembles a bowl of boiled algae (both are $6.95, Dh26). A pair of homemade flatbreads come free with most dishes and are big enough to swaddle infants in.
172 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn 001 718 852 3577 7. Defonte's Founded more than 80 years ago by a longshoreman and operated today by his relatives, this Brooklyn institution manufactures the kind of sandwiches that would overwhelm anybody but an overworked boat grunt. In other words, bring a friend even if you're planning on ordering only one. A 20cm loaf of seed-coated Italian bread comes loaded with earthy, rib-sticking fillers like potato and egg ($5; Dh18) or roast beef, fried aubergine and fresh mozzarella that is made on site ($8; Dh29). The quality of the meat towers over what you find at most New York delis. Icebergs of corned and roast beef bob in heated trays, marinating all day long in their own juices. It's good news for your health that there's only one table at Defonte's. Burn some calories by walking your meal over to the nearby waterfront.
379 Columbia Street, Brooklyn 001 718 625 8052 8. Red Hook food vendors When a bunch of family-run food stalls can claim a role in reforming a neighbourhood, you'd better take note. Until recently, Red Hook was known for its sprawling housing estates and errant bullets. Thanks to the vendors who cater to the Latino fans of local football matches, however, it has become a must-visit destination on the foodie map. (This is no doubt an annoyance to the football fans who now have to wait in long lines to nosh). Over their 35 years of operation, the Mexican, Central American and South American vendors have perfected their respective dishes, whether they be carefully grilled ears of corn encrusted with soft, crumbly white cheese and red pepper or an icy ceviche of raw squid, shrimp, octopus and a pink juice that carries a sledgehammer wallop of garlic and lime. Sweets include mango slices slicked with citrus and chilli, and a drink brewed from hibiscus flowers and what must be half a sack of sugar. Most bites are priced between $2 (Dh7) and $4 (Dh14), although some of the larger items go for up to $10 (Dh37).
Red Hook Recreational Area,near the corner of Bay and Clinton streets in Brooklyn www.myspace.com/ redhookfoodvendors 9. Nyonya Oddly enough, one of the top restaurants in Brooklyn's Chinatown is Malaysian, a cuisine that melds the best aspects of several styles of South-East Asian cooking into one fresh, flavourful entity. The nyonya rojak ($4.75; Dh17) is a great starter - the spicy tangle of shredded mango, jicama, and pineapple is tweaked with lime and shrimp paste - as is a doily-like roti served with rich, coconut-based chicken curry ($2.25; Dh8). The seafood is impeccably fresh. Fish are thrown into the deep-fryer whole and emerge crispy and moist (market price), while large tubes of squid are stir-fried with pleasantly bitter Chinese watercress ($7.95; Dh29). The chefs wrap chicken wings in fragrant pandan leaves before a light frying. No doubt to cater to mild-tongued visitors, the menu screams in several places to "Please ask server for advice before you order!". Disregard this advice and you might wind up with something novel and delicious, like a family-sized bowl of assam curry harbouring soft-fleshed fish heads ($14.95; Dh55).
5323 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn 001 718 633 0808 10. Harchevnia This unassuming restaurant in a near-deserted and aptly named Brooklyn neighbourhood, Gravesend, provides one of the city's best primers to Russian and Ukranian cuisine. While its Russian brethren on nearby Coney Island beach emphasise glitzy excess - room-spanning chandeliers, transvestite lounge singers - Harchevnia's management chooses a quiet focus on making excellent traditional food. The pelmini are simple and stunning: about $5 (Dh18) buys you 25 of the Siberian veal dumplings submerged in limpid chicken broth or doused with melted butter and sour cream. The entrees are heavy in poundage and flavour: one would almost be satisfied by eating just the crispy skin of the $11 (Dh40) tabaka, a whole game hen that's been flattened as if by the proverbial cartoon anvil. Those who enjoy eating in peace will find they often have the whole restaurant to themselves or perhaps with one other table of old-timers, swapping stories and sips from a bottle of vodka.
2568 86th Street, Brooklyn 001 718 714 4525