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food finds

Cheap eats in New York

The line at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, a classic in a city full of them, can stretch from 11 to 11 — a.m. to p.m., that is.

RUBY WASHINGTON/THE NEW YORK TIMES/FILE/2006

The line at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, a classic in a city full of them, can stretch from 11 to 11 — a.m. to p.m., that is.

On our first trip to the city, fresh out of college, our dining strategy was this: We ate at anyplace we recognized from Woody Allen movies and old episodes of “That Girl.” That meant we frequented places decorated with caricatures of Milton Berle and Mort Sahl (whoever they were) and dined on pastrami sandwiches the size of our heads. We even found the automat — sort of a glorified giant vending machine — where “That Girl,” Ann Marie, made tomato soup out of ketchup and hot water. Cute TV, but terrible food. We finally wised up after we went to one of those “famous” places for breakfast, and paid $16 for a bagel with cream cheese.

Seriously? We were in a city with nearly 25,000 restaurants, and we were paying nearly $20 for a lousy bagel (no lox). We felt like total chumps. Thus began our search for New York’s finest, cheapest dining. It’s a search that has led us deep into the city’s dining scene — so deep, we found places that don’t have signs on the doors, and eateries that are tucked back behind bodegas and laundromats — lured by the promise of five dumplings for a dollar, or New York’s best taco. We even wrote an iPhone app, NYC Cheap Eats, to share our finds.

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Several packets of Tums later, we’ve sleuthed out some favorites (antacids not required). A true New Yorker would probably have a different list — grittier, less about atmosphere and more about cheap — but, hey, we’re tourists. We want fun, cool, and cheap.

SHAKE SHACK, Madison Square Park  At Danny Meyer’s original Shake Shack, the lines snake around the park, even at 10:30 p.m. There is always a wait, so they’ve installed a Shack Cam, so you can see for yourself how big the crowds are before you commit. Meyer, a high-end restaurateur, set out to do fast-food using high-quality ingredients, with a hot dog stand that eventually morphed into this beloved eatery. They grind their own beef, make reduced-fat fries, and win raves all around for their made-to-
order burgers ($4.35) and wonderfully sinful “concretes” (frozen custard with mix-ins). And what fun it is to eat it al fresco in the park, under fairy lights.

“It’s a great formula,” says Dorothy Ames of Long Island as she waited for a shake. “You get a tasty burger made with high-quality beef, good fries, and great shakes, and it costs about the same as a trip to McDonald’s.” They also do a ’Shroom Burger (a cheese-stuffed Portobello mushroom) for the non-meat crowd. Shake Shack outposts have sprung up around New York and other cities, but fans swear that this one is best. “No place beats the original,” Ames says. “It’s really become a New York City classic.”
Madison Avenue at East 23rd Street,

212-889-6600, www.shakeshack.com,
open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The shops in Food Gallery 32, in Koreatown, translate their menus into English.

CHANG W. LEE/THE NEW YORK TIMES/FILE/2011

The shops in Food Gallery 32, in Koreatown, translate their menus into English.

FOOD GALLERY 32, Koreatown  This zone of Korean-owned business and eateries has a bounty of good cheap eats, whether you go for Korean barbecue or filled dumplings made by the nimble-fingered women in the front of the shop. To try some of each, and still spend a tiny sum on dinner, head to this multilevel Korean food court. Basically everything costs less than a ten-spot, and everything we’ve tried has been tasty, from the tofu bibimbap ($7.95) to the jjamppong (noodles with seafood and vegetables in spicy sauce, $6.95). Then there’s the spicy pork plate from Doyaji Pork House, which pairs perfectly with white peach frozen yogurt from Red Mango. You don’t have to read Korean to know what you’re getting; everything’s translated into English. They also have pictures of some dishes and offer samples. Yes, the atmosphere is a bit “food court,” but we’d rather think of it as bright and cheery. Want dumplings only (and some of the best in town)? Try Mandoo Bar at 2 West 32nd, just down the street. 11 West 32nd St., 212-967-1678, www.food
gallerynyc.com

MOMOFUKU NOODLE BAR, East
Village  
You’ve come all the way to New York, so naturally you want to sample the cuisine of the city’s hottest chefs. Happily, you can do it on the (relatively) cheap. David Chang of Momofuku fame created a monster hit with this modestly priced offshoot, where you can get a noodle bowl and two delectable pork buns (a specialty here) for less than the price of an entree at most NYC eateries. Even if you order a lot of food to share (make sure you get an order of chilled spicy noodles with lamb sausage and spinach, and the cake truffles), you’ll still spend less than an Amtrak ticket. Small dishes are $8-$15; large dishes $11-$22, and sharing is encouraged. Extra points for style: It has pale wooden booths, an open kitchen, and neutral colors. There’s a lively vibe and that extra dash of panache that comes with the Chang name.  171 1st Ave., 212-777-7773,
www.momofuku.com

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COPPELIA, Chelsea  We were tipped off to this place by a relative. Open 24/7, Coppelia is a modern take on a Cuban diner. It’s a date-night-worthy restaurant that only looks expensive. The extensive menu includes everything from blue corn meal pancakes with agave nectar to ropa vieja (slow-cooked, shredded beef in a peppery tomato salsa, served with rice and beans). The Latin-themed menu veers into the Caribbean and South America, so there’s plenty of variety and loads of flavor, but nothing costs more than $18.95.

It’s a pretty space, with a long bar and ochre-colored walls, tile floors, and artwork; our only quibble is that the Cuban music is turned up to the max. But we liked the cute maître d’ (a double for singer Marc Anthony) and we truly loved the ceviche limeno (flounder ceviche, $10.95). They also do an amazing dulce de leche. It’s an eclectic crowd, so you’ll feel like you stumbled upon a cool local hangout (you did).  207 West 14th St. between
7th and 8th avenues, 212-858-5001,
www.ybandco.com

SMORGASBURG, Williamsburg,
Brooklyn
 Williamsburg is hipster heaven, chockablock with restaurants that specialize in artisanal everything. Faced with such bounty, choosing one is tough. That’s why our tourist radar takes us straight to Smorgasburg on Saturdays (in season), when the Williamsburg riverfront is a nosher’s fantasy of food stalls. Several of the nearly 100 vendors have brick-and-mortar restaurants in the city; many got their start here, and amassed a following, so they opened a for-real restaurant.

The best strategy: Take a spin around first to see who’s here, and what looks irresistible. There’s lots of ramen, which is a big food trend now, dumplings aplenty, tacos from Choncho’s (very good) and a place that makes gourmet S’mores (artisan marshmallows are another food trend). If you like the food scene at the SoWa Open Market, you’ll love this.

Warning: Nearly everything here costs $7, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you multiply it a few times. But you’ll have a grand time grazing, and you might discover the city’s next hot new chef. On Sundays, this space becomes a flea market, the wildly popular Brooklyn Flea.  Open through
Nov. 17, rain or shine. East River
waterfront, between North 6th and 7th
streets, www.brooklynflea.com

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be
reached at bairwright@earthlink.net.

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