From time to time, I get asked (mostly by people that don't know me all that well), “Don't you like any places in Manhattan?” Short answer: not really. But, astonishingly, there are people that haven't either the desire or the time to travel out to Flushing just for dinner (very occasionally, I am one of those people), and for those folks I have put together a short list of places where it is possible to actually get a decent meal without paying sixty bucks a head--or more!--for it. Yes, I understand that restaurant prices aren't just about the food but more about the overhead, and in Manhattan that means footing the exorbitant rent bill. But so often restaurants in Manhattan deliver precious little bang at all for the copious bucks. So I'm left eating at the same handful of exceptions I've found, and I felt it was time to share some of them. At the end of the post, I am also including a list of places that may be recommended to you by philistines which you should avoid at all costs.
So, keeping in mind the focus of this blog--reasonably-priced ethnic food or cooking of some identifiable tradition--here are some places I have enjoyed eating without feeling massively overcharged for the privilege, by general location:
After the Upper West Side, the worst place in Manhattan to get a cheap, decent meal. But there are a few possibilities.
Sapporo - 152 W. 49th St. (between 6th & 7th Aves.), 212-869-8972. This place has been around for decades, and with good reason. Solid, authentic ramen, and, perhaps even better, donburi and Japanese curry dishes. I can't seem to eat here without ordering curry ramen with extra sliced pork. The quality has slipped noticeably in recent years, but it's still one of the best options in west Midtown. Menu. (Note: there are quite a few newer and trendier ramen places in Manhattan that serve quite delicious food. But I would never counsel anyone to wait in line an hour or more for a bowl of noodles.)
Mee Noodle Shop - 795 9th Ave. (at 53rd St.), 212-765-2929. (After a recent visit, I feel compelled to add a caveat here. They have changed the way they make their curry noodle soup - where traditional food is concerned, change is almost never good, and this isn't - and they were visibly annoyed that I was sitting there eating 45 minutes before closing time. I will not be returning.) Standard old-school Cantonese noodle shop with the best No. 1 broth in town. Standout offerings: curry noodle soup (especially with roast chicken), 10-ingredient fried rice, steamed egg w/Chinese sausage, egg foo young (You're going to have to trust me on this one... I had NO idea egg foo young--served smothered in a rich, brown sauce--could be so delicious. Order it made w/roast pork and no vegetables if feeling particularly indulgent.). Menu here. There are also locations at 2nd Ave. & 49th St. and 2nd Ave. & 30th St.
Burger Joint at the Parker Meridien Hotel - 110 W. 56th St. (between 6th & 7th Aves.), 212-708-7414. Look for a tiny sign in the lobby of the Parker Meridien directing you behind a long, dark velvet curtain. One of the better burgers in town, and certainly one of the best burger values in Manhattan, going here is a little like finding a secret restaurant... one you'll be very glad you found. Website.
Tehuitzingo Deli Grocery (Re-opened - see also under the Times Square heading) - 695 10th Ave. (at 48th St.), 212-397-5956. Although it looks like your basic neighborhood deli/grocery up front, walk to the back where you'll find a food counter that, apart from a food truck or two, makes the only tacos in Manhattan - aside from a couple of the taco trucks - that taste anything like the tacos I ate in Mexico. And it's dirt cheap, too. Menu.
Szechuan Gourmet - 21 W. 39th St. (between 5th & 6th Aves.), 212-921-0233. For a while, after Grand Sichuan on 9th @ 51st closed, this was my favorite restaurant in Manhattan. But then the NY Times gave it 2 stars and it was always busy and the prices went up 20%. But it's still damn good, and still a decent value. Here, the odder-sounding the dish, the better it's likely to be. Menu (old prices).
Lan Sheng Szechuan Restaurant - 60 W. 39th St. (between 5th & 6th Aves.), 212-575-8899. If Szechuan Gourmet is too crowded, this place across the street is really almost as good. And cheaper. Website.
Wu Liang Ye - 36 W. 48th St. (between 5th & 6th Aves.), 212-398-2308. For my money, their "hand-shredded chicken with spicy sesame vinaigrette" cold appetizer and "stir-fried fresh bacon with spicy capsicum" (in other words, REAL twice-cooked pork) are the two best Chinese dishes in Manhattan. But they ain't cheap. Menu (old prices).
Also, the website Midtown Lunch is an invaluable resource for good, cheap food in Midtown, generally a notorious wasteland of overpriced and chain restaurants.
If you MUST eat near Times Square, at least make it John's Pizzeria (260 W. 44th St., between 7th & 8th Aves., 212-391-7560). This outpost is certainly the most beautiful location (it used to be a church) of a pizzeria that's been making crisp-crusted, brick oven pizzas the same way for more than 80 years. Other locations are E. 64th St. @ 1st Ave. and the venerable original (since 1929!) at 278 Bleecker St. in the West Village. Website.
Taqueria Tehuitzingo - 578 Ninth Ave. (just south of 42nd St.), 646-707-3916. My friend Jose just informed me that the Tehuitzingo Deli Grocery people have recently opened a small restaurant (with SEATING - this is indeed a step up from the grocery store) near Port Authority. The food is just as good as their deli/grocery outpost, which is to say better than any Mexican food that I know of in Manhattan that does not come from a taco truck. Good, real food, prepared with integrity, which is what the Tehuitzingo folks do. The prices have crept up only slightly (as in 50 cents to a dollar higher than before), and the menu is greatly expanded from the original grocery counter's. This is the one place all you people that come to NYC wanting Mexican food should go. And they're open until 1:30 a.m.!
Uncle Nick's - 382 8th Ave. (at 30th St.), 212-609-0500. This is not the kind of place I would have ever gone to on my own - it's just a little too slick-looking. But a friend visiting from Greece sniffed it out and recommended it enthusiastically... who was I to say no to that? And I was shocked by how much I liked it. It may or may not have helped to have a real Greek chatting up the waiter. If you order with care, the tab can be kept to something quite reasonable. Website.
Legend - 88 7th Ave. (at 15th St.), 212-929-1778. Considering the location (most Chelsea restaurants are much more about the drinks and the social scene than the actual food), a surprisingly good Sichuan kitchen. (Yes, I have an inordinate fondness or Sichuan food.) I have not tried any of the Vietnamese dishes, so know nothing about them. There's a new location almost as good on W. 109th St., a couple of doors east of Broadway. Website.
Lower East Side
Katz's Delicatessen - 205 E. Houston St. (at Ludlow St.), 212-254-2246. A living relic of a vanishing New York. Theirs has to be the most mind-blowingly great pastrami sandwich on earth... hand-slicing makes all the difference. Go here to re-live some of the Jewish childhood you, if you're like me, never had. Website.
Upper West Side
Carmine's - 2450 Broadway (at 91st St.), 212-362-2200. Probably the greatest Italian-red-sauce-joint-on-steroids on earth. Grab as many people as you can when you go because the portions are ENORMOUS. Almost all your favorites are here, in quantities that could choke a horse. The scarpariello chicken wings and fried calamari appetizers are killer, the rigatoni country style is my favorite pasta dish on the planet (with Italian sausage, cannellini beans, broccoli, and roasted garlic), and if you go on a Tuesday, get the double rack of lamb special - you won't be sorry. It's not on the regular menu, but if they happen to have carbonara as a daily pasta special, grab it. And as far as I'm concerned, their chocolate chip bread pudding is the best dessert in NYC. If you have assembled enough people, by the time you divide up the tab, it's quite reasonably priced, too. There is another location I've never been to (because it's by fucking Times Square) on W. 44th St. @ 7th Ave. Website.
Flor de Mayo - 2651 Broadway (at 100th St.), 212-663-5520. 10 blocks farther up Broadway from Carmine's is one of the dying breed of Cuban-Chinese restaurants. The Chinese side of the menu consists of classic strip mall American Chinese fare (shrimp with lobster sauce, anyone?), beautifully executed, and ropa vieja is a beloved standby. But my favorite thing here is their Peruvian roast chicken. Go figure. But do try to avoid the dinner rush... the rudeness of the unwashed natives will kill you, if you don't kill one of them first. Better yet, order for delivery. There's another location on Amsterdam at W. 83rd St. Menu (old prices).
Xi'an Famous Foods (西安名吃) - 2675 Broadway (at 102nd St.), 212-786-2068. See the listing under "East Village". But go EARLY - they're closed by 9 p.m. (!! - C'mon, guys...it's New York City, ferchrissakes). A bit roomier and less insanely crowded than the downtown locations.
Regional - 2607 Broadway (at 98th St.), 212-666-1915. Another Italian place, this one with an emphasis on regionally-inspired dishes. Low-key ambience with good cooking that won't break the bank. On Mondays, all pasta dishes are $9. Website.
Legend - 258 W. 109th St. (near Broadway), 212-222-4800. See Legend under the "Chelsea" list.
Upper East Side
I try to avoid these two neighborhoods like the plague, but occasionally it's fun to hit E. 6th St., the block that is all Indian restaurants. Choosing one can be a bit daunting, but I have found Mitali East to be consistently good, a cut or two above the others nearby. 334 E. 6th St., between 1st & 2nd Aves., 212-533-2508. Menu (old prices). Gandhi is both tranquil and charming (and CHEAP), and I can attest to the fact that it hasn't changed at all in 25 years. This is a good thing, and almost unbelievably, the prices haven't changed much since then, either. It's hard to go wrong with the appetizers, breads, and biryanis here. Consider avoiding the curries and vindaloos, though. They're not long-simmered - as is the case with most joints on this street, the meat and sauce are slapped together when ordered. 345 E. 6th St., near 1st Ave., 212-614-9718. Website.
Ukrainian East Village Restaurant - 140 2nd Ave. (between St. Marks & 9th St.), 212-614-3283. The East Village of 25 years ago (that is, the end days of the REAL East Village, before it become the playground for over-privileged 20-somethings) was chock full of Ukrainian and Polish joints, almost all gone now (RIP Kiev, Christina's, Teresa's, Leshko's...). Ukrainian East Village Restaurant isn't as good as the old Kiev, but it's close enough. And they currently serve the best cheese blintzes that I know of in Manhattan.
Bear in mind - if you go on a Friday night, you'll find yourself in the middle of the regular milonga (tango session) held there! (And before you ask, I have never understood the fanatical following that Veselka seems to inspire.) Menu.
Grand Sichuan St. Marks - 19-23 Saint Marks Place (between 2nd & 3rd Aves.), 212-529-4800. Real Sichuan food in the East Village, without the cramped space and frenetic atmosphere of the Chelsea location. Not quite as wonderful as the now-defunct Hell's Kitchen location, but it will do if one is in the neighborhood. Website.
Xi'an Famous Foods - 81 St. Marks Pl. (near 1st Ave.), 212-786-2068. East Village outpost of what is now a small chain that started in a basement stall at the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing. They serve what I am assured (by a young woman who lived there for a year) is authentic Xi'an-style food. Cumin lamb reigns supreme here - have it with biáng biáng miàn (hand-ripped noodles), or as a "burger" on a flat wheat bun. Even better: lamb face salad! Stupendous. There is now a location on the Upper West Side. Website.
You are also invited to consult my regular posts about restaurants in Manhattan - these are mostly in the Chinatown and Koreatown neighborhoods. They can be found here.
City Diner (Broadway @ 90th St.)
Metro Diner (Broadway @ 100th St.)
Deluxe Diner (Broadway @ 113th St.) Particularly awful.
Sad - New York, not so very long ago, was the land of great little neighborhood diners. There are still a handful left, but most of what you're likely to find are lousy, overpriced places like these. If you MUST have diner food, Viand is reliably good, and they have several locations around town (Broadway @ 75th St., E. 86th St. & 2nd Ave., Madison Ave. @ 78th St., Madison Ave. @ 61st St.). Also, Olympic Flame Diner (Amsterdam @ W. 60th St.) is one of the only decent, reasonably-priced meal options in the Lincoln Center area. Website.
Kitchenette (Amsterdam @ 123rd St.) - I can't tell you how many people have told me they love this place. And I can't tell you how awful every meal I've ever had there has been.
Toast (Broadway @ Tiemann, Broadway @ 105th St.) - When people hear where I live, they often say "Don't you love Toast?" No... no, I don't. It's gussied-up bar food, and not even good bar food at that.
Shake Shack (any location) - Unless you like waiting in endless lines for dry-ish, gray hamburgers, steer clear.
Moustache (West Village) - If you've NEVER had decent Middle Eastern food before, this might be okay for you. But if you have, it sucks.
Wo Hop (Chinatown) - Never been, but I have it on very reliable authority that this must be avoided. Unless it's 4 a.m. (yes, they're open then) and you're drunk off your ass and likely to throw up anyway.
I'm tempted to add Great N.Y. Noodletown (Chinatown) to this list, too - this place most definitely does not live up to the hype. But it's okay at 2 a.m., I guess.
Keens Steakhouse (W. 36th St. near 7th Ave.) - If you've just GOT to drop a C-note or two on steak, do yourself a favor and go to Del Frisco's, or, better yet, head to Peter Luger in Brooklyn. I have seldom been so disappointed in a restaurant with a great reputation... meat of indifferent flavor, and their creamed spinach is inedible.
Just about every Vietnamese restaurant outside of the Bronx.
Hunan Cottage (W. 77th & Amsterdam) - This place used to be kind of great 20 years ago (not in an authentic way, but tasty). No more. Several cuts below average strip mall Chinese food.
I will update this post as more places occur to me.