The best cheap ethnic eats in New York: Cambodian sandwiches at Num Pang, Japanese hot dogs at Japadog, Korean fried chicken at Turntable Chicken Jazz, chicken over rice at Halal Guys, and Cuban corn at Cafe Habana
I was recently in New York City for some press and, of course, the finale reception party hosted by Joe Bastianich himself at his Eataly in the Flatiron District (where, I might add, I got to meet his famous mama, Lidia Bastianich). Being the vision impaired traveler that I am, sightseeing is no longerhp as exciting to me. Instead, all my vacations and trips revolve around (what else?) FOOD.
I hadn’t been to NYC since 2006, so I was looking forward to eating at joints I’d never been to before, especially since I’ve cultivated an even more discerning palate in the last few years. Of course, a discerning palate doesn’t mean I only dine on fine foods; in fact, I absolutely love cheap eats, street food, what have you. Some of the best foods cost just a few bucks, and you eat them standing in the street or seated at a tiny bench rubbing elbows with strangers. In the first of this three-part series highlighting my recent NYC gastronomical experience, I pay tribute to the less expensive eats. Who said you have to break your bank to eat well in the City?
I grew up on banh mi thit, or Vietnamese sandwiches: a combination of cold cuts, head cheese, and pâté with a healthy slathering of egg yolk mayo and pickled carrots and radish, fresh cilantro and cucumber, all nestled inside a French baguette or roll. It wasn’t until this NYC trip that my cousin, Pauline, introduced me to Cambodian sandwiches, the cousin of the Vietnamese banh mi thit. It was still served on a baguette roll, and it still had both the pickled and fresh veggies. But instead of lemongrass grilled pork (another common Vietnamese sandwich filling), there were pulled pork, beef brisket, lamb with yogurt sauce, pork belly and Asian pear. I wouldn’t dare say these were the traditional Cambodian sandwiches, but Num Pang sure does their version right. For less than $10, you can get a hearty sandwich, but don’t forget to grab a fistful of napkins because they’re quite messy to eat.
I tried the pulled pork and loved it. I took MC3Frank there for a second wind and took a bite of his pork belly seasonal special. The flavors were perhaps more complex in Frank’s sandwich, but I preferred the robust simplicity of the pulled pork. I’d love to try the lamb one next time.
Another cheap Asian-fusion (oh how I loathe that term) eatery is Japadog which is a Vancouver institution. Think hot dogs with a Japanese twist (duh). I tried the Terimayo, the classic Japadog containing teriyaki sauce, mayo, and nori (seaweed). The flavors were great though I thought the teriyaki was a bit too extravagant, making the hot dog super messy and a tad too sweet.
Another joint Pauline took me to was Cafe Habana. “My friends call this crack on a stick,” she said, referring to the corn on a cob grilled Mexican-style, slathered with cotija cheese, chili powder, and lime juice. I gnawed on a huge ear of corn (only $2!) and sipped from my Mexican Coke and felt giddy like a una niña pequeña en Mexico. (Tip: Don’t go here on a first date because smiling at each other through a teeth full of corn bits is not too attractive.)
And now for the essential street food: the Halal stand on 53rd and 6th. This is a place I’d actually eaten at the last time I was in NYC, and its reputation for serving up delicious food for cheap has withstood years of food trends and thus it still stands on that Midtown corner. There are several stands nearby, though, so it’s key to make sure you are in the right line. It’s usually the stand with the longest line. Or if you’re not sure, just ask someone on the street. This Halal stand offers up the best lamb or chicken and rice platter with pita bread for only $6. The sauces are vital albeit spicy. Eat at your own risk.
In the two weeks I was in NYC, Pauline and I and whomever we were with for the night hit up Sake Bar Decibel three times. Usually it involves us putting our names in to dine at either Ippudo or Momofuku Ssam Bar (more on these later), and Sake Bar Decibel was a nearby place we could kill an hour or two at while we waited for the text message saying our table was ready. You venture down some steps to enter a dark and seemingly quiet dive bar with rows of sake bottles lined behind the bar. Groovy beats hum out of a boombox in the corner, and it’s not until you walk through a door in the back, down a little hallway, that you get to where the real action’s happening. It’s much louder back here because there are scores of conversations happening, and twice we were seated at a makeshift child’s table complete with mini stools and everything. It felt a little ridiculous, but hey, that’s the vibe of the whole place. There is an extensive sake selection for less than some of the izakaya I’d visited in NY, and the snacks are pretty good, too. I enjoyed the raw octopus in wasabi and the barbecued pork. Definitely a cool little joint to partake in for some JP experience (a little nod to the lexicon of my friend, Chef Dang).
I’m wrapping up part 1 of my NYC eats with Boka in the East Village (9 St. Marks Pl., 10003), a soju bar with some pretty tasty Korean wings. Boka generously hosted a “MasterChef” watch party for the semi-finals, and the kitchen sent out dish after dish of savory treats. Then champagne was opened at episode’s end after it was revealed that I’d made it to the finals. Boka is a cool, low-key joint to spend an evening with your friends eating and drinking. Justin Lee, a talented photographer who happens to also be a fan, stopped by to say hello and snap a few shots of me chowing down on Boka’s fried chicken. Yum. Thanks, Boka and Justin, for all of your hospitality and kindness.
Have you ever been to any of these places? What are some of your favorite cheap eats in NYC? Let me know in the comments section. I should be back in November and would love to expand my gastronomical horizon.
And next time in part 2 of my NYC eats, I discuss the best pizza I’ve ever had and where to get some of the freshest seafood in the City. Till then, happy eating!