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!

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68 Discussion to this post

  1. My trips all revolve around food as well – nothing beats trying new dishes! Congratulations on winning MasterChef – I was so happy when you won.

  2. LDiggitty says:

    This made me so hungry! I can't wait to read the pizza post…

  3. If the Halal stand is the place I think it is, a dear friend and pastor of missions and young adults at my church raves about it. He tried to replicate the chicken version for a group of us when we met at his house one time and it was DELICIOUS! I can only imagine how mouth-watering the genuine article is.

  4. J. Dent says:

    I’ve been to New York about three times now, and I’ve been to quite a few places that were really good and some places that really weren’t so good. I never heard of these places, but they sure sound good. If we ever get out there again, I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for them. That Japadog place sounds way better than the hot dog place we went to last time. If that picture is any indication, it looks better too.

    Anyway, I wish I could remember some names, places and prices because there were some good places that we’ve been to on all the trips. Most of them were little holes in the wall, but they were really tasty. The only place I can remember the name was called Rice To Riches, and it was a little place that served all kinds of rice pudding, almost like a little ice cream shop, but just with rice pudding. Don’t know if you have much of a sweet tooth, but I’d eat my fill of the place.

  5. Michael says:

    Christine:

    I too love the Halal at 53rd & 6th. I’ve been going there for years every time I’m in the city. I also love (unapologetically) Momofuku.

    You also have to go to Sullivan Street Bakery on 47th between 11th & 10th. That location has a tiny retail shop and the selection varies but I love the croissants and (when available for retail) the best brioche.

    Love what you do Christine. Keep up the great work. And cone to Portland soon.

  6. Selena says:

    Hi Christine! I am a HUGE fan of yours since the first episode of MasterChef and I cannot wait to get your cookbook!! 🙂 I also wanted to say that I love and dearly miss eating the chicken and rice platter in NYC. Also, I highly recommend checking out the pizza joint, Grimaldi's, in Brooklyn, NY. Happy eating!! 🙂

  7. Ren-Yi says:

    hey Christina – thanks for sharing these eats!

    i have been trying to eat through this site http://realcheapeats.com
    and want to really try this dog… http://realcheapeats.com/nyc/2011/asiadog-hot-dog

    when i read about soju and wings, you made me think of BonChon Chicken…
    another fun place is shake shack

    i should really make use of going into the city more…so many lovely eats!

    btw – hopped over to justin's site. he has some amazing pics. great candid captures and superb lighting!

  8. Decibel is pretty awesome. I love the divey vibe, the graffiti on the walls, and of course, the cheap prices! The Halal cart (I believe they're called "The Halal Guys", they even have t-shirts now!), is certainly worth the long wait. I will need to check out Num Pang and Boka, but I have tried the Korean fried chicken from MONO+MONO, and that was divine. My favourite ramen though, is at Ramen Misoya. Oh, and it wouldn't be a trip for cheap food without taking a trek to Flushing! It's a bit out of the way, but it's totally worth it. Xi'an Famous Foods, Xinjiang BBQ Cart and Chengdu Heaven are my staples.

    And if you're ever in Brooklyn, go to Dough in Bed-Stuy, they also have stands at the Brooklyn Flea Market, which are more accessible. Best doughnuts, ever!

  9. Huan Truong says:

    enjoying the high life for us Vietnamese 🙂 We all here to support you. I, personally, support you since audition day ONE. I know you will win big !

  10. Oscar Bermeo says:

    Food is how I keep track of all my NYC visits. My best find from my last trip- Empanadas Paradise. Awesome overstuffed Argentine sandwiches especially the Lomito (Argentine steak, ham, egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato). Cheers!

  11. Hi Christine, it's Alice. Love Ippudo, the halal st cart, and cafe habana. Can't wait to try the num pang, momofuku ssam, and boka. Ah I miss NY. anyhoooo I have students who are like your die-hard fans! They want to meet you… what do I tell them? lol

  12. @plusjames says:

    This is so great! I do admit I never saw an episode of Master Chef, but your writing is so good I'm okay that I haven't seen any, haha. Since I am just discovering your writing and your work in the last few months, do you have any writings on Houston or Texas? I apologize if you do and if I haven't gotten to them yet! Now I'm hungry…

  13. AngeLin says:

    The Halal Cart is definitely one of my faves as well. Another must-eat item is the Banana Pudding at Magnolia's Bakery. Everyone I've sent there (dessert fan or not) becomes as hooked as I am. It's heaven in a cup. 🙂

  14. Conrad says:

    Congrats on winning MC3! I’ve already bookmarked these places you’ve been to. Only been to NY once, but I know La Esquina will always be a place I’ll always make time to go to. Great vibe, love the food, and extensive tequila selection.

  15. Steven C. says:

    My wife is Cambodian so we will have to try those sadwiches on our next trip. My favorite places in NYC are Joe's Shanghai on Pell St in China Town and X.O. on Hester St also in China Town.

  16. Carol says:

    Absolutely love Japadog, Boka, Cafe Habana, and Ippudo, they're amazing. That's one thing i love about living in NYC, the endless possibilities of good food. When you come back in November try Di Fara's pizza in Brooklyn, delicious Korean food buffet style from Woorijip, Kat'z Deli for pastrami or corned beef, Japanese shabu shabu at Shabu Tatsu (best place to go during the winter & for awesome kobe beef), Saigon for viet sandwiches (one of the best in NYC), Luke's Lobster for lobster crab shrimp rolls, or Shanghai Cafe in chinatown!

  17. Joseph Ward says:

    Hi Christine, Again – CONGRATULATIONS on your won on, "Masterchef"! You amazed me at every single episode. I would like to know if you wouldn't mind sharing some advice with a beginner food blogger (aka – me). I've enrolled in America's Test Kitchen's Online Cooking School and I decided to blog about each lesson or compile various lessons into blog entries. It's sort of my journey through a form of cooking school (which is pretty thorough, btw) and writing about that journey. It satisfies two of my passions – cooking & writing. So I'm really not sure of what to ask you about blogging, but can you share any general advice? I would appreciate your input.

    Thank you,
    Joe Ward (Boston)

  18. Vincent DePaul Tran says:

    Congrats Christine on your awesome win! Watching you on season 3 & reading some of your blogs really encourage me to audition for season 4. Being Vietnamese might give me a slight disadvantage ’cause another Vietnamese already won 🙂 No worries, I’ll give them some serious competition this next season 🙂 Please pray for me. Good luck on your future plans.

    Best regards,

    Vincent DePaul Tran

  19. ephraimNewYork says:

    Hi Christine its cool that you visiting my town. If you are in New York you got to taste Jewish food!
    Perhaps you could stop by the Carnegie Deli to get a taste of Jewish style cuisine? Its located by 55th street at 854 7th Avenue New York, NY 10019 phone 212-757-2245. Its quite famous. You should check out a hot pastrami on rye with potato knish and sour pickles with cole slaw. And their cheesecake is to die for. You might want to share these meals with someone or prepare to take home a doggie bag cause the portions are generous. Or if you are gonna be downtown, Katz's deli is another famous place although i prefer Carnegie. So nice to know that you are enjoying yourself after all the hard work at Masterchef!!! Take good care and enjoy.

  20. eugene says:

    NYC is amazing but when you get the chance head north thru niagara wine country and visit Toronto we even have our own momofuku that just opened.
    All my friends we rooting for you! Congrads!

  21. You really must go to Pio Pio. Outstanding Peruvian cuisine and some of the best Ceviché I've ever had. They have four locations in Manhattan. Upper west side, Upper east side, Hell's Kitchen and Murray Hill. I am also a HUGE fan of the Banh Mi and love that Nam Pang version as well. I make them at home but haven't quite mastered that special bread many Banh Mi have.

  22. esther says:

    When I saw your tweet about the viewing party in NYC, I was mad because I TOTALLY would gone!!!!

    I love num pang and the corn as well. 🙂 I find the pho in NYC very lacking so I would say don't bother.

    With that said, I really hope the best pizza you've had is in brooklyn!!!

  23. Mark Hayward says:

    Some of the best pizza in the world is right next door in Connecticut. In New Haven in little Italy, are several good place, such as Pepe's Napolitana. The oven is coal fired and the pies are irregular shaped and just slightly charred with flavor. When you order a pie, only get one or two items on it as these pies, for some reason, are best kept simgly. The clam pie is well reknowned. US presidents have dined there. Pepe's now have restaurants in other parts of CT too. There's also Sallys and Modern. Each is different, Sally's isn't know for the warm and friendly wait staff, but the food is very good.

  24. Jessica says:

    Oh Christine, please don't miss having a bialy (the bagel's oniony cousin). Most NYC corner delis have them. Split, buttered, toasted (in that order), with a strong cup of coffee – I think this is my favorite meal in the world.

    Congrats on the win – I was so pleased! You seem like a very genuine person, and I've been enjoying your blog so much. Thank you for sharing these parts of your life.

  25. Stephane says:

    I loved JAPADOG !!! Best thing about living in Vancouver…

  26. Roy Nelson says:

    Wow Christine, all of that food sounds and looks so delicious. I agree with you on the Japadog as far as the sauce goes. Terriyaki is pretty strong I might try to rework the sauce so the dog just has a hint of Terriyaki. Can hardly wait til next month and your report on my favorite food, pizza. I've never been to NYC but it's still on my list.. I'm a big Yankee fan and one of the places I want to visit is Yankee Steak at the Stadium.

  27. Christine Ha says:

    unapprove

  28. Doug says:

    Congrats again on being the MC! I love how Japadog grew out of Vancouver's old regressive food cart bylaws, where at one time you could only serve roasted chestnuts or hotdogs. (they've since changed). So instead of authentic takoyaki, we got the hot dog form of it, and the rest is history.

  29. Jessica Szenher says:

    I work with Arkansas Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit that employs visually impaired people, and I’ve been asked to contact you about a special event appearance. How do I reach you or your agent? Thanks!

  30. Naima says:

    Hi Christine my name is Naima and I am a very big fan of yours and I followed you on Master Chef, then recently I heard you speak on Hadley’s webinar. I loved your blog on food from around the world. Can we come with you the next time you go on a trip or cruise?
    I am a Hadley student also, I’m taking braille lessons.
    I appreciate you being on live TV and speaking at Hadley. Also I will be a follower of your blog.

  31. My absolute favorite things to eat in NYC are: anything Malaysian, and I always must seek out Shanghai dumplings (at Joe's Shanghai). The dumplings are full of yummy soup! I would take a small bite on the top of the dumpling, slurp up the soup, and then eat the outer dumpling with whatever soup is left inside. Oh how I miss that stuff.

  32. Fongy says:

    Hi Christine! My name is Fong! You are so inspiring. I am also a believer of food can bring joys to family and friends. I’m glad you have tried Num Pang in NYC. I really want to try it one day. I will try to pick up your recipes as much as possible to cook during my free time. Similarly to you, living on myself, besides studying, cooking is my passion. Any advices to have good recipes while you are away from homeland?

  33. thinbluedba says:

    I love Vietnamnese sandwiches….mmm.
    I love Japadogs…mmmm…
    …..hungry now….thanks a lot!!! 🙂

  34. Sanjung says:

    Hi Christine. Congrats! My husband and I were rooting for you. =)

    If you ever get a chance to go to Brooklyn, I prefer the Chinese food there. There are a lot more hole-in-the-wall places that aren't rated very high for cleanliness, but it's just so yummy! I'll have to post names of places after asking my husband. We normally go by intersections, not names. Heh.

  35. KoreanSGLuv says:

    Like the japadog… I love the korean food, the chicken and kimchi… The spice is special and authentic…

  36. The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.I read; I travel; I become

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