If you thought New York held no new surprises in the realm of discount dining, this year’s edition of the budget-gourmet guide will set you straight. We have seen a distinct upswing in national pride in the celebration of American regional cuisines, and have greeted the tasty arrivals of Detroit-style pizza, Hawaiian poke, Buffalo milkshakes, and Pennsylvania Dutch schnitz und gnepp. At the same time, we’ve reaped the rewards of globalization in the forms of Israeli hummus (via Philadelphia), New Brooklyn Taiwanese, and family-style Egyptian in Astoria. All unimpeachably delicious. Read on for the full list. —By Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite
Shanghai Soup Dumplings Nothing about the location of this fast-casual dumpling peddler — a grim, strip-mall-like stretch of Downtown Brooklyn — inspires confidence. (If you’re from Los Angeles, where strip malls and crackerjack kitchens go together like bacon and eggs, this might be a promising sign.) But everything that comes out of the dumpling-observation room behind the counter (a glassed-in cubicle that brings to mind a maternity ward) is much better than you expect. Xiao long bao, the signature pleated soup dumplings that look like miniature hangover ice-packs, are chewy but tender, built like Swiss watches, and possess just the right amount of soup and pork, or pork-and-crab, if you prefer.
Third-Generation Sausages Papaya King, the cheap eater’s home away from home, is within tube-steak-tossing distance of this takeout-window-and-barroom spinoff of the Schaller & Weber butcher shop. But Schaller’s Stube’s pricier product is more along the specialty-sausage lines of Hallo Berlin, and well worth the extra shekels.
Hunanese Home Cooking What would an annual cheap-eats list be without an excellent new Sichuan — wait, let’s make that the even hotter Hunan, Sichuan’s southern neighbor — joint to scorch your lips and set your tongue on fire? Hunan Bistro, which opened late last year a few doors down from the equally blazing Han Dynasty, fulfills the requirement.
Malaysian Coffee House Kopitiam might be named for and modeled after the Malaysian coffee shops where customers linger for hours, but don’t try that here. The five counter seats are in constant demand, and your fellow diners will hover anxiously as you attempt to savor chef-owner Kyo Pang’s snacks and sweets. The counter display case is filled with variations on a Malaysian-dessert theme, mostly involving sticky rice, coconut, palm sugar, and condensed milk, all of which go well with Pang’s famous “hand-pulled” coffee.
Part Egyptian temple (the imposing façade), part boisterous romper room (the third-floor play space), Tut’s Hub might be Astoria’s most unusual restaurant. The steam trays and pizza oven could be found in any midtown deli, but not the foods they convey: koshary, a carb-loader’s dream of lentils, chickpeas, rice, and elbow macaroni, anointed with crispy onions and tomato sauce; warm, tender, superb rice-stuffed grape and cabbage leaves; puréed lentil soup redolent of bay leaf and cumin; and feteer, sweet or savory pastry made from dough that’s stretched tablewide and paper thin and filled with anything from pastrami to chocolate syrup. Oddly, the kitchen devotes itself equally to Americana like burgers and pizza, so you might assume the baked pasta in the display case is lasagna; it’s actually macaroni béchamel, made with ground beef and penne, and as popular in Cairo, Egypt, as tuna casserole is in Omaha, Nebraska.
New Brooklyn Taiwanese In several ways, Win Son seems like a Taiwanese-American Momofuku. There’s the lowercase menu lettering; the small glasses that accompany the Taiwanese beer; the inventive, interpretive approach to an ethnic cuisine. There are small-plate appetizers, stark white bowls of noodles, and lots of pork. But mostly, there’s the knack for sandwiches.
Nose-to-Tail Sandwiches Lonza, saucisson sec, and provolone with mayonnaise and mustard greens on a hero roll? Roasted Goldbar squash with parsley salad and feta on ciabatta? This is not your average Boar’s Head–on–rye deli counter. In fact, you might think of John Ratliff’s salumeria inside the food court at Industry City as a modern-day Faicco’s or a Corona Heights Pork Store, only instead of making muzz and slinging meatball subs on the side, it’s serving “pigstrami” with Swiss on semolina and breaking down whole, grass-fed animals a few feet away from the customers.
Midtown Lunch Midtown is not the first place you think of when you think of ecofriendly, possibly organic, vaguely hippieish noontime feeds. But that may be owing to the fact that you’ve never heard of Pickler & Co., a year-old, under-the-radar, mostly takeout shop plunked down smack-dab in the lobby of a fashion college, whose mission is to serve its desk-jockey clientele “worry-free” wraps, salads, and sandwiches. The meats are antibiotic-and-hormone-free; the dairy is locally sourced; the spices are non-irradiated; the cooking oil non-GMO.
Dough-Driven Pizza Most pizzerias allow you to choose your toppings; four-month-old PN would like you to pick the flour used in the dough from which your pizza is made. The flours range from organic stone-ground Italian whole wheat to high-gluten Canadian mingled with farro and rye, and, yes, it’s no coincidence that the place is owned by a flour company. While this may seem like the promotional gimmick to end all promotional gimmicks, the pizzas are already among the best in town: remarkably tender-crusted with well-articulated pockets of air that aficionados associate with long fermentation, and some first-rate charring around the cornicione.
Korean Rice Balls Onigiri, a.k.a. omusubi, or just plain rice balls, are traditional Japanese finger food made from seasoned white rice squeezed into triangular and oval shapes and wrapped in nori. In Korea, they call them samgak kimbap. Besides the fact that it’s the ultimate portable snack, the beauty of the rice ball is that, like the sandwich and the pizza, there is no limit to what you can shove into or place on top of one, the inevitable outcome of which is the specialty of this Korean-American snack shop: a chunk of rice stuffed with Cheddar, bits of bacon, and a runny quail egg, the whole package girdled with a sheet of nori and charred on the grill.
Super Sandwiches Why you seldom find great coffee and great grub hobnobbing under the same roof is one of the culinary mysteries of our time. An exception is this pint-size coffee bar that has been doling out expertly brewed drip coffee and espresso for years and added sandwiches to the lineup last fall along with a talented sandwich-maker named Josh Sobel.
Pakistani Grill Fans of BK Jani’s grilled Pakistani meats and paratha rolls have adopted a pre-Yelp style of expressing approbation: writing their reviews on sheets of paper that are taped to the walls like good report cards that get hung on refrigerators. Most of these critiques are five-star raves about the exuberantly seasoned burger and the marinated lamb chops, but not all.
Northeast Chinese Chinese cooking from the northeast hinterlands of Dongbei is old hat by now in Flushing, Queens. But news of its arrival on West 14th Street practically warrants a mayoral ribbon cutting — or at least a visit from Instagram sensation Food Baby. The owners (who also run Flushing’s Golden Palace and a takeout Auntie Guan’s on 23rd Street) have larded the menu with a hodgepodge of multiregional dishes, anticipating wimpy Manhattan palates.
New York Jewish It would be easy to write off this combination delicatessen and appetizing shop as a bandwagon-jumping, hipster-infested exploitation of a current food-nostalgia trend. But, truth be told, we’re downright impressed. The young brothers Frankel seem to take their ancestral cuisine (Zabarsian, a.k.a. Upper West Side Jewish) quite seriously. In a tiny retail space inspired by places like Russ & Daughters, they make a smartly streamlined selection of deli classics from good ingredients.
Nashville Hot Chicken At times, the new Nashville-style hot-chicken joint from television personality Carla Hall seems too cute for its own good. There’s the “Hoot’n Heat Levels” of chile spice, with the kitchen crew hollering “boomshakalaka” every time someone orders the hottest; the faded recipe cards lining the bathroom walls; and the mini general store of Nashville foodstuffs, from “Sunday-morning pancake mix” to bourbon-nib brittle.
Pan-Caribbean Exposed brick, bare bulbs, and salmon beurre blanc all suggest bistro; the mostly Bob Marley soundtrack, tender curry goat, and coconutty rice and peas shout Caribbean kitchen. However you categorize it, the breezy corner spot has a homey vibe and a small but appealing menu that covers island classics like jerk chicken and braised oxtail.
Creative Coffee Shop Tekoá has some of the trappings of a Brownstone Brooklyn coffee shop: stroller-pushing mommies, table-hogging laptoppers, Colson Patisserie pain aux raisins. But because it’s owned by husband-and-wife chef duo Eder Montero and Alex Raij of the neighboring La Vara, the clean, bright space offers some welcome twists on a familiar formula.
Mid-Atlantic Before Patti Jackson came along, you might not have been aware that Mid-Atlantic cuisine needed a champion, or even that there was such a thing as Mid-Atlantic cuisine. But not only has Jackson created a delicious prix fixe primer for the regional style at her homey Williamsburg restaurant (tagline: from Baltimore to Buffalo), she’s opened an adjacent tavern dedicated to the beers and bar food of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, D.C., Delaware, and her native Pennsylvania.
Meat Pies There is more to Bolivian food than the salteña, but that stuffed-dough pocket is what brought fame (if not yet fortune) to the three brothers who launched this pop-up brand, a veteran of Smorgasburg and current tenant of the underground food court at the Columbus Circle subway station.
Wings Central What else is Buffalo famous for besides wings? One visit to this friendly orange-Formica’d takeout joint and you’ll be an expert on all things Western New York: fried bologna (thick cut, with Weber’s horseradish mustard, peppers, and onions), potato pierogies, hot roast beef (on a kummelweck roll, dipped in au jus), Sahlen’s hot dogs (dressed, like a Chicago dog, with ketchup, mustard, white onion, relish, and pickles), grilled chicken (bathed in Chiavetta’s Barbeque Marinade), and a milkshake made from Perry’s chocolate ice cream and loganberry syrup, one of over 50 different flavor options.
Detroit Pizza Detroit-style pizza? In Brooklyn? Were Cleveland and Pittsburgh styles unavailable? We confess to a New York bias, but isn’t this stuff simply Sicilian with an attitude? So what if some cheese is scattered around the upper edges, where dough meets pan, to make the rim crunchy like a Friulian frico? That happens all the time in pan-pizza kitchens without anyone trying.