During a decade of trying to build an acting career in New York City (with limited success), I developed a habit for seeking out cheap places to eat. Its a habit that persists, with my instincts almost always leading me to the cheapest Chinese place on the block.
All five boroughs of New York City are dotted with inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants (aka Greasy Woks) that are independently-owned and run by Chinese immigrants working long hours in unpleasant conditions. The menus are almost all identical and the food ranges from barely edible to surprisingly good. Most cater primarily to take-out/delivery and often have only a handful of dirty tables for folks who want to eat there.
If you're looking for a place to host your wedding reception, these restaurants aren't for you. But if you're looking for a place to grab a quick bite and prefer fresh vegetables to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, then you're in business. And, surprisingly, despite skyrocketing rents and frequent displacement of other businesses, these Chinese places seem to hang around for years - perhaps because of their small footprint, industrious owners, cheap workers and uncanny ability to operate profitably in crappy neighborhoods and buildings.
This page also includes some restaurants serving other cuisines that are distinguished by fairly reasonable prices.
10/23/2007 03:12 PM
Fo Ying, 811 8th Ave (at 49th St - one of a pair of little Chinese places just outside the theatre district on 8th Ave
10/23/2007 03:19 PM
China Gourmet, 877 8th Ave (btw 52/53rd st) - the other cheap Chinese place in the theatre district
12/11/2007 03:02 PM
Village Yogurt - 547 Ave of the Americas @ 14th St - steamed vegetables never tasted so good
La Caridad is one of a dwindling number of places in the city that serve both Chinese and Cuban cuisine. It was a melange I found truly bizzare on first moving here, but it makes sense when you understand that Cuba had a large Chinese population that picked up the culinary habits before migrating to NYC. They used to occupy more space on this corner before loco rent forced them to divide the space and rent half to another business. Not as cheap as some of the other places on this page, but it's also a legitimate sit-down place to eat, albeit fairly spartan. The Cuban side of the menu is generally better than the Chinese side, although the Chinese side is more than acceptable and leans toward the older, more sedate Cantonese style that once dominated the Chinese-American culinary landscape.
Margon is a great (and surprisingly reasonably-priced) Cuban lunch place at 136 W 46th St that managed to survive the Disneyfication of midtown. The spartan basement surroundings and loud salsa scare away the tourists, leaving la sabor de casa to the locals.
I stumbled on Bangkok Tasty in Astoria, Queens when earlier, more-elaborate dinner plans fell through and was pleasantly surprised. The decor was a step up from what would have been expect from the outside and if you ate in, they served you on a real ceramic plate. The pad see-ew was delightful, leading me to believe that the rest of the menu was probably pretty good. Others agreed. and by the time I made it back, the decor had been upgraded to make it more suitable for dining in.
I worked in Rockefeller Center for a number of years and New Wing Wah was a close, cheap place just around the corner. The food wasn't that great, but it was inexpensive and reliable and the fella that ran the place was always pleasant and happy to recommend some of the odder things on his menu. Hing Won opened down the street and that pretty much doomed NWW within a few months.
Supposedly, Mill Korean used to be a fairly traditional diner serving Columbia University students until a Korean employee became the owner and turned it into an outlet for his home-country fare. Korean in the city has a tendency to be surprisingly expensive, but this one has been reasonably-priced and generally tasty. The atmosphere is also fairly pleasant. I'm particularly partial to the Chab-Chae.
I was introduced to Yum Thai when I was working across the street at Lamb's Theatre (which also no longer exists). Best chicken pad thai I've EVER had. However, it never struck me as the cleanest place in the theatre district and the health department apparently agreed, shutting it down for good in November of 2007.
Chinatown is, of course, the premiere spot for both cheap and expensive Chinese food. The dozens of restaurants are both universally good and (to my Western eyes) virtually indistinguishable. Big Wong is my favorite old-school Cantonese place in the heart of Chinatown. Food is simple but good, and cheap...as long as you order from the regular menu and not the "Special" (aka tourist) menu.
Sunset Park, Brooklyn is home to a Chinatown that is smaller and more spacious than the one in Manhattan, but has a similar intensity and panoply of cheap and inexpensive eateries.
The working-class neighborhoods of the city frequently house cheap fried chicken places. Pressure-cooked fried chicken is inexpensive and irresistably tasty in a primal sort of way.