I eat professionally. Which is to say my meals often involve the equivalent of a warthog’s weight in salt and pepper shrimp, jerk chicken, or calzones - all for the sake of a stranger’s future decision making. But sometimes what I really want is one satisfying dish for under $15. When a similar mood strikes you, try out one of these 22 fantastic meals I’ve eaten lately.
Whole Red Snapper, $15
The stretch of 116th Street to the west of St. Nicholas Avenue, an area called Le Petit Sénégal, is lined with grocery stores selling egosi and halal meats, as well as cafes and bakeries. But if you’re looking for a place to have a sit-down Senegalese meal for around $15, head to Pikine - a quiet restaurant with six tables and a TV perpetually playing soccer or the news. The restaurant is named after a coastal city on the western tip of Senegal, and it’s an incredible place to eat fish - particularly red snapper topped with raw white onions slathered in a zippy mustard coating. I like to eat mine crispy and fried (as opposed to grilled), mixing every bite with fluffy-steamed athieke and a squeeze of lime on top.
Dim Sum Platter, $15
I’m a huge proponent of eating dim sum by yourself, despite it sometimes looking like the saddest dining scenario in history. For anyone who feels secure in their adulthood and friendships, Dim Sum Go Go in Manhattan’s Chinatown works as an appropriate venue for a solo meal. The experience here feels more stripped down than what’s happening on weekend mornings at similar spots in the neighborhood. There are no carts roving around, and the space is only a fraction of the size of Ping’s or Royal Seafood Restaurant. Alone or not, their $15.95 dim sum platter remains one of the greatest set deals in the borough. It comes with roughly ten pieces, ranging from shrimp and pork shu mai to a pink-dyed chive dumpling (they also offer a vegetarian version for the same price). Supplement the set with baked pork buns or shrimp-stuffed eggplant if you’re with another person, though.
Beef Khinkali, $12
Want to have a day of spending relatively little money and eating like the fictional princess of the Black Sea? Take the Q to Brighton Beach and wander around with Carina Finn’s excellent Infatuation guide bookmarked on your phone. For Georgian food specifically, prioritize Toné Cafe on Neptune Avenue (about a fifteen-minute walk from the beach). Their beef khinkali and classic egg and cheese acharuli khachapuri both cost around $15, and both are worth ordering. If you’re simply choosing one (and you eat meat), make it the steaming khinkali. You can think of these as softball-sized purses made from thick, slightly sweet dough, only they’re filled with herby beef stock and ground meat instead of loose gum and a blue paper mask from April 2021.
Torta De Chilaquiles Con Milanesa Pollo, $13.95
My friend who lives in Mexico City described to me the architectural genius of a chilaquiles torta, ubiquitous in that perfect city but relatively hard to find in ours. He raised his voice a little and told me it has all of the crunch-and-sog of classic chilaquiles, but stacked in a little mound and situated between two airy pieces of white bread - something Americans like me conceptualize in surrealist stoner dreams. And then I went to Michelada House II in Jackson Heights - a restaurant with perpetual birthday party energy that serves towering micheladas and tacos with crunchy fried chapulines - and tried their chicken milanesa version. It’s just as satisfying as you’re currently imagining it to be, with spicy red sauce, crumbles of queso fresco, a couple slices of creamy avocado, and thin, breaded chicken milanese sitting on top of fried tortilla chips.
I can’t, in good conscience, tell you to go to this famous Yemeni restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn without eating any lamb. But if you’re doing Yemen Cafe on a budget and want something filling, order this tomato-based fava bean starter that comes bubbling in a cast-iron cauldron. I’m a sucker for stewy bean dishes where some of the favas maintain their shape and others disintegrate into bits. That’s what’s happening here, along with a ton of sauteed onions and warming spices. Even if you only order this, there will still be lamb present on the table: everyone who eats here gets complimentary marag to start, a brothy lamb soup that’s golden in color and comes with whole wheat flatbread on the side.
Rice Rolls, $10
Regardless of your stance on meat consumption, this vegan Chinese restaurant on Broome Street is a restaurant you should pay attention to. Particularly if you like the idea of eating delicate rice rolls that taste like a jug full of olive oil grew up and became something you could chew. These rice rolls come topped with charred scallion and whatever other vegetable the Fat Choy team is currently excited about, all coated in a splash of black vinegar for a satisfying buttery-acidic bite. I’ve been telling all of my friends to try Fat Choy for a casual meal sans meat, and that now includes you too.
Does a plate of veal hearts count as a complete meal? Categories become obsolete when you’re in the presence of food this rich and delicious. Instead of skewering their anticuchos, Warique in Jackson Heights serves their version of this Peruvian staple by slicing the hearts into Moleskine-diary-sized hunks. They arrive on a sizzling skillet alongside lightly-fried potato wedges and a handful of soft-chewy corn kernels. The meat’s simple seasoning (which tastes like smoky chiles, garlic, and salt) lets the natural richness of the veal heart do all the talking. Order these and a number of Warique’s other great sub-$15 dishes if you’re still pondering whether this might count as a meal rather than an appetizer.
Chicken Souvlaki Pita, $9.50
My old roommate started dating a guy who lives in Astoria. More accurately, he lives and breathes Astoria like it’s a cult community. He once told me that there was no better Greek food truck in all of NYC than King Souvlaki. This truck on 31st Street and 31st Avenue is indeed the best place to eat chicken souvlaki pita sandwiches stuffed with french fries and white sauce, as well as charred, homemade lamb sausages on sticks. Don’t think of this as just another gyro truck parked on the street, King Souvlaki is a serious institution. They even have their own ATM built into the side of the vehicle.
Everything Bagel (Untoasted) With Scallion Cream Cheese & A Thai Iced Tea, $8.60
I feel like a bad Jewish New Yorker for not trying Absolute Bagels until 2020 (and for about 300 other things I do on a daily basis). Especially since, after I ate their perfectly-malty everything bagel, I decided that this is my favorite NYC bagel shop. If you’re already familiar with Absolute Bagels, then you know I’m late to the party. For everyone else, please go enjoy the springy dough globes with blistered bottoms from this 108th Street carbohydrate emporium. Absolute Bagels also makes fantastic jewel-colored Thai iced tea (the place was founded by Sam Thongkrieng, who moved from Bangkok to NYC in the 1980s and worked at Ess-A-Bagel for years). Its unabashed sweetness adds some needed relief to the salty-garlicky, cheese-cream-gushing bagel experience.
Steak Suya Bowl, $15
Fast-casual bowls are generally about as exciting as the transcript of a filibuster. But the Nigerian food at Brooklyn Suya in Crown Heights is different. This tiny spot on Franklin Avenue has a few stools, and only enough room behind the counter for a single employee, a rice cooker, a cash register, and an oven full of incredible smoked and grilled meats. Each bowl comes with your choice of protein (I always get steak or chicken, since both are firm enough to hold up to the heavy suya dry rub mixture), a rice or kale base, add-ons (plantains are essential), and spice level. You should know that even the mild level is intense, and will temporarily claim your mouth as its own sauna.
Alcapurrias, $1.50 each
On my way home from Cuchifritos on 116th Street in East Harlem, the 6 train started to look like one big alcapurria. I began to imagine myself not as a passenger, but as a piece of ground beef floating inside of a slightly sweet, fried cassava tube. I guess that’s what happens when you eat Puerto Rican fritters this delicious, it makes you fried-meat drunk.
Classic Taameya, $8.25
Anyone who spends time listening to me talk or write already knows about my strong feelings towards this casual Egyptian restaurant in Nolita. But it’s worth repeating nonetheless: Zooba is the only fast-casual restaurant in New York you should give a sh*t about. I reunited with their classic taameya sandwich, a soft baladi bread stuffed with oval-shaped fried fava bean balls, a couple of weeks ago. It’s vegan, crunchy and excellent, and not so heavy that you’ll feel like you need to take a break from your daily duties.
Cỏm Gà, $12
There are few pure things to come out of the pandemic. One of them is that more of your friends now have pets that you can (one day) snuggle, and another is that there are a ton of incredible, independent restaurant initiatives operating exclusively over Instagram. This explains why I recently found myself DMing an accountant on the Upper East Side named Michael Nguyen who runs the Vietnamese delivery project, Gá đi bộ (which translates to “walking chicken” in Vietnamese). Their neatly-packaged cỏm gà is made up of juicy chicken that’s been pulled with the skin on, crunchy-fresh onions, fried shallots, as well as a fountain of fish sauce, chilis, and fresh herbs. Mixing the rice all together at home is as satisfying as someone throwing you a dinner party - only you don’t have to put on real pants or play team strategy boardgames with random people you flirt with out of sheer boredom. Join the waitlist for cỏm gà and other specials by DMing Gá đi bộ account - they deliver to every borough except for Staten Island.
Rinconcito Mofongo, $13
This East 10th Street cafe has been open and serving their namesake rinconcito mofongo for over 20 years. It comes with heaps of longaniza, pernil, strips of pan-fried mozzarella cheese, and pork cracklings mixed into a pile of mild green plantains. Think of this dish as a party platter for one, and you may consider it as a possible birthday cake replacement next year.
Kaut Swe Thoke, $8.99 for a small and $11.99 for a large
Eating and grocery shopping in Jackson Heights exists as one of the single best afternoon activities I can think of that doesn’t involve winning free money. Aside from stocking up on spicy masala popcorn at Patel Brothers, one of my favorite recent snacking stops has been this Burmese restaurant in the Roosevelt Avenue subway station. Their excellent cold salad comes with thick boiled noodles in a yellow curry sauce with chicken, shredded cabbage, and hardboiled eggs, and then topped with red onions, cucumbers, and a bean tempura brittle that adds crackle to the soft chewy noodles. Add on potatoes and/or tofu for no extra charge to add even more texture contrast and starch.
Pork Roll, $9
Regardless of your emotional ties to New Jersey’s sacred taylor ham (a fatty, salty, bologna cousin), Court Street Grocer’s pork roll is one of the best breakfast sandwiches you can eat in NYC. It’s available at all of their locations, costs $9, and is served on a potato roll with soft scrambled eggs, melty American cheese, and fried taylor ham.
Hellboy Slice, $5
Aside from maybe Good Room and Twins Lounge, you’re not going to find people waiting in line to enter a bar or club in Greenpoint. What you will find, however, is a perpetual line in front of this retro-themed slice shop serving paper plates of crispy square slices. I can’t come here without ordering the $5 Hellboy slice, a Sicilian square with spicy pepperoni cups, savory tomato sauce, gobs of low moisture mozzarella, and Mike’s Hot Honey drizzled over top. Recently, eating this put me in the mood to investigate why every square slice in this city doesn’t have sesame seeds on the crust.
Jerk Chicken Meal, $10
After operating two locations in Brooklyn, Peppa’s Jerk Chicken officially opened a third Caribbean spot on the Lower East Side in early 2021. It’s just as exciting to eat a platter of charred jerk chicken and festivals from here as it as at their other restaurants. The smoky chicken only improves with even more jerk sauce. Pour enough so that it coats every corner of caramelized plantains and rice and peas.
3 Maki Rolls, $15.59
Frugality and raw fish aren’t always a natural pair, but Roy’s Fish Market on the UES is an exceptional place. Head past the refrigerator of fish heads, salmon fillets, and crabs, and you’ll find yourself in Roy’s sushi bar corner, where you can get quality nigiri, sashimi combos, and rolls for less than $20. If you want a single roll, they have options like smoked eel and avocado, spicy tuna, and futomaki for under $10. But my favorite is the $15.59 combo that comes with three rolls (tuna maki, California maki, and yellowtail maki).
Chicken Biryani, $6
If a tourist ate at Indian King Biryani House’s cart, they may wrongly assume that all halal carts serving biryani are fantastic enough to write emails home about. But this cart near Trinity Church in FiDi is special. Their rice dishes taste distinctly saffron-forward and full of nutmeg, not to mention they’re topped with tender meat that falls apart with the slightest nudge of a plastic fork. Ask for the chicken biryani with plenty of white and red sauce on top.
This Bengali street food snack has so many contrasting flavors and textures, you would think there’s a tiny orchestra conductor shoved in there telling each component exactly when to fire off. First comes the crunch of the hollow puri, which holds everything together like a miniature basin made of semolina. Then a hot, spicy mash of yellow peas and potatoes inside, followed by rich, grated pieces of egg yolks and sharp red onions shards. Each order of this Bangladeshi food truck’s fuchka comes with a container of tamarind water in the middle, and it’s imperative that you pour the entire vat over the snack plate. That way, you get a slightly sweet finale to every bite. It made me want to write a puri poem.
Pork and Chive Fried Dumplings, 3.50
North Dumpling is the best I-can’t-focus-on-work snack break destination there is. The other day when I was feeling lousy and cooped up, I walked to their spot on Essex Street with cash in my pocket (they don’t take cards). By the time I was finished eating an order of their pork and chive fried dumplings, I no longer felt like I wanted to throw my computer in the East River. Each order of dumplings costs less than a bullsh*t coffee with too much oat milk even though you said, “a splash” ($3.50). I suggest you sub a future beverage break for a dumpling break the next time you need to step away from the horrors of your screen.