Downtown's Cheap Eats

Julie Besonen

To welcome back students—and everyone else who craves good food at a great price—we're celebrating seven favorites that are within walking distance from many of downtown's campuses and reflect the area's rich history. Since the mid-1800s, downtown Manhattan has been a refuge for immigrants, artists and political anarchists, fleeing famine and oppression and boldly seeking the American dream. Waves of émigrés from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Poland, Russia and China built new lives in crowded tenements and stirred their cuisines into the melting pot. Today, ethnic eateries can help maintain a healthy diet, though we can't deny the charm of the recession special at Gray's Papaya—two franks and a beverage for $4.95. Deals can also be found at Vanessa's Dumpling House, Thai favorite Zabb Elee and the East Village's Mark and Meatpacking's Bill's Bar & Burger, both for better-than-fast-food burgers. Think how lucky you are: all of downtown is your dining hall.

Pancake with egg and beef. Photo: Robyn Lee/

456 Shanghai Cuisine
69 Mott St., 212-964-0003, Chinatown, Manhattan
Restaurant critic Sam Sifton's shout-out in The New York Times made the lines at 456 Shanghai even longer, with patrons clutching his review to make sure they ordered the things he praised. It's hard to go wrong. Platters of food are bountiful, flavorful and modestly priced. Bamboo steamers of juicy pork buns, cold noodles in sesame sauce, double-cooked pork and spicy eggplant in garlic sauce come out swiftly and just as swiftly disappear under a barrage of chopsticks (or forks, on request). Every table gets free pots of tea and orange slices at the end; other deals include crisp scallion pancakes for $2.50, a giant bowl of chicken and corn soup for $3.95 and shrimp fried rice for $6.95. With its bright lights and prefab atmosphere, the restaurant looks like any number of Chinatown establishments—but it's a cut above the rest.

Courtesy, Bánh mì Zòn

Bánh mì Zòn
443 E. 6th St., 646-524-6384, East Village, Manhattan
Of the many reasons to target East 6th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A (A-1 Record Shop, Cherry Tavern, Death & Co.), one of them should be Bánh mì Zòn. This first-rate Vietnamese shoebox has blond wood surfaces and a magazine rack whose holdings illustrate its underpinnings: style (Harper's Bazaar) and faraway places (National Geographic). The chic proprietors, Truc-Lien Huynh and Tai Dang, are from Vietnam and mastered their cooking skills in Saigon. As for their bánh mì, it's hard to find a fresher sandwich for under $7. Pork, chicken, sardines or vegetables are combined in a baguette with cucumber, cilantro, soy sauce, pickled carrots, daikon and spices (the level of the latter is adjustable). The lotus stem salad with shrimp, mint and crushed peanuts is also lovely.

Photo: Phil Kline

Joe's Pizza
7 Carmine St., 212-366-1182, West Village, Manhattan
Sure, we endorse the City's growing number of recession-friendly $1 (sometimes even 99-cent) slice joints, but if you can scare up $2.75, Joe's Pizza is classic. The thin crust is pliant, topped with exactly the right balance of fresh tomato sauce and buttery mozzarella, easy for folding and not dripping with grease. This West Village cubbyhole, founded by Pino "Joe" Pozzuoli in 1975, is plastered with photos of celebrities who've stopped in, including Sarah Ferguson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mickey Rourke. Then there's Kevin Bacon's testimonial that "a slice of pizza from Joe's on Carmine Street" would be his chosen last meal. Even if it's not your last meal on earth, it's a good way to end a night on the town since it's open until 4am.

Bifteki. Courtesy, Souvlaki GR

Souvlaki GR
116 Stanton St., 212-777-0116, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Born of a food truck, the brick-and-mortar Souvlaki GR is a fantastic stop on the Lower East Side for an under-$5 sandwich. Chicken and pork are char-grilled and tucked inside a warm pita alongside crunchy fries, tomatoes, red onions and tzatziki. Chicken or pork on a stick is just $2. The whitewashed taverna with Mediterranean blue accents gives off a sunny vibe, as if it's on a corner in Mykonos. Walls cascade with (fake) bougainvillea and cobblestones are painted on the floor. One wall holds a newsstand stocked with Greek candy, savory goodies and magazines. Another thing that sets it apart from the still-roving food truck: a beer and wine license.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Phebe's Tavern & Grill
359 Bowery, 212-358-1902, East Village, Manhattan
Headquarters for New York University students, starving actors and Bengals and Red Sox fans, Phebe's is a no-frills watering hole that gets rowdy during major-league games and after midnight. Open on the Bowery since 1969, it was a punk hangout in the old CBGB days, but like the rest of the area, it's more mainstream now. Cheapest times to hit it are Monday and Wednesday nights, when a pitcher of beer comes with 10-cent chicken wings. On Tuesday, it's two-for-one burger night (the burger's actually pretty good). And don't forget about happy hour. Stick to the basics—beer over fancy cocktails, jeans over designer dresses and food like deep-fried bacon and fries over froufrou grilled salmon. Fun trivia: NYU acting school alum Rainn Wilson waited tables here in the late '80s.

Bhel Pori. Photo: Howard Walfish (via Flickr)

112 MacDougal St., 212-614-9100, West Village, Manhattan
MacDougal Street is a main drag for students, lined with bars, ethnic eats, coffeehouses and comedy and music clubs, so packed with pursuits it's hard to think of studying. For nourishment, Thelewala is an inspired pick, doling out amazingly tasty Indian street-cart food from a supertiny shop found up a flight of steps. The modern design makes imaginative use of the limited space, and the food is up-to-date, too, with hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken and a minimum of grease since dishes are prepared with olive oil. Calcutta-style nizami rolls are neatly bundled with minced lamb, red onion, lime and fried eggs, for instance—or tangy potatoes and coriander, for the vegetarian version. Items range from $3.50 to $8, especially handy for wee-hour hunger pains (until 5am on weekends).

Borscht. Courtesy, Veselka

144 Second Ave., 212-228-9682, East Village, Manhattan
The East Village's standard-bearer for Ukrainian soul food since 1954, Veselka has big changes afoot. A spin-off, Veselka Bowery, is scheduled to open in October, featuring an expanded menu, a contemporary design and a full bar. The original, homespun location will remain open 24/7, specializing in handmade dumplings and homemade soups at a suitable price for humble allowances. The breakfast menu is more American diner: pancakes, corned beef hash, eggs any style—but there's also old-country fare like blintzes, potato pancakes and sides of J. Baczynsky's kielbasa. (Support your local butcher! His shop is across the street.) Portions are indelicate, so you may want to skip your next meal, making the savings here even bigger.