I am a cheap bastard. This much is true. For Web site Metromix.com, I am penning a recurring column wherein I find 10 things to eat for $1 apiece. Then I eat them. It is delicious. And sometimes horrible beyond belief. Below, behold my most recent dining adventure on Roosevelt Avenue. Eat it up!
Dollar Grub: Roosevelt Avenue Fertilized duck embryos. Unkown gray mush. Our cheap-hound braves $1 deals in Jackson Heights.
Consider Queens’ Roosevelt Avenue a food court of low-cost international eats, from Flushing’s plump dumplings to Sunnyside’s fatty Irish burgers. Yet the most pleasantly priced tummy-stuffers are found beneath the 7 train between Elmhurst and Jackson Heights—Mexico to India, in 20 scant blocks.
On an icicles-and-frostbite weekday, I decamp at Elmhurst’s 90th Street stop—a $10 bill in hand—and saunter past salsa-CD salesmen to Las Palomas (89-16 Roosevelt Ave., 718-533-7014), where a stout woman with several gold-capped incisors heats up a pot on a portable stove.
“Muy caliente,” she says, removing the vessel’s lid to reveal scalding, snow-color atole. A steaming Styrofoam cup of the cinnamon- and-vanilla corn-meal beverage warms me as I mosey to Cholula Bakery (88-06 Roosevelt Ave., 718-533-1171). Men solemnly munch greasy, overstuffed spicy-pork tortas ($4.95, darn it), but a glass display offers chocolate-drizzled cake slices crammed with custard—gooey, messy and priced just right.
I wipe my fingers on my jeans before entering Mi Bello Mexico (87-17 Roosevelt Ave., 718-429-4300), a convenience store where customers procure raw meat, cactus leaves and MSG-packed, corn-tortilla Takis snacks in flavors such as “fajitas,” “fuego” and “guacamole,” which I acquire. The crisp, highlighter-green cylinders look like leg-less caterpillars and taste like rotting salted limes.
The culinary gods’ wrathful vengeance continues at Jaff Candy Store (85-16 Roosevelt Ave.), a bodega with an impressive prophylactics selection and a heat lamp warming gray, desiccated chicken empanadas cooked—well, there’s no kitchen in sight. I chomp into gummy dough encasing flesh grisly enough to make Styrofoam seem like filet mignon.
Soldiering onward, I discover Bravo Comida Rápida (81-16 Roosevelt Ave., 718-429-6444), a neon-lit fast-food joint with a steam table where unidentified brown meat is stacked like firewood beside tureens of murky stews. Price tags are absent. “What’s a dollar?” I inquire of an officious man wearing a collar shirt. He points at slimy fried plantains and an orange half-moon. To the moon I go, devouring a delicious, corn-meal-coated mush of beef and potatoes spiced up with cilantro-flecked salsa.
Spirits rising, I shuffle several blocks to Cositas Ricas (79-19 Roosevelt Ave., 718-478-1500), a combination ice-cream parlor and steak house. At a counter, an aproned, balding man stuffs another deep-fried empanada—“beef,” he says with an undertaker’s solemnity—into a bag marked “barbecue.” This empanada has been deep-fried to disintegration. It’s like French-kissing a jug of Wesson.
I toss the artery-clogger into the trash, then notice a mural of a cake-carrying chef and enter the skinny, mirror-covered Miracali Bakery (76-04 Roosevelt Ave., 718-779-7175). On offer are fluffy bread, oily chicharrón and salt-covered, skin-on taters—40 cents apiece and soft as a teddy bear. I order two and dip them into a searing, sinus-emptying salsa. Bliss.
My veggie streak continues at Merit Kabab Palace (37-67 74th St., 718-396-5827). The steam-table joint with rickety, crammed tables sells me a flaky, triangle-shaped samosa bursting with curried peas, carrots and potatoes. Sweet heavens, it’s tasty.
Sweet heavens, why is Kabab King Diner (74-15 37th Road, 718-205-8800) selling Chinese food? I skip the chop suey and skewered $1.50 mutton kebabs and request a shami kebab. It’s a disconcertingly mushy patty of beef and spiced ground chickpeas—baby food for misbehaving infants.
Nine down. One left. What spot deserved my last buck? Phil-Am Food Market (70-02 Roosevelt Ave., 718-899-1797), a Filipino grocery vending four kinds of canned meats. I contemplate liver spread, then spot balut—fertilized duck embryos for 80 cents. I grab one and rush to the register.
“You know that’s no ordinary egg, right?” the cashier asks.
“Have you had it before?”
“Not exactly,” I answer, taking my partially formed, protein-packed treat to a quiet corner. I know I’m supposed to boil balut, but I’m feeling bold: I’ll pull a Rocky and down this baby raw. I crack the egg carefully, revealing red streaks and a tiny duck in the fetal position.
In the name of cheap eats I bring the egg to my maw. Closer, closer, I open wide—when my gag reflex revolts and I drop the duck, its final resting place an oil-stained driveway.
Reader, some bargains are no bargain at all.