For this week's beer, I turn my drinking attention to the Northeast's newest oldest brand, Narragansett. Once upon a time, this brewery was synonymous with imbibing in the New England region. But business decisions and declining quality sent the brand into a downward spiral. No longer. An able team has turned the brand around, and the brewery is cranking out killer lagers and this lovely treat. The porter pours dark and delicious, with a nice lick of bitterness and tons of creamy cocoa. Me like. Even better? The beer comes by the 16-ounce can, making for a delicious value (I paid $8.99 a six-pack.) Curious? Drink up the full review at Slashfood!
In the ongoing quest to shove nutritionally dubious foodstuffs into my mouth, I pen the Dollar Grub series for Web site Metromix. In this edition, I hit Hell's Kitchen and consume more dollar pizza than one man should ever consume in one afternoon. And eat ice cream while standing in front of a by-the-hour hotel. Curious? Read the article here!
This week in Time Out, I sing the praises of Trader Joe's Mission Street beers, both the IPA and Pale Ale. Dollar for dollar, these are the cheapest, tastiest beers you'll find. Recession drinking, you see, has never tasted so good. Curious? Drink it up!
Thank heavens for my thick, meaty thighs. They power my rusty 10-speed to far-flung locales like Pelham Bay and East New York and Richmond Hill, Queens—my peddling destination one recent weekend.
This Punjabi, Trinidadian and Guyanese ’hood was hosting Phagwah, the Hindu festival of color welcoming spring. Kids and adults shower one another with brightly pigmented powders and vividly dyed water. Participants resemble casualties in a Crayola factory explosion.
“You’re too clean!” screamed a teen, Super Soaking my gray sweatshirt with an eggplant burst.
A rainbow-messy elementary-schooler dumped red liquid down my back, before blowing green dust across my specs. I pondered planting my Chucks up his posterior, but my fury was tempered by a timely offering of food.
“Have a samosa,” said a beatific man with an enlightened man’s prim smile. He was standing behind a table loaded with coffee, soda and fried Caribbean delights sealed in Ziploc.
“What’s it cost?” I asked, cautiously extending a red-stained hand. I didn’t want to be suckered into a $6 snack.
“Nothing. It’s free,” he said. “We try to make the world a better place. Eat, eat.” He handed me a samosa, fried pholourie fritters and channa, spiced chickpeas.
My gifts were cold but satisfying in that homemade way, with a fiery sauce that wrestled my tongue into submission. I had another samosa, then a third.
“Hungry?” the man said, appreciatively.
“Just warming up,” I said, decamping for Liberty Avenue. The low-slung block is a patchwork quilt of restaurants, fabric shops and green grocers selling four-alarm peppers. Liberty’s as vibrant as Roosevelt Avenue, and offers cheap-grub huts like Singh’s Roti Shop (118-06 Liberty Ave. betw. 118th & 119th Sts., Queens, 718-835-7255). It contains countless mirrors, green neon and a CD shop run by a bearded youngster. His Caribbean discs bear titles like Ram Session 2000 and feature glistening women writhing against guys’ barnyard-animal loins.
I only craved meat warming behind a glassed-in buffet: conch, chicken, goat and shrimp, or perhaps shark or tubes of blood sausage, a mealy nightmare that tastes like a paper cut. Instead of appeasing my inner vampire, I tore into a shrimp roti (a burrito-like pancake filled with crushed chickpeas, $6.75) as spicy as the crustaceans were small and springy. My double ($1) was spongy, the chickpeas meager and mild, while the aloo pie ($1.25)—a split length of fried dough swollen with mashed potatoes—was incendiary and mushily, greasily addictive.
Know what wasn’t? “Jalebi,” a frizzy-haired grandma suggested for dessert. She pointed at an orange pretzel-like jumble resembling funnel cake.
She nodded and skedaddled lickety-split, perhaps cackling as I bit into the jalebi ($2). Rivulets of syrupy, sugary oil rolled down my cheeks, like the world’s foulest tears. My jalebi met the garbage and, after taking a final glance at the Caribbean Style CD’s plump tushies and wiping up, I wheeled home. Sleep? No. Time to grab unstained clothes, my girlfriend and pal Julie. Today’s gluttony—and sleaziness—still had legs. Quick quiz: What’s got boobs, great beer and tasty bar food?
Barrette (601 Vanderbilt Ave. at Bergen St., B’klyn, 718-230-5170). Come Saturday, this red-and-black, sorta-sordid go-go bar offers edibles until 3 a.m., $5 microbrews and ladies gyrating to soul, rock and ’60s tunes on a glittery stage the size of a sideways coffin.
“Boobies,” I said breathlessly, sliding into a booth big enough to give birth.
“Yes, yes, they are,” my girlfriend said, watching a sparkly dancer’s tasseled pasties toss willy-nilly.
As a taken man, I grasp any opportunity my girlfriend gives me to ogle bare flesh. I celebrated with a bitter Avery IPA ($5), followed by Captain Lawrence’s zingy Belgian Liquid Gold ($5). Oh, heavens, I was happy: I was living out my soft-core porn fantasies, like the penetration-free, soft-focus flicks I peeped on Cinemax long after my parents slept.
To keep intoxication at bay, we ordered a buttery challah grilled cheese ($3.50) as big as my noggin’. The mini Portobello sandwich ($4.50) was ’shroomy and agreeable, while the kielbasa ($4.50) was a joke.
“They’re like Jimmy Dean breakfast links.” Julie said, equally mocking our “pretzel” plate ($2.50): broken, hard nubs served with several scoops of mustard. However, sledgehammer-strength Avery IPA soothed our complaints, eased my bike-weary muscles. We sunk into our booth, guzzling suds and studying jiggling flesh until the hours grew big, then small, then big again, the holy day devolving into a holy mess.
I was permitted to pen this column on one condition: “Just don’t write about dumplings,” my editor told me. “Surely you know lots of dining deals not found in Chinatown.”
Yes, I admitted, even I deviate from my steady diet of pot stickers and indulge in finer dining. But my cheapskate streak keeps me far from Masa and Per Se; I’d spontaneously explode if I spent more on a meal than a round-trip ticket to Beijing.
Still, one need not hock vital organs to afford a majestic meal. Affordably dining at NYC’s culinary champs merely requires searching for menu loopholes. Take Del Posto (85 10th Ave. betw. 15th &16th Sts., 212-497-8090). Mario Batali’s Meatpacking District outpost is a temple of opulence, with pastas as supple as sun-softened Twizzlers and fresh-baked breads served with luscious lardo—pig fat, in layman’s terms. Since Del Posto caters to expense-account businessmen, it’s easy to blow $150 in a blink. But plant your patootie in the enoteca bar area, and you’ll feast on five courses of house-cured meats, steaming nudi and chocolate indulgences for $45.
Très exorbitant? Try L’Ecole (462 Broadway at Grand St., 212-219-3300), the French Culinary Institute’s house restaurant. Sure, students cook meals, but exterminate any worry, as dinner’s far safer than a barber college snip-snip. L’Ecole’s high-ceilinged SoHo space offers dual deals: At lunch, a three-course meal is’s just $26.50 (including wild-mushroom tarts and seared scallops with lemon confit), while a five-course dinner, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., buys $39.95 of goodness, ranging from olive-oil-poached barramundi to seafood ravioli to warm chocolate cake swimming in espresso sauce.
The prix fixe pleasure also extends to the ambitious, insanely lauded Dovetail (103 W. 77th St. at Columbus Ave., 212-362-3800). At the Upper West Side anomaly, chef John Fraser lets low-rollers sup like kings every Sunday night. A three-course prix fixe ($38) offers killer tidbits such as house-made parpadelle with poached hen egg and wild-mushroom Rragu, fried-crisp lamb’s tongue and sea scallops with blood orange and hollandaise. That’s serious exotic yum.
Double yum applies at gastronomic wonderland Jean-Georges (1 Central Park West at 60th St., 212-299-3900), where a two-course lunch runs just $28. In this romantic room patrolled by crisp servers, you’ll go gaga for foie gras brulée, urchin roe paired with zippy jalapeño and pan-roasted sweetbreads with grilled pear: four-star dishes at one-star prices.
At Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House (1221 Sixth Ave. at 49th St., 212-575-5129), four-star meats are sold at Queens-diner prices. While moneymen make million-dollar deals over bottles of pricy Bordeaux, rest your poor rump at the stone-topped bar, ask for the leather-bound bar menu and order the $9.95 steak tips sliced from filet mignon. They’re soft enough that teeth are superfluous. Beg the bartender, and he might provide bread to clean pricy juices off your plate.
Lunchtime hits keep coming at Gramercy’s Pamplona (37 E. 28th St. betw. Park & Madison Aves., 212-213-2328). Chef Alex Ureña concocts Spanish heart-stoppers like a beef, suckling pig and chorizo burger, but his takeout lunch specials elevate deli food to luxe, yet affordable heights: Fancy- pants mesclun salads studded with tuna, piquillo peppers, manchego cheese and chickpeas ($4.95) and a crisp baguette crammed with grilled chicken, avocado and aioli is ($5.95). That kicks Cosi’s butt.
You need not be a titan of industry to partake in the titanic lunch special at French bistro Montparnasse (230 E. 51st St. betw. Second & Third Aves., 212-758-6633). Relax at the curvaceous bar, then beg for the business lunch: A $20 bill transforms into a three-course prix fixe including indulgences such as duck terrine, steak frites, parmesan-infused vegetable risotto and crème brulée crispy enough to crack with a spoon.
If you prefer your lunchtime French cuisine upscale and rarefied, look toward Le Cirque (151 E. 58th St. betw. Third & Lexington Aves., 212-644-0202). The vaunted institution keeps costs reasonable with a three-course, $39 lunch. Le Cirque still offers taste- bud titillations like a sea bass with fennel marmalade and vodka-tomato beurre monté, chicken fricassee with hedgehog mushroomss, wine-braised short ribs and a mini Napoleon aside strawberry sorbet.
The low-cost journey rolls on at Café Boulud (20 E. 76th St. betw. 5th & Madison Aves., 212-772-2600), chef Daniel Boulud’s sophisticated survey of French classics, global grub, vegetarian goodies and seasonal eats. Tuesday through Saturday, sample a two- ($32) or three-course set lunch ($40) that could feature delicacies ranging from sunchoke soup with black trumpet mushrooms to artichoke risotto to sashimi with butternut-squash purée.
Across the East River, Peter Luger (178 Broadway at Driggs Ave., 718-387-7400) has been derided for resting on its laurels. Despite the slams, the surly meat -merchants still broil a two-handed, half-pound burger at lunch ($8.95). Be bold and add a side of thick-cut bacon ($2.95) that could double as a meal.
That porcine pleasure’s unavailable at Lucali (575 Henry St. betw. First Pl. & Carroll St., Brooklyn, 718-858-4086), though you can add pepperoni, sausage or anchovies to the thin-crust, cracker-crisp pies baked at this no-frills pizza shop: The only options are 18-inch pizzas ($18) or ricotta-stuffed calzones longer than your forearm ($10). The pizzas are a mega-value when you consider Lucali’s BYOB policy.
The booze ain’t bring-yer-own at Prospect Heights’ Lilliputian Garden Café (620 Vanderbilt Ave. at Prospect Pl., Brooklyn, 718-857-8863), but this classy long-timer has a swell wallet-saving bargain. Tuesday through Thursday, sate yourself on a three-course prix fixe ($32), featuring nouveau-American edibles such as a smoked -salmon croque monsieur and short ribs with green-peppercorn jus.
“Just three courses,” you scoff. “I need five.” Fine. Visit Park Slope’s sleek Melt (440 Bergen St. betw. Flatbush & Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, 718-230-5925) for the five-course “Taste Life Tuesdays” ($25). Options rotate weekly, but Melt’s small-plates treats include goat-cheese salad, lobster ravioli, beef carpaccio and the scandalous-sounding she-crab soup—made tastier with a $20 wine pairing. It’s dinner and drunkenness—with money remaining for dollar dumplings, too.
Since the 1950s, East Harlem’s El Barrio ’hood has been a Puerto Rican stronghold featuring down-home eateries heavy on rice and beans, mashed mofongo and heart-slowing fried pig morsels. Nowadays, the 116th Street artery has been infiltrated by taquerías and tamale vendors, creating a scrumptious cuisine convergence.
Belly grumbling on a blustery weekday—and packing a $10 bill—I depart the 2 train at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue and embark east toward Sea & Sea Fish Market (60–62 W. 116th St., 212-828-0851). The seafood depot contains a lunch counter run by yellow-smocked men deep-frying hockey-puck fish cakes for 75 cents apiece. My crunchy cake is honey-brown, but its insides are February-frigid and as mushy and flavorful as oatmeal.
Trashing the pap, I head to patriotically themed $1 $2 $3 USA Superstore (64–68 E. 116th St., no phone) and uncover 79-cent, God-bless-the-U.S. Iced ’Spresso. The flavor? Nauseatingly syrupy American vanilla.
There are far fewer jingoistic eats at Zapotitlan Family Mexican Restaurant (118 E. 116th St., 212-426-6100). In the cluttered shop crammed with dried peppers, a sliding glass cabinet contains bread pudding.
“Cuanto cuesta?” I query the counter lady.
“Setenta y cinco,” she replies: 75 cents. Bingo. I chomp a hefty square suffused with subtle cinnamon and vanilla notes: a cheap-eats home run.
Buoyed by my discovery, I saunter to Sam’s Famous Pizza (150 E. 116th St., 212-348-9437), a corner spot selling five garlic knots for a buck. I sit on a red swivel stool and devour my bite-size breads. They’re well-toasted and covered with enough real garlic to mortify a vampire.
My stinkiness precedes me as I enter Puerto Rican old-timer Cuchifritos Frituras (168 E. 116th St., no phone), which slings stacks of fried brown weirdness heated by lightbulbs. A striped-shirt counterman eyeballs me warily, then serves me a $1 combo of nonalcoholic piña colada and a guineo: a boiled, unripened banana. It’s as mealy as a rotten apple.
“Do you like that?” asks a diner.
“That’s because you need garlic oil,” she says, handing me a squirt bottle. I douse the fruit and savor its transformation from torture to plate-scraper.
I uncover another torture at Capri Bakery (186 East 116th St., 212-410-1876), which peddles SpongeBob cakes, milkshakes and 50-cent beef or chicken “partties.” I order both, which is two more than I recommend. The flaky rounds ooze grease, and the fillings taste scavenged from a butcher’s dumpster bin.
I ditch my partties in a trash can (corner of East 116th Street and Third Avenue), beside which stands a wee red-hooded woman with Igloo corners. She’s vending one-buck cups of hot, thick champurrado, fashioned from masa and chocolate. Screw Swiss Miss, I think, sipping the chocolatey goodness: This is winter’s wonderful stomach warmer.
I’m so blissed out, I nearly overlook the jackpot awaiting across the street: a woman huddled over a shopping cart containing two covered metal pots. I quick-step across traffic and unleash my high school Spanish.
“Usted tiene tamales para un dólar?” I ask.
“Sí, sí,” she replies, reaching into a steaming pot and passing me a plump delight. I gleefully unwrap the corn husk and dig into spongy masa containing chicken shards bathed in salsa verde. It’s the peak of street eats—and tongue-numbingly piquant.
Searching for cooling relief, I trundle to El Barrio Juice Bar (308 E. 116th St., 212-828-0403). Fancifully named fruit drinks such as Hangover Cure, Melon Madness and Body Wiser are promising, and too pricy. So I pick a highlighter-orange cantaloupe popsicle. Packed with pureed fruit, it’s fresh and not cloyingly saccharine: $1 paradise on a wooden stick.
My sweet tooth piqued, I search for one final sugary nibble at L&T Coffee Shop (2265 First Ave., 212-358-4485), a narrow Greek diner crowded with school kids. Behind the cash register, I spy homemade doughnuts.
“Which one’s your favorite?” I ask the grizzled counterman.
“My favorite? I don’t like doughnuts,” he replies.
“He also doesn’t like feta cheese,” a customer chimes in.
The counterman shrugs. “Get a twist.”
I do, and my 70-cent selection is a beaut: It’s braided like challah, heavily glazed and pillow-soft. The donut sends my blood-sugar levels rocketing and makes me happy as a puppy, a sweet ending to a day made sweeter by my pocketful of jangling change.
Searching for sweetness, bitterness, heck, a scrub brush to cleanse my tongue, I enter Fresh Health Food Emporium (594 Nostrand Ave., 718-774-3550). Burning incense perfumes the shop, while the fridge contains tonics promising to boost my libido. I eyeball pinkie-size rectangles of sesame crunch candy, only 95 cents per quarter pound. A few pieces make cuttlefish’s inky memories vamoose.
That means it’s time to say hello to Zen’s Caribbean Flavor Restaurant (602 Nostrand Ave.). This ma-and-pa eatery promises one-dollar lentil soup, but the tureen’s empty. “Whaddya have for a buck?” I beg of the indifferent hairnet-clad counterwoman. She points to a log-like “cheese straw.” The baked good is Sahara-dry and Antarctic-cold. Sometimes you get what you pay for. The straw meets the trash and I motor to Royal Bakery (618 Nostrand Ave., 718-604-0200), home to “TRINIDADIAN CHINESE AND HOT ROTI, ALL IN ONE PLACE.”
Greasy lo mein is always a dreadful notion, but the freshly baked treats displayed inside a scuffed glass case are not. I order a dense brick of bread pudding. It’s moist and riddled with coconut slivers, and expands in my belly like an add-water-and-watch-it-grow dinosaur sponge.
“Must…eat…more…” I groan, as I shuffle into the reggae-playing GT Golden Loaf Bakery & Restaurant (715 Nostrand Ave., 718-363-2954) and order a currant roll. “You gotta try it warm,” the tee-wearing counterwoman says, nuking it in the microwave. The pastry is flaky and fruity, a familiar flavor unlike what I find on the corner of Saint Johns Place and Nostrand Avenue. A makeshift card table is topped with a glass jar containing bobbing yellow fruits. “It’s a june plum in my special mixture,” says a man with a bushy beard begging off the camera. “Is this legal?” I ask. He smiles enigmatically as I nibble the tart, spicy, salty and disconcertingly firm flesh.
Down to my last dollar, I spy the gated Q’s Tavern (761 Nostrand Ave., 718- 774-9021). In front, a man hacks off sugarcane with a gleaming machete. “Wan’ some?” he asks, grinning. No, no, I reply, enamored of lumpy balls the color of compost, sold from a glass jar labeled “TAMARIND BALLS HOT HOT HOT.” They’re 50 cents apiece, so I buy two. They’re spicy and sweet, gooey with sugar and studded with gag-causing seeds.
“Drink this, man,” says the salesman, holding up a bottle of milky liquid.
“What’s it cost?” I choke out.
No thanks, I reply, wandering off in search of something just a little bit cheaper.
If I were elected president—highly unlikely, given my checkered past of pilfering my mother’s purse change and guzzling strangers’ abandoned beers—I would make my birthday a national holiday. Let’s call it Josh Day. On Josh Day I’d urge, no, demand my citizenry to follow me to my preferred celebration spot, Coney Island. We’d unfurl blankets, sunscreen ourselves snow-white, devour Zapp’s Jalapeño potato chips and drink icy cans of Coors Light until I drunkenly, hilariously nuke some negligible nation like Luxembourg.
Sadly, I can’t derail the Obama Express (is America less likely to vote for a drunkard Jew than a black man?), so Josh Day will never receive national acclaim.
“But every day’s a Josh Day,” a friend points out. “You always pick the bars and restaurants we go to.” That’s because I’m always right. Except when I suggest imbibing the viscous liquor Zwack. Or eating embryonic ducks. Or sampling the Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge’s $3 cocktails and similarly affordable friction dances. Still, my smartest move—besides removing my navel piercing at 19—is celebrating my summertime birthday at Coney Island. After 29 years of birthday fetes, from Chuck E. Cheese’s animatronic high jinks to college keggers, my beach formula has proven the swellest—and cheapest. All I require are endless 99-cent Coors Light silos to unleash my battle cry, “It’s my birthday, bitches!” as the Cyclone zooms me to heights that dizzy me like a night’s ninth beer.
My party’s low-cost component is emblematic of my cheap-bastardness, which dictates I obtain pleasure from the absolute bottom. Take a recent weekend in geriatric wonderland—Sarasota, Florida—where a friend was getting hitched. Did the duo’s love make my heart swell like a Ballpark frank? Certainly. However, my happiest moment was dining at Tasty Home Cookin’, a greasy spoon with a countdown timer to Christmas 2008. The strip-mall outpost served three griddle-cooked burgers for $1.86. They were as wonderful as post-coital bliss, and far tastier, which makes me wonder what I’ve been doing wrong.
Conversely, inciting my drunken-stepfather ire is simple: Invite me to your birthday dinner. If the event’s BYOB, like at Prospect Heights’ jerk-shrimp paradise The Islands, then I’m placated. Otherwise, I avoid birthday get-togethers like I did my high school neighbor Heather. This stocky, apelike lady—her hair scraggly as a heavy metal headbanger’s—Peeping Tommed me every morning. Then she’d inform me of my underwear’s color while we waited for the bus.
“Blue,” she’d say, the words slithering from her pink, fur-lined lips, “with stars. Lots. And lots. Stars.” I shiver equally when I recall that moment, as well as a recent birthday fete at Korean long-timer Woo Chon. It’s on a Midtown block so desolate that one can urinate on the sidewalk like a flea-bitten mutt. The block’s homeless élan didn’t impact menu prices: “Twenty-five bucks for barbecue!” I cried, flipping through the disintegrating menu. “Five bucks for watery Hite beer!”
“Hahahahahahaha!” my dozen dinner companions laughed, which translates to, “We’re ordering enough food to sate a battalion of bulimic cheerleaders.”
I white-knuckled my wallet as eight bottles of bracing soju were ordered, followed by a dozen beers. Seafood pancakes, mushroom dumplings and tubular spicy noodles came next, followed by raw steak and sea creatures for barbecuing.
“I think we need another order of shrimp,” said a bald eater, smoke wafting around him. “Who wants shrimp?” I shook my head as emphatically as Roger Clemens denying any steroid wrongdoing.
“More shrimp it is!”
Mentally tabulating the bill removed the pleasure from my charred, lettuce-wrapped bulgogi. For the first time in a great long while, alcohol provided zero solace. Upon the night’s gluttonous, plate-licking end—sweet strips of raw beef served as dessert—the bill thudded onto the table like a cartoon anvil.
It sat dead-fish still until a diner cloaked in an ill-fitting suit grabbed it and performed mental math: “Fifty-six dollars each,” he proclaimed.
My heart wept as I envisioned all the dollar dumplings I’d never eat. Diners whipped out billfolds. “Happy Birthday” was sung with gusto. I tossed in my sad-sack Mastercard. When the receipt arrived, begging my John Hancock, I noticed an aberration: I was charged $57, not $56.
“Surely there’s been a mistake,” I said, masking my fury with a grin.
“We charged you an extra buck to round out the tip.”
“Huh,” I replied, making a mental note to steal the suited man’s drink when he least expected it.
Howdy, chickadees: The last month has been all about me being a cheapskate which, now that I think about it, is really no different than the first 29 years of my life. Except now I'm getting paid to be cheap. This week, I crafted a diet for Time Out New York that, for the low price of $19.99, will allow you to eat and get bamboozled for a week. Amazing? Depressing? You decide. Eat it up!
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.