As a child, when I came to New York City with my parents to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, I loved nothing more than reading the Zagat guide. For an Ohio-reared boy such as myself, the guide provided a portal to a new, ever-more delicious universe packed with "great" "descriptions" of "unparalleled food" and "peerless service." So, I consider myself super-lucky this week to have been able to contribute my two cents to Zagat's inexpensive grub guide. I provided a daylong eating arc, focusing on breakfast, lunch and dinner done for dirt-cheap. What are your favorite inexpensive foods in the city?
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.