By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Named after a northern city famous for its cold and snowy winters, SAPPORO (152 West 49th Street, 212-869-8972) is the comfort food capital of Nipponese New York, a spot long favored by Japanese businesspeople and students for its steaming bowls of ramen noodles, or over-rice meals like katsudona perfectly fried pork cutlet enmeshed with caramelized onions in a rice-topping omelet. An order of the fried-on-one-side gyoza dumplings with a salad or bowl of miso soup makes a splendid cold-weather meal, too. The miracle is that Sapporo persists in a Times Square increasingly plagued by crappy fast-food chains.
At mealtime, the working-class patrons of TAD'S STEAKS (152 West 34th Street, 212-630-0318) line up to watch the forkmaster in the window flame-grill their steaks, which they relish every bit as much as the hoity-toity patrons of Peter Luger or the Palm. The cuts range from sirloin to filet mignon to the signature T-bone, and, though not made of the same marbled, dry-aged beef as the fancy places employ, the steaks taste damn good. And while the luxury steak houses charge $40 or so for the meat by itself, and gouge extra for sides, at Tad's the under-$10 price tag includes baked potato, salad, and well-greased slice of Texas toast. You can linger in the dining room with its outrageous red-flocked wallpaper for as long as you like, since there are no waiters to give you the bum's rush. Which also meansno tip. Warning: Tad's trick is to charge you for onions on the steak and tomatoes in the salad by asking if you want them without saying they cost extra. Just say "No."
Most of the city's Palermo-style focaccerias date from the '50s and preserve their original Formica and Naugahyde decor intact. The best is JOE'S OF AVENUE U(287 Avenue U, Brooklyn, 718-449-9285), located in the shadow of the F train in the mournfully named Gravesend, Brooklyn, where the food runs from the most familiar southern Italian pasta-sauce combos to Sicilian exotica, making it a perfect place for mixed groups of timid and adventuresome diners. Fitting into the exotic category is pasta con sarde, the island's favorite supper of bucatini with a sauce of sardines and fennel. The vegetarian's delight is panelle special, a sandwich of fresh local ricotta and chickpea fritters on a homemade roll.
When 116-year-old Germanic steak house PETER LUGER(178 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-387-7400) first put a hamburger on its lunch menu a couple of years ago, it attracted so many critical plaudits that Saddam Hussein probably heard about it. The burger is made with the same well-aged beef as the porterhouse, but the half-pound behemoth only costs $6.95, qualifying it as one of the city's most inspired loss leaders. Though large, this "hamburg" in ancient New York parlanceis bare bones, delivered on a seeded bun garnished only with a single slice of raw onion. Arriving with a small pile of barely acceptable fries, the burger is stupendously juicy and beefy, and it will take several minutes to wipe your lips clean afterwards.
The world's greatest deli is certainly KATZ'S(205 East Houston Street, 212-254-2246), which is one year older than Peter Luger. Engagingly decorated with celebrity photos and often jammed with a tumultuous crowd, Katz's is an Ellis Island gateway to the kingdom of cured meats. Both the pastrami and corned beef vie for your attention, and I generally solve the dilemma by getting both on a club roll. Ostentatiously tip the carver $1 before he starts slicing, and you'll get a sandwich large enough for two. If you happen to still be hungry, the extra stomach space can be filled with one of the excellent natural-skin franks.
Falafels descended on us like miniature spaceships in 1971 when a joint named MAMOUN'S FALAFEL(119 MacDougal Street, 212-674-8685) opened. The effect was immediate and lastingand today there is still a line of cheap Middle Eastern places to prove it. Revisit Mamoun'swhere dim lighting and faded ethnographic geegaws evoke the souks of Beirut and Damascusto savor an interior unchanged since Dylan sang "Positively 4th Street." You and your date can enjoy a pair of falafel sandwiches slathered with tahini and washed down with steaming cups of cardamom tea for way less than $25, and have money left over for ice cream.
Mamoun's may be cheap, but it's nowhere near the cheapest place in town. That distinction goes to the northern Chinese dumpling stalls that have been popping up lately. Closer to the East Village than Mott Street, FRIED DUMPLING (99 Allen Street, 212-941-9975) encourages you to dine well for less than $5 per person. A quintet of savory pork dumplings fried on one side and steamed on the other costs a mere $1, and a cup of sweet-and-sour soup, rife with cloud ear mushrooms and lily bulbs, is an additional $1.50. Still hungry? Tuck into one of the sandwiches of aromatic dried beef with pickled vegetables on homemade sesame bread ($2).
This list of inexpensive and excellent eats would be incomplete without including one of the city's venerable pizza parlors, which collectively count as one of our greatest culinary treasures. Besides his own restaurant on Spring Street, founded in 1905, Lombardi's immediate dynasty includes Totonno in Coney Island, John's on Bleecker Street, and Patsy's in East Harlem. Nephew and Patsy's veteran Patsy Grimaldi started his own parlor only a decade ago in Fulton Ferry, Brooklyn, and it rapidly rose to be one of New York's best pizza joints. The toppings are perhaps a bit more lush, the crust a little more thick and flavorful than the austere Lombardi's style, but that's just fine with the patrons who throng GRIMALDI'S (19 Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-858-4300) every weekend and evening. Go at weekday lunch if you want to relax.