This city’s cash-strapped college students and munchie-minded revelers might not be so well fed today were it not for a kindly businessman by the name of Abdul Mohammad.
Around 10 years ago, so the story goes, Mohammad wanted to make some cash and feed an underserved demographic: the homeless. So Mohammad, owner of the ubiquitous 99¢ Fresh Pizza chain, set up shop in Hell’s Kitchen — right across the street from a shelter.
“If they want to buy Chinese food, they need $4,” Mr. Mohammad told The New York Times in a 2010 interview. “I say, ‘I want to do something for these people.'”
So Mohammad started selling $1 cheese slices, and the concept was a hit. Mohammad expanded to other storefronts, and competing pizza shops — such as St. Mark’s 2 Bros. Pizza, which opened in 2008 — took the same approach.
And now, one of New York’s most esteemed sausage-peddlers — Gray’s Papaya — has (somewhat perplexingly) entered the bargain-pizza fray. So begins this week’s Battle of the Dishes: a three-way throw-down between 99¢ Fresh, 2 Bros., and Gray’s $1 cheese pieces.
2 Bros. (32 St. Mark’s Place, 212-777-0600)
This East Village fave comes with plentiful melted mozzarella, and has a warm, elastic mouthfeel. The moz doesn’t taste especially creamy, but it does glisten slightly with that iridescent sheen of grease you want to see in a respectable slice. The tomato sauce even has hints of basil, and the crust strikes a balance between crispness and chewiness. The pick feels moist, hearty, and solid, but never too thick or homogenous. This could pass for high-quality frozen food, but in a good way.
99¢ Fresh (388 Sixth Avenue, 212-780-0020)
An outpost of Mohammad’s franchise lurks a mere block away from its new competitor. Fresh skimps on the tomato sauce — which doesn’t have much flavor anyway. Also, the “cheese” gives off a vegan-dairy-substitute-meets-Frankenfood vibe. Sure, so-called moz gets piled onto the pie, but the stuff lacks salt — and the slight, milky sharpness characteristic of the ingredient. At best, the store’s offering can be proud of its crust; it hovers between “decent” and “OK,” featuring a slight, wheaty crunch.
Gray’s Papaya (402 Sixth Avenue, 212-260-3532)
So much went wrong in an eatery that normally does so much right in terms of frankfurters. The crust feels cracker-like, and the sauce — despite shadowy flecks of something that seems like an herb or a spice — lacks seasoning. Even after the portion gets heated, the cheese takes on the character of dry skin. You might try to make this more palatable by sprinkling garlic, oregano, or black pepper on top. But the mozzarella doesn’t absorb any of the add-ons, so the powdered spices stick to the top, winding up on the roof of your mouth (or in your nose) when you try and take a bite. The Verdict
2 Bros. costs just as much (or as little) as 99¢ Fresh and Gray’s, but the difference in quality is almost exponential. Fresh and Papaya serve up slices that you’d encounter at a derelict Chuck E. Cheese’s: not a complete taste train wreck, but not something you’d go out of your way to eat, either. 2 Bros., on the other hand, strikes you as most like actual pizza. The best part: Unlike its competitors, you could be completely sober, and still enjoy 2 Bros.’ slice.