Cheap eats: The next generation

What does the future of cheap eats hold?

  • Chinese lamb burger at Xi'an

  • West african wings at Maima's Liberian Bistro

  • Nepalese momos at South Asian Family Restaurant

  • Panamanian carimaola at Kelso Dining

Chinese lamb burger at Xi'an

Some of New York's best cheap eats have this in common: They've migrated from immigrant enclaves to the mainstream. What's on the horizon? "National [categories of] cuisines are pass," says Krishnendu Ray, an assistant professor at NYU who specializes in the social aspects of food. "Over the next 20 years we're going to learn more about the regional diversity of large countries like China."

Chinese lamb burger
Chinese food extends beyond Peking duck: "We don't know much about the food from [the continent's] interior, where you get western Asian spices and grilled meats mixed with some linkages to the East—the land of noodles and rice," says Ray. One example: the cumin-spiced lamb "burger" ($2.50) at Xi'an (88 East Broadway at Forsyth St, stall 106, entrance on Forsyth St; 212-786-2068). The restaurant specializes in the cuisine of the central Chinese city of the same name. The recent appearance of two Manhattan branches of this once hard-to-find Flushing food stall suggests that lesser-known Chinese regions are becoming more mainstream.

West African wings
"It's amazing we have so little West African cuisine [in New York City]," exclaims Ray. "We've had some amount of immigration, and now, with young professionals returning from more frequent business trips to the region, there should be more demand." Maima's Liberian Bistro (106-47 Guy R. Brewer Blvd between South Rd and 107th Ave, Jamaica, Queens; 718-206-3538) is a sweet little source for this growing customer base, with standout dishes like the chicken gravy ($6--$8), a braise of tender wings smothered in a rich onion-and-red-pepper sauce.

Nepalese momos
Ray has noticed a growing Nepalese community in Jackson Heights, Queens: "Indian and Pakistani restaurants have been hiring more Nepalis, who then acquire enough skills to open their own places." Take South Asian Family Restaurant (75-18 37th Ave between 75th and 76th Sts, Jackson Heights, Queens; 718-426-6888), which has Nepalese owners "serving generic Indian food with one page on the menu that is Nepali." Once customers become more familiar with items like steamed chicken momos ($5.99)—dumplings that look Chinese but have an Indian curried flavor—the owners may be able to drop the Indian portion of the menu, says Ray.

Panamanian carimaola
Today, not only is Mexican cuisine better understood on its own terms—no longer conflated with Tex-Mex—but "we're also seeing the underrated national cuisines from Central America emerge," explains Ray. Kelso Dining (648 Franklin Ave between Bergen St and St. Marks Ave, Crown Heights, Brooklyn; 718-857-4137) has been selling Panamanian dishes like pepper steak ($5) and hojaldre (delicately sweet flour fritters, $1) for 40 years. Given the popularity of Salvadoran pupusas, the similarly stuffed carimaola ($1)—a deep-fried torpedo of mashed yucca filled with ground beef—is required tasting for food cognoscenti.