From the Miller’s Tavern team, this cheery hole-in-the-wall is the Bruce Springsteen of burger stops—a no-fuss nod to the greasy-spoon glory days of roadside diners. The Flat Top burger—griddle-pressed à la In-N-Out—is swaddled in a squishy Martin’s potato roll with gooey American cheese, lettuce, tomato, chopped onion, pickles and mayo-based special sauce ($4.75). Split-and-seared beef franks get a zippy lift from tangy kraut ($2.75); shoestring fries ($2.25) are salty and crisp; and thick milk shakes (in vanilla, chocolate, peanut butter, or cookies and cream; $4.75–$5.50) are hand-spun.
On a dim corner of South Williamsburg, pizza nut Nino Coniglio twirls blistered pies that bridge the gap between old and new Brooklyn. Coniglio trained under DiFara’s legendary Domenico DeMarco, and it shows in his crunchy Grandma slice ($3), devoutly layered with creamy house-made mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce and basil ribbons. Alongside such tried-and-true classics, there are voguish combos to please the nabe’s kale-loving set, like one with the leafy green, spicy pork sausage, pine nuts and Taleggio ($4). A standard eight-serving pie sets you back $15, so the only guilt you’ll feel after scarfing down four slices is over your waistline.
At this railcar-slim Chinatown bistro, curry and coconut perfume the air, as husband-and-wife team Marc Kaczmarek and Mei Chau bustle around, hefting giant portions of homestyle Malaysian fare at Lilliputian prices. A deep, hearty bowl of spicy seafood laksa (Nyonya noodle soup, $12.95) brims with delicate salmon and shrimp, tender squid, hunks of saturated eggplant and slurp-ready udon, swimming in buttery, bouillabaisse-like curry gravy. A generous tumble of mussels (small $6.95, large $12.95) also comes coated in the garlic-and-parsley-flecked sauce, and the couple rushes over with complimentary bread for soaking up every drop.
In a city where $20 bar bites are as common as Hitchcockian park pigeons, the budget eats at Dale Talde’s honky-tonk are a welcome sight. Before knocking back slugs of Pappy Van Winkle, line your belly with lowbrow chow like a McDonald’s-inspired griddled burger with oozing American cheese ($11). Loaded nachos ($12)—a mess of fried tortilla chips, beef-and-bean chili, sour cream, jalapeños and RedHot-spiked cheese sauce spread across a cafeteria tray—easily feed four people. And the Porky Melt is a $13 indulgence, a greasy, gluttonous sandwich of cheddar-stuffed sausage and caramelized onions on marbled rye. Don’t worry when you inevitably spill melty cheese all over your skinny jeans—bartender Peter Abbrusgato is as quick with a Wet-Nap as he is with a shot of whiskey.
Dan Ross-Leutwyler (Roberta’s, Fatty ’Cue) puts an international spin on the mid-20th-century luncheonette at this sunny Bushwick depot, which opened in March. Alongside all-American staples including bicoastal burgers ($8)—Maine beef cheek meets California chuck—and fried-chicken sandwiches ($8), Ross-Leutwyler flips soft-shell crab pepped up with honey mustard and pickled vegetables ($12). The affordable plates leave you with more than enough bills for a rich, buttery slice of banana-cream pie ($5.50).
Between the rural, romantic vibe (pale blue walls, distressed-wood tables) and real-steal prices, this folksy American spot, from the team behind Peaches HotHouse, is tailor-made for budget dating. A $3 topping of duck liver mousse or house-cured pork cheek ($2) puts a chefly spin on the solid house burger ($7), and velvety, comforting ham-and-cheese grits ($11) get similar treatment with aged Gouda, twice-smoked bacon and scallion sprigs. Fried green tomatoes ($8) look like something off a tasting menu, delicately topped with rings of charred Vidalia, while the “extra fancy” fried chicken ($13)—brined Memphis-style in lemon and honey—should be renamed “extra crunchy” for its frizzled skin.
Low prices and primo ingredients aren’t mutually exclusive at this retro-inspired Crown Heights sub shop, where aqua Formica walls and a lip-curling ’70s punk soundtrack set the mood. Here, Franny’s alums Chris Austin and Nick Curtola elevate sandwich construction with a giant wood-fired grill for smoking meats and toasting bread. The open flame adds a good char to the pollos hermanos ($12), a grill-marked ciabatta stuffed with rotisserie chicken, dripping blue cheese, crisp apples and hot sauce. It also comes in handy for caramelizing sweet onions for the Bubie ($12), a corned-beef- and-kraut-stuffed tribute to the owner’s grandmother and the shop’s namesake, Glady.
Barbecue is a cornerstone of cheap eatin’, and there’s no better spot for carnivorous feasting on a budget than Hugh Mangum’s packed East Village smokehouse (TONY’s pick for best new BBQ joint this year). The 22-hour-smoked brisket ($8.85) is phenomenal on its own, but even more so as a filling sandwich ($8.50) on an eggy brioche bun. Shell out $23 for the Brontosaurus rib, a colossal undertaking fit for sharing with two ravenous neighbors, or opt for the spice-rubbed pork ribs ($8.50). Sides like pecan-studded sweet-potato casserole and burnt-end baked beans are stick-to-your-ribs satisfying, especially at only three bucks each.
Having developed a following of carb-loving devotees with his Hell’s Kitchen flagship, acclaimed dough puncher Jim Lahey brought his superlative breads to Chelsea with this wood-laden spin-off in July 2012. For little more than a Hamilton, you can load up on a panino built atop Lahey’s trusty loaf—the combo of salty prosciutto, rich buffalo mozzarella and pickled shishito peppers is a standout ($11). Crunchy, cracker-thin pizzas are as pretty as tarts, layered with golden-edged slices of potato and rosemary, or shredded zucchini with gooey Gruyère ($3.50 each). But the showstopper is the airy bomboloni, a gem at $3.50, filled with super-light vanilla-bean custard, flecked with lemon zest and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
From the ashes of one cheap-eats staple rises another—the mourning of Pok Pok Wing was graciously cut short when Thai-food virtuoso Andy Ricker installed a pad thai shop in its place last August. Instead of the sickly-sweet noodle slop found on takeout menus, Ricker puts forth a more faithful rendition: banana leaves topped with heaping tangles of pork-fat-rendered rice noodles, a funky-delicious nest of dried shrimp, preserved radish, sour tamarind and crunchy peanuts. Add pork or prawns for a few bucks extra, or go for lesser-known marvels like kuaytiaw khua kai ($11), wide noodles with chicken, cuttlefish and egg, or the hoi thawt ($10.50), an egg crêpe studded with sweet mussels and broken over bean sprouts. Beverages include Ricker’s Pok Pok Som drinking vinegars ($4.50), in flavors like apple, honey and pomegranate—but the refreshing pandanus-steeped water is free.