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Off Topic: Great Cheap Bites of The Big Apple

When you’re pounding the pavement checking out one wine shop after another, eventually you have to grab something to eat. Or at least go inside to thaw out. And, although you could be blinded by all the Michelin stars in Manhattan, sometimes the merely very good is more than good enough. And if the very good is also fiscally responsible, so much the better. So we’re taking a brief time-out from wine talk to let you know about some of our favorite spots for really good food at prices that won’t make your wallet cry for mercy.


In the general vicinity of Rockefeller Center, we head for a food cart. But not just any cart. Nope. We go to the southeast corner of 6th Ave. and 53rd St. That is where “the Halal Guys” are with their chicken and gyro cart. There are actually a couple of different carts at that intersection. Look for the ones where they have yellow plastic to-go bags that say “We are different.”

These carts are hardly secrets, so there can be some crazy lines. But, if you hit it right, it’s not too bad. And you can get some pretty tasty sliced chicken or gyro-style lamb for cheap. They sell them in gyro sandwiches for $4 or in big plates loaded up with rice and lettuce for $6. Don’t go looking for a major culinary experience and it’s not worth standing in line for a stupid amount of time. But, it is really pretty darn good, is a sanitary cart and it’s filling. Just be careful not to drip sauce all over yourself if you eat standing up.

There are a lot of burger places in every city and Manhattan is certainly no exception. But, we’re hooked on Jackson Hole and their juicy 7 oz. hamburger. This is not health food, nor is it fast food. It’s a sit down restaurant with a big menu. We stick to the basics: burgers and sometimes a salad. You can get their standard beef burger for $6.50 or a platter that includes lettuce, tomato and some good steak fries for $10. For a bit more, you can opt for one of the special burgers that come with tasty add-ons such grilled mushrooms or onions, bacon, various cheeses, BBQ sauce, etc.

They use good beef and scoop the meat somewhat loosely into a meatball shape at first, rather than smashing it into a tight little patty. Then, the burgers are cooked to order by simultaneously grilling and steaming them. (They cover the grilling burger with a tin cup thus speeding the cooking time and locking in some of the moisture.) We’re also addicted to the free pickles they provide while you wait for your food. Jackson Hole has eight different locations, so if you’re in Manhattan, you’re probably not too far away from one.

We recently saw an episode of “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” on the Food Network where he challenged the people at Taim to a falafel battle. Bobby won the battle, but said the judges were wrong and he should have lost. We haven’t had Bobby’s falafel, but we have eaten at Taim. Bobby was probably right. They make the best falafel we’ve ever had. Anywhere. And there is no close second.

Taim is a tiny little place (about seven stools and enough room for three more people to order as long as nobody inhales) at 222 Waverly Pl. just off 7th Ave. in West Village. They offer three different flavors of falafel. One is “regular” with parsley and mint, one is made with roasted red pepper and the other includes harisa spices. For $10, you can get an assortment plate that includes three bite-sized falafel balls of each flavor along with good portions of cucumber salad, Israeli (tabouleh) salad, hummus, a really fluffy loaf of warm pita bread and three dipping sauces. If you just want a falafel sandwich or a one flavor platter, your tab will be even lower.

They also serve soup and pride themselves on their smoothies. We haven’t tried any of that stuff. Can’t get past the falafel. The flavor is wonderful and it’s crisp on the outside and hot all the way through without being dry. To us, this place is worth a special trip.

Not every bargain in Manhattan is a hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon or food cart though. Some are run by guys with Michelin stars on their collars. One such example is OTTO Enoteca Pizzeria in Greenwich Village. Part of chef Mario Batali’s empire, they make outstanding pizzas on a flat iron griddle. This technique allows them to create a crust as thin and crispy as a cracker. But the pizza crust tastes way better than any cracker we’ve ever eaten.

The pizza toppings range from classic italian choices such as bufala mozzarella, prosciutto, basil, anchovy, mushrooms, arugula, etc. to more original concoctions. On this trip, we had one that featured spicy Italian-style tuna. The pizzas are meant to be for one though we think they’re probably big enough for two, especially if you get a salad as well. The most basic pizza is just $7 and the most expensive only $14.

If you’re not in the mood for pizza, you can order a bunch of antipasti, including excellent salumi, proscuitto, and vegetable dishes. They also offer a range of excellent pastas. Those are just $9 and the salads only $8. Of course, if you want to spend up you can. OTTO Enoteca Pizzeria is also a wine bar with a very good, all-Italian list. And don’t think that this is just a little side-thing that Batali farmed out to someone and ignores. We’ve actually seen him come in to make sure everything is going right.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it’s enough to keep your tummy happy if you’re wandering around Manhattan. Enjoy.

This article is original to Copyright 2009 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.