It’s not easy to eat cheap when you’re in the French Riviera. Playing host to movie stars (Cannes) or the world’s richest people (Monaco) means you tend to have restaurants that are either extremely sceney or pricey, or you have mediocre tourist traps catering to those who come to ogle all the wealth and fame. Finding that sweet spot of a solid establishment making reasonably priced food proved to be a challenge, and Yelp or Chowhound wasn’t very helpful in narrowing down the options. Surprisingly, Tripadvisor ended up being a reliable source for places to eat, and by following its lead we were able to have great meals without breaking the bank. The list of those restaurants is as follows:Read More
There are a lot of hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Chinatown that you wouldn’t think twice about. Shu Jiao Fu Zhou, however, is one you should actually step into, despite the misgivings you might have about its dingy signage and furniture. The only one with second thoughts will be you, because inside there will be a ton of people, mostly consisting of Chinese locals and a few in-the-know diners, happily eating their way through a bowl of noodles and dumplings.Read More
Ever wonder where some of the best chefs in the world like to eat during their time off? It must be really good if it meets the standards of the most discriminating palates. Some of the answers may surprise you, though. For instance, in NYC, chefs like Andrew Carmellini and David Chang highly recommend Great NY Noodletown, a modest, no-frills restaurant in Chinatown. The service is brusque and the surroundings are dinghy, but it’s hard to argue with super cheap, filling food and a no corkage fee.Read More
At first glance, Gaia seems like the type of restaurant you’d go to to avoid people. Like if you had to go to dinner with friends you’re ashamed to be seen with, or a mistress you shouldn’t be seen with at all, this would be the place to go. It’s in the basement of a very non descript building, so most people wouldn’t even notice it was there, which is great for you to keep a low-profile. It’s also a little janky–you feel like you’re in someone’s old but comfortable living room, where past issues of the New Yorker are strewn about everywhere, and you drink out of these big, plastic frat-house looking cups. Bringing someone here sends a real, clear signal that you’re not trying to impress them at all.
But this is the one time where you want to be the shady mistress, where you want to be the cheap date, because the food here is very good. Gaia serves delicious, no-fuss, homestyle Italian food at extremely reasonable prices. No dish costs more than $7, which is even cheaper than getting a sandwich or salad at Cosi, and tastes 10x better. Granted, the atmosphere is extremely casual–you have to line up like you’re at a DMV to get a table–but when you’re doing BYOB and eating a panini filled with the most incredible buffalo mozzarella cheese, then you could care less about atmosphere. Speaking of atmosphere, because Gaia is so affordable and has a BYOB policy, expect to see lots of young, NYU looking undergrads here. Their conversations about how they want to go to business school in London or how their dating standards are too high might be annoying, but if you get in on the BYOB fun, that buzz can deafen the noise of mindless chatter.
Ruoxi and I decided to split an order of the arugula and cherry tomato salad, the spinach and ricotta gnocchi and the bubi panini. The arugula and tomato salad was simple but tasty. The pesto certainly provided the greens with a lot of flavor and brightened up what could have been a pretty standard plate of greens. You almost didn’t need the extra flair from the balsamic vinegar or honey mustard dressing, because the garlic did so much of the work for you.
The simmering pot of warm spinach and ricotta gnocchi arrived next, a very welcome sight on a brisk fall day. Gaia’s take on gnocchi is a little different from what you might be used to. Typical gnocchi balls tend to be pretty neutral in taste, since they consist mostly of flour and potato, and some of the flavor might come from a hint of cheese here and there, but mostly from the surrounding sauce. At Gaia, the spinach and ricotta cheese were front and center, I didn’t even taste any other carby filler in there, it would be more accurate to call them spinach and ricotta meatballs. I could imagine an old Italian grandmother rolling them out in the back and serving them in her special homemade sauce. Anything that reminds me of grandma’s cooking definitely deserves a high rating.
The bubi panini arrived last, a delicate construction of two, wispy flatbreads precariously housing a cloudy puff of fresh mozzarella cheese, drizzled in olive oil, and accompanied by fragrant tomatoes and basil. It was a very simple sandwich, which worked in its favor since there was no need to dress up the incredibly fresh ingredients. And besides, you can never go wrong pairing golden, crusty and salty bread with creamy cheese.
We were comfortably satiated by the end of the meal. The portions are on the smallish size, especially the paninis, which are more like appetizers. But in general the ingredients are rich so that you don’t need a gigantic amount of food here to feel full. It’s always nice to eat a full Italian meal without feeling overstuffed and enormous. The only shortcoming of Gaia is the limited hours of operation. The kitchen closes at 6:30 during the week, so you would have to commit to an earlier seating for dinners, and on Sunday it doesn’t open at all. Italian is good any hour of the day, however, especially Saturday with some BYOB, so skip the chichi brunch bellinis, and kick back with the undergrads and watch them talk on and on about their dreams!
251 East Houston St (between Norfolk and Suffolk St)
New York, NY 10002
Ridgewood, Queens. Sounds like it’d be really far, like one of those places that aren’t reachable by city transit. It’s not even Flushing, Queens, whose familiarity makes it seem closer in distance somehow. I’m the kind of person who thinks any place requiring more than 5 subway stops or a transfer is “out of the way,” so initially I wasn’t too keen on taking the L train to Ridgewood to eat Vietnamese food at a place called Bunker. But according to NY Mag, this is the best new cheap eats joint in the city, and whenever something proclaims itself as the best my immediate inclination is to test the validity of this claim in person, so off to Ridgewood I went.
The subway ride was pretty quick, but the 10 minute walk from the Jefferson stop to Bunker was not the most scenic. To be blunt, we walked past a series of ugly industrial buildings and warehouses. Sometimes the roads were littered with broken glass and trash. Remember that episode of Girls when they go to a warehouse party in Bushwick? Ridgewood looks a lot like that, minus the party part.
Bunker has a kitschy, resort vibe that reminds me of small local restaurants in Hawaii and Bali. I liked the chill and casual atmosphere, but at times the restaurant was run a little too much in grassroots fashion. Water was from a self-serve cooler, the table was not set with plates and utensils, there was no A/C, a large 12-person table occupies most of the restaurant, and they ran out of several items at the peak hour of dinner service. The one grassroots aspect that I liked was the BYOB, but otherwise I felt like I was part of a coop where it wasn’t my day to cook, but it was my day to set the table.
We heard great things about the crab spring rolls, the shrimp and bacon egg crepe, the lemongrass pork loin with egg and the tomato fried rice. Luckily they didn’t run out of any of these so we could stick to our original dinner game plan. We also ordered some fresh watermelon juice to help us cool off while we waited for the food (Bunker was trying to simulate Balinese conditions a little too realistically, in my opinion).
I loved the spring rolls–they were perfectly golden and crispy, and the crab and vermicelli noodle filling was solid. They were a tad greasy, but what else would you expect from deep fried spring rolls? The side of lettuce and mint leaves, as well as the fish dipping sauce, helped cut the grease.
The shrimp and bacon egg crepe (listed as “traditional banh xeo” on the menu), on the other hand, I was on the fence about. I think I expected something more along the lines of a traditionally soft crepe, but the banh xeo at Bunker was more like a stiff, free-standing taco shell. I would have preferred a softer version, because it was a bit awkward breaking off rigid pieces of the crepe and trying to wrap it over the bean sprouts. Flavor-wise, it probably could have used some more seasoning. It was good but not particularly memorable.
The garlic tomato fried rice was another one of my favorites. The fried rice was so flavorful and comforting, I finished this side dish before even making a dent in the pork dish (listed as “suon nuong xa“). The pork meat used in the suon nuong xa was a little too fatty and again wasn’t all that flavorful. I didn’t think combining it with the fried egg, rice and fish sauce enhanced the dish at all. It tasted very much like a basic, homestyle pork dish, something that your housemate quickly serves up for a potluck.
I was pretty stuffed and also extremely hot by the end of the meal, so I didn’t really feel like lingering for dessert. But I’m glad I toughed it out and had some of the refreshing and delicious coconut tapioca pudding. Cold tapioca pearls in cream is an effective remedy for beating the cruel humid heat.
If Bunker were in the neighborhood, even in Chinatown, I would definitely come back multiple times. But is it worth the destination trip? Not really. It wasn’t even that cheap for the two of us–the final bill came out to about $30 a person, and we didn’t even order that much and we brought our own beers. I thought the trip out to Ridgewood was a fun adventure and liked discovering the little storefronts along our walk from the subway to the restaurant. But I have to honestly say that I won’t take the L train past Bedford Ave anytime soon.
46-63 Metropolitan Ave
Ridgewood, NY 11385