New York City 14 awesome shrines to fine dining in Manhattan that charge no more than $12 for two courses and beverage Budget Travel Saturday, Jan 1, 2000, 12:00 AM Budget Travel LLC, 2016


New York City

14 awesome shrines to fine dining in Manhattan that charge no more than $12 for two courses and beverage

It's Times Square in early evening and I pause, as I always do, to marvel at the area's most baffling sight: the nightly line of tourists waiting for a table at the Olive Garden Restaurant. In a city with hundreds of inexpensive, authentic Italian restaurants serving every regional cuisine of that glorious nation-every garlic-flavored dish prepared with love, every sauce to die for, every crusty panino, every pungent formaggio - in such a city, they, the tourists, are eating at the bland chain-operated Olive Garden. The residents eat elsewhere, and for less. I'm a resident, and I'm breaking the code of silence. Herewith, fourteen treasured locales, guardians of your wallet, protectors of your purse, and glory of your gullet. At each you can get a heavenly meal (appetizer and entree or entree and dessert, plus tea or coffee) for $12 or under - and sometimes for substantially less; and they are listed in roughly ascending order of cost, starting with the very least expensive.

Milon and Panna II 93 First Avenue, between 5th & 6th streets (East Village). Soup, entree, and dessert from $4.60; soup, appetizer, entree, and dessert from $5.85

We begin with "Little India" on East 6th Street (mainly) between First and Second avenues, but also on those avenues between 5th and 7th streets, heart of the East Village (bohemian successor to the largely commercial Greenwich Village). Though plenty of the at least 25 Indian restaurants here provide the same astounding prices for high quality cuisine, we've made two choices as much for the drama of dining there as for the food. They are Milon and Panna II, neighbors that have been involved in a fierce "battle of the bulbs" for over ten years: Whenever one adds a new decorative touch (some sort of ornamental light is the usual), the other follows, putting up the exact same decoration. The result? Twin restaurants that are preposterously crammed with hundreds of jalapeno-shaped globes and Christmas lights festooning the ceiling, tinsel stars and snowflakes everywhere, murals on the walls. As you approach from the street, two waiters eagerly appear at the door, bearing free papadam (flat cracker bread) and other enticements to lure you into their establishment and away from the other. Like the decor, the food is near identical at both establishments: thick, piquant mulligatawny soups (95[cents]), crisp samosas ($1.25, patties filled with meat or vegetables), appetizing but not very hot curries ($3.75 to $6.75; they'll spice them up if you request), and juicy tandoori lamb or chicken dishes ($5.95 to $8.00). Each establishment includes a bowl of mango ice cream and spiced masala tea at the end of your meal, free of charge.

Dojo 14 West 4th Street/24 St. Marks Place (Central and East Village). From $6.25 for appetizer and entree

Again in the Village (one of the best areas for budget dining in the Big Apple), the two branches of Dojo serve up Asian-inspired health food (along with burgers, BBQ, and BLTs) to the hordes of NYU students and other young New Yorkers who crowd them from morning 'til night. Each restaurant has four dining areas (one outdoors) that are simply furnished with shellacked dark wood tables and the works of local artists hanging from brick walls. Your best bets here are the excellent sesame noodles ($3 appetizer portion, $5.95 main dish); chicken sukiyaki, which you can have as a sandwich with an ample side salad for only $2.95 or on top of a salad for $4.95; mix and match yakitori kebabs (you choose between vegetable, chicken, beef, shrimp, and scallop) with brown rice and house salad for only $6.95; or any of the stir-fry dishes, both noodle- and brown rice-based, for $5.25 to $6.95. Stay away from the desserts, which are substandard (take a stroll instead to nearby Veniero's on Eleventh Street between First and Second avenues - it has the best Italian pastries this side of Naples).

New York Noodletown 28 1/2 Bowery (Chinatown). 2 courses from $6.50

You can spend a lot more money for Chinese food but you won't find better eats than at this small, unadorned (read: ugly) Chinatown legend. All the standard noodle dishes are done here to perfection (especially the ginger and scallion lo mein) - with noodles that are al dente and dumplings that are a miracle, generously stuffed with chunks of shrimp or pork and surrounded by a gossamer-thin shell of pasta. The standout dishes are many, but you won't go wrong if you order the salt-baked squid for $7.95 (akin to Italian calamari, but with a wafer-thin crust so beautifully seasoned that no dipping sauce is necessary); the roast duck on rice for $3.25 (pieces of obscenely tender bird atop a heaping pile of rice); or sauteed pea shoots for $8.95. Just how good is the food here? On my last visit, a neighboring table was occupied by chefs from Nobu, one of the most celebrated and expensive restaurants in the city.

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