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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.

Sapporo 152 West 49th Street (Theater District). Soup and entree from $7.25

The specialties here are soups and they come in portions large enough for two meals - huge, steaming bowls of broth (soy, salt, curry, sesame paste, or miso), jam-packed with extra-long vermicelli, kernels of corn, fresh spinach, scallions, and various additions (prices per bowl range from $6.30 to $7.90). Other entr,es of note (all of which come with miso soup, rice, and shredded cabbage) include the tangy chicken teriyaki ($7.75); pork or chicken cutlet curry ($8.45 or $8.20); and yasai itame ($7.75), a vegetable stir-fry with your choice of either pork or chicken. For appetizers, I'd go with the substantial house salad for $3.85 (it has a lovely sesame vinaigrette and half a hard-boiled egg on top), the steamed shumai dumplings ($4.50), or edamame, soybeans boiled in their pods and as addictive as popcorn ($3.75). The atmosphere is fun, in the rough-and-tumble way of an outlying Tokyo noodle shop - this ain't the place for elegant dining, but at these prices, who cares?

Pepe Verde to Go 559 Hudson Street (West Village). 2 courses from $7.95

Okay, technically this one's not a restaurant but a self-service cafe, requiring a short walk from your table to the counter, but it feels like a restaurant, and a charming one at that (very "Villagey," with fresh flowers and candles on the tables, exposed brick walls, and antique wall hangings). The food is pure Italian peasant fare-robust, straightforward, and absolutely delicious. The bruschetta ($3.95), redolent of garlic, comes heaped high with fresh diced tomatoes; artichokes romagna are a thinly sliced, crisply fried taste of heaven ($4.95); the penne with tomatoes and basil ($4.95) is simple, fresh, and intensely flavorful; and the penne ... la vodka ($5.95) is nicely livened up with bacon. You can satisfy your sweet tooth with a slice of their scrumptious homemade fruit tarts ($3) or a helping of tiramis - ($3). And if there's an Italian favorite not listed on the menu, simply ask - if they have the ingredients, the effusive, very Italian owner (he's the one taking your order) will be happy to make it for you.

Afghanistan Kebab House #3 155 West 46th Street (Times Square). Salad and entree from $8.99; appetizer (of dessert), salad, and entree from $12

We told you about this little Times Square gem in the second issue of Budget Travel, and it's maintained its high standards (and low prices). Good as always are the $3 aushak (boiled flat dumplings filled with scallions and smothered in a savory yogurt, garlic, and ground beef sauce); bolanee pumpkin (also $3; it's a fried turnover filled with delightfully sweet mashed pumpkin, again with a yogurt sauce); a house salad with sinful mayonnaise, yogurt, and herb dressing (included with every entree for no extra charge); and any of the kebab dishes ($8.99 lunch, $10.99 dinner). And be sure to try the homemade condiments placed on each table - both the cilantro and the red pepper sauce add a nice tart note. The decor is straight out of Aladdin: colorful rugs covering the walls and tabletops, bejeweled pointy shoes hung like trophies, and Afghani memorabilia galore. There's even a little tent room in the back, where you recline on decorative pillows as you dine, emir for a day.

Blockhead's Burritos 499 Third Avenue (Midtown east). $7.95 for soup and salad, burrito, soft drink; from $12 for other two-course combos. For other locations, see below

Also at 954 Second Avenue (East Side), in Worldwide Plaza, 50th Street between Eight and Ninth avenues (Theater District), and 424 Amsterdam Avenue (Upper West Side), this is a slick, stylish group of restaurants providing budget havens in otherwise expensive neighborhoods. Blockhead's riffs upon the cuisine of Mexico with glee. In addition to the traditional quesadillas, tacos, and fajitas (all good and reasonably priced) they offer a tangy Carolina BBQ burrito as well as a hot and spicy Jamaican jerk chicken burrito ($8.50). Other diversions from the norm include the option of cutting your calorie and carbohydrate intake by substituting whole-wheat tortillas, brown rice, and tofu "sour cream" for no additional cost. The meal price above is for their seemingly never-ending lunch and dinner specials, which, although not listed on the menu, are consistently offered on sandwich boards outside each restaurant.

Lemongrass Grill 2534 Broadway (Upper West Side)/80 University Place (Village)/37 Barrow (West Village). Appetizer and entree from $9.45

Thai restaurants have been sprouting like dandelions all over New York for the past decade or so. None, however, have been quite as successful as this popular New York chain. Its secret? Authentic Thai cooking in a whimsical "jungle hut" setting and prices a few dollars lower than most of their competitors. There are no clunkers on the menu, but I'm partial to the peppery gai tom kha soup ($2.50), the peanut-dressed salad kaek ($3.50), rice noodles pad thai ($6.95), and gaeng khiao wan ($8.95), a green curry with chicken, basil, eggplant, and coconut milk.

Gabriela's Mexican Restaurant 685 Amsterdam Avenue (Upper West Side). A filling Mexican meal from $9

Authentic Mexican food in a festive setting, Gabriela's is the south-of-the-border equivalent of a Spanish tapas (hors d'oeuvres) restaurant. While the main dishes are all excellent and well priced (from $7.50), the best way to order here is to fill your table with a variety of appetizers and just graze. Start with crema de elote y poblano (creamy, comforting corn soup, $3.50), and then dig into delectable taquitos al pastor (mini tortillas topped with shredded pork, pineapple, cilantro, and onions, $2.95). To add spice, try next their delicious tamales ranchero con puerco (shredded pork-stuffed tamales served on a corn husk and doused in a fiery mole sauce, $2.95). If you're still hungry (unlikely), order up a few of their famous tacos ($2.25 to $2.50 each), which range from the standard chicken and beef to chorizo (Mexican sausage), birria (beef with tomato sauce), and lengua (beef tongue). A great place for a party, Gabriela's has a hip-swiveling salsa soundtrack and colorful papel picados (elegantly cutout squares of paper) strung across the ceilings like banners.

Palacinka, A Creperie 28 Grand Street (Soho). Entree and dessert from $10.50

Crepes for dinner and dessert? Absolutely, when they are as delicious as the central European variety (called, not surprisingly, palacinka and made with buckwheat) served at this funky and sophisticated Soho cafe. Fillings include tarragon chicken, goat cheese, and roasted pepper ($7.50); ham, GruySre, and tomato ($7); and spinach with feta, garlic, and lemon ($7). For dessert, you can choose a simple but yummy butter-and-sugar crepe ($4), or one spread with either Nutella, lemon, or lime, or else a strawberry or apricot confiture (each $4). Also on the menu are elaborate sandwiches, salads, and, in winter, soups (all entr,es come with a small green salad).

Chez Gnagna Koty's 530 Ninth Avenue (Hell's Kitchen). Entree and appetizer from $12

Cheerfully decorated with splashy African kente cloths on the walls and tabletops, wooden sculptures, and a large framed photo of Nelson Mandela with President Clinton, this is one of the friendliest restaurants on Ninth Avenue. It is presided over by the gracious and elegant Ms. Koty herself, a Senegalese native, who visits each table more than once in the course of the meal to chat, make suggestions, and answer questions. Our tip: always order what Ms. Koty recommends, as she knows best what's fresh that day. On my last visit, friends and I feasted on the yassa chicken ($8), tender breast meat in a mustard, lemon, and onion sauce that tastes as good as it sounds; fried bananas ($5) which come with a scrumptious tomato dipping sauce, nicely marrying the sweet and tart of this dish; and a chunky and wonderful fish soup ($5). Also good on the menu: maffe (a peanuty stew made with either lamb or chicken, $7.50 to $8.50), their large house salad ($3), and any of the couscous dishes ($9 to $9.50).

Hallo Berlin 402 West 51st Street (near Theater District); 626 10th Avenue (near Theater District)

German entree and appetizer from $9.50 Not the spot for vegetarians, these two little restaurants glory in meat, meat, meat, all prepared German-style. Both places are tricked out in the style of a Berlin beer garden (albeit much smaller), with umbrellas covering picnic tables and walls festooned with fake grapes and leaves, along with metal beer placards. As you'd expect, the sausages are top-quality and featured (from bockwurst and knockwurst to Berliner curry, $2.50 to $10), the Wiener schnitzel a delight (at $11, with a nice side of tart wine-marinated sauerkraut, red cabbage, fries, and a string bean and cucumber salad); and the sauerbraten savory ($13.95). All entrees come with a bowl of hearty soup, included in the price, as an appetizer.

Republic 37 Union Square West (Flatiron District). Appetizer and entree from $9, heavy on noodles

A scene, plain and simple. Out front: a frenetic singles bar, patronized by the models, photographers, and other trendy types of the area. Out back: a surreal Maoist fantasy of a restaurant, with large communal tables and benches for diners, oversized photos of beautiful people draped with noodles on the walls, and black-clad waiters with a single red star on their T-shirts. The menu is a tribute to pasta dishes from around the world, with some noodle-less grilled selections available (although these tend to be a tad dry). Favorites include the spicy coconut chicken broth noodles ($8), watercress salad with a delectable lemongrass-ginger topping ($3), salmon sashimi salad ($4), BBQ pork over cold vermicelli ($8), and chicken udon: thick noodles with peanuts, chicken, cucumber, and bean sprouts in a coconut milk and spinach sauce ($7).

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