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A Bite of the Big Apple

The Best of New York’s Downtown Restaurants

By Winnie Yang

Though New York has long held a reputation for its haute cuisine and equally haute prices, I’ve found that, armed with a little knowledge and a subway pass, one can score a cheap, tasty meal just about anywhere on the island. (I should warn you, however, that, being a downtown girl, I’m biased towards noshing below 59th Street. Oh, and meat. I also like meat.) Here’s a rundown of some perennial favorites by neighborhood.

If you insist on straying far from all that is hip and happening in the city (that is, ahem, downtown), rest assured you can at least find a solid burger at the Burger Joint (118 W. 57th St.), a great little greasy spoon tucked away behind curtains in Le Parker Meridien hotel. They’ve got decent McDonald’s-style fries and serve up shakes after 3 p.m.

While most of my trips to Koreatown are primarily for rounding up alarming quantities of kimchi dumplings, I’ve discovered a weakness for Cho Dang Gol’s (55 W. 35th St.) doo boo doo roo chi gi, a noodle, pork, and homemade tofu dish that amply feeds two.

In Gramercy, Tom Colicchio’s fledgling restaurant empire has just begat ‘Wichcraft (49 E. 19th St.), a casual sandwich and panini spot around the corner from much-lauded (and much less affordable) siblings Craft and Craftbar. Nearby, Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke (116th E. 27th St.) offers up excellent pulled pork sandwiches (on brioche, natch) and some of the city’s best mac’n’cheese.

The East Village is home to scores of laid-back neighborhood establishments that cater to the low budgets of resident artists and would-be-artist trustfunders. Caracas Arepa Bar (91 E. 7th St.) serves a variety of savory Venezuelan arepas -- cornmeal cakes stuffed with meat, cheese, and vegetables, and cooked atop a griddle -- with empanadas, plantains, milky chicha rice drinks, and other South American specialties. Two words for Crif Dogs (113 St. Mark’s Place): hot dogs. A two-word emendation: deep-fried hot dogs. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to add that these dogs can come wrapped in bacon, topped with avocado and sour cream (the “Chihuahua”) or teriyaki sauce, pineapple, and green onions (the “Tsunami”).

In the Japanese section of East Village, the closet-like take-out counter at Otafuku (236 E. 9th St.) offers spot-on renditions of those Osakan favorites, okonomiyaki and takoyaki. Marvel as the garnish of bonito flakes appears to wave at you with the steam rising off your octopus balls.

One of my two all-time favorites restaurants in New York, Prune (54 E. 1st St.), offers a truly incomparable brunch experience. Maybe it’s the combination of the homey space, the hipster regulars, and the dizzying variety of Bloody Marys. Maybe it’s Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s inspired menu and seemingly magic touch. There’s nothing better than the dutch pancake or the Monte Cristo sandwich here after a long Saturday night. And dinner, while not on the inexpensive side, is worth budgeting for.

‘ino (21 Bedford St.) in West Village has a new sibling, ‘inoteca (98 Rivington St.), on the Lower East Side. Both places have some of the best panini in the city (try the sweet coppa and hot peppers), but the Lower East Side location offers more elbow room, more scenesters, and proximity to Il Laboratorio del Gelato (95 Orchard St.). Though I bemoan the distance that separates me from Toscanini’s, I console myself with Il Laboratorio’s delightful pistachio gelato. Or concord grape sorbetto. The countermen at Katz’s Delicatessen (205 E. Houston) dish out New York’s best pastrami sandwiches. Just don’t tell that to the very vocal adherents of the 2nd Avenue Deli.

To the south, there’s superlative pizza at Lombardi’s (32 Spring St.) in Nolita and great chiachiang mian and scallion pancakes at Shanghai CafÉ (100 Mott St.) in Chinatown. On the west side, there’s Sullivan Street Bakery (73 Sullivan St.), where the potato focaccia pizza has to be tasted to be believed. (I anxiously await the seasonal return of the champagne grape pizza.)

And while all the alluring items on Lupa’s (170 Thompson St.) menu might rack up an impressive check, the best way to eat there is to drop by at lunchtime for a bowl of the bucatini all’amatriciana and a glass of vino. Lupa is also one of my favorites places to eat solo.

Few places hold a candle to my other favorite eatery in New York, Sripraphai (64-13 39th Ave.), a remarkable and remarkably homely Thai restaurant in Woodside, Queens. While Manhattan teems with new and trendy hot spots, the ethnic enclaves of New York’s outlying boroughs offer a gastronomic richness and variety that, to me, is truly representative of eating in New York.