Category Archives: Cheap Eat

The Little Chihuahua: a burrito sleeper you need to visit now

little chihuaha

For decades San Franciscans far and wide have debated over the city’s BEST spot for burritos. I stand by Gordo’s through thick and thin. But before you even try to compare apples to apples (or burritos to burritos), you need to prioritize what, to you, are a burrito’s essential qualities. For me, it’s first and foremost about the tortilla. I don’t care how flavorful the beans are – if they’re enveloped in a dry and crusty flour wrap, forget about it. The tortilla must be soft, pliable, chewy and hot, and the cheese must be fully melted onto it – not tossed in the middle of its fillings. Steaming or throwing the puppy on the grill with cheese on top usually gets the job done. Then, the meat, which must be grilled with only the subtlest of seasonings. It should not overpower the salsa, another key flavor generator. And of course, the guacamole should be fresh and not doctored with mayonnaise (vomit) or sour cream. My priority list could go on for paragraphs.

And while I may have my favorite spots, I am always on the lookout for other places that fulfill my top criteria for a great burrito, which is why I was thrilled to finally try The Little Chihuahua this weekend. With three locations, they evidently have a large fan base. The menu consists of what you would typically expect (burritos, tacos, etc), but also includes pozole, breakfast tacos, taco salads, and what I went out on a ledge to order – a black bean and fried plantain burrito. After reading the many Yelp reviews about this specialty item, I couldn’t resist, and thank GOD I didn’t because it completely hit the spot. The griddled tortilla bundles together sour cream, cheese, salsa, beans, and fried plantains to become the ultimate Latin combination of sweet and savory. I’d say a half of one of these dense puppies is the perfect lunch.

breakfast tacos

breakfast tacos

plaintain burrito

plaintain burrito

Because I came with a friend on a Sunday afternoon, we also decided to order the breakfast tacos off the brunch menu – two tacos with a generous portion of scrambled eggs, black beans, and cheese, and, in our case, delicious carne asada. A side of potatoes lays next to the tacos as if they’re not enough to fill the belly. Not to mention, all food comes with a complimentary side of chips and salsa (which you can fetch at the delicious salsa bar). Hangover cure? Check!

I loved the tacos, but as a burrito fanatic, I left elated that I’ve found a new burrito joint that will fill my occasional craving for a heavy, cheesy burrito. And, one thing The Little Chihuahua has that many other take-out joints do not is a clean and friendly setting for a sit-down meal – which comes in handy for those who like to eat their burrito as soon as it’s prepared. Get yee here now, and check out my Tastemade video for more angles of my burrito!

Grade: A+
Location: multiple
Website

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Filed under Californian Cuisine, Cheap Eat, Erin's Favorites, Mexican, San Francisco

Jane on Fillmore: a neighborhood café to die for

JAne

As bustling of a food-city that San Francisco is, I’ve always been disappointed by the lack of bakeries or coffee shops with awesome home-baked goods. New York City is chock-full of them – from Amy’s Bread to Billy’s Bakery, there’s a bakery available to the cookie obsessed and the cake fanatics in every neighborhood. Sure, San Fran has a few cupcake shops (I love Kara’s cupcakes off Chestnut), and incredible artisanal bakeries that aren’t as accessible to the Pacific Heights resident (Tartine is amazing), but homey cafés with an abundance of cakes, muffins, cookies, scones, and other butter, flour & sugar concoctions are SERIOUSLY lacking. Maybe my 4 years working at UC Davis’s Coffee House, which pumped out cakes (and cookie samples) by the hour, caused my withdrawal. Whatever it is, it’s a well justified concern.

jane from second floor

jane from second floor

Thankfully, Jane on Fillmore street has recently come to the rescue. Over the last few weeks of fun-employment, despite having the chance to explore all my neighborhood has to offer, I just can’t get enough of this café’s almond milk cappuccinos and scrumptious baked goods. The plentiful case displays more than enough options, but I can proudly say that I’ve pretty much tried every single one of them. They’ve got a buttery citrus brioche. A savory scone with ham, chives and cheese. Banana bread – both vegan and regular. A vegan pumpkin chocolate chip muffin for those sweet-craving mornings. The blueberry-banana muffin for the days I’m pretending to eat a healthy breakfast. There’s also a “Cooking for Breakfast” cookie that’s subtly sweet and stuffed with dried fruit and oats, for those who those who like that sort of thing. The cookies – which include flavors like sprinkles, salted white chocolate chip oatmeal, chocolate chocolate chip, chocolate toffee chip, and peanut butter-quinoa-millet are to die for, especially the ones that sandwich a scoop of cream cheese frosting. As I write this blog, I’m noshing on a “Crazy Cookie” filled with chips, chocolate chips, toffee, and marshmallow. True, it doesn’t get much crazier than this.

cappuccino

cappuccino

my fantasy display case

my fantasy display case

cake of the day

cake of the day

savory quiche

savory quiche

But that’s not all – Jane has amazing food to order as well, all homemade and most of the time organic. The granola – both vegan and regular – is like crack. I’ve bought them both, and I eat the oats by the handful. The breakfast sandwiches, like the one with egg, cheese, avocado, and roasted tomatoes stacked between two thick-cut pieces of griddled sourdough bread, are the perfect hangover helper. And the salads (there are about 10 of them) are fresh, healthy, and delicious, especially the ones with their house-made green goddess dressing. And how could I forget the energizing green smoothie with apple, lemon, kale, and ginger?

chopped veggie salad with green goddess dressing

chopped veggie salad with green goddess dressing

salad nicoise

salad nicoise

smoked salmon platter

smoked salmon platter

egg white breakfast sandwich

egg white breakfast sandwich

The space itself is beautiful as well – the natural light and the black and white motif are the perfect setting for zoning out on a laptop. And, though it’s always bustling in here, the energy is contagious, not overwhelming.

To put it lightly, I am freakishly obsessed with this place, and I fear that my pre-business school food budget is going to rapidly dwindle if my daily habit continues. But when I’m saddened by the thought of a day without a creamy almond milk cappuccino, I realize that it’s totally worth chipping into my school books’ budget. I’m just waiting for the day that the barista remembers my name.

Grade: A+
Location: 2123 Fillmore between Sacramento and California Streets
Website

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Filed under Brunch, Cheap Eat, Erin's Favorites, San Francisco

Shake Shack: do I really need to explain?

shake shack

I’m not a burger connoisseur. And I can confidently say that unless I’m hungover, it rarely ever occurs to me to open up a menu and order a juicy, meaty hamburger. But ever since I waited in line at Shake Shack for an hour and got so hungry and light-headed that I had to give up to search for something I could eat IMMEDIATELY, I’ve been craving the juicy burger I was so close to having like no other.

Fortunately this week, my college friend and burger-lover Ashley was in town with quite the eating list to tackle. Shake Shack naturally made the top of the list, so we decided to wait in the infamous (yet MUCH shorter than it used to be) line for the whole burger sha-bang. Since I’m such a burger novice, I still hadn’t figured out if I like my burger with or without cheese. This time, I tried the Shack burger without, and piled it high with tomato, lettuce, onions and ketchup. This combination is my new go-to, because the patty on its own is decadent enough – the cheese would have masked its crispy, seared outside and intense flavor. Whereas at In-N-Out, the real standout of the burger is the thick cut tomato, onion and soft toasted bun, at Shake Shack, it’s all about the meat and soft potato bun, which are the ingredients that in my opinion really matter. I’m craving another one as we speak.

IMG_1689

Ash Bash super excited for what’s about to go down

The fries were nothing sort of awesome. The jagged shape creates lots of crispy edges surrounding a fluffy potato center. They’re clean-cut and not too greasy, and actually quite good inside the burger itself.

Since the custard flavor of the day was chocolate chip cookie, I obviously couldn’t resist, but I was disappointed by the soupey texture. It should have been dense and cold, yet instead it turned out to be melted with lumps of chocolate. The flavors were there, but they need to repair their machine at this location.

Overall, I am oh-so happy I finally can check this burger off my list of must-dos before the dreaded NYC move.

Grade: B+ overall due to melted frozen custard, but the burger was amazing
Location: Multiple
Website

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Filed under American, Cheap Eat, Chelsea, Erin's Favorites, Flatiron, Union Square

Saravana Bhavan: dosas in comfort and cleanliness

saravanna

I had my first Indian meal when I visited the Indian port city of Chennai during my semester at sea in 2007. I was 20. While I know Indian cuisine has so much history and possesses the qualities I look for in food – flavor, aroma, variation, and a focus on bread – I just never had the opportunity to really get into it growing up. My family would dine on Filipino food or burritos when we were feeling really adventurous. Now that I have an Indian man in my life (Chef Akhtar), I have no choice but to incorporate this very unique cuisine in my life.

During our visit to the Indian market today in “Curry Hill”, there really was no way to avoid eating Indian for lunch. And with a lingering hangover at lunch time, I welcomed it with open arms. Thanks to the advice of a customer at the market, we were told to walk two blocks down to a place called “Saravana Bhavan” – thankfully she detailed the location, because I forgot the name instantly. When Chef Akhtar and I walked in, it was bustling with Indian families eating Sunday lunch – which I take as a key indicator of an Indian restaurant’s authenticity. The plates flying by all got my stomach rumbling, and I somehow soon ordered the most expensive item on the menu – the $17.99 South Indian Thali, which came as a platter with hot bread, rice, and mini bowls of Indian curries and stews for dipping. Using bread to shovel an array of delicious things in my mouth, which is often how I eat Mediterranean food, is my favorite way of eating – I only wish the bread was a little greasier and crispier like Naan, which the restaurant doesn’t serve. We also ordered the Masala Dosa, which arrived as a massive cone engulfing a concentrated scoop of potato and peas. The bread was crispy, moist, and a sturdy utensil for the three accompanying sauces. And on a whim, we requested a fluffy Poori, a fried fluffy whole wheat bread that was just another perfect vehicle for dipping into my tray of delights.

dosa

dosa

a platter for a Queen

a platter for a Queen

inflated poori

inflated poori

I can’t say I loved every little bowl on the platter; the sweet mango and rice pudding I could have done without, but the koottu (lentil puree) and the rasam (a South Indian Tamarind soup) were especially soothing to my hung over soul. Washed down with a diet coke, this hearty, vegetarian, finger-fed meal became a new found cure to an upset stomach. I’ll definitely be back when the mood to head north and east in Manhattan strikes me.

Grade: A-
Location: 81 Lexington Ave @ 26th Street
Website

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Filed under Affordable Date, Cheap Eat, Family Style, Fun Group Dinner, Indian, Murray Hill

Wondee Siam: authentic Thai experience in Hell’s Kitchen

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 10.23.03 PM

I remember hearing about Wondee Siam years ago. My colleague and now friend Jane would venture crosstown just for a crispy beef salad at this tiny 5-table restaurant. So naturally, when she had a free night back in town, she suggested we meet there to fulfill her undying craving for their authentic thai food. As soon as I was forced to squeeze through the kitchen to use the restroom, I knew it would be tasty. Chefs orchestrating woks and pots and fryers gracefully and pumping out hot, flavorful food made me feel like I was actually in Thailand, in the thick of master thai chefs so focused on their craft.

crispy pork

crispy pork

fried red snapper with mango salad

fried red snapper with mango salad

I arrived famished, so after a short wait for a table, Jane and I shared pad thai with shrimp, crispy pork with water spinach, and whole fried red snapper with a vinegary mango salad. Overwhelmed by the bounty of food and salty and spicy sauces, we slowly made our way through the bright and flavorful meal. The fried fish was meaty and surprisingly easy to eat – instead of arriving whole and untouched, the fish was more of a plate to whole the perfect rectangular pieces of fish filet that had been removed from the fish and fried separately. With the mango salad, this was the perfect hearty and refreshing flavor combination. The pad thai was, as pad thai always is, delicious, and the bite sized crispy pork was crunchy but not at all greasy. The service was spot on, and with a bill amounting to $50, I only wish this place was closer to my house. Keep in mind it’s BYOB – another great reason to gather here for a cheap meal with friends.

Grade: A+
Location: 752 9th Ave btwn 52nd and 53rd streets
Website

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Filed under Asian, Cheap Eat, Thai

Pain Quotidien: the king-size chocolate chip cookie

le pain

Ever since I wrote my Zagat article, I’ve been discovering new cookies that would have surely made my top 10 list had I known about them months before. I was kicking myself after the chewy triple chocolate chip find at Breads Bakery, and now I’m frustrated that I didn’t add the massive round found at Pain Quotidien to the list. I love Pain Quotidien. It’s a place that despite being a chain, has really remained true to its core values of good bread, clean communal eating and heathy food. I rarely tap into the pastries or sweets here, but on Easter Sunday, my memories of chocolate Easter Baskets and Cadbury cream eggs drove my eyes straight to the 10-inch diameter, toasty-brown, crisp chocolate chip cookies that lay like a tall stack of pancakes behind the display case. When I brought a broken one to the waitstaff’s attention, instead of throwing it out, he graciously handed it to me. The cookie may have tasted better because of the generosity that he surrounded it with, but when I sunk my teeth into this flat, brittle, Frisbee-sized disk, I was in chocolate chip cookie heaven. This is the ideal cookie for those who want something consistently crumbly, brown-sugary and crisp. And each bite is sure enough to give you at least 6 chocolate morsels, which  are smaller than the average chip. At around $4 a pop, considering this cookie could likely feed three or four people, it’s definitely a deal. And because I’m sandwiched between two Pain Quotidiens only blocks away, I think I know where my go-to cookie will be found the next couple of months.

Chef Aki with cookie (after saying he didn't want any)

Chef Aki with cookie (after saying he didn’t want any)

Grade: A+ (especially since it was free)
Location: Multiple
Website

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Filed under Cheap Eat, Sugar Surge

Omai: authentic Vietnamese in an upscale setting

Omai

After reading Gabe Thompson’s Chelsea Neighborhood Guide on SeriousEats, I became inspired to branch out of my typical West Village confines to explore the bordering neighborhood that he so loyally promoted. Omai was the restaurant that stood out most on his list, and as a recent fan of Baoguette for delivery, I was curious to see if there really was a better nearby Vietnamese restaurant that I had been missing out on. I’m not one for settling when there’s potential for improvement. My conclusion? Omai has knocked Baoguette off my delivery list – bittersweet given my recent love affair with Baoguette’s grilled chicken pho.

Everything at Omai is done with a little more care and attention to detail than usual. The typical tom cuon shrimp rolls, for example, are made with plump grilled prawns as opposed to cold sliced shrimp. The eggplant hasn’t absorbed loads of grease because they’ve flash sautéed it in a gingery, vinegar-fish sauce. And the bun ga nuong, rice noodles with grilled chicken, lettuce and herbs, is utterly addictive tossed in their tangy vinaigrette.

rice noodle salad with chicken

rice noodle salad with chicken

beef pho

beef pho

Most remarkable, however, is the Pho. It took my tasting awe-inspiring pho to realize that what I had been eating for so long was actually not that great. The cinnamon-scented broth that was so simple, yet so rich in flavor, and it tasted like it had been brewing for hours. The noodles are wonderful too; long and thin, they perfectly capture the broth between each strand to make each bite a soupy one. I only wish there had been more bean sprouts. Either way, this is the type of food I love because it doesn’t leave you feeling heavy and gross.

In terms of service, the rhythm of our meal was a little spotty: everything came out one at a time with odd spacing in between. Given that, it’ll likely (as planned) be my go-to for delivery as opposed to a night out, though it got pretty lively with the techno music they were pumping.

Grade: A-
Location: 158 9th Ave btwn 19th and 16th Streets
Website

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Filed under Asian, Cheap Eat, Chelsea, Vietnamese

Sugar Surge: Breads Bakery – the most buttery and delicious chocolatey treats

I am a bakery fiend, you should all know that by now. So when I heard about the Breads Bakery opening near Union Square, I put a reminder on my calendar to head there as soon as time allowed. What excited me most about visiting this Israeli-run bakery is the rugelach, crescent-shaped Jewish cookies traditionally made with cream cheese and filled with chocolate or fruit. They’re awesome, and I’ve been eating them since I was sitting in my mom’s grocery cart at Grand Central in SF.

When I went to Breads the $1.50 tiny rugelach was the first thing I purchased. To my surprise, it was hands-down the best, flakiest, chocolatiest rugelach I’ve ever tasted. Most have a very dense, chalky texture, but this one is as light and fluffy as a croissant. The inside is soft, and the outside is golden brown and crispy. Absolutely addicting.

tray of rugelach

tray of rugelach

rugelach

buttery rugelach

The second time around, they were giving samples of their ridiculous triple chocolate chip cookie, which did its job in leaving me no choice but to buy one. I thought I knew the city’s best cookies, but I evidently failed to acknowledge that one of my favorite versions can be found here. The golden crust surrounds a chewy, soft dough layered with milk and dark chocolate rounds. It’s magic.

cookie

cookie

Then, just over the weekend I stopped by for a quick snack while shopping – how could I resist when the sign caught my eye while walking down fifth avenue? I almost went for a savory treat – the cheese sticks are delicious – but I again opted for the sweet chocolate bread. Amy’s Bread makes a wonderful sourdough twist with chunks of dark chocolate. This, however, takes the cake, and while it’s not as rich as a chocolate croissant, it packs the same dark chocolatey punch.

I’m three for three at Breads Bakery – every single chocolate treat I’ve tried has been a score. And with tons of samples for tasting, they’re my favorite type of place! Next time I’m committing to one of the cheese & egg tartlets.

Grade: A+
Location: 18 East 16th Street between 5th Ave and Union Square West
Website

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Filed under Bread Basket Breakdown, Cheap Eat, Sugar Surge, Union Square

Coppelia: my new go-to for Latin American delivery

coppelia-nyc-14th-street

More often than not I’m craving some kind of Latin American food, so when I have the chance to eat alone, it’s my top choice given that few fellow rice and bean fans exist on this side of the country. Tonight, I finally had my opportunity to order from Coppelia, the 24-hour Cuban diner that’s known for its chicharron specials and brightly lit, casual atmosphere – the restaurant I’ve been passing on my walk from west side to east side for years. Since diner lighting isn’t my thing, I decided to order every dish that caught my fancy and eat from the comfort of my own couch.

There are a slew of hearty sandwiches and entrees on the menu (not to mention the entire all-day breakfast section, which includes a stack of thick blue-corn pancakes), but after a hefty brunch at Poco, I consciously ordered a medley “lighter” things, including the caesar salad with avocado, cotija cheese, and mojo garlic croutons, a chicken arepa, and a side of rice and beans. The order came within 30 minutes, and the pastry of the chicken arepa was still hot, flaky and sturdy enough to safely encompass the saucey chipotle chicken inside of it. With the green salsa, this was divine. They even do a great job making something so simple as rice and beans memorable – the rice is light and fluffy, and mixed with avocado and salty beans, it could be a ($3) meal in itself. The salad was cold, crispy and garlicky, a perfect balance to the starchy sides. Charging just $18 for my feast, Coppelia is one of New York’s best kept secrets.

IMG_2073

caesar salad to go

empanadas

empanadas – photo from SeriousEats.com

Next time, I’ll walk the five blocks to the place so I can take the whole experience in and eat the brownie sundae – not such a practical order for delivery.

Grade: A
Location: 207 West 14th Street btwn 7th and 8th Aves. 
Website

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Filed under Cheap Eat, Fun Group Dinner, Latin American

Chelsea Thai: the Meatpacking’s answer to quick, affordable and flavorful

Chelsea Thai

Despite passing by Chelsea Thai on my walk home every day for almost four years, I’ve never been compelled to stop for takeout; Buon Italia’s glass case of glistening pasta and bruschetta is just too distracting. But tonight, I was handed the opportunity to break my habit when my yoga buddy Emily suggested we eat there before parting ways. Thai isn’t exactly the type of food I crave after sweating out my angst and toxins in a therapeutic yoga session, but I’m trying to live on the edge a little more in 2013. So, I said boldly, “sure, why not.” Walking on the wild side if I say so myself!

Chelsea Thai sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the many modern and pristine little shops in the immediate vicinity. The steel walls covered in menu-photos are the only “decor” that add color to the place, and the minimal Thai products for sale sit lonely on an industrial shelf smack dab in the dining area. Fortunately, there are a few tables just outside the door in the Chelsea Market passage-way that are tolerable as dining tables for a quick meal on the run.

chicken pad thai

pad thai*

 

The place was closing up shop around 9pm as we were walking in, but we made it just in time to place an order for their hot chicken soup with rice noodles. A little disclaimer here, I’m on a semi-cleanse for the next few weeks, so had I been eating normally, I would have had Pad Thai or one of the other gloriously pictured noodle dishes on their menu. I know they are good because even free-food endowed Googlers order the stuff during lunch breaks. Still, Thai soup is admittedly much more entertaining than regular chicken soup because of the interesting sweet and sour flavors that pervade every molecule of broth. This soup was no different. I ordered it with extra vegetables and chicken, and it was unveiled as a bounty of “innards” (as my friend’s boyfriend likes to call it) in a delicious sea of earthy, lightweight but rich-in-flavor soup. A touch of sriracha brightened the flavors enough that I actually felt like I was indulging in something non-cleanse friendly (which truthfully and ironically is the goal when you’re trying to survive on a cleanse).

So my rotation of Buon Italia, Lobster Place or Hale & Hearty as dinner takeout must now make room for the occasional Chelsea Thai treat. While I wouldn’t think twice about eating inside the shop for a “feel-good” meal out, my soup has me convinced that I should permanently consider it as a dinner option on my nightly walks home.

Grade: A
LocationChelsea Market, 88 10th Avenue between 15th & 16th streets
*photos from voiceplaces.com

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Filed under Asian, Cheap Eat, Chelsea, Meatpacking, Thai