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Cheap Eats

June 20, 2016

Last week, I shared some of the highs and lows from the Times Union’s Best of the Capital Region readers’ choice poll. And I’d argue the results were some of the best yet. I was thrilled that Stacks Espresso finally found its way onto the list. But there are still some best of class local businesses that are still widely unknown to the newspaper’s readership, and that is a shame.

But the fact that neither Mrs. London’s, Crisan, nor TC Paris are on the list for Best Bakery pales in comparison to the fact that the Best Cheap Eats category is dominated by chain restaurants.

One of the reasons the FLB was created was to help spread some knowledge of issues concerning food around the Capital Region. An ongoing mantra has been that good food does not need to be expensive. The corollary to that is that inexpensive food doesn’t have to be mass-produced dreck.

This region is filled with great places to get cheap eats. And to its credit, the number one pick from the TU Poll was Gus’s Hot Dogs. Personally, my favorite place for the Capital Region’s signature mini dog is Famous Lunch, but to each their own. We’ve got lots of places for mini dogs. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve long claimed that the mini dog is upstate New York’s answer to the taco. An intensely flavored food that’s inexpensive and can be consumed in a couple of bites. But you know what? We’ve also got some legit street-style tacos at La Mexicana in Schenectady. I’ll sing the praises of its carnitas taco until I’m azul en la cara. But for $2 a pop, that’s cheap eats right there.

You know what else is cheap, foldable, and edible while standing? The New York Style pizza slice, of course. And we have so many slice shops scattered around the Capital Region. My two personal favorites are the I Love on Upper Union Street in Schenectady, and Marisa’s Place in Guilderland. The truth is that I only fold my slices when I’m eating them on the go, but both of these places have adequately thin and crispy bottom crusts that you can eat your slice however you choose.

Bagels have been an inexpensive staple for my people in New York and beyond for decades. People love the ones from Uncommon Grounds, and after seeing Melinda’s side by side comparisons, I have a renewed appreciation for the everything bagels from this local coffee shop. My favorites still come from The Kosher Chopper in Colonie, around the intersection of 155 and Central Avenue. But Price Chopper’s Eastern Parkway location is where you want to go for the region’s best bialy.

On the subject of breakfast foods, there is always the egg and cheese on a hard roll. The mystery of the hard roll endures. Why is it called a hard roll when it is not hard? Sure, it’s not as soft as some of the more tender rolls produced by our local bakeries. But I’d say it’s more of a dry roll than a hard roll. Regardless, Eggy’s Place, the food truck off the beaten path in Albany’s warehouse district, is incredible. But as long as you stay away from Stewart’s, you can get fantastic versions of this sandwich from pretty much any deli or diner in the area.

There are other value sandwiches too. It’s been a few years since I treated myself to a frikadellen at Rolf’s pork store. But a sandwich of this crispy meatloaf patty was recently a paltry $2.50. And they would also be happy to sell a slice of their warm leberkäse on a roll for you to eat on the spot.

The newcomer to the European smoked meat scene, Chester’s Smokehouse, has a mini kielbasa bar, where you can snag some of their housemade smoked links for less than a buck a pop.

And once we open up the doors to ethnic foods, we’ve got an avalanche of cheap delights.

I’m at Hong Kong Bakery & Bistro all the time for the baked BBQ pork buns, which are only a buck and some change. The best thing at Flores Family Restaurant are the pupusas, which are only a couple of bucks each. For less a fiver you can get the idli sambar at Parivar, which combines a steamed lentil cake with a spicy lentil broth. The bolani at Afghan Kabob Express will stuff you with delicious spiced potatoes for a pittance. One of my favorite comfort foods is at Taiwan Noodle, where I get the fried wheat collar—which resembles a savory cruller— to dip in a steaming bowl of fresh soy milk, for about $4. And with the arrival of Trinbago, we now have doubles in the Capital Region, which will set you back a paltry $2 for all their spiced chickpea deliciousness. We now even have a $5 banh mi thanks to Saigon Pearl in Albany. I’m tempted to include K-Plate on this list, since its six dollar bowls filled with Korean flavors are a fantastic value, but if we start opening up the category to things over $5, this list will go on forever.

Especially since cheap eats can come in all forms too. They don’t have to be savory things. I think about the $5 slice of cheesecake and a coffee at Cheesecake Machismo. Isn’t the best part about being an adult getting to eat cheesecake for lunch?

And if you really want cheap eats to be burgers, we’ve got that too. Just head over to Jumpin’ Jack’s in Scotia or Jack’s Drive-In in Wynantskill, and they’ll hook you up with some of that old-fashioned seasonal burger joint loving. I’ll put these places up against the national burger chains any day.

But all of this is off the top of my head. Surely there are places I’m forgetting. What else should make the list?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. albanylandlord permalink
    June 20, 2016 10:43 am

    Whew, I have some work ahead of me…

    You wondered why McDonald’s Wendy’s etc made the list. While I would never vote them best, I do eat a lot of McMuffins at McD. Why? Location. If I don’t pass it or nearly pass it on the way to work its not an option. Another part of cheap eats is convenience – driving 20 minutes for a cheap eat is a very rare thing. And guess who has the prime (expensive) locations? But I will get to Eggy’s soon, thanks for the reminder.

  2. June 20, 2016 11:21 am

    Fred the Butcher has 12″ submarine sandwiches for 5.99 and 6.99

    There is a legendary Beef Shwarma wrap at Aashiana for 5.99

    Anything at Ocean Palace is affordable and tastes 10 times more expensive than its price.

  3. June 20, 2016 2:39 pm

    One more thing… Some of the superlatives I think need some reform. For instance:

    “Best bar to find politicians/lobbyists: Jack’s Oyster House, Albany.”

    Who cares? What merit does this serve? Anecdotal evidence from the past year suggests this place has slipped in quality. Does it really matter that I may be sitting next to someone who works at the capital?

  4. Pam C. permalink
    June 20, 2016 5:54 pm

    Don’t forget the fish fry sandwich! Ted’s, Gene’s in North Greenbush, and many others. Still under $5, and filling!

  5. Jonathan permalink
    June 21, 2016 9:04 pm

    Excellent stuff. I would add that a personal pizza at the New Madison Grille in Albany is a great value at ~$5. Good quality, filling, affordable.

  6. Yup permalink
    June 24, 2016 1:04 am

    I’m a huge fan of the daily specials at Mac’s Drive-In in Watervliet. They’re only posted inside by the order counter/register on a small board. They usually offer about 5 and all are $5 or less. Most come with a huge pile of authentic hand cut fries (not the frozen posers) and a cup of slaw. The portions are huge. My favorites have been the double cheeseburger, the hearty meatloaf sandwich and the Michigan Dog combo. Everything is home made, cooked to order and delicious.

    • Pam C. permalink
      June 24, 2016 1:36 pm

      Where is Mac’s Drive-in? Thanks!

    • Pam C. permalink
      June 25, 2016 12:29 am

      Thank you for the Yelp link! I live in Florida now and wasn’t familiar with that place. Was this formerly a pub with an Irish name (McIntyre’s, perhaps?) across from the Arsenal gate? Thanks again.

      • llcwine permalink
        June 27, 2016 9:13 am

        Pam C…no those are two separate places…McIntyre’s was sold and became the Platinum pub…which is now closed…thank goodness as it was not very good. Mac’s Drive in is off on a side street…just down from where McIntyre’s used to be..

  7. Fisher permalink
    June 27, 2016 4:13 pm

    Sadudee in Watervliet has a delicious plate of Lab Gai (“chicken salad”) for only $5. Makes a nice lunch all on its own.

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