Tag Archives: frugal

NYC Lower East Side Cheap Eats Tour

This past weekend I decided, last-minute (8 days out), to take a weekend trip up to New York for food touring. I went with my roommate Matt (from the Ecuador trip) and Yelp Elite friend, Kana. Both share a love for food.

How’d we get there? 

With two people, the best way to get to NYC (at least from Philly) is the Chinatown bus. The $20 roundtrip fare is cheaper than tolls/gas. The bus removes the hassle of parking in New York, which can be its own adventure. We left from Chinatown Philly and arrived in the heart of Manhattan at 120 E Broadway. The bus isn’t less comfortable than Greyhound.

Armed with our tickets and light backpacks, we stood in line in Philly at 9am for the bus. A weary traveler, a girl of maybe 23 years, ambled to the back of the line behind us. She wore a multicolored Adidas tank top and messy bleached blond hair. She’s a recent grad from the University of Virginia. She quit her job in investment banking and was on a mission of self-discovery in NYC, no return ticket booked. Our conversation on the way up helped pass the time on the Jersey Turnpike, between light naps. We talked about Excel, the meaning of work, and Charlottesville.

You can check the Chinatown bus schedule here.

The Food

Upon disembarking the bus and leaving the wafting diesel fumes behind, we scurried with packs in hand down the grungy trash-scattered streets of Chinatown in New York. We were in a hurry to find our food tour companion. I met Kana at a Yelp event in Philadelphia this past March. We shared food tour battle stories and argued over the merits of Yelp. Kana lives up in NYC and was a natural companion for the excursion this past weekend. She’s an insurance analyst by day, food aficionado by night. She might be the first person I’ve met that has a deeper passion than I for restaurants, chefs, and food. She has impressive pedigree, having eaten at nearly every restaurant I know of.  She’s level-headed, fun, and passionate about food. I’m grateful she joined us.

Our first stop was Lam Zhou. Lam Zhou is a barebones dumpling eatery in Chinatown. There are no decorations, signs, or artwork. The only interesting thing about Lam Zhou are the dumplings, and the noodles, and the women who labor in the back tirelessly pressing dumplings all day. The shop is compact, oddly yellow, and a dirty. The floor is lined with cheap wooden folding tables and chairs where diners share common space. The dumplings are excellent, crispy and chewy, filled with scallions, fish and soy sauce, and ground pork. You dip these pockets of love in a little vinegar, and you’re mouth fills with sweet, savoury, and acidic juices and meats. 8 of them for $3 is hard to beat in New York.

Methodology

The food tour was created by grabbing 450 cheap eats of NYC into a spreadsheet. They were filtered by rating and number of reviews. I eliminated restaurants with less than 25 reviews (this turned out to be too low of a cutoff) and cut off the super popular places with 1000+ reviews. These places have big, touristy lines.  I imported the remaining places  into Google MyMaps, which plots the locations on a map.

With this map, I plotted a tour route. Using Mapquest’s Route Optimizer, I picked 8 places close to each other. The app optimize d the shortest path between them.

The Food (2)

From Lam Zhou, we walked our way up the east side of Manhattan.

Clinton Square Pizza

I enjoyed both the NY Style thin crust and the Sicilian pizza. The Sicilian was the winner. It had thicker cheese and soft, buttery crumb. The sauce was too sweet on it, however.

Ni Japanese

One man runs this Japanese stall in the Essex Market. I found the salmon slightly overcooked and the rice too hearty. This place felt too much like an intentionally healthy meal to enjoy.

Gaia Italian Café

Despite the creepy mythological nomenclature, we gave this place a try because it shows up on cheap eats lists across the web.

We ordered the chicken “Milanese” panino and mushroom truffle ravioli.

The panino was 3.5/5 stars. The chicken cutlets were small though well-executed: juicy, well seasoned, crisp on the bite of the crust. The bread was thick, soft, and light crisp on the exterior. Unfortunately the bitter arugula dominated the flavor profile and made the pesto and tomatoes at most an afterthought.

The ravioli on the mushroom truffle ravioli was handmade, lightly chewy, and the right floury/doughy taste. The mushrooms inside were savoury, well-seasoned, and juicy. These were complemented by earthy romano cheese shavings on top. The sauce was a medium-bodied bechamel with hints of truffle oil. Light sprinkling of parsley balanced the cream and fat of the sauce with a fresh and green flavor and mouthfeel.

The ravioli was good enough to redeem the panino’s mediocrity, but not enough to make the experience 5 stars.

Xe May

Xe May is a hip and popular bahn mi joint. The sandwiches aren’t Saigon street prices at $9. But, they are tasty, a nice balance of fresh bread, sweet bbq savoury pork, and vegetables.

Fat Cat Kitchen

Close to Union Square. Their breakfast sandwich had a fluffy potato roll and well executed eggs. The bean spread on the sandwich was savoury and nicely seasoned.

Veniero’s

I enjoyed this place that came recommended by my Yelp friend. The chocolate cannoli was crunchy and buttery on the shell. The inside was sugary, but not grainy/powdery in texture. The milk chocolate added complexity.

Ise Kitchen

I’m so glad Yelp and Opentable pointed us to Ise in the East Village. The Hexagon meal was a no-brainer choice. It is five courses served on stackable trays. It’s unique. It’s well executed. Everything about the meal is efficient and thoughtful.

The starter layer of the hexagon is a few appetizers. There were a few preparations of Tofu along with salad-like app.

The sushi layer contained various types of nigiri including Tuna, Salmon, and Salmon roe along with a tuna roll and two other cuts of white fish. The fish was fresh and creamy as it ought to be. The rice was well executed. The next layer contained house-pulled Soba noodles. These were firm, spongy, fresh, and held onto their dipping sauce very well.

The final course was a chicken consomme mixed with the remaining soba dipping sauce. This was so cool. Very savoury and well seasoned.

I finished my meal with vanilla ice cream dusted in soy powder. The ice cream was silky and creamy. The sauce tasted like maple syrup and peanut butter. Amazing.

This is a good value for a meal of its caliber in NYC.

Blue and Gold Tavern

My roommate introduced us to this place. It’s a dark and grungy dive bar. But the drink prices were the lowest I’ve seen in Manhattan. $4 and $5 for a beer!

Crif Dogs

At the end of the night on Saturday many people end up at Crif Dogs. They have good hotdogs at a reasonable price. The dogs are all beef, have a nice snap, and can be topped with a tasty chili.

Emily

TheInfatuation.com led us to the Emmy burger in Brooklyn which it touted as the “best burger in NYC.” While the burger was delicious and came together with a unique emphasis on carmelized onions and charred cheddar, I don’t believe it deserves the top spot. The search for NYC’s best burger continues. This one is overpriced at $27.

Sheep’s Meadow

It’s become a tradition of mine to spend time lounging on Sheep Meadow in Central Park. There’s a massive green space, an excellent view of the skyline, and hundreds of interesting subjects for people watching.

Lodging

The cheapest non-Chinatown dump motel I found was the International Student Residence in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While cheap, the accommodations were Spartan. The room was nothing more than wooden stall with a bunk bed and a trash can. There was no ceiling. The place was clean, but noisy and very tight. It’s hard to justify spend 3x as much for a hotel room in Manhattan, but I’d be tempted.

New York has a diversity of thought, activity, and resources unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s a privilege living 2 hours away. During my food planning, I found there are over 20,000 restaurants in the NYC area, with options consistently changing. Because the options are nearly limitless, choosing one place to eat is a problem in discipline and information science.  New York presents the perfect opportunity to analyze restaurant ratings in a rigorous manner. It gives one access to some of the best restaurant options in the world, within walking distance.

 

Why you need to visit Austin, Texas

I recently returned from a week in Austin, Tx for the sole purpose of leisure and enjoyment with my brother and good friend. My brother made the suggestion to us and we all hopped onboard. We had a great place to stay with a friend. It was super helpful to have someone who could help point us to the top spots in the city.

I was impressed with Austin. The city is packed with amazing food, bars, and teeming with life. The people were friendly. The swimming holes were packed, yet chill. I recommend Austin for a travel destination. I will detail below the foods and activities we enjoyed. This is not exhaustive, but we did get around town. 35 restaurants & 4 swimming holes.

Luggage
I brought a minimalist pack on this trip: 10L. I carried essentials. Two Uniqlo Airism shirts, two pairs of Uniqlo Airism boxers, one raw denim pair of jeans (ACNE), one sweatshirt, one shoes (Onitsuka Tigers), toiletries, two pairs of Darn Tough socks, sunglasses, and one dress shirt. I packed everything in travel organizers to reduce the loose clutter in my backpack to which I’m accustomed.

This arrangement worked nearly perfectly. I wore every piece I brought. I didn’t end up with anything smelling gross. I had clothes for swimming, casual restaurants/bars, and church.

Landing Logistics
We flew into Dallas to save some cash. Austin is a more expensive airport. The round trip with Spirit airlines from PHL to DFW was only $108. I had a delay on the return which scored me a $50 voucher. We rented a car via Hotwire for a taxes-adjusted $25/day. We spent the first evening free at a Marriott I booked with recently-earned points using the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card. This card has earned me 4 free hotel stays for signing up. The Four Points Sheraton in Dallas/Fort Worth North was spacious, contemporary, and clean.

Dallas
Dallas’ downtown seemed uninteresting. I was intrigued by the Deep Ellum and Uptown districts. These areas house Dallas’ hip and wealthy. I was impressed by the selection of bars, restaurants, and the vivacity of the residents. Dallas, to my surprise, felt updated, sleek, and refined. Young professionals in impeccable dress sipped cocktails and dined on sushi. Not what I expected, being the ignorant Yankee I am.

Restaurants
Texas is all about comfort foods. Briskets, tacos, steak they did well. The top Italian and Japanese were lackluster. I’ve detailed the highlights below.

Standouts
Empa Mundo: Delicious & Cheap Empanadas filled with brisket. A blend of Tex and Latino.

Empa Mundo


Brown’s BBQ: Some of the best brisket we tried in Austin. The beef was tender, juicy, and fell apart. This brisket had the smokiest fat.

Browns BBQ Austin, TX

Torchy’s: My favorite taco place. Torchy’s has perfect meat execution, strong flavors, and unique varieties. A stop in Austin without Torchy’s would be unfathomable.

Tacodeli: Another great choice for a more premium beef cut. The tenderloin in the Cowboy taco was soft, charred, salty, and savoury. The fresh grilled flavor was masked by the fresh vegetables.

Micklethwait Craft Meats: Another well-executed brisket. We got there early to skip the line. This brisket is juicy, fatty, and smoky. There is a fat marbling that brings flavor to the whole brisket cut.



Halal Gurus: This was not on the list but stood out. Crispy lamb over rice. The lamb was juicy, savoury, and seasoned in a middle eastern tradition. The yellow rice tasted of a deeply complex stock and executed to optimal softness. Lettuce strips, diced tomato, and Caesar dressing brought cool flavors to balance the flavor profile.

Halal Gurus, Austin, Tx


Don Japanese: This recommendation came from Reddit. I had left it off the list and they called me out. I’m glad they did. Don is cheap. Don makes super fresh rice boxed dishes with the delicateness and intrigue of an authentic Osaka street food stand. There’s no surprise the restaurant was packed with young Asian college students. Their dishes are rice covered in a well-executed, subtly flavored protein.

Juan in a Million: A massive filling breakfast burrito for cheap. The flavors are balanced.

Stony’s Pizza: The perfect cap to a boozy evening. Stony’s crust is soft, a bit wet, with savoury cheese and a touch of grease. This was a pleasant surprise. Did not expect well-executed pizza in Austin.

Also, it’s not an Austin spot per se, but the area has plenty of In N Out burgers. If you haven’t tried these, you need to . This is certainly not a secret. But In N Out has awesome fast food.  Order a Double Double Animal Style.


Disappointed with..
Uchi: A highly rated Sushi joint. The happy hour was loud and obnoxiously crowded. The service was slow. Their plates were mediocre by Japanese standards.

Salt Lick: A very popular BBQ refuge way outside town. The location is cool. It’s nestled next to a vineyard. However, the brisket and ribs lacks smokiness and were poorly executed. The connective tissue remained unbroken.


Dylan’s BBQ in Dallas: Surprisingly poor brisket for Texas. Connective tissue was unrendered and bite had significant stick and chew.

Fricano’s: Austin’s take on an Italian deli is a miss. The diagonally cut sandwiches were warm, meat was of mediocre quality, and the flavors weren’t well-balanced or even Italian.

For more details view my extended reviews on jackmaguire.yelp.com

Swimming Hole Standouts
Sculpture Falls- Deep in the Austin Greenbelt there’s a large hole. 150-200 people gathered with a makeshift boombox and small granite jumping rocks 6 feet high.

Pace Bend State Park- A bit farther from town. This peninsula on Lake Travis has a dope variety of cliff heights, views of the Lake, and a youthful crowd.

Pace Bend Cliffs

Rio Vista Park- A crowded wide stream with man-made rapid chutes. There were a ton of people at this one on Memorial Day. 300 people.

Bars
Rainey street is a row of twenty bars that were recently houses. The area has a residential feel. Yet, it was consistently LIT (i.e. crowded.) The crowds were calm & friendly.

Sixth Street is a party zone. The police block off the street for foot traffic only. There are 50-75 bars all with lines out the door. The streets are packed with young party-goers from all other the world.

Austin is super fun. There are tons of food trucks with exceptional food. People are polite. The town is not obnoxiously hip or weird. It’s big enough to support a full week of adventure yet small enough to feel manageable. It’s clean and contemporary. Austin is a great place for a vacation.

 

 

How to Plan Meals

Meal planning

Several of you asked how I approach meal planning. I break this into nutrition, budget, time management, taste, and quantity. Getting your meal planning in order will help inform many other weak points in your life’s organizational structure.

Meal planning- Burger

 

Budgeting

Most finance sites recommend you spend no more than 14% of your budget on food. You can use this calculator to see how your food spending compares to people like you around the US. My philosophy is to spend as little as possible while eating food that is healthy and appealing to your palate. I don’t pinch pennies when it comes to food. I don’t have to. I buy the food I want at the lowest price I can find while also looking for discounts. I follow a hierarchy of purchasing criteria which I’ll get to at the end. This ends up being temporally staggered as I run out of things in the fridge. By shopping at ALDI first and filling out the weekly haul with the higher quality stuff from the bigger chain stores one saves significantly.

 

Nutrition

We all have nutrition goals. What we eat impacts how we feel, sleep, perform, and look. It can indirectly impact our self-image. Thinking about nutrition is a necessary piece in living consciously. To eat without choosing thoughtfully is to acknowledge that how you feel, sleep, perform, and look is not important to you. It’s denying that our food choices impact our mental and physical states in profound ways. If your mind and body are not important to you, do you think it will be important to anyone else?

That being said, consider your goals. They are extremely important in meal planning. Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to sleep better? Do you want to feel energized for exercise? Do you lag after lunch? Do you go to sleep distracted by hunger or being too full? I won’t answer these questions here, but think about them and think about ways you can address them. Food can be more than sustenance, it can be medicine. Use this web app to see what nutrients your diet is lacking. Get your levels lab-tested by a service like Spectracell or DirectLabs. Know about how many calories you want to eat and what your portions should look like. If you want to get it perfect, weigh your food with a simple scale. Your nutrition and health should set conscious parameters on what you buy and cook.

 

Taste

This one is all about trial and error. Using the insights you gain from your nutrition goals, what in your ideal nutritional diet actually tastes good? Identifying this will help you stick to your meal planning and help you get excited about meals and improving its structure. It is imperative that you keep an open mind during your initial meal planning stages. You may find that some things (like Kale for instance) suck in one form (raw) but are delicious in another (cooked and blended into a soup.) I eat a ton of blended vegetables because I find them much more pleasant like that. Try out restaurants and note how they prepare your favorite dishes. Do you understand salt/acid/fat and how they balance? Don’t even begin to add seasoning until you’ve got a handle on the balance of salt (e.g. table salt or Tony Chachere’s cajun seasoning), acid (e.g. lime juice or vinegar), and fat (e.g. olive oil, butter, avocado, ground beef). Learn the way seasonings complement certain meats. The Flavor Bible is an epic resource for this. There are some great cookbooks that focus on learning to cook. I love Ruhlman’s 12, 4-Hour Chef, and How to Cook Everything: The Basics. Each in their own respect will teach you to think like a chef. From there, with a basic understanding of ingredients and flavors, begin trying out recipes in one of the classic “everything” books: how to cook everything or the more classic and just as ubiquitous middle age-mom cookbooks, “joy of cooking”.

Meal planning- Flavor Bible

Quantity

Nearly one-third of all food in the US is thrown away. This constitutes a major ethical and financial issue. Don’t expect to buy the proper amount of food right away. Buy what you think you need and be observant of what you’re throwing away and what you’re keeping. Have an understanding of food expiry dates. Understand what bad food looks and smells like. After a few weeks of shopping, note how much you threw away. Being conscious of this will impact your purchase behavior at the grocery store.

 

Fresh produce and meat is great. But, it spoils quickly. If you’re trashing fresh produce now, chances are you will continue to do so. Don’t keep doing the same thing. Convert your fresh supply grocery list items into frozen. Frozen vegetables can be as nutritious as their fresh counterparts. Tend to purchase frozen vs. freezing fresh items. The professional freezing process is less damaging to food than your fridge.

 

How you prepare your meals is up to you. Consider how much variety you think you need. Do you really need it? I’m happy eating 2 different meals for dinner during the week and often the same things for lunch every day. It sounds boring, but it really isn’t. Food is satisfying when you’re hungry as long as it’s tasty. I sometimes prep meals in bulk (4-5 lunches) but I find that I end up wasting 1-2 portions each week. Batch cooking dinners and eating leftovers for lunch. But, I know that leftovers lead to uncontrolled snacking. To prevent between-meal snacking I prefer to have very little prepared food in my fridge. This is a personal preference as with so much of what I’ve written (perhaps not just here, but on this entire blog!)

 

Meal-building

Know your nutrition. Purchase with your budgetary standards in mind. Note your tastes. Note which fresh food items you frequently trash. Meal planning is an exercise in conscious living. Consider it an act in cherishing life.

 

My Meal planning purchase hierarchy

 

  1. Go to ALDI

    1. Is there something on deep discount that I’d enjoy? Buy that.
    2. Are there other items there I’d enjoy?

 

I usually end up getting a few deep discount items at ALDI, like

  • Eggs
  • Sauces
  • Specialty yogurts
  • Specialty drinks like Kombucha

 

I always buy there:

 

  • Avocado (1)
  • Onions (if needed)
  • Sweet potatoes (if needed)
  • Organic chicken
  • Organic ground beef
  • Staples like salt, oils, or flour
  • Jasmine rice
  • Hard cheese (Romano/Parmesan/Asiago)

 

  1. Giant or regular nicer grocer

  • Fresh herbs
  • Nicer pasta sauces without high sugar/HFCS
  • Wild caught fish
  • Grass-fed butter
  • Nicer salsas (I like Mrs. Renfro’s)
  • Ground chicken
  • Marinated organic chicken
  • Frozen vegetable blends (cheaper than ALDI).
    • I really like the Normandy blend
  • Frozen Kale (for Fiber and Micronutrients)
  • Strawberries to freeze
  • Bananas for smoothies
  • Better than Bouillon Chicken broth base
    • Very good for flavoring soups and sauces. (ain’t no way I’m keep a running frozen stock at my place with a fridge shared by 4 guys).
  • Ginger Kombucha

Meal planning- Salad

 

Consume Consciously

 

Think consciously about your meal planning choices. They impact you in lasting ways. Consider the impact your choices have on your budget, taste, and nutrition. Do your actions line up with your goals? Consider reflecting on the thoughts here to structure meal planning that caters to your overall tastes, health goals, and budget.