This is the introductory post for Eat Cheap Shit, my new column about cheap food, sexuality and cooking, and families going broke. May it be the start to a long run of posts about dirt-cheap yet delicious deals.
On Tuesday, I sat with my best friend S as she finished her dinner. She asked if I wanted some, but I declined. (I was broke.)
“Why’s that?” she asked. “What did you spend it on?”
“Food,” I admitted. She snorted.
“What did you eat?”
Well, what did I eat? I ate a sumptuous lunch at Amir’s, a tiny falafel joint on 116th and Broadway. It’s a tiny place that makes you hate the weather; each time someone opens the door, the straight chill freezes everything.
I ordered the Veghead: a fresh, flaky pita sandwich filled with fried cauliflower and grilled eggplant, then doused in flavorful tahini sauce, paired with pickled beets. That, and a coke, cost $3. You read that correctly. Three bucks.
(For a treat, my mother sometimes fried cauliflower florets. For nearly an hour she’d stand over a boiling stove and precarious pot of hot oil, batting florets with a slotted spoon as I sat impatiently across the counter, my plate ready in front of me. Remembering this, it felt like such luxury to sit back in that cold little restaurant and pound back fried cauliflower florets as fast as I could.)
Not only was the sandwich cheap, it kept me full for the next six hours. During that time I met up with my friend Stella at a Starbucks, and then with Chin at the Argo Tea near Union Square. Amir’s held tight the whole time. The periodic aftertastes served as delectable reminders of a find well found.
I felt restless as soon as I arrived at the Argo Tea, so I asked Chin if she’d be willing to walk around town with me.
Chin’s an old friend. She’s my fellow gentleman. We entertain eccentric fantasies and dream of buying expensive cigars, old leather chairs, and burnished bookshelves with musty volumes. Now and then we meet at restaurants and cafes and discuss politics and the weather. Together, we are very erudite. And we both love food.
The food at Argo Tea is nice, but I wasn’t in the mood for dainty tea sandwiches. I wanted flavorful Italian cooking. Something slathered in a hot, deep, rich sauce. Pasta. And though I’d already had eggplant, I craved it again.
Chin agreed to a quest. As we walked down University Place for the next few blocks, we came up stumped. Then we turned a corner and wondered what to do next. Chin and I were stuck at an intersection of infinite possibilities, unable to turn anywhere.
Then, we looked right across the street.
copyright Ronnie Caplan
Six years ago, my friend Rose and her uncle John took me out to lunch at Otto’s. I loved her uncle — he was wry and good humored and knew his food. I trusted him to order well for me, and he did. I enjoyed some of the best eggplant rollatini I’ve ever had. Even the wine was robust and smooth, a great fit for the tart vegetable and the mild mozzarella.
Since John had comped me all those years ago, I had no idea how expensive Otto’s might be. I asked Chin if we could see the menu posted outside. So we did.
Our jaws hit the floor simultaneously.
Let me describe the next hour or two. We entered a quiet, warm bar saturated in red tones. The bar itself was the burnished red of our bookshelf fantasies. I ordered a dish of eggplant camponata. She ordered a plate of rigatoni and cubed butternut squash, topped with gran padano. We had unlimited hearty pieces of wax-wrapped country bread and some fine olive oil. In addition to this, we enjoyed wrapped packets of thin Italian breadsticks.
Our total bill was less than $16, without tip.
I tasted the tartness of Meyer lemon juice and savored the sublime texture of pine nuts. I found hints of cocoa and capers. The camponata bled into the bread when I mopped it up. It came in a good-sized pot, made for cleaning out its edges.
Then, I snuck a taste from Chin’s plate. The cream clung to the rigatoni’s ridges. The padano, sharp at first taste, dissolved into mildness. And the squash was rich. Chin knows my fondness for squash and has loved it ever since I introduced her to the Lombardi’s butternut squash ravioli, (which they don’t make anymore).
Both Chin and I played eccentrics at the bar. We admired the liquor we couldn’t afford. We watched the well-dressed men and women drink wine, standing up, at the exquisite marble islands around the room. In the romantic warmth, they leaned into each other.
An hour after I left Chin, I met S. As I told her about my delicious day, she finished her dinner of superlative sweet potatoes, serviceable macaroni and cheese, and mediocre paella.
“Why don’t you write about this?” she asked.
She rolled her eyes.
“Whenever someone writes about vegetarians,” she said, “it goes viral.”
“No, really,” she said. “You’re such a gastro.”
I went home, thought about it, and started writing this column.
My interest in cheap (vegetarian) has given me lots of fodder. Let’s hope this place can be a venue to channel my creative food-inclined energies.
featured picture credit: Shermeee via Flickr.