Colin Muldoon, who is graduating from Scarsdale High School, has been doing an internship here for the last month or so. Besides sorting the mail (really) and getting me coffee (not really), he’s been writing a few pieces. (You may have seen last week’s advance on the Greek festival in West Nyack?)
Today in the food section, Colin has a terrific story on his recent quest to see what kind of meals he could get on North Avenue for under $5. The story is entertaining, very informative, and, especially if you’re on a budget, a must-read. I’m posting it, after the jump. Here’s Colin:
For The Journal News
For $5, you can buy a little more than a gallon of gas. Or five songs on iTunes, depending on the songs. You might be able to score a used paperback.
But is it possible to find a satisfying meal — one that doesn’t come from a chain or a fast-food joint — for $5?
As a Scarsdale High School graduate heading to college in the fall, I sure hope so.
To prepare for those next four years of foraging, I decided to do a practice run. And where better to start than North Avenue in New Rochelle? It’s a college hub (Iona) with an enormous high school (New Rochelle) down the road. If anybody knows how to boost the average return on their eating investment, it’s young adults.
So I set out with a wallet of Lincolns to find the best bang for five bucks on one of the Hudson Valley’s most food-filled strips. No gourmet. No fancy celery side-plate decorations — just an original, hearty meal that will leave me sated and thinking the meal was worth its meager price. My mission will require determination, grit, and every bit of small change I can muster out of my mom’s purse. I’m starting with chicken.
768 North Ave., New Rochelle. 914-636-3409. originalchickenjoes.com
The deal: The Baby Special $4.
A throng of Iona and New Rochelle High School students are screaming their chicken orders across the counter at Roman Calderon, who is returning fire by handing back cargo-loads of chicken nuggets, and throwing in a side of “Yo Mama jokes,” no extra charge. A gigantic board lists more chicken-nugget meal combinations than Colonel Sanders could ever dream of, but a typical order is a High School Special ($6) or Godfather Special ($10), which are half and whole pounds of nuggets, respectively. Big, manly meals.
I want a half pound — just like everyone else is ordering — but with five bucks, all I could afford is a quarter pound. I’m petrified to order it: it’s called the Baby Special.
Once I say the name, what kind of looks will I get? Will people question my manhood? What kind of jokes will be headed my way?
I step up to the counter. Judgement Day.
“Baby Special, please,” I stutter.
“One Baby,” Roman shouts over his shoulder to the kitchen.
That was it. I pay my $4. He hands me the sack, and I’m about to make a clean getaway.
“Want crack on that?”
A bit of advice when this happens to you: Do not say “what?” Do not stutter. And do not hesitate. Because if you don’t answer “yes,” you will get stared at so hard that you will wonder if perhaps you forgot your clothes that morning.
Chicken Joe’s is not a front for underground dealing: that “crack” you’re being offered is actually a seasoning that’s so good it may well be one of the most addicting things you can get — legally.
So yes. I say yes to the crack.
And I say yes to a side of barbecue sauce. I hand Roman my $5 bill, and head off with the spoils.
The hand-cut nuggets are tossed in a foil-lined bag with fries, fritters or a fried vegetable of your choice. I open the bag and stare into the depths of hot fried poultry goodness. An enveloping cloud of steam is a prelude to the salty, crispy meal that awaits.
Worth it? Ten minutes later, when all I have left is a ripped-up bag and a desperate need for a napkin, my stomach is not quite satisfied. While Chicken Joe’s does deliver crisp and flavorful real chicken, for my $5 it just wasn’t enough. If I had $10 in my wallet, this would be the first stop on my list, but I don’t want to leave hungry. So strictly for the economy-minded pursuit of this quest: Not quite worth it.
Smokehouse Chili Grill
606 North Ave., New Rochelle. 914-813-8686. smokehousechili.com
The deal: Chili in a bread bowl, fries and a drink. $5.
The Smokehouse is like a Southern roadhouse in New Rochelle. You can smell the fresh oak of the rough hewn posts that frame the windows, and there’s a mix of mainstream rock songs coming from the store’s iPod. There are no booths, just counter seating, and specials are written on a blackboard. I walk in thinking all I’m going to be able to afford is ladleful of chili, but as I raise my eyes, I see a big list of 10 specials, including various barbecued items doused in chili, all at $5 even. But one name stands above all: the glorious bread bowl of chili.
It was as if I were Indiana Jones and had been handed 10 very tempting looking Holy Grails. But, as far as tableware goes, I’m pretty sure I would prefer the bread bowl over a 2,000-year-old cup any day.
Without a second thought, I hand the guys behind the counter four dollars, eight dimes and four nickels. In return, I get the bread bowl, plus fries and a drink.
Sitting at the counter with a view out the front window, I felt like I was eating at my own home counter, complete with a roll of paper towels at my elbow. Except our bowls aren’t edible. The chili, which sat steaming in its bread bowl, was spicy enough to heat up the chilly day but not so hot that my Dr. Pepper couldn’t cool it down. The recipe, a Texas-style chili, (aka a carnivore’s delight) focuses on meat, with sweet Italian sausage, ground beef and bacon as the centerpiece, and leaves out the beans, carrots and other vegetables. The tomato base and red peppers are the lone representatives of that food group.
Worth it? Maybe it was the plentiful amount of meat, or that the bread soaks up too much juice, but it seemed to me the chili was too close to being solid and too far from liquid. But for five bucks, there’s no way I can argue with fries, chili and a drink. Definitely worth it.
750 North Ave., New Rochelle. 914-636-9533. beechmonttavern.com
The deal: Half-price burger night Wednesdays.
For the first time on my five-under-$5 quest, I’ve found myself sitting at a table where a real waitress serves and clears the food and presents you with a bill at the end of the meal. So how might I expect to keep under my $5 limit?
Luckily four years of high school taught me something — how to research! After a few minutes of Googling, I discovered burgers here are half price from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays.
The Beechmont Tavern has been around since 1928, and still has that old-pub feel. At 7:30 p.m., we are too early to get a taste of a big party crowd, and anyway it is midweek. But there are a decent amount of people, mostly locals catching some dinner.
You walk past a long wooden bar to get to a small dining room with eight tables. As at any good pub, there are TVs everywhere so it’s easy for my friend, a Yankees fan, to watch the Bombers battle Detroit over my shoulder, while I watch my Mets (mercifully) get a victory against Washington over his. With nine TVs in the bar room and dining area, it is easy for everyone to watch his or her favorite team.
After a short wait, our friendly waitress brings out two simple but hearty burgers, his plain and my mushroom, which cost just $4.38 apiece.
The patties are fat and juicy, with a slice of tomato and a slightly skimpy piece of lettuce (who cares about greens anyway?). The kitchen very recently made the switch from frozen to individually handmade patties, and the burgers are tender and exploding with taste. And there, on top of the medium-rare meat, is a mountainous heap of mushrooms, which are “sautéed in garlic, oil and anything else we can get our hands on,” says new owner, John Leone. They were so juicy I couldn’t even bring myself to put ketchup on mine to defame the taste. And to add to the appeal, the burgers come with fries.
Worth it? For a game, a relaxing atmosphere and a great burger, Beechmont Tavern was a worthy home for my $5. And nothing says get-your-money’s-worth like free refills! Though I was on budget, my friend, who ordered something even cheaper than I, ordered a soda and the waitress was running laps filling him back up. Totally worth it.
Eatery On North
752 North Ave., New Rochelle. 914-576-9366. eateryonnorth.com
The deal: Three stack of pancakes, $5.
If there’s one thing everybody in this very divided world likes, it’s breakfast, especially when there’s a $5 deal involved. Sure, there’s always the $2 egg sandwich or some form of bacon and cheese wrapped up together, but I’m talking about that good, old-fashioned sit-down breakfast that really does war with the lingering taste of toothpaste in your mouth. I want skyscraper stacks of pancakes, I want mounds of eggs next to waffles cradling strawberries surrounded by villages of bacon and sausage — all under a downpour of syrup. But, can I get that for five bucks?
I come close at Eatery on North, when I order a hot, three-pancake stack of two plain and one chocolate — with a side of crispy bacon.
On a weekday morning, I’m the only person in the cafe. I take a comfortable seat at a small table against the wall. John Mayer serenades me over the speakers. While I’m waiting for my order, a couple of people stop in to pick up coffee or a muffin to go.
The pancakes are soft, floury and golden inside, with a flaky exterior. The chocolate chips were melting before my eyes (and, somehow, found their way onto my shirt, too).
Worth it? I could have used a cold glass of orange juice or milk, but the job of pancakes and bacon is to fill me up, not refresh me, and that’s what they did. Pretty well worth it.
1284 North Ave., New Rochelle. 914-636-5960. deannaspizza.com
The deal: The Grandma Pie, $14.90 (for three people).
It would have been easy to just get a slice. But in order to stay true to the $5 rule, and try the signature dish at Deanna’s, I bring along friends and we order the Grandma Pie for $14.90, including tax. Split three ways, that’s just less than $5 apiece.
The Grandma is like a Sicilian pie in that it has a rectangular shape and comes without an array of toppings. But the dough used to make the Grandma is more stretched out than a Sicilian, so the crust is much thinner. On top, a very simple trio of crushed plum tomato, garlic and basil gave it just enough flavor, and unlike most, it didn’t have the usual flavor-smothering grease; rather each bite had a crisp and clean taste. The grease on your average Friday night pizza slice comes from using a cheap type of cheese, says owner Michael Salvo. Deanna’s, on the other hand, uses fresh mozzarella on every pie. And the difference is remarkable.
Deanna’s is a typical pizzeria, with tables in front and a kitchen in the back. It didn’t have an old-fashioned vibe like the Beechmont, but it did dish out a good pizza for under five bucks.
Worth it? The pizza is pretty light, and even though I had four slices (my two friends had two slices each, so much for equal portions), I still could’ve eaten more. Nonetheless, the Grandma Pie was different and well-made, and a great thing to grab with friends. But with only $5 to spare and two other eaters to share with, a Grandma Pie just is not completely worth it. Next time, I’ll go with fewer friends or go for a larger pie.
With my wallet empty, my quest for cheap eats is over. I managed to sample the spectrum of the day’s meals, from dining early at the Eatery to having a nighttime Beechmont Burger. At some points, I found myself pondering whether I should take a violin with me and play for a little extra cash. It would’ve been worth it at Chicken Joe’s and Deanna’s. But I held true to my goal, and never spent more than that now-hallowed denomination.
Like all worthy adventures, this one had its dangers, namely the gravitational pull of the North Avenue McDonald’s, tasty looking menu items that were just slightly over $5, and parking meters that ate up precious change. I braved them all, however, and enjoyed every place I visited.
So, how much can you make out of a crumpled $5 bill? Well I just got a head start, but the next four years will give me a pretty good idea.