They say the economy is recovering, so why is your spouse suggesting Valentine’s Day dinner at home this year? Changes in leading economic indicators notwithstanding, it seems we’re still watching our pennies until things really get better. So to help balance our budgets, we scoured the Valley in search of the best dining deals — from funky to fabulous, from dives to diners — that cover just about all of the world’s great cuisines.
By Anitra Brown
Let’s start with something that by definition is bargain food: the hamburger. But it’s easier to say who should be Miss America than who makes the best hamburger, so we’ll just mention a couple of favorites. One essential is to start with fresh, lean ground beef. Clayton Delaney’s Dining Saloon in Chester slaps a half-pound over the flames every time someone orders a burger ($6.95 and up), then serves it up on an onion roll with fresh-cut French fries made from whole potatoes. (McDonald’s will never taste the same.) This country-western style saloon is also known for its barbecue pork sandwich with fries and cole slaw ($7.25) and big portions of meaty pork spare ribs ($16.95). 60 Main Street, Chester (Orange); 845-469-9002.
Poughkeepsie’s retro-sounding Dutch Cabin is actually a trendy Southwestern restaurant specializing in exotic hamburgers. Got that? Things start with the Steer Burger on a fresh toasted hard roll ($5.95- $6.95) and get wilder from there: a Cabin Burger with ham and melted Swiss; the Fajita Burger with sautÃ©ed onions, peppers, salsa, and melted cheese; culminating in the Cajun Burger grilled with hot spices, topped with red onion, cheese, and a bun slathered with remoulade sauce (mayo with mustard, chopped capers, cornichons, anchovies, and herbs). Again, the secret is starting with a half-pound of freshly ground beef. 34 Fairmont Avenue, Poughkeepsie; 845-471-7870.
And let’s not forget the humble hot dog. For decades, Famous Lunch in Troy has served up locally made teenie weenies that loom large for their hordes of loyal fans. Just four inches long and 65 cents apiece, these dogs are loaded up with mustard, onions, and a secret brick-red “Zippy” Sauce. “Don’t waste everybody’s time ordering fewer than six of them,” says one fan. Be warned: the atmosphere is “true dive.” But how can you not love a place that still serves RC Cola? 111 Congress St., Troy; 518-272-9481.
Every weekend, it’s paradise in Edenville for the all-you-can-eat crowd. Country Dream, a post-and-beam style restaurant in the midst of Pine Island’s onion country, piles the platters high with fresh pork and roast turkey on Thursday; pasta, meatloaf, and fish (grilled, breaded, or beer-battered) on Friday; and ham and roast beef on Saturday. All meals are served with veggies and real mashed potatoes. (“We peel ’em ourselves,” says owner Ken Henderson.) Prices are kept at $10.50 thanks to the limited menu and family-style service. Beverages and desserts (like the irresistible homemade bread pudding) are extra. It’s a popular spot, and small, but tables turn quickly. “If you’re not served within 15 minutesâ€¦,” Henderson trails off. “Well, you will be.” It’s open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch, and Thursday through Saturday for dinner. m 256 Pine Island Turnpike, Edenville (Orange); 845-986-6600.
But say you’re an all-you-can-eater who wants a little more choice — Alaskan crab legs, crispy Southern fried chicken, beef bourguignonne, and Italian sausage, not to mention a big salad bar and fresh, homemade apricot crisp — all for just $11.95 every Saturday night. Then get thee to The Colonial Inn & Restaurant, a great white 1870s Victorian in Pine Hill, near Belleayre Mountain. It’s not fancy, but the sprawling knotty pine dining room is vintage Catskills, with hunting trophies, artificial plants, and red-and-white-checked oilcloths tarted up with country touches like antique stoves and teddy bears. m Main St., Pine Hill (Ulster); 845-254 5577.
Some restaurants have to turn those tables, and others don’t mind if you hang out all day. In fact, they encourage it. What else could explain the comfy armchairs and shelves of books in the corner of Mudd Puddle CafÃ©, an anti-Starbucks tucked away in New Paltz’s Water Street Market. Regulars come here for the homemade soups (like cream of carrot and hearty vegetable), turkey and swiss wraps, and grilled pannini with roasted peppers, tomatoes, grilled onions, olives, and mozzarella. Best deal: a cup of soup and half a sandwich for just $5.45. Mudd Puddle roasts its own coffee, makes its own black and white cookies, and loves to dream up seasonal drinks like pumpkin spice latte. And on weekends, it makes sweet and savory crepes to order. m 10 Main Street, New Paltz; 845-255-3436.
With a great downtown location in Nyack, sunlight pouring in from skylights, and an outdoor dining patio, Temptations CafÃ© has everything going for it. “You can sit there forever,” says one lover of cafÃ© society. Oh, and did we mention the food is fabulous — and cheap? Try the African peanut soup ($1.95 a cup), sweet potato fries with horseradish sauce ($2.50), or just about anything from the large menu of sandwiches, burgers, wraps, salads, and changing daily specials like the Mandarin Chicken Platter — grilled chicken over romaine lettuce, topped with mandarin oranges, crushed walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette ($8.95). But leave room for dessert. They have Jane’s ice cream and a vast selection of baked goods like the legendary Caramel Apple Granny: tart Granny Smith apples smothered with buttery caramel in a shortbread crust, with toffee-studded custard, served warm. m 801/2 Main Street, Nyack (Rockland); 845-353-3355.
Se Habla Espanol
Being close to New York City has innumerable advantages, chief among them that we can approximate the variety of its restaurants: not just Mexican, but Tex-Mex, California-Mexican, Colombian, Peruvian, Spanish, Dominican, Cuban, and so on. And with chefs and owners from the countries whose food they’re cooking, it’s authentic. For instance, all the corn tortillas are made by hand by Salvadoran cooks at Gypsy Wolf Cantina in Woodstock, which serves some of the best Mexican food you’ve ever tasted. Try Salvadoran co-owner-chef Jorge Perez’s “supreme master-rulers enchiladas verdes” ($15.50-$15.95): grilled chicken or steak with onions, sour cream, and green chiles wrapped in corn tortillas and smothered in a fabulous green tomatillo sauce. It comes with rice, black beans, and a colorful stew of zucchini, summer squash, mushrooms, tomatoes, and green peppers. For once, you won’t leave your veggies on the plate. And with wildly colored masks from Mexico and Guatemala covering the walls, it’s a great roadhouse atmosphere. m 261 Tinker Street, Woodstock (Ulster); 845-679-9563.
Back in Woodstock’s town center, drop into hole-in-the-wall Taco Juan’s for a huge, delicious burrito. One of the town’s pierced and tattooed youth will heat up a tortilla on an open flame; assemble it with lots of beans, beef, chicken, or terrific spicy tofu; add handfuls of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and a great dollop of sour cream and hot sauce; and hand it over within three minutes of placing your order. It’s hot, satisfying, delicious, and cheap — $6 (baby burritos are $3.50). You eat at the oilcloth-covered tables in back, then drop your silverware in wash buckets and go on your way. m 31 Tinker Street; 845-679-9673.
If you want to stock your Mexican pantry with dried peppers, chorizo, and cactus, and then stay for something to eat, visit La Mexicana in Red Hook. Tomasa Gonzalez makes everything from scratch, starting with her homemade chips, salsas, riojas y verdes, refried beans, and delicious chile rellenos. She also does a brisk takeout business. m 19 W. Market Street, Red Hook (Dutchess); 845-758-6356.
You can feed an army on what they give you at Karamba CafÃ© — and we don’t mean MREs (meals ready-to-eat). This Dominican luncheonette in downtown White Plains can’t be beat in terms of portions, prices, and variety. The Karamba Economico lunch menu ($5), for instance, ranges over roast beef, spiced ground beef, shredded beef, beef ribs, or beef stew, as well as roast chicken, pork chops, roast pork, cod fish, fried fish, and oxtail stew, all served with sweet mashed plantains (maduros), red or black beans, and a healthy serving of white or yellow rice. It’s a great place to explore this Caribbean-inflected cuisine. m 18 S. Main St., White Plains; 914-946-5550.
More culinary adventures await you at Machu Picchu, the Peruvian restaurant in downtown Newburgh. Breakfast here is pork loin, sweet potato, and salsa Criolla (a hot red pepper Creole sauce) for $4.95, or tacu tacu, the Peruvian national breakfast of a big fry-up of beans, rice, onion, garlic, and tomato, topped with two fried eggs, steak, or both — and it’s served all day. Machu Picchu is also known for its ceviche, fried yucca, and escabeche de pescado ($8.95), a blend of spices, onions, and sweet potato served over fresh filet of pollack. 301 Broadway, Newburgh; 845-562-6478.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez himself couldn’t ask for better Colombian food than that served at Guzman’s Bakery near Ellenville. The soups are aromatic, packed with vegetables, and made with home-made chicken stock. At $5 for a 32-ounce bowl, it’s a great take-away item, and you can be conservative (vegetable or chicken on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) or adventuresome (oxtail and tripe on Saturdays and Sundays). Nineteen “platos tipicos” (typical dishes) range from $8 to $12, including the delicious lomo salteado, sautÃ©ed beef loin with potatoes and salad. For smaller appetites, the papa rellena — spicy potatoes rolled in cornbread batter and deep-fried — is hearty and deeply satisfying. Savory cheese breads, pastries, and flan (crÃ¨me caramel) are also specialties. Valley Mall Plaza, Route 209, Napanoch (Ulster); 845-647-7958.
“A genuine Turkish stone oven. Fresh-made breads and doughs. Lamb, lamb, lamb! Need I say more?” This is the word from one fan of Troy’s Ali Baba. “It reminds me of the little Turkish doner kebab stands I fell in love with when I was stationed in Germany.” Everyone admits the atmosphere and decor leave a little something to be desired (think metal tables and plastic tablecloths), but the food doesn’t. Don’t miss the spicy doner kebab (what we think of as gyros), lamb kebab, eggplant salad, yogurt sauce, and most of all, the oversized puffed bread, served hot from the oven, golden with a sheen of oil and releasing a burst of steam when you first tear into it. 2243 15th St., Troy; 518-273-9173.
The Blue Mountain Bistro in Woodstock always has a spread of a dozen tapas, the “small plates” that the Spanish like to fill up on while they drink early in the evening. You might see salmon cakes, tortilla espanole, pepperonata, duck liver pÃ¢tÃ©, or eggplant-ricotta roulades, and there is always a beautiful selection of olives. If you order seven ($13) or even just five ($10), you have a fabulous, affordable, filling dinner. And on Friday and Saturday nights, there’s live jazz performed by local musicians. 1633 Glasco Turnpike, Woodstock (Ulster); 845-679-8519.
The rustic peasant food of Greece comes heaped on great platters at Tarrytown’s Lefteris Gyro, known for its consistently fresh ingredients prepared with an unusually light hand. Eating here is a group affair, with favorites served on large dishes and platters. Dieters love to split the enormous Greek salad with feta cheese, olives, and slices of doner kebab or grilled chicken, and the Lefteris platter of gyro, souvlaki, and bifteki (Greek-style hamburger) served with pita, tomato, and yogurt sauce lets the whole table have fun. “There aren’t too many Formica-table restaurants where I would order fish and feel confident,” says one fan, “but here everything is very fresh.” 1 Main St., Tarrytown (Westchester); 914-524-9687.
The Asian Axis
One of the best ways to start an argument at Vassar is to declare that Miss Saigon is better than the Saigon CafÃ©, or vice versa. These two Vietnamese restaurants, just a few doors apart on LaGrange Avenue in Poughkeepsie, each have their partisans. Miss Saigon is praised for its hearty, flavorful soups, like the chicken coconut flame pot. Its steamed Imperial rolls stuffed with shrimp, and mint Vietnamese spring rolls are beautifully executed, and vegetarians gravitate to the stellar Buddha’s tofu with ginger and black bean sauce. Meanwhile, Saigon Cafe is loved for its appetizer of three skewers of tender chicken breast in a lime marinade ($3.95), which can also be ordered over rice vermicelli as an entrÃ©e ($6.50). And few can resist the Happy Pancake ($6.50), a crepe served with shrimp, chicken, and oriental vegetables. Just be sure to order the very strong Vietnamese coffee ($2.75), served with sweetened condensed milk over ice. m Miss Saigon, 25 LaGrange Avenue (845-485 9706), and Saigon CafÃ©, 6A LaGrange Avenue (845-473-1392); Poughkeepsie.
The incomparable Sweet Sue’s in Phoenicia has them lining up outside on weekends, even in winter. The draw? “It’s those damned pancakes,” one addict says. They cover the plate, three to the stack, and come in a zillion styles — blueberry, Hawaiian, cranberry-orange — in your choice of buttermilk, four-grain, whole wheat, buckwheat, cornmeal, or ginger spice. Once you taste them, you just have to go get on line again. (And with prices ranging from $6.95 to $8.50, you can.) It’s a simple, diner-style atmosphere, right in town, and the coffee is good and strong. The French toast made with banana bread, coconut, and pecans is another favorite. And the breads (challah, cinnamon raison, poppy, and cinnamon swirl) are fresh-baked. m 33 Main Street, Phoenicia (Ulster); 845)-688-7852.
Maggie’s Krooked CafÃ© & Juice Bar makes a mean pancake, too, but this charming Victorian in downtown Tannersville seems to draw people with more than one thing on their mind. Blueberry pancakes, yes, but maybe a Berry Ginger Frapple smoothie ($3.50-$4.50) with raspberries, cranberries, fresh ginger, lemon, and cinnamon, or a Top Secret Omelette ($8.50) packed with mozzarella, spinach, and pesto. It’s a warm atmosphere, and you don’t feel the pressure to vacate (as you might at Sweet Sue’s) out of pity for the poor people standing out in the cold. “This is an intensely artistic, loving, and hip environment, and I wouldn’t dream of making my customers feel any kind of pressure,” says chef-owner Maggie Landis. “That’s just not why they come to the forest.” m 3066 Main St., Tannersville (Greene); 518-589-6101.
The mansion that houses Jaipore Royal Indian Cuisine in Brewster was once the Charlie Chaplin Studios. Now, its stars are not just the familiar curries and biryani of northern India’s Moghal and Punjabi, but also the dishes of Kerala, Andhra, Tamil, Nadu, and Kamataka, to the south. “It’s my missionary work,” says owner Girdhar Gopal. The daily lunch buffet ($10.95 Monday through Friday; $11.95 Saturdays) has 10 to 12 dishes, including the much-loved chicken tikka masala or the more unusual Melagu Chicken Chettinad with fresh tomatoes, whole peppercorn, curry leaves, and red chilies. (Vegetables, lamb, and shrimp are popular here; there’s no beef or pork.) A glass of wine or soda is complimentary during the week.
Jaipore really pulls out all the stops for its Sunday brunch ($13.95), when it features a tandoori station and a huge variety of regional dishes served in gorgeous copper cauldrons. There’s also a special chaat stand, inspired by the finger food sold on Indian streets, at which you fill small, crisp poori with little tastes of onions, tomatoes, spices, fresh coriander, whatever you fancy. The dosa stand turns out fresh Indian crepes stuffed with mildly spiced potatoes and peas, and there is always a special fragrant rice, like tamarind or lemon. The evening buffet ($17.95) adds a shrimp dish like mangolorean prawns cooked with coconut milk, curry leaves, and red chiles, and a few more desserts. Chai and coffee are included, of course. m 280 Rt. 22, Brewster (Put-nam); 845-277-3549.
The Little Bear in Bears-ville has some of the best Chinese fare in the Valley, and Monday through Friday from noon to 3 p.m. the prices don’t get above $5.95 for shrimp with cashew nuts, sweet and sour pork, Japanese Udon noodle soup with chicken, or a dozen other dishes. It’s also in one of the prettiest locations, deep in the Catskills Mountains, right next to the Bearsville Theatre. m Rte. 212, Bearsville (Ulster);
The best way to think of meze is Turkish tapas: little plates of food that let you enjoy a number of different textures and flavors without getting tired of any of them. The $9.95 lunch special at Turkish Meze Mediterranean Kitchen in Mamaroneck is a perfect introduction. The pita is served hot out of the oven with good olive oil, the baba ganoush is fresh, and the hummus creamy. Fans love the falafel and skewered ground chicken adana kebab, seasoned with spices and grilled until tender. m 409 Mt. Pleasant Ave., Mamaroneck (Westchester); 914-777-3042.
You don’t want bargain sushi if it means anything less than fresh, fresh, fresh. At Sushi Mike’s Japanese Restaurant in Dobbs Ferry, you don’t have to compromise. They use top-quality fish that you have to pay the price for in the evening. But at lunchtime, it costs a mere $10. m 146 Main Street, Dobbs Ferry (Westchester); 914-591-0054.
Ah, what better place to dine than an old English manor house, romanced by roaring fires in winter and glorious flowers in the spring. But on a budget? Yes, you can. Set on 600 sprawling acres in gorgeous Amenia, the magical country inn Troutbeck serves a $26 three-course prix fixe brunch every Sunday. With about five appetizers and five entrÃ©es to choose from, you can go in vastly different directions, depending on your palate: Tahitian-style tuna tartare with fresh lime and coconut milk, or hot oatmeal with dark and golden raisins for an appetizer; pan-seared sea bass with purple Peruvian potato hash, or French toast with fresh raspberry syrup for entrÃ©e. Dessert includes gelato made with the richly flavored French chocolate Vahlrona, served with a warm Bailey’s reduction, or roasted Dutchess County apple crÃ¨me caramel. m Leedsville Road, Amenia (Dutchess); 845-373-9681
How to indulge your taste for luxury dining at a discount the rest of the week? Go to Restaurant X, one of the jewels in Peter Kelly’s Rockland County restaurant empire, for a three-course lunch for just $20.04. Every Tuesday through Friday you can choose from three different appetizers, entrÃ©es, and desserts: not bland budget dishes, but the kind of interesting, innovative cooking we’ve come to expect from Kelly. How about smoked salmon with avocado tempura and ginger mustard for an appetizer? For your entrÃ©e, I suggest hand-made garganelli pasta with braised veal, caramelized onions, and porcini mushroom cream, and for dessert a terrine of three chocolates with raspberry coulis. These are not tiny, tasting-menu portions, but exactly what you would get if you were ordering off the Ã la carte menu. m 117 North Route 303, Congers (Rockland); 845-268-6555.
Bon appetit! ■