Manhattan is a tumbling, sprawling, series of towers and slides, a veritable playground, yet with one caveat: free to look at, pay per ride. At the top of the heap, the finest in outdoor recreation is made available inside (rock climbing, even “sky-diving”) if you can afford. One may wonder how the not-so-rich thrive here. For every luxurious mountain peak must be propped up by a vast, strong foundation. At the bottom of this proverbial heap is a sturdy, stubborn mass of folks who dwell amongst the garbage, concrete, and mass transit, who inevitably need refuge from the refuse to refuel.
Trying to find a quality budget meal in Manhattan is the metaphorical needle in a haystack/dumpster. Ask for a suggestion, and of course, every New Yorker will clamor to get their opinion in on the best cheap eat and how it’s better deal than everything else. Yet rarely will their choice reflect something that isn’t covered in cheese or stuffed with mystery meat that will permanently anchor your stomach like the USS Intrepid in Hudson Harbor.
It may appear that a vegan Manhattanite’s existence solely depends on Whole Foods during sunlit hours, with twilight lurking inside questionably decorated, overpriced vegetarian bistros. There is truth in this. Luckily, we’re here to show you there’s an alternative, you just need to know where to look.
We have a lot more time than money. This means we invest our precious hours in search of the wonderfully affordable vegan foods that truly do exist and meet our ultimate budget criterion: the sweet intersection of the appropriate price for good quality.
This is not a list of a dollar slice pizza. Nor is it a list of pretentiously overpriced veggie meal vendors. These are our favorite spots to get solid, affordable plant-based food.
$ = under 10 – you can get a meal for under $10
$$ = under 15 – at a lot of these places you can still eat for under $10 depending on what you order
$ Vanessa’s Dumpling House (East Village, Chinatown, also Williamsburg in Brooklyn) – Omni, vegetarian options labeled
In NYC, bars often do not serve food, let alone have vegan options (other than 5 dollar French fries). So given that I spent a lot of time going out in lower Manhattan, Vanessa’s was always my pre-bar destination. Usually I ditched dinner plans with friends and met them at the bar after. Over the years I recruited table service dinner dissenters and this gradually became a ritual. Even on our last night in NYC, right before our going away party a few blocks down, we came here, allies in tow.
When it comes to lots of tasty, gut anchoring grubs, you’ll be cold-green-juice pressed for better-priced veggie options. Make no mistake, this is solid, palate pleasing food. You can get it greasy or you can get it steamed. There’s something for everyone here, so bring some friends.
The experience at Vanessa’s is that of a typical Chinatown spot, including the staff’s general disdain for their customers. To their credit though, their menu takes everything up a notch. Virtually every section of food has a veggie option. I’ve never ordered the rice bowls, but I’ve tasted them, and for 5 -6 dollars you’ll be very happy.
My go-to order is veggie dumplings, cold sesame noodles, and a plain sesame pancake. I’m a sucker for handmade noodles (keep an eye out for more noodly-goodness in the soon-to-come Queens budget vegan guide).
$ Dumpling Man (East Village) – Omni, vegan items labeled
If you’re living in NYC and don’t know The Dumpling Man, then I don’t know you. This is a neighborhood staple. The food and the presentation are their crowning achievements. The veggie dumplings here are unrivaled (yes they are better than Vanessa’s and priced accordingly), and you can see them being made right before your vegan eyes.
First things first, the dumplings. Sure, they aren’t the cheapest, but they qualify nonetheless. The smoked tofu filling with shitake mushrooms will provide the most savory and satisfying vegan dumpling you’ll ever sink your teeth into. And the homemade wrapper is extra soft and chewy. I prefer them steamed, as it provides a much more nuanced layering of flavor, but if you want the extra mileage (i.e. more filling), order those suckers seared – the extra oil does the trick. I know omnivores who frequently order these willingly.
Over the years of my patronage, I have recognized two constants. First, the cashiers are always young, white, and speak Mandarin (presumably all NYU students). Second, the dumplings are made in the open, for curious eyes to see, by what I perceive as the foremost professionals in the art of dumpling making.
They are completely disinterested in you, focused instead on churning out handmade dumplings, one at a time, at an incredible speed we can physically witness but never fully comprehend. Take a front row seat for the show or sit at the long counter with stools in the typically tiny but long space.
So grab an order, mix some vinegar and soy sauce with a tiny squirt of Sriracha (avoid the deluxe sauces, they over power these delicate dumplings), and muster the courage to chopstick each loving lump into your gaping vegetabled mouth.
$$ Beyond Sushi (Chelsea Market, Midtown) – All Vegan
Never has an establishment been so aptly named. Not all my vegan friends are as impressed with this spot as I am, but we can all agree they do exactly what their name claims to do.
If your vegan heart desires nothing more than a cucumber maki roll, then this restaurant will seem excessive. If you want something deep fried and greasy, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to feel like you’re eating distinctly different yet decadent deluxe dragon style veggie rolls, look no further. With handcrafted maki rolls, sushi pieces, and other non-sushi items, these purveyors literally go beyond sushi. Expect a roll to be stuffed with many things, with lots of layers on top, and dollops of creamy sauces.
Personal favs: Spicy Mang, Mushroom Madness
$$ Hotel Tortuga (14th Street) – Omni, Vegan items labeled
Now this is a recent gem that I have a friend to thank for. The place is cozy, small, and doesn’t take reservations. Expect it to usually be full, as there isn’t much else like this in the area for this price and level of veganibility.
They have an extensive vegetarian section on the menu and can veganize any item at your request. Also, unlimited, self-serve salsa- the best idea ever for me, and the worst profit margin for them. Plus, they have vegan chorizo.
$$ The Cinnamon Snail (Midtown West, sometimes at pop-up events) – All Vegan
This food truck (and recently installed brick n’ mortar) has both an omnivorous and vehemently vegan fan base. The food is all organic, so expect a markup. But to the appreciator of finer things in life, every dollar spent and minute waited on line, is worth it (there always was a long line, 40 minute wait to order).
Due to some complicated NYC vendor license issues, the truck is no longer serving daily, so your best bet is to catch them at an event, like the Vegan Shop Up in Bushwick. Check out their twitter feed for regular updates.
So the food.
The stars of the savory show are the sandwiches. The Korean Barbecue seitan sub will drip through your fingers. The beast-mode burger deluxe will aggressively avalanche its way into your mouth. The toppings and names change now and then, but anything with their homemade seitan whether it’s chucked, chopped, or burgered, will amply satisfy.
And they have something for every type of vegan. Totally Tofu? Seriously seitan? Tempestuously tempeh? They got you covered. Not into the veggie meats? There’s always a mushroom or eggplant sandwich too.
You can’t go without trying a dessert. Their donuts are fantastic and they always get creative with the combos. We had something with raspberry and cheese and it was super soft, perfectly sweet, and the cheese oh so creamy. Of course, you need to have their signature pastry they’re named after. One time I split it with a friend, who, with a first bite, incredulously exclaimed “This is vegan?” It tastes that buttery.
$ Mamoun’s (West Village, East Village) – Omni, vegetarian options labeled
An old guard of the cheap eats institution. The quick turnover and constant line insures you’re getting some seriously fresh falafel. But of course, prices have risen, and I was less impressed each of the last few times I ate here. Still, it’s nowhere near terrible, rather just a slight stumble from grace. Last I saw their St. Marks location moved a few doors down to a bigger, nicer space.
Ok, I love all of Veren’s spots as well, but since I worked in Manhattan I ended up going to more of the lunch-y options on my lunch breaks or after work. Some of these are all vegan, some just have some tasty vegan options, all of them are delicious and budget-friendly.
$$ Terri (Chelsea, Midtown, Financial District) – All Vegan
Terri brands itself as “vegan fast food.” Here you’ll find a great selection of tasty sandwiches, wraps, and salads, though since I have a thing against ordering salads out, I always got sandwiches (my favorite being the vegan Bacon, Cheddar, Chicken Ranch). When I used to work at a startup in Silicon Alley (ugh, I can’t believe it’s actually called that), if I was having a bad day I’d walk down here, get a sandwich, and people watch in Madison Square Park.
$$ By Chloe (Flatiron, West Village, SoHo) – All Vegan
Chloe Coscarelli was the first vegan chef to win a culinary competition on TV and now she’s taking New York (and the world) by storm, with three By Chloe locations, a bakery, and two more locations opening in 2017. By Chloe has a mean mac-n-cheese, yummy dessert, and some tasty burgers, but it can get insanely crowded (at least the Village location always was)!
$ Dunwell Doughnuts (East Village, Bushwick) $ – All Vegan
I’ve actually only been to Dunwell once as they just opened a St. Mark’s location (there’s one in Bushwick which is quite far from us in Queens) just before we left NYC for Spain. Their donuts are LEGIT. They also have amazing ice cream. They’re just down the block from Dumpling Man, but there’s no seating. If it’s nice out, you can do what we did on one of our last days in the city: get dumplings and donuts to go and walk to Tompkins Square Park for some great people watching.
$ Taïm (SoHo) – Vegetarian, items with dairy/eggs marked
Normally I wouldn’t consider a falafel sandwich that’s close to $8 to be budget, but considering the freshness and size of Taïm’s falafel sandwich, coupled with the fact that in SoHo there aren’t a ton of budget vegan options, I’m adding it to the list. Apparently taïm means tasty/delicious in Hebrew, and tasty and delicious it is! And if you don’t take our word for it, Zagat included Taïm in their top 50 best restaurants in NYC in 2016, and they appear on many other lists of the best falafel in NYC. So, yeah.
$ S’Mac (East Village) – Omni, vegan items marked
I used to go constantly covet S’Mac during my college years, especially when I lived just a few blocks away. When I became vegan, mac and cheese was one of the things I was most loathe to give up. Luckily for me, I’m clearly not alone in my mac and cheese obsession, and I’ve since tried many vegan mac and cheeses (Veren’s still may be my favorite, and I’m not just saying that for the girlfriend points). S’Mac’s version is coconut milk based, and you can taste it, which isn’t a bad thing. You can choose whatever you want to put inside it. Great place to go also with omni friends.
$ Two Boots (East & West Villages, Hell’s Kitchen, Midtown East, Upper East & Upper West Sides) – Omni, vegan items marked
Two Boots is a great option no matter where you find yourself in the city. They’re not all vegan, but they have tons of locations, including areas where it’s hard to find cheap vegan eats. They usually have a few different types of vegan slices available, but you can call ahead and pre-order from a variety of different vegan pies if you know you’re going and you’re more than one person (or just a very hungry person).
One last note – it’s time to talk about the Impossible burger, part of a new wave of plant-based products meant to appeal to omnivores as a more environmentally sustainable alternative to meat.
Its Impossible-ness is currently only served at one restaurant in Manhattan and if you want to try plant-based meat, this will not disappoint. It harkens back to a nascent age of fast food when the food was actually real. However, outside of trying this particular item, we cannot recommend the establishment. Veren found the atmosphere obnoxious, and Sam was infuriated (still is) by paying a dollar extra for a vegan bun (it’s literally the vegan burger of the future, and vegans get penalized!). Plus, we’re pretty sure the fries came from the McDonald’s down the street. Seriously, fuck that shit.
Whether you’re of the extremely budget conscious or looking for some new veggie dives, the aforementioned list will propel your veggie arsenal to new heights. Of course, New York moves at an incredible pace, with new places opening and closing within even 6 months. The positive is all the new places we have yet to discover.
What new spots (or old) in Manhattan should we try next time we’re in New York?
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