For when you don't want to interrupt the flow of your day with a full-service, sit-down meal, but definitely need a little something to keep you going, here's a quick look at my favorite quick bites, arranged by neighborhood. A glaring omission: pizza, which is too vast a subject to tackle here. Check back for updates.
Hell's Kitchen/Theater District
One of the all-time great snacks is the portable, filling empanada, and Empanada Mama makes some of city's best. Available baked or fried, in flaky wheat or sweet corn, and in varieties both traditional (Pernil, Broccoli and Cheese, Spicy Chicken) and non (Cheese Steak, Hawaiian, Viagra), you can get two for around five bucks and be happily on your way. On Ninth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Street. And with their new expanded menu, it's also a great spot for an inexpensive and delicious pre-theater meal.
What's not to like about a place that specializes in grilled cheese? Say Cheese offers a multitude of takes on this classic sandwich—american, cheddar, jack, provolone, swiss, muenster; with bacon, avocado, tomato, ham, etc., all on buttery sourdough—plus spicy curly fries, creamy tomato soup, and hilariously random decor. On Ninth Ave. between 45th and 46th Sts.
Swich serves creative, hot-pressed sandwiches (or "deconstructed" salad versions thereof) and that's pretty much it. Try the hearty, full-flavored Trojan Horse—rosemary focaccia filled with ground lamb, tomato, tzatziki, and fresh mint—or the moist and well-balanced Tuna-na-na, starring white albacore with marinated artichokes and olive tapenade on crunchy 7-grain bread. Bonus: SwichTV playing on the flat-screens featuring employees and customers doing the inane and insane. On Eighth Ave, between 15th and 16th Sts.
We think Pop Burger, has the best french fries in town: crispy on the outside, smooth on the inside, packed with potato flavor. The sliders and milkshakes are pretty tasty, too. There's fun music, a couple of Basquaits on the wall, a trendy vibe that doesn't get too annoying (and when it does... well, those fries are worth it). Excellent pre- or post-Chelsea gallery fuel. On 9th Ave. between 14th and 15th Sts.
There are only about ten seats in the mod, orange, and bright Supermac, but you won't be there long anyway. Order at the counter from among the thirteen varieties of Macaroni and Cheese—from classic to interesting—grab a table, and be prepared to wolf down a hot ceramic platter's worth of lively ingredients, thoughtfully balanced, in a well-executed dish. And for fgun, try the Mac & Cheese nuggets, which are exactly what you think they are. On 7th Ave. between 29th and 30th Sts.
Puff and Pao will make you fall in love with the amazing Brazilian paulito: chewy, cheesy, crispy little dough balls filled with your choice of just about everything, from chorizo, black pepper, and kalamata olive to fig and walnut, garlic, and gouda. Get a five-pack (mix 'em up!) for around $3.50 and you are totally set for a couple of hours. They also have coffee, almond milk, sandwiches and treats. On Christopher Street, near Bleecker, in the West Village. UPDATE: the Christopher Street store is CLOSED! But they say they're opening a new branch on the Lower East Side...
Bings are the thing at Roll and Dough, an otherwise forgettable Chinese place: Eggo-sized, somehow both chewy AND flaky, sesame-encrusted pastries neatly (and generously) stuffed with such sweet or savory treats as banana, red bean, spicy chicken, cabbage, vegetable, pork and chives... about 15 varieties in all. About $1.50 each, and extremely portable. On West 3rd St., just east of Sixth Ave.
Birdbath on Seventh Ave South and Charles St. (see below).
Union Square area
City Bakery does many things well (the cookies, the hot chocolate, the salad bar, which is often voted the best in town), but don't underestimate the power of those pretzel croissants: one bite and you'll become addicted to their intense hit of salty, buttery goodness, packaged in an unbelievably crisp and flaky shell. A terrific snack. On 18th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Also available at owner Maury Rubin's "sustainable, renewable, biodegradable, recycled, recyclable" spin-offs, Birdbath in the West Village (Seventh Ave South and Charles St.) and Build a Green Bakery in the East Village, on First Avenue between 13th and 14th Sts.
I've only eaten the Classic with Whiz at Philly Slim's Cheese Steaks (yes, that's cheese-in-a-can cheese whiz), but it is what it is, but what it is, is good: appropriately greasy and cheesy and gooey, the meat lean and sliced super thin, the bun soft but not soggy, the hot sauce a perfect complement. Makes for a perfect quick wolf before a movie in one of the many area theaters. On University Place between 12th and 13th Sts. Also on Ninth Avenue, between 52nd and 53rd Sts. UPDATE: University Place shop is CLOSED.
As its name would indicate, Dirty Bird To Go is mostly a delivery/take-out place... but there are a few stools inside, and a bench out front, and, after a rough start a year ago, they do make excellent friend chicken, excellent macaroni and cheese, and terrible unleavened shallot corn bread (can't have everything, I guess!). On 14th Street, just west of Seventh Avenue.
The tiny Caracas Arepa Bar has been making the hungry happy for years with their delightfully crunchy, intensely flavored, consistently delicious Venezuelan corn-cake sandwiches. They recently expanded with a full service, expanded menu place next, but the take-out, arepa-only spot remains, and has a couple of tables up front. Try La Reina Pepiada (chicken with avocado salad), La Pelua (shredded beef with paisa cheese), La Jardinera (eggplant with sundried tomatoes, carmelized onions and guayanés cheese), or De Pabellón (shredded beef with black beans, sweet plantains and cheese). All made to order, with lots of love. On 7th St., just east of First Ave.
Crif Dogs, on St. Marks between First Ave. and Avenue A. (see below)
Ruben's Empanadas on First Ave. between St. Mark's Place and 7th St (see below).
Build a Green Bakery in the East Village, on First Avenue between 13th and 14th Sts (see above).
Ruben's Empanadas are well-seasoned and juicy inside, rich and flaky outside, generous with their fillings—everything from Tuna to Egg and Sausage to Beef to Broccoli and Cheese—and always taste freshly made. A solid snack or quick lunch, in two convenient locations: in Soho on Broome Street just west of West Broadway; and in the East Village on First Ave. between St. Mark's Place and 7th St.
Lower East Side
I forget how satisfying a snack a piled-high hot dog (or two) can be, and then I wander into a place like Dash Dogs, and let me tell you, these puppies are perfect: filling and flavorful, the buns soft yet firm, the all-beef dogs hefty, charred, crunchy, and tasty enough to hold their own under the weight of the creative toppings. Don't miss the Infamous Stoner, with chili, melted cheese and crushed Fritos. Everything can be made into a slider, if you prefer. On Rivington St. between Essex and Norfolk. Open until 4:00 am On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. A similarly successful munchies place is Crif Dogs, on St. Marks between First Ave. and Avenue A.
There are dozens of Bahn Mi places in Chinatown, with probably almost as many opinions about whose vinegary Vietnamese delights are the best. Sure, you could try them all and decide for yourself... or you can just go to Paris Sandwich, where the bake their baguettes on premises, and you're guaranteed a good, cheap meal. On Mott Street, just north of Canal.