Ultra-Cheap Lunch! Lunch Box Buffet

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Hey big spender! Clockwise from bottom left: Tofu in black bean sauce, rice, tofu in soy sauce, bean curd skin-wrapped chicken, cold eggplant

The rising cost of food and the precarious financial status of most restaurants continues to be a big story, with the NYT weighing in again today on the subject. (To summarize: Rich Europeans are the only big spenders now...Restaurants will soon be overbooking reservations just like airlines...sigh.)

So to cheer up, we're turning to cheap lunch—reviews of places that you can actually afford.

Lunch under $10 is a fairly big category. Lunch under $5 is much harder—especially if you want a plate with some variety, something more than a couple dumplings or a hot dog on the street.

I was curious about Lunch Box Buffet (195 Centre Street), which sports a yellow awning that screams the bargain: $4.50 eat in/$4 take out for a five-item plate.

You pay first, and the cashier will ask if you want white rice. Keep in mind that the rice will count as one of your five choices. The room is lined with a very long steam table buffet, containing the rest of your choices, and tended to by stern ladies who dish it out.

Wander around the room and check out the options before you decide. Some dishes look decidedly better than others. If you're a fan of those lacquered, sesame-seeded, fried chunks of indeterminate meat common at Chinese-American places, you're in serious luck.

But there are other dishes that are worthwhile. I especially liked the big slab of fried tofu in black bean-garlic sauce. Yes, the sauce had a little more cornstarch than it should have, but it also had big slices of garlic, salty black beans, diced carrot and ginger. I also liked the cold, garlicky eggplant and the bean curd skin wrapped around dark-meat chicken.

Much of the food here is mediocre, but if you choose carefully, you're rewarded with an enormous plate of pretty good food for less than the price of one of those big, crazy drinks at Starbucks.

Plus, the amount on each plate is absolutely enough for two, and if you're sneaky about it (or you do takeout with a friend) you can share, bringing the cost down to $2.


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