Fast Food Worth Eating in Pricey Manhattan

Ten dollars for a hearty dinner of tasty and fast “real food” in pricey Manhattan is a tribute to Dig Inn Seasonal Market, with its ten locations spread around one of the most densely populated areas on our planet (estimated at 170,000 people per square mile on a typical business day).  Farm to counter Dig Inn appears to be on the successful path established by the Food With Integrity fast food operation Chipotle, which in 2014 had reached nearly 1800 locations in the United States from  just over 700 in 2007.

At home in upstate Albany, fast food is not a part of my diet though I will admit to an occasional quick meal at the Honest Weight Food Co-op’s Cafe or a Chipotle burrito.  “Cook for yourself” has become a guiding principle (Michael Pollan’s Rule 82Cook) and, for a meal out, my focus is on restaurants with a commitment to local food sources and chefs who need to know that the ingredients included in their dishes were grown and produced with care for our planet’s health.

But on a recent trip to the Big Apple to see the restaging of the highly-praised (Chicago-based) Goodman Theater’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy (whose memorable performance as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman a few years ago prompted this trip),  a couple of quick inexpensive meals to augment the  brown bag of good food from home was an appealing option given the nearly five hour length of the performance (with 3 intermissions) and the cost of the trip (with train fare and hotel lodging to foot).  It turned out to be a great decision to eat dinner before the play at a Dig Inn location in lower Manatttan and to lunch at the small chain’s midtown location near MOMA during the next day’s round of museum going (including three stimulating exhibits at the New York Historical Society, Freedom Journey 1965, photographs of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march taken by the photographer, New Yorker Stephen Somerstein; Annie Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage photographs; and an eye-opening exhibit on the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants to New York and the U.S. in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, Chinese Americans: Exclusion/Inclusion).

On the way to the Harvey Theater at BAM in Brooklyn for the evening performance, a stop for a quick meal at Dig Inn’s lower Manhattan location at 80 Pine Street, not far from the South Street Seaport (and only a couple of blocks from a subway station), was a great decision.  I’ve now seen from the outside four or five Dig Inn restaurants around Manhattan, and this Pine Street spot must be one of the chain’s larger restaurants, with a good number of tables available to dine-in at the restaurant, which does a rip-roaring take-out business.

The menu offers a choice of five Marketplates:   lemon herb chicken (small $7.35, large $9.41), spicy meatballs (small $7.58, large $10.10), Mom’s braised beef (small $8.04, large $10.33), wild salmon salad (small $8.04, large $10.10), or veggie plate (small $5.51, large $7.81).  Given the high volume of take-away meals served at Dig Inn’s locations, the unusual pricing, ending in cents for the Marketplates, must be set with NYC sales tax in mind and the ease to make quick change.

All of the Marketplates are served on “a bed of grains” and my choice of the hearty, large plate of lemon herb chicken was served on perfectly prepared brown rice.  Included in the price of the lemon herb chicken choice is one hot side and one cold side (with additional sides available a la carte for $2.76 each).   With my generous portion of tender lemon herb chicken, spiced just right with just a little curry heat, I chose two hot sides of delicious (i) roasted brussels sprouts and spicy sunflower seeds and (ii) curried carrots and butternut squash and a cold side of surprisingly tasty and satisfying organic tofu salad with nicely chilled tofu, fresh green beans, grated carrots, and dried cranberries.  Simply put: what a fantastic meal of real food for $10.00, in pricey Manhattan of all places.

When I travel, I always carry a personal water bottle of Albany City tap water since my hometown’s praiseworthy public water supply comes from a reservoir in the northern reaches of the Catskills Mountains.  Of late, I’ve been attempting to increase my water consumption while cutting down on other beverages,  so no splurging this time around on a Dig Inn raw and cold pressed in-house juice ($8.51) or a shake made from fresh and whole fruits only ($4.59).

During the next day’s round of museum going in Manhattan, Dig Inn’s location at 40 West 55th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, around the corner from MOMA, was a terrific option after the earlier satisfying meal.  This small location, however, is mostly take-out, with only five or six spots at counters to dine-in.  Luckily, I was able to enjoy another Dig Inn Marketplate at the shop’s counter overlooking the street;  with a satisfying lunch complemented by some midtown-Manhattan people-watching.  My lunchtime choice was easy to make after dinner the evening before. A large veggie Marketplate ($7.81) consisted of two servings of the organic tofu salad over a bed of brown rice, with a hot side of roasted sweet potatoes and a cold side of couscous with local butternut squash.  Wow.  Once again, it was somewhat hard to believe that in pricey Manhattan delicious real food for less than $10.00.

The reasonable pricing can be explained by the high volume take-out business, the fast food dining atmosphere, and the use of a central kitchen at Hunts Point for food preparation with distribution of the prepared food to the various Dig Inn locations in Manhattan.  (A couple of the locations, including one near Columbia University on the upper westside, have the ability to prepare food rather than merely reheating.)  For this visitor on a budget, Dig Inn provided two satisfying and hearty meals.

Dig Inn Seasonal Market (Ten locations in Manhattan), (1) 2884 Broadway (between 112th & 113th Streets on upper Westside), 212.776.4047, Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Sun  11:00AM-10:00PM; (2) 275 Madison Avenue (between 39th & 40th Streets in Midtown), 212.697.7867, Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Fri 11:00AM-9:00PM; (3) 40 W 55th Street (between 5th & 6th Avenues in Midtown), 212.246.6844, Lunch & Dinner: Sun-Fri 11:00AM-9:00PM, Sat 11:00AM-8:00PM; (4) 150 East 52nd Street (between Lexington & 3rd Avenues on upper Eastside), 212.421.3055, Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Fri 11:00AM-9:00PM, Sat 12:00AM-8:00PM, Sun 12:00PM-9:00PM; (5) 1178 Broadway (at 28th Street in NOMAD), 212.335.2010, Lunch & Dinner: (pick-up only) Mon-Fri 11:00AM-11:00PM, Sat & Sun 11:00AM-10:00PM; (6) 17 East 17th Street (between Broadway & 5th Avenue), 212.253-7676, Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Fri 11:00AM-10:00PM, Sat 11:00AM-8:00PM, Sun 11:00AM-9:00PM; (7) 350 Hudson Street (between King & Charlton Streets in West Village), 917.720.1205, Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Sun 11:00AM-9:00PM; (8) 80 Pine Street (at corner of Pearl Street in lower Manhattan), 212.785.1110, Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Sun 11:00AM-9:00PM; (9) 80 Broad Street (between Stone & Marketfield Streets in lower Manhattan), 212.776.4052, Lunch & Dinner: (pick-up only) Mon-Fri 11:00AM-9:00PM; (10) 225 Liberty Street (in lower Manhattan at Hudson Eats), 212.776.4051, Lunch & Dinner: (pick-up only) Mon-Sat 10:00AM-9:00PM, Sun 11:00AM-7:00PM

(Frank W. Barrie, 2/17/15)

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