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The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs
By Carolina González, Seth Kugel
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Carolina González and Seth Kugel
All rights reserved.
¡A Comer!Eating Latin-Style
As a Latin-American saying would have it, love enters through the belly. And indeed, many people first fall in love with Latin culture at the dinner table. A high-inducing hit of Mexican chili peppers, the sunny seduction of tropical mangoes and guavas, or the meaty platonic ideal of an Argentine steak can be a head-over-heels experience that sparks a lifelong relationship.
New York is well suited for an exploration of cuisine from all over Latin America. Whether you're looking for a dish that's comforting or one that's a happy discovery, for treats tasted abroad or for Latin twists on familiar culinary themes, you can almost certainly find it in some corner of the city.
As New York's Latino population has grown and diversified and the availability of imported ingredients has increased, so have the variety of restaurants offering Latin food. Some eateries have even been able to make a go of selling just niche products, such as Dominican chicharrones (see here) — or Colombian cholados (see here). For many food entrepreneurs, a good idea is worth repeating; the more successful eateries spawn two, sometimes more outlets.
The first modest eateries serving "Spanish" food sprang up to feed immigrants unable to feed themselves, single people renting rooms without kitchen privileges, or workers in factories without refrigerators to keep a bag lunch. Until recently, only immigrants craving a taste of home were interested in eating such "exotic" foods. Aside from the occasional Argentine steak house, no white-tablecloth restaurants served Latin dishes until 1984, when Rosa Mexicano and Café Marimba opened, shocking New Yorkers by demonstrating that Mexicans were the creators of one of the world's most complex and refined cuisines.
High-end Latin dining didn't come into its own until a decade later, when Douglas Rodriguez blew in like a flavorful hurricane from Miami and opened Patria, a swank Park Avenue eatery that had sweet tropical drinks, a carnival atmosphere, and playful but flawlessly executed dishes that treated Latin ingredients such as yautia with the reverence normally reserved for French truffles. After Patria came the Nuevo Latino deluge, and although a mango that falls into the wrong hands can be a dangerous weapon, fancy Latin places have now made ceviche as common and prized as sushi or tuna tartare.
Such is the bounty of New York Latin eating that we need two chapters to cover it all. In this chapter, we will give you a rundown of eateries ranging from upscale spots to the down-home diners that are tasty and true to their traditions. For those who want to keep eating, go to chapter 2 to find out about snacks, street food, and re-creating Latin tastes at home.
Some Tips on Eating Out
Try not to eat in a restaurant when it is mostly deserted: if you can, go back when there are more people. That's when the food is likely to be freshest. If it never gets crowded, beware.
Don't be scared of steam tables. Some foods, such as stews, not only survive long stints in trays, but actually improve after the flavors marry for a couple of hours.
Fear not the Spanish-only menu. If you don't speak the language, look around to see what's popular with other diners (or, in informal spots, ask them). Otherwise, seek advice from the server on what's popular, what's on special, or what's ready. If the cook has to prepare a seldom-ordered dish, chances are it won't be as good — or as fresh — as the specialty regulars come for again and again.
Don't leave the kids at home. Latinos are very family-oriented, and even the largest broods are welcome at most places. Go into any large, reasonably priced Latin restaurant on a weekend and you will likely find at least one extended family sprawled out at a table.
Bad news for vegetarians: it's hard to guarantee that a Latin meal contains no animal products. Beans may have lard or be made with a ham hock, and some places might misinterpret your request for "no meat" as sin carne, literally a dish without beef.
We have divided the restaurants below into three major regions: the Caribbean (which includes Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico), Mexico and Central America, and South America. We also have a small section for the disciples of Douglas Rodriguez, the Nuevo Latino experimenters. So dive in and enjoy. ¡Buen provecho!
B = Breakfast
Br = Brunch
L = Lunch
D = Dinner
Price of Typical Entrée
$ = under $10
$$ = $10–$15
$$$ = $15–$20
$$$$ = more than $20
El Coquí (Dominican/Puerto Rican). The coquí, a tiny frog that chirps its name, is a Puerto Rican icon. So of course this South Bronx lunch spot is owned by ... Dominicans, who are taking over the neighborhood these days. The sinful $3.50 pernil sandwich is encased in a flattened, seeded roll, filled with moist morsels of pork shoulder coated with garlic mojo, with a gloriously naughty piece of glistening, golden pork skin on top. After a dozen visits, move on to the steam table for the baked chicken, stewed beef, rice and beans, and Dominican-style spaghetti. One clear advantage of Dominican management: El Coquí makes creamy, icy, orangey morir soñandos, heaven on a hot day. 582 Morris Ave. (150th St.), Melrose, (718) 401-1653, BLD, $, [S] 2/4/5 to 149th St.–Grand Concourse.
La Isla (Puerto Rican). One possible translation for the word cuchifritos is "dieters stay away." Actually, it's fried pork, and any cuchifritos place worth its salt (and that's a lot of salt) will also feature other fried goodies, such as: alcapurrias, shredded green banana or taro filled with ground meat; bacalaítos, salt cod fritters; rellenos de papa, potato balls stuffed with meat; and relleno de plátano, sweet plantains stuffed (more like topped) with ground beef. La Isla is a dependable cuchifritos chain that pops up everywhere and is dirt cheap, unless you factor in the angioplasty a few years down the line. 276 E. 149th St. (Morris Ave.), Mott Haven, (718) 993-6969. BLD, $, [S] 2/4/5 to 149th St.–Grand Concourse. Also at 49-20 Fifth Ave. (49th St.), Sunset Park, Bklyn., (718) 748-9357, BLD, $, [S] R to 53rd St.; 542 E. 14th St. (Ave. A), East Village, Manh., (212) 228-3498. BLD, $, [S] L to First Ave.; and other locations.
Joe's Place (Puerto Rican). Perhaps a bit past its prime, Joe's Place still occasionally attracts Latin celebs, as did chef Joe Torres's former workplace, the defunct Jimmy's Bronx Café. The menu has both American and Latin Caribbean (or as they call them, "Spanish" dishes). Keep it Latin, er, Spanish, with the asopao (soupy rice) or arroz con pollo, and definitely ask for tostones (double-fried green plantains) with breath-defying garlic mojo. Music from a jukebox in the adjoining bar tends toward salsa, merengue, and bachata; if you go to add songs you may receive requests from waitstaff, an indication of how comfortable the old-school Bronx atmosphere is. 1841 Westchester Ave. (Theriot Ave.), Parkchester, (718) 918-2947, www.joesplacebronx.com. BLD, $$, [S] 6 to St. Lawrence or Parkchester.
Sabrosura (Dominican-Chinese). Nelson Ng opened this Dominican-Chinese spot in 1982, but good as the bone-in sweet and sour pork may be, his Dominican side beats the rest. Especially the locrio, a paella-like Dominican dish of yellow rice, sausage, shrimp, and chicken that the menu calls "locrio delicioso." There may be precious little truth in advertising these days, but here is one exception: Ng also makes a mean mofongo with shrimp stew and a chofán nuevo latino (Dominican-style fried rice), and the seafood asopao is superlative. Barely anyone outside the Bronx has heard of it, but it's got a huge local following, so if you come at prime hours, be ready to wait. 1200 Castle Hill Ave. (Gleason Ave.), Castle Hill, (718) 597-1344. LD, $$, [S] 6 to Castle Hill Ave.
Las Antillas (Cuban). Las Antillas is the diner equivalent of Cheers; even if it's your first time there, when you leave, everyone there will know your name. And you'll want to become a regular. Aside from all the classic Latin diner fare, such as the fork-tender carne guisada (beef stew) with yuca and the tomato-y bacalao (Fridays only), you can find pasteles made with guineo (green banana) or yuca doughs. 4413 Fourth Ave. (45th St.), Sunset Park, (718) 853-2360. BLD, $, [S] R to 45th St.
Top Five Cuban Sandwiches
Way before panini became the rage, Cuban sandwiches squeezed a mile's worth of taste into a package barely an inch thick. Here's how this incredible shrinking meal is made: a soft-crusted loaf of Cuban bread is lined with juicy slices of pernil, ham, and Swiss cheese (no substitutions!) and doused with butter, olive oil, or garlic mojo. Each half is pressed in a foil-wrapped plancha (sandwich press), and thin slices of pickle are added. The whole thing is re-pressed until it becomes thin and crispy, then sliced diagonally. No salami, no mayo, and definitely no tomatoes or lettuce. When an eggy sweet roll is used, the sandwich is called a medianoche. The following are the best spots for Cuban sandwiches in the five boroughs:
La Flor de Broadway: All you need to know: This place is also called El Rey del Sandwich Cubano (King of the Cuban Sandwich). Livery cab drivers and City College students stream in and out all day long for this $3.50 margarine-crisped wonder. 3401 Broadway (138th St.), Harlem, Manh., (212) 926-4190. BLD, $, [S] 1 to 137th St.
Havana Chelsea: If you notice nothing else about this modest diner as you pass by, the stack of assembled cubanos on the window should catch your eye. These $4 beauties are pressed so flat they could easily fit in an envelope. 190 Eighth Ave. (19th St.), Chelsea, Manh., (212) 243-9421. BLD, $$, [S] A/C/E to 23rd St.
Mambí Express: The pork at this Dominican-owned diner is plenty moist, but the extra swipe of mojo it gets between the first and second pressings takes this $3.50 cubano to the stratosphere. 558 W. 181st St. (St. Nicholas Ave.), Washington Heights, Manh., (212) 568-8321. BLD, $, [S] 1 to 181st St.
El Sitio: Oddly enough, this $4 cubano tastes better if allowed to cool a tad, just enough for the cheese to begin to resolidify and for the thin pickle to reassert itself. 68-28 Roosevelt Ave. (68th St.), Woodside, Qns., (718) 424-2369. BLD, $$, 7 to 69th St. Also at: 35-55 31st St. (35th Ave.), Long Island City, Qns., (718) 278-7694. BLD, $$, [S] N to 36th Ave.
Margón: Just this once, you can overlook the unorthodox salami slices added to this otherwise perfect $4.75 sandwich. 136 W. 46th St. (6th Ave.), Midtown, Manh., (212) 354-5013. BL, $, [S] B/D/F/V to 47th–50th St. Rockefeller Center.
Cubana Café (Cuban/Mexican). If you're looking for authenticity, don't go to this Smith Street spot. But with tongue firmly planted in cheek, you'll do well with the ersatz Cuban (and occasional Mexican dish) here. The bar imitates an improvised roadside or beach spot, and the walls are lined with photos of Cuba and bottles of Mexican Jarritos soda. The platos grandes (entrées) are cleaned-up versions of dishes you can get up the street at El Nuevo Cibao (172 Smith Street), but the sandwiches, especially the palomilla chicken and hanger steaks, make a nice counterweight to the powerful drinks. 272 Smith St. (Sackett St.), Carroll Gardens, (718) 858-3980, www.cubanacafeelchulo.com. BrLD, $, cash only, [S] F/G to Bergen St. Also at 110 Thompson St. (Prince St.), SoHo, Manh., (212) 966-5366. BrLD, $, [S] C/E to Spring St.
Gran Castillo de Jagua (Dominican). This is a reliable place for takeout lunches and dinner, with a respectable Cuban sandwich and noodle-laden chicken soup good enough to raise the dead. But go to eat in as well, whether windowside to people-watch on Flatbush Avenue or closer to the bachata-blasting jukebox. On weekend mornings, neighborhood residents of all national origins and colors crowd the tables for no-nonsense pancakes or mangú, mashed plantains with sautéed onions (and if you're smart, fried eggs, fried cheese, and fried salami — cholesterol levels be damned!). 345 Flatbush Ave. (Park Pl.), Prospect Heights, (718) 622-8700. BLD, $$, [S]B/Q to Seventh Ave.
Mojito (Cuban). By all rights, this restaurant should be in SoHo. The cavernous, industrial space, the too-hip drinks (daiquiris brought over in difficult-to-balance hollowed coconuts; drink too many, and you're bound to spill one), and the suave multiculti beat give off more of a downtown Manhattan vibe. Alas, Mojito is on the far side of the BQE, a couple of blocks from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, so if you don't have a car, it's a bit of a trek. Once you're settled in, get the tostones rellenos (stuffed plantains), which come with ropa vieja or pernil, or the Varadero chicken, a lime-soaked grilled breast that manages to be crispy and juicy at once. 82 Washington Ave. (Park Ave.), Clinton Hill, (718) 7973100, www.mojitocubancuisine.net. BBrLD, $$, [S]G to Clinton/Washington.
El Viejo Yayo (Puerto Rican/Dominican). Both Park Slope outlets of this eatery have had face-lifts in the past five years — the fixtures are all shiny and bright. Thankfully, the changes did not extend to the menu, which has remained true to its down-home Caribbean roots. The mondongo (tripe soup) comes in a tomato-y broth and goes down easy. The asopao de camarones (shrimp soupy rice) seems like luxurious comfort food, if there is such a thing. The Fifth Avenue location has a bonus feature unusual for the neighborhood, a parking lot across the street. 36 Fifth Ave. (Bergen St.), Park Slope, (718) 622-8922. BLD, $$, [S] 2/3/4/5/B/Q/N/R to Atlantic Ave. Also at 317 9th St. (5th Ave.), Park Slope, (718) 965-7299. BLD, $$ [S] F to Fourth Ave. or N/R to 9th St.
Calle 191 Pescadería (Dominican/Chinese). The lunch counter at this fish market would be nondescript if not for the steady stream (and occasional flood) of Dominican patrons ordering big bowls of shellfish soup. The soup is a bargain at $5, with a fish base and loaded with squid, conch, oysters, and octopus. It's also overloaded with fake crab, but for $5, don't complain — no one else is. The key is to order their spectacular thin tostones as well and dunk them. The combo is $6.50. For a more substantial meal, there is also beautiful whole fried red snapper, or steamed fish with vegetables. 1609 St. Nicholas Ave. (190th St.), Washington Heights, (212) 740-8999. BLD, $,[S] 1 to 191st St.
El Castillo de Jagua (Dominican). Around the corner from the Essex Market, this Dominican diner holds the flag for the Latin character of the neighborhood, even in the face of developments on its block such as the Rivington Hotel, a twenty-one-story glass tower that's the architectural equivalent of a fashion model. Skip the glitz and sit in a booth. You'll likely need a doggie bag to tackle the prodigious servings. If the rabito guisado (oxtail stew) is one of the day's specials, get it. Otherwise, the rice with octopus or rice with longaniza (Dominican sausage) are protein-plus-carb mounds of stick-to-your-ribs Dominican fare. 113 Rivington St. (Essex St.), Lower East Side, (212) 982-6412. BLD, $$, [S] F to Delancey.
El Conde Steak House (Dominican). Doing constant battle with next-door neighbor El Malecón (see here) for the title of most popular restaurant in Washington Heights, it really boils down to this: for chicken, Malecón; for steak and chops, El Conde. Named for a famous pedestrian way in Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone, El Conde prides itself on sizzle. The $18 churrasco smothered in vinegary onions comes out louder than anything Applebee's fajita engineers could possibly devise. Equally massive: the $15 chulefongo, nicely charred pork chops with a mound of garlicky plantain mofongo. Service is bachelor-pad informal at times (water glasses don't match), but that is of little concern to the regulars. El Conde accepts credit cards, but pay in cash and you might get a discount. 4139 Broadway (175th St.), Washington Heights, (212) 781-3231. LD, $$$, [S] A to 175th St.
Excerpted from Nueva York by Carolina González, Seth Kugel. Copyright © 2006 Carolina González and Seth Kugel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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