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Comida Tonight

From El Salvadoran pupusas to Mexican chilaquiles, an eight-nation dining guide to the city's bursting Latin American cuisine scene.

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Despite the obvious geographical advantage, it's taken the sabor of Latin America a little longer than the flavors of Europe or Asia to infiltrate the American culinary consciousness. But no one can deny it's finally happened: Across the country, Goya is squeezing out Rice-A-Roni and Campbell's for premium shelf space; dulce de leche is eclipsed only by vanilla as Häagen-Dazs's favorite flavor; and nationwide, salsa now outsells ketchup as the American condiment of choice. In Manhattan, top chefs divert themselves by dabbling with habanero and jícama, while seviche has become the shrimp cocktail of the nineties. But even if you've been eating at Patria once a week for the past five years and can tell an arepa from an empanada at ten paces, you haven't cracked the tip -- and a daunting, garlic-suffused tip it is, too -- of the mofongo. (That's home-style, stick-to-your-ribs Puerto Rican comfort food, a dense mountain of mashed plantains and fried pork cracklings doused in gravy.)

Latin American food is as multifarious as Latin America itself. But certain preparations and a handful of raw ingredients -- including more varieties of potatoes, corn, and especially peppers than even the most avid Greenmarketer has ever encountered -- recur throughout. What unifies the cuisine, too, is a particular confluence of cultures: Native American, African, Spanish, and (through Spain) Middle Eastern all play equally integral parts in a style of cooking that can be found nowhere else.

If the Nuevo Latino wave has sparked an appetite for viejo Latino, or at least a more authentic (and, for the most part, much cheaper) version, your options are practically infinite. The nearly 2 million Latin Americans now residing in New York City have brought their national dishes with them, establishing homespun, Formica-clad footholds in ethnically fluctuating communities like Jackson Heights, Williamsburg, and Sunset Park, where English is most definitely a second language and menus are often untranslated. There are certain intersections in Queens and Brooklyn where it's possible to eat your way from Colombia to Argentina or from Cuba to Uruguay simply by crossing the street. But it's not only the variety of hearty dishes that transports you -- it's the warm welcome and hospitality that's all too elusive in the fancier fusion joints. Something -- most likely the soul -- gets lost in the translation. Here, then, are a few tastes of Latino New York's home cooking, or comida tipica, for those of us who can't get it at home.

LA PORTEÑA RESTAURANT, Argentine

This former butcher shop in Jackson Heights is where homesick Buenos Aireans congregate for serious beefsteak. The décor is typical steakhouse kitsch but with an Argentine twist. Waiters hustle about to a tango beat, decked out like urban gauchos in Howdy Doody neckerchiefs and wide, coin-studded gaucho belts that look like World Wrestling Federation trophies. Sharing wall space with the obligatory ropes, knives, guitars, spurs, saddles, and steer horns are photos of homegrown heroes that only a native Argentine could identify: There's Carlos Gardel, famous tango singer, in white tie and top hat; Maradona, the soccer star (who's never actually eaten here); Maradona's brother (who has); and Andres Canto, the sports announcer famous for yelling "Gooooal!" during soccer matches. He roared for his supper when he dined here recently. Everything on the menu is worth trying, even the homemade cannelloni and gnocchi (there's a heavy Italian influence on Argentine cooking) and Spanish omelets the size of Bundt cakes, but as soon as you catch a whiff of the smoky meat charring on the grill -- a grill that's strategically placed right inside the front door -- it's hard to get beef off the brain. Start with the excellent hot, crusty empanadas stuffed with a spicy mixture of ground beef, chopped egg, olives, and onion; they're served with chimichurri, the tangy parsley purée loaded with garlic, oregano, and pepper. While there's much debate over whether Argentine beef is better than American, there's no question about who makes the better steak sauce. (Luckily, La Porteña bottles and sells its own.) Try the matambre, a delicious slice of rolled flank steak stuffed with hardboiled egg, carrots, and radishes and seasoned with red pepper. Then move on to one of the brontosaurian cuts of top-grade sirloin or shell steak, both of which come with meaty hand-cut steak fries and more chimichurri. For those who prefer to cut to the chase, there's the $14.95 mixed grill for one (really enough for two, maybe three): a feast of succulent garlicky pork sausage, hefty blood sausage, a rich, beefy-flavored skirt steak, tender short ribs, luscious sweetbreads, and subtly flavored tripe. Aside from a starry night out on the pampas, what more could a homesick gaucho ask for?

La Porteña Restaurante, 74-25 37th Avenue, Queens; 718-458-8111.

VICTOR'S CAFÉ, Cuban

More familiar faces line the walls at Victor's, the legendary and pricey Cuban restaurant and meeting ground for celebrities, pols, and athletes, but seeing the framed visages of non-Latinos like James Brown, Jackie Mason, Jason Priestley, and Bill Clinton does not necessarily bode well for the quality and authenticity of the food. In this case, it only indicates that occasionally, even stars (and presidents) have good taste. Suave waiters with semiformal demeanors and pencil mustaches politely warn you when you've ordered too much food, but it's easy to commit that sin here, where everything sounds so seductively delicious. Like the house specialty, lechón asado, a delectable roast suckling pig marinated in fresh lime juice and garlic, crowned with a crispy, salty fried pork skin and garnished with garlicky yuca, perfect white rice, and flavorful black beans; plantain-crusted snapper in peppery sofritto sauce with mashed sweet plantains; and other traditional dishes, like the gallina vueltabajera, a dish that dates back to 1903 and involves a chicken filet that's been seasoned with a sweet wine-and-mint adobo. Afro-Cuban jazz, and well-made, minty mojitos contribute to the mellow, tropical-vacation ambience, a mood that is further exaggerated in the adjacent room, the Cuba Lounge (dark-burgundy upholstery, a portrait of a scowling Roberto Duran), which feels like a cross between a Havana bordello and a place where Hemingway might have enjoyed suffering through a bout of writer's block.

Victor's Café, 236 West 52nd Street; 212-586-7714


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