We were stunned to learn that this tiny Washington Heights Ecuadoran joint had recently been renovated: With only two tables and an open kitchen crammed with peppers, simmering stockpots, and bags of rice, what could it have possibly looked like before? Regardless, if you're interested in tasty, aggressively seasoned Latino fare at rock-bottom prices, make a pit stop here on your way to or from the Cloisters for big bowls of soupy, citrusy seviche ($11), pollo guisado ($7), and, on Saturdays, a selection of Ecuadoran snacks like empanadas and llapingachos. Beware what looks like homemade coleslaw -- it's full of aji pepper, and will blow you away.
511 West 181st Street, 212-923-3030
Here's a "Cheap Eats" dining tip: Make sure you have the correct number before calling to ask directions to any eating establishment that happens to have the word jerk in its title. In particular, the question "Is this the Jerk Center?," we've learned, does not go over well with anyone who doesn't actually prepare or serve Jamaican barbecue for a living. No matter the difficulty of getting there, the Jerk Center, a shabby space located at the back of a defunct Bronx cell-phone-and-beeper store, is worth the effort. The joint's tenaciously spiced, minimally sauced jerk chicken (in $4, $6, and $8 portions, with cabbage, salad, and rice and peas) may be the deepest, smokiest, charcoaliest barbecued bird in the five boroughs. Danny Meyer should send a spy.
1296 East Gunhill Road, the Bronx, 718-547-1970
Even if you had a Puerto Rican grandmother, you'd be lucky if she could whip up food as hearty and soul-soothing as these sand-castle-size heaps of garlicky mofongo, densely packed with plantain and fried pork ($6.50); nicely seasoned stews with fork-tender meat ($5–$7); heaping helpings of perfect rice and beans (white, red, pink, or chickpeas); crispy, golden-brown fried pork chops ($7); and maduros sweet enough to give you cavities. And if you know La Fonda only from the days when a sign with the names of the previous owners, gina y george, defiantly hung outside, you'll be amazed at the transformation. Not only have the owners annexed the store next door and renovated both spaces into a comfortable two-room restaurant decorated with vibrant Puerto Rican art, but they've finally changed the sign. Happily, the ebullient El Barrio–community– center vibe and the Latin-love-song soundtrack haven't changed a bit.
169 East 106th Street, 212-410-7292
If you've only experienced rodizio, that nonstop Brazilian barrage of grilled skewered meats, you'll be happily surprised by the refined elegance (and low prices: $12.95, tops) of this congenial restaurant's coconut-milk-and-palm-oil shrimp stew (moqueca de camarão); the tart, creamy passion-fruit mousse; and, on Fridays and Saturdays, the feijoada, the national Brazilian clay-pot black-bean stew packed with pork, sausage, and fatty bacon and served with white rice, garlicky collard greens, farofa (crunchy fried cassava meal), and -- in a seeming effort to cover all the major food groups -- a few orange slices.
25-35 36th Avenue, Astoria, Queens, 718-937-4821