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
EVA RESTAURANTE, Ecuadoran
Peru and Ecuador both lay claim to seviche – the technique of “cooking” raw fish without heat in a citrus marinade. We’re neutral on the issue, but an intriguing and delicious variation on the theme can be found at Eva, a humble Ecuadoran storefront on Brooklyn’s semi-industrial Fourth Avenue, out on the far southwestern fringes of Park Slope. A junk-shop chandelier hangs from the ceiling next to a disco ball, and Spanish-language TV competes with Spanish music on the jukebox. The waitress lays out paper napkins imprinted, inexplicably, with the Neiman Marcus logo and recommends the seviche mixto (at $12, the most expensive item on the menu). You don’t have to take her word for it – nearly every customer in the joint has already ordered the same heaping bowl of shrimp and tuna submerged in a fragrant broth redolent of cilantro, red onions, and lime juice (more of which should be squeezed from the accompanying lime wedges, delivered with a saucer of fiery orange-colored chili-pepper sauce). Eva calls this seviche, but because it’s served hot, we call it soup. The lime juice in the marinade isn’t cooking the fish, the heat is, so instead of a few slices of delicate, barely opaque fluke or bass, you get a steaming bowl of hearty, citrus-perfumed fish soup full of plump little shrimp and huge hunks of dark tuna. Its citric tang is counterbalanced perfectly by a glass of smooth, ice-cold Quaker, a drink made from oatmeal, flavored with apples, cinnamon, and sugar. The result is a wholesome and surprisingly refreshing sort of oat milkshake. Its national origin is unknown.
Eva Restaurante, 551 Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-788-9354.
FLOR’S KITCHEN, Venezuelan
Venezuelan cooking makes it absolutely clear that North Americans, Libby’s and Green Giant notwithstanding, have a lot to learn about corn. Why settle for canned kernels, or even summertime’s juicy cobs, when you can feast on arepas (stuffed corn cakes), empanadas criollas (made of corn flour), and cachapas (fresh-corn pancakes) at Flor’s Kitchen, the tiny Venezuelan restaurant that opened eight months ago in the East Village? Flor Villazan’s family recipes are the South American equivalent of the neighborhood’s Ukrainian comfort food: solid, soulful, filling, and, in the case of the arepas, satisfyingly starchy and just a tad greasy. If you want to conserve space on your tiny tabletop (there are only six in the cute, if bare-bones, place, which guarantees a wait), you’ll want to order in stages, polishing off each appetizer to make room for the next. (This philosophy seems to apply to the kitchen as well: At busy times, some of the staff hustle out to the market to replenish ingredients. Be patient.) You could easily make a meal of appetizers. The spongy arepas are stuffed with everything from beef or chicken to cheese, tuna, scrambled eggs, and, this being the East Village, tofu and vegetables. You can eat the Jamaican-patty-like empanadas criollas with your hands, but not the cachapa, which arrives off the griddle nicely browned and deliciously sweet in that inimitable corny way, under a blanket of melting mild white cheese. If appetite allows, proceed on to pabellon criollo, a national specialty that traces its lineage to ropa vieja, the Spanish assemblage of shredded flank steak in a peppery tomato sauce served with black beans, plantains, and rice. The accompanying hot avocado salsa (guasacaca) should be liberally spooned over all.
Flor’s Kitchen, 149 First Avenue; 212-387-8949.
TIERRAS SALVADOREÑAS, El Salvadoran
El Salvador has as much of a maize fixation as Venezuela, and at Tierras Salvadoreñas, a spotlessly clean, quiet, friendly restaurant in Jackson Heights, corn reaches its apotheosis in two delectable forms. The menu translates pupusas as tortillas, but they’re actually much closer to thickish, coaster-size corn-masa pancakes, fried on a griddle and stuffed with savory fillings like cheese, refried beans, and pork, all three of which appear together in the pupusa revuelta. Meant to be eaten with its accompanying garnishes of curtido, a pinkish, spicy coleslaw, and a subtly spicy red salsa, the pupusa is the ultimate snack food (three for $1.25 ), except maybe for the tamal de elote, a soft, delicate velvety corn tamale, served either with cheese or a crème fraîche-like cream. You could order these maize masterpieces singly or in combination platters that tack on rice, beans, sweet plantains, chorizo, and a briny semisoft cheese. Try the horchata, a sweetened cinnamon-and-rice-water beverage that comes in a tall soda-fountain glass. A menú de niños (children’s menu) is a nice, if unnecessary, touch. What kid would prefer a beef cutlet to corn mush?
Tierras Salvadoreñas, 94-16 37th Avenue, Queens; 718-672-0853.
LA HACIENDA, Mexican
On a block of Spanish Harlem that gradually mutates from Puerto Rican to Mexican as you walk east, the four-year-old La Hacienda draws a mostly young, working-class Mexican crowd for fast, fresh food and live Latin music on the weekend. At first glance, there’s just a window off the sidewalk that opens onto the grill, where tortillas and the slightly thicker, longer huaraches are frying. But a few steps lead down into a long, low-ceilinged dining room, where the country-garden motif is conveyed with trippy flower murals, a stuffed rooster, and faux terra-cotta roof shingles. Old black-and-white photos of dangerous banditos line one wall, along with the inevitable steer horns and saddles. Try the mole poblano de pollo, if it’s available; the spicy, smoky sauce is impressively complex, a lush brown bath for a single drumstick with falling-off-the-bone meat (and for the warm corn tortillas that come wrapped in a cloth on the side). Chilaquiles is a fiery casserole of crumbled tortilla chips, chicken, and cheese in a spicy tomatillo sauce drizzled with cream and garnished with radish, onion, and avocado. Quesadillas come with such uncommon fillings as pumpkin flowers and huitlacoche, a corn fungus that tastes of the musty damp earth in the same unaccountably delicious way that truffles do. The tacos al pastor, filled with pork carved off a spit, are served with bits of pineapple to counter the pork’s savory saltiness. You get a little box of Chiclets with your check, an appropriate gesture since chicle, or chewing gum, also originated south of the border.
La Hacienda, 219 East 116th Street; 212-987-1617.
PIO PIO, Peruvian
According to food scholar Copeland Marks, “Peru probably has the most important cuisine in South America.” It’s something of a letdown, then, to learn that this distinguished diet is big on two less-than-remarkable ingredients: potatoes, including the purple Peruvian variety, and poultry. But before you scoff, consider the rotisserie chicken from Pio Pio, a chainlet of exceptional poultry parlors with branches in Queens and Washington Heights. The two-story branch on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, with its electric-blue paint job, votive candles, and Dean & Deluca-worthy fruit-and-vegetable displays, stands out from the nondescript neighboring storefronts. Beef hearts, chicken gizzards, and cuy (guinea pig) are also emblematic of the country’s cooking, but the owners of Pio Pio (and rivals like Park Slope’s Coco Roco and Manhattan’s El Pollo) rightly assume that succulent roasted birds would be a much easier sell, especially when they’re as intensely fragrant with garlic, wonderfully browned, super savory, and perfectly cooked as they are at Pio Pio. The recipe runs in the family: One of the partners inherited it from his father, who runs a rotisserie of his own in Jauja, a small Peruvian mountain village. Their birds are marinated for twelve hours in a mixture of cumin, salt and pepper, garlic, Peruvian beer, and a few key ingredients that the owners prefer to keep as a trade secret. (After all, Pio Pio doesn’t have a monopoly on Peruvian rotisserie chicken in this town, but it hopes to someday.) The ideal meal here begins with a sweet, tangy pisco sour, the Peruvian cocktail made from fresh lime juice, sugar, egg white, and the brandy called pisco (which some say has hallucinogenic properties, but don’t hold your breath). Then order one of the hearty combination dinners, like the $26 Matador Combo, which includes a whole rotisserie chicken; fresh avocado salad; rice and beans; sweet, addictive plantains; and even a side of thin, little hot-dog slices on top of crispy fries (a popular Lima street food, not a pisco-fueled concession to Yankee palates).
Pio Pio, 84-13 Northern Boulevard, Queens; 718-426-1010.
RINCONCITO PERUANO, Peruvian
This Hell’s Kitchen hole in the wall has no liquor license, no pisco sours, and no rotisserie chickens. But it does have a killer seviche: tidbits of sea bass, whole shrimp, and squid in an expert lime-juice marinade, redolent of garlic, ginger, red onion, cilantro, and pepper. It’s garnished, as is traditional, with a chunk of sweet potato and a small mound of choclo, giant Peruvian corn kernels. The caliber of the seviche augurs well for the rest of the menu, which shrinks considerably during the week. (Go on Saturday.) And don’t leave without ordering something yellow – one of those national specialties that are drowned in a sea of spicy, marigold-yellow aji pepper sauce. Papas à la huancaina are cold boiled potatoes, cut lengthwise and drenched in a creamy cheese-and-aji sauce, with a garnish of olives and cilantro. And aji de gallina is a delicious casserole of those same two national building blocks, potatoes and chicken, ignited by the mirasol chili peppers that infiltrate an otherwise mellow purée of cheese, ground walnuts, and crushed bread crumbs. Try the chicha morada, a deep-purple drink made from a variety of pre-Columbian (or, more precisely, pre-Pizarro) corn, lemons, sugar, and cinnamon, plus the chalky ice cream in tropical fruit flavors like cherimoya, mango, and lucuma.
Rinconcito Peruano, 803 Ninth Avenue, near 53rd Street; 212-333-5685.
LA FONDA BORICUA, Puerto Rican
The cuisines of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are closely linked. Both are based on a fusion of Spanish, African, and indigenous Arawak ingredients (especially yuca, yams, pigeon peas, and plantains), and both revolve around hearty, soul-nourishing “peasant fare” like tripe soup, rice and beans, and meat-and-vegetable stews. The Puerto Rican word for a casual, diner-style restaurant is fonda, and in New York, La Fonda Boricua in East Harlem is among the best. Identified by a sign that reads, perplexingly, gina y george (the names of the previous owners), La Fonda Boricua serves stews and rice from steam tables behind a long counter. Latin love songs blare from the jukebox to the giddy accompaniment of the waitress and counterman who like to sing along loudly. The menu changes daily, but all the regulars, including some roving park rangers, seem to know what they want before they sit down – a good thing since the orders take some time. The basic rule of thumb is to order what looks good. Today, the octopus salad looks good, and it is: fresh, vinegary, nicely seasoned with peppers and diced onion. The asopao, or chicken soup, is deliciously soothing comfort food, chock-full of potatoes and shredded chicken in a slightly starchy, tomatoey broth.
La Fonda Boricua, 169 East 106th Street; 212-410-7292.