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Posts from the ‘Latin American’ Category

La Casita Blanca

While El Jibarto served solid Puerto Rican food I was familiar with, La Casita Blanca offered unique dishes and a welcoming, cookbooks and knick-knacks setting that I didn’t encounter elsewhere in San Juan. I hate to overstate the just like grandma’s house vibe (especially since my grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking—she did have lots of owl tchotkes, though).

Casita blanca exterior

Perhaps the character of this pocket of the Santurce neighborhood changes after dark, but I had been expecting a rougher area based on a smattering of online reviews. I only encountered bodegas, men working on cars outside, roosters on the loose (heard, not seen) and incongruously, a brand new luxury condo building at the top of road. (The only two times I’ve even been a crime victim were both in the Pacific Northwest, mugged in Portland and robbed in Vancouver, BC. Nothing bad has ever happened in Asia, Latin America or Europe, so I don’t worry about these things when traveling and I suggest you don’t either.)

Casita blanca chicken soup & bread bag

Casita blanca scallion fritters

When first seated you are given a little brown bag filled with strips of focaccia, and chicken rice soup in a paper cup. A pile of thin fritters colored with bits of green onion also show up. They were just like mini scallion pancakes and were exactly the type of thing that lend the home cooked feel. No one else in Puerto Rico provided a greasy snack while deciding what to order. 

Casita blanca entrance

No English is spoken and the blackboard menu carried table to table is written in Spanish. I would just take a chance on something if you weren’t sure. The only word that threw me for a loop was tenera. Not fish, beef, chicken, goat, duck, turkey, lamb, rabbit or pork, what else could it be? I was kind of hoping it was goat. I know that meat as chivo; maybe they use a different word in Puerto Rico? I asked about it in Spanish and our waiter tried responding in English but the only word he could say sounded like beer. Beer?

Ah, beef, I later realized. Tenera is veal. Instead of the mysterious fricase de tenera, I went for the fricase de pollo just to be sure. Ok, I just violated my advice to take a chance on something unknown.

Casita blanca fricase de pollo

The food is simple with colorful presentations. All that annatto orange looks inviting when completed by shreds of purple, framed by two lengths of sweet plantain. One of the only reasons I fear stewed dishes like this is that I worry that the meat will be bland and dry, but it’s never the case, not with chicken adobo or this fricase served with the classic mound of rice. Rich, tomatoey with added salinity from the green olives and capers, the stew transcends a plate of boiled chicken parts.

Casita blanca anisette shot

You are sent off with a shot of anisette and coffee beans. Like I said, I didn't want to to overstate the granny vibe, but get an eyeful of that lace tablecloth topped with plastic.

La Casita Blanca * Calle Tapía 351, San Juan, Puerto Rico

El Jibarito

The food at El Jibarito isn’t radically different from what you find in NYC; the photogenic cobblestoned streets, palm trees and macaron-colored stucco of Old San Juan just make it seem better (sorry, Spanish Harlem).

El jibarito
El jibarito interior

I don’t mind my first meal in a scorching, new-to-me city being in an air conditioned tourist neighborhood. I need to get my bearings in comfort. The comfortable restaurant wasn’t as hickish as its name might imply; a jibarito is akin to a hillbilly.

El jibarito fried pork

Knowing that I was about to embark on a long weekend of rich, fatty eating, I ordered the pernil instead of the fried pork even though that’s what I really wanted. Still pork, obviously. But they brought me the masitas fritas, anyway. My secret wish fulfilled.

El jibarito ribs in plaintain sauce

James opted for a pork rib dish in a plantain sauce. We ordered rice and beans and tostones as sides to share. Someone in the kitchen decided that the fried plantains went with my food and the rice and beans with the other dish.

El Jibarito * Calle Sol 280, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Lechonera Los Pinos

1/2 In less time than it takes to drive from Carroll Gardens to Middlesex County, New Jersey—40 minutes, give or take—we were high up in the foliage-covered mountains of Guavate, navigating the barely two-laned, sharp-cornered road known as “La Ruta de Lechon” a.k.a. the pork highway.

Dueling lechoneras

It’s hard to know when to stop. It doesn’t seem wise to pick the first lechoneras that appear on the horizon, no low hanging pork for us, so we carried on a few more miles until we hit a dense patch, parked and weighed our options. El Rancho Original was where the party was happening; their covered dance floor was booming with live salsa music and couples, many elderly, were putting on a show. We came back later for a drink and to hang out in the back picnic area with a little stream and wooden cabanas.

Lechonera los pinos exterior
Los pinos front window

I’d heard about Lechonera Reliquia, it might’ve been mentioned in the Times. Compared to bustling Lechonera Los Pinos across the street, the open air dining room was kind of desolate (this was a Saturday afternoon—Sunday is the bigger day to go). Pinos, it was.

Los pinos counter

Despite everything I’d heard, you don’t have to speak Spanish to communicate with the counter guys. I can speak basic Spanish and have a large food vocabulary—it’s practically the only thing I can talk about confidently—but as soon as they realize you’re not a local, they turn to English.

Los pinos meat chopping

We ordered a pound of pork. I knew I wanted morcilla, but just a little because I was still kind of full from breakfast (not realizing how quick the trip would be, we ate giant sandwiches at Kasalta before heading out of San Juan). They gave us a lot. Blood sausage signals that you’re serious about food. We started getting sides pushed on us like crazy, in a we’re happy to show off our food, not a running up the bill way. Even if you went wild, I doubt you could spend over $50. Trying to stay on course, we asked for pasteles and rice and beans, no more. A cold bottle of Medalla, and you’re set.

Los pinos lunch for two

This was our spread. Minus the big helping of rice (I’m not a big rice-eater), this would’ve been an acceptable lunch for a hungry twosome. We ended up taking half of our food to go. I was knocked out until 10pm when came up with an un-starchy dinner idea: ceviche.

Los pinos lechon

The moist slices of meat had just enough fat attached to remind you that you weren’t eating lean, low-flavor American pork. And the skin? It was like hard candy, brittle and shard-like on the surface with a gelatinous chew. Looking at this Styrofoam container now, I feel like I could’ve eaten the entire thing. In reality, one hunk is meal-endingly rich.

Los pinos morcilla

Puerto Rican morcilla is heavy on the rice and closer to Spanish morcilla de Burgos than the blood sausage I generally encounter in NYC. It was also spicier than I’d expected. In my experience, the only heat you get in Latin Caribbean food is from vinegary chile sauces offered on the side, not the food itself. Los Pinos offered such a hot sauce in appropriated vodka bottles.

Los pinos pasteles

In addition to cilantro, chiles, coconut and avocado, banana leaves are another Southeast Asian-Latin American similarity. Pasteles are like tamales made with a plantain dough, usually filled with pork and steamed in banana leaves. I could imagine a non-traditional pastele stuffed with fish and red curry.

Los pinos inside

The band was setting up as we were about to leave.

100% local pork

Oh, while just looking up the exact address—they use kilometer markers—I discovered that Los Pinos is where Tony Bourdain went on No Reservations. I’m not surprised; it felt like the most enticing lechonera on that stretch of Carretera 184.

Lechonera Los Pinos * Barrio Guavate, Carr. 184, Km. 27.7, Cayey, Puerto Rico

Kasalta & Panadería España Repostería

Panadería España Repostería and Kasalta are similar operations. Both have long counters divided into sections: deli meats and cheeses with whole jamon serano hanging as an enticement, baked goods and confections and cooked foods and sandwiches. You order, pay, wait for your food, then find a table. Café con leche is popular in the morning, red wine an option for later in the day (though many drink soda).

Kasalta counter

Kasalata ham & cheese mallorca

The second I learned about a ham and cheese sandwich served in a pan de mallorca, a popular sweet eggy roll, I knew I had to find one. La Bombonera is famous for theirs but we wanted to avoid the Old San Juan parking situation and instead headed to Kasalta, slightly out of the tourist zone (where the tight parking lot ended up being stressful anyway—the whistle-blowing attendant actually made things worse, not better).

Kasalta mallorca interior

A mallorca sandwich is a close kin of the monte cristo, possibly my favorite sandwich ever even though I never order one in NYC because they bungle them. I certainly can’t think of another sandwich that comes doused in a snowfall of powdered sugar. Simple deli ham and swiss cheese add the savory to the flattened roll. I love sugary-meaty combos, though if I were to change one thing it would be the addition of mustard, like in a traditional monte cristo. It could use a little zing to offset all the fluffy sweetness.

Kasalta chorizo & cheese sandwich

I shared half-and-half and also split this pressed sandwich with crumbly slices of chorizo and cheese. Rich, oily and hefty. My kind of sandwich.

Panadería españa repostería exterior

Panadería españa repostería caldo gallego

At Panadería España Repostería, another day, and at night instead of morning, we cobbled together a dinner from random things on display. Everyone seemed to be eating caldo gallego, so we did too. The soup is porky, flavored with both ham hock and little bit of cured chorizo. White beans, kale and potato chunks add more bulk.

Panadería españa repostería octopus salad

Big fat rounds of octopus tentacles dressed in olive oil are also very Caribbean-Spanish. This salad is like the one at Margon, just declared number two of the Top 10 Best Things to Eat in Times Square by The Village Voice.

Panadería españa repostería cheese balls

I thought I was getting an alcapurria from the glass case. These turned out to be balls of cheese, not gooey but warm and firm, very sharp and aged. Maybe a little too aged, it was hard to finish one.

Panadería españa repostería alcapurria

This was the alcapurria, fried potato (and possibly yucca) molded around ground beef picadillo. There’s almost something British about this fritter. Maybe if you added some peas and HP Sauce on the side.

Kasalta * 1966 Calle McLeary, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Panadería España Repostería * Centro Comercial Villamar, San Juan, Puerto Rico


So, I’ve now tried $38 “mofongo,” which looked an awful lot like $7 mofongo, just smaller. Ok, it was tastier too—smoked chunks of bacon have a way of transforming anything, and the shrimp, peas and saffron broth created a lighter paella effect. Frankly, the serving size was perfect. If you’ve ever eaten mofongo (and the funny thing is that most eateries in San Juan assume you haven’t—I’m guessing New Yorkers are at least aware of its existence) you know that the mound of fried plantains mashed with garlic and chicharrones, is a gut bomb. A pinnacle of mofongory can be found at Chinese-Dominican Sabrosura in the Bronx where I once ordered a yuca version that whose leftovers stuck with me for days.


Pikayo, chef Wilo Bennet’s high-end restaurant, happened to be in our hotel, The Conrad. Sure, I’ll try upscale takes on local cuisine, especially when so many of the showcase restaurants in other hotels were beefy American chains like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, BLT Steak or Strip House. (I took James to the original Strip House location for his birthday in March and never wrote about it because I’ve been trying to wean myself from the photograph/blog everything affliction. It was great, but not what you need to be doing while on a tropical island, even an American-ish one.)

My original intent was no photos, as the fancier a restaurant, the less appropriate it feels. But I brought my camera along just in case (it’s not like I couldn’t have ran up the two-flights of stairs to our room to retrieve it). It was fine; Pikayo, and much of San Juan, felt more Miami than NYC (I could just be responding to the ubiquity of stilettos and child-sized skirts). You might be spending a lot of money, but you’ll be doing so informally. The wine cellar is a focal point of the room, though if you want to sip a caipirinha like I did (followed by a glass of Albariño) that’s fine, too.

Not knowing if San Juan was on American or Latin dinnertime, we made reservations at 8pm to be safe. The room was filled with English chatter. By 9pm the entire restaurant was echoing Spanish and had transformed into a polished, 40-somethings-plus tablehopping scene. Everyone seemed to know everyone. High society.


First, we started with a few very snacky “pikaydera” selections from the menu. The mini pork belly burgers were a little dry and I wanted to taste more of the gouda. Lobster empanadillas served with what I think was yellow pepper-infused clarified butter, were just decadent enough in their two-bite form.

Key lime

While these were nibbles, the dessert was surprisingly hefty. We ordered the key lime pie to share (they really push the chocolate or cheese and guava soufflé that you need to order at the same time as your main dishes) and I expected a dainty deconstructed thing. Instead, we were presented with a substantial citrus custard surrounded by graham cracker walls and finished with a browned meringue tuft. The photo is a little deceiving; this tart was larger than a standard slice would be.

Just across the walkway from Pikayo was the hotel casino (I didn’t realize this was a San Juan feature). James won a whopping $17.50 on a $5 slot machine gamble. Hardly a windfall, but it almost covered two drinks at the hotel lounge that had been commandeered by a sunburnt wedding party.

Pikayo * 999 Ashford Dr., San Juan, Puerto Rico


This time of year in 2007 I was writing ten restaurant reviews a month for Latina, and it didn’t take long before I felt like crying tio if faced with one more plate of beans, yellow rice, plantains or yuca. The gig didn’t even last into the second half of the year, but I still burnt out on nearly everything Latino (Peruvian and Mexican, excepted). I wondered if I’d ever have a craving again.

It took three years. Saturday night and all I could think about was Nuevo Latino fare. And being provincial like most Brooklynites, I didn’t feel like heading into Manhattan (it’s not as if the MTA has been making it easy lately) where Yerba Buena would make a fine choice. Brooklyn has Luz or Bogota Latin Bistro. Both are acceptable not remarkable. Sometimes average is good enough, though.

I chose Luz because I have only been once when it was new (and because the last time I was at Bogota Latin Bistro, I threw up on the sidewalk out front, no fault of the food, maybe the fault of cahaça). Scaffolding nearly obscuring its entire façade, the busy restaurant is a bright spot in a barren patch of Clinton Hill. And it was hopping, only one table open and every bar stool occupied, primarily with date night couples.

Luz baron rojo

Based on casual observation, cocktails outnumber wine orders two to one. I had a Baron Rojo, the blackcurrant, rum, pisco, cranberry juice and aguardiente garnished with star anise was potent yet still sweeter than what I'd typically drink.

Luz crab ceviche

Crab ceviche was light and limey and served traditionally with toasted corn kernels.

Luz ribs

The pork ribs were an odd choice to start with since I had beef ribs for my main. Once again, a bit sweet, and from a cranberry bbq sauce. Cranberries don't strike me as particularly Latino, but here they were again.

Luz short ribs, shrimp pastelito, pickled okra

I chose the short ribs because the description seemed so cold weather appropriate: rijoa chestnut jus, butternut squash and shrimp pastelon and pickled okra. The okra seemed like the oddball component but the rich, fatty meat and shrimp-filled pastry covered in melted cheese desperately needed something crispy and tart. Okra was smart.

Luz isn't really a destination restaurant. It's not really even a travel from Carroll Gardens restaurant. But if it were in my neighborhood, I would pay a visit every now and then.

Previously on Luz.

Luz * 177 Vanderbilt Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Yerba Buena Perry

Would Yerba Buena Perry be a mere offshoot or a bonafide chain? It’s all in the eye of the beholder and for my nefarious purposes: chain.

Yerba buena bar

I’m very much not a party photographer if that isn’t painfully obvious. Besides, I don’t really get off on the blogger role during events and openings and the like—I just want to mingle and enjoy the food and drink without making the poor servers stop and hold their trays still. Not that that was even possible at the new Yerba Buena (which should open today) because the food was literally decimated before the plates made it more than a few feet out of the kitchen.

Pisco mojito I did snag a pretty, layered pisco mojito (pisco, bitters, lime and yep, yerba buena) and moved onto wine from there (and then dark chocolatey stout at Spuyten Devil after that—not so smart for a Monday night).

Breaded fried avocado slices were a hit (El Almacen has also been doing these—anyone else?) though I finally encountered the unthinkable: something breaded and fried that completely grossed me out, which isn’t to say the dish was ill-conceived, I just happen to hate melon more than any food on the planet. Yes, they’ve coated and crisp-fried slices of watermelon. Other “Latino Fries” will include more sensible hearts of palm, yuca, plantains, jalapenos and cactus.

Cheesey manchego croquettes, arepas topped with pork and a spicy fish taco were also promising. Of course these were all nibbles. I look forward to trying something more substantial. Maybe the parrillada?

Yerba Buena Perry * 1 Perry St., New York, NY


1/2 Cocktails might just be the star at Rayuela-at least that’s what the few reviews I’ve seen so far say–and I can see why. I tried three drinks and was most swayed by the simply named sherry, and not just because of the pyrotechnic flaming orange zest. The gesture wasn’t all flourish; a distinct bitter citrus flavor permeated the cherry heering, pomegranate syrup, brandy and Palo Cortado sherry. I would never think to combine those components (nor the ginger ale, Mountain Dew and Sprite in their sangria—that’s a lot of soda).

I guess pan-Latin and Nuevo Latino are over. Rayuela is mixing those 90s concepts with modern Spanish flair and calling it Estilo Libre Latino, a.k.a. Latin Freestyle. (Alex Ureña also leans this direction, though his food is more creative than trendy.) And for the most part, it works.

I rarely attend press dinners, not out of any ethical obligation, I just don’t get invited to many. It is kind of hard to be fair, even in a casual blog, when plied with a good portion of the menu and warmly treated by all levels of staff. So, of course I had a nice time.

I’d be curious to see how the bite size hor'dourves I sampled translate to their proper portioned salads and appetizers. The plantain encrusted oysters with poblano aioli and served on the half shell was hard to manage without cutlery. But the bolo de mofongo atop pork vaca frita was kind of genius. Tackling a full size mofongo will put you in a carb coma, but when miniaturized you get lots of crisp and softness, not just bite after bite of porky mash.

Rayuela_cevichesOf the three ceviches: tiradito de scallop, lobster revolution (the name made me guffaw a bit) and tuna in watermelon, you’d think the lobster would stand out (at least to me—I’m swayed by descriptions like ginger, sage, lemon leaf, and lemongrass infused coconut water and Uruguayan caviar, even though I have no idea what that type of roe might be like or why the coconut water needs so much infusing) but the general consensus was that seemingly odd matching of scallop with kiwi was the best of the three. The sweet-salty balance and texture (the lobster was a little mushy) was just right. What I thought were bacon bits on top turned out to be crispy Serrano.

Rayuela_steak_and_duckIt seemed that the churrasco con cangrejo (grilled beef tenderloin, oven roasted Peruvian potatoes, wild mushrooms, bone marrow, crabmeat chimichurri and Tetilla fondue) was the crowd favorite. Unless you’re a vegetarian it’s hard not like a medium-rare steak. But I was more excited about the other entrée, pato con arepa (breast of duck marinated in sugar cane, confit of duck leg, spinach , quail egg and pan seared foie gras on a yellow corn arepa) because I love, love sweet and meat, and this preparation was borderline candied. I would’ve chosen it if given the full menu. Not seeing prices, I pegged this dish at $28. I’ll admit that the actual price of $30 is on the high range of what I would normally pay. For me, that’s more of an occasional dinner, not a mid-week meal. But how often do you get to eat arepas with foie gras?

Rayuela_sweetsDesserts came in two waves: regular and boozy. Despite the interesting hyper-basil and lemongrass ice creams, the standards were nothing to yell about (obviously, since all I can remember are the tiny scoops of accompanying ice creams and not the chocolate and coconut cakes they were meant to compliment). The tequila-chocolate injected strawberry was a hit. The simple pisco gelee was refreshing. I would’ve liked more avocado flavor from the shot. It was appropriately pale green but if no one told you it was avocado, you’d never guess.

Rayuela_spiked_dessertsThe strength of these fun alcohol-fueled sweets, smart cocktail list, creative appetizers and pricy entrees tend to point towards a lounge-driven clientele. And the modern design centering around show-stopping live trees sprouting through the bilevel room is built for that scene. I just hope that the cuisine doesn’t get overshadowed because it feels like a lot of thought went into it. The half-breed Latina in me wishes culinary success for Dominicans (chef Maximo Tejada and pastry chef Bruni Bueno) and Mexicans (mixologist Junior Merino) because lord knows we have enough dishwashers and prep cooks.

Rayuela * 165 Allen St., New York, NY


Esperanto_ceviche It’s strange that I would end up eating on Avenue C twice in less than a month. When I was on my way to Cafecito, I was thinking how no one I know lives in the East Village anymore. The only current residents I could come up with were a friend’s old boyfriend and current datee. And as it turns out, the old boyfriend who had a room barely big enough for a twin bed is finally moving (to Williamsburg, duh). I was attending his birthday/going away party, and well, for the time being he lives above Esperanto. Dinner solved.

Esperanto_ancho_orange_tunaI was under the false impression that Esperanto was Cuban but it’s really a mishmash, as evidenced by the name, I suppose (I was just trying to explain what Esperanto was to my Spanish tutor and I swear he thought I was making it up). If anything, it leans towards Brazil. The kale that came with my tuna and cilantro rice was a tip off, and the seafood moqueca  my softening vegetarian friend ordered was full on Bahian. My two other dining companions had red snapper and pork chops, which are broadly pan-Latin. Same went for the ceviche, plantain-crusted goat cheese and mixed tapas starters.

Esperanto_moquecaI wasn’t that hungry, probably because I’d eaten a late lunch of leftover ma la intestines from King 5 in Flushing (I’ll admit there’s something perverse about another’s intestines ultimately being in your intestines) so I was feeling kind of blasé about my food. I did appreciate that my orange-chile sauced tuna really did come out rare—there’s nothing worse than a dry fish wedge. But everyone I was with seemed more than happy with their orders and crowd pleasing is no small feat. Even though the scene was a little frenzied, service was gracious and the food really wasn’t typical late-night dreck designed for an audience more concerned with drinking.

Plus, you've got to love a place that puts a painting of itself inside the restaurant.

Esperanto * 145 Avenue C, New York, NY

Salud! Restaurant & Bar

Salud_bean_dip_1 I never intended to eat plantains for three courses at lunch. The plantain chips and bean dip was a freebie. You can partake or not but I’ve never been one to ignore a bread basket or facsimile. That was my first mistake.

It made sense to do the three-course $20 prix fixe since my original plan to order two tapas/appetizers would’ve cost even more. I don’t normally delve into the double digits for a weekday lunch, though I’m unusually frugal by even cheapskate standards. Trying to keep my daily total under $4 usually translates into a tiny midtown soup or bagel. But Salud is at the Seaport, which is an extension of the Financial District. James, who works nearby, didn’t think the prices were out of line.

Salud_stuffed_plantains I shouldn’t gone with my initial instinct and started with ceviche but instead I was swayed by sweet plantains stuffed with spicy beef and monterey jack. It sounded gooey and decadent, but in reality it was starch with barely perceptible dashes of ground meat and cheese. The maduros completely overwhelmed the other flavors.

Garlic shrimp seemed safe, but they didn’t come solo. Oh no, the little crustaceans aligned next to a tidy row of tostones. It’s a good thing I’m not low-carbing it. However, I am trying to eat less and shun sugar, but dessert was part of the meal so I was semi-forced to eat a perfectly acceptable flan (which apparently I enjoyed enough to eat before remembering to take a photo).

Salud_garlic_shrimpThere appears to be a Cuban theme in music and style, but the menu is more of a Caribbean mish mash. I can see Salud being good for happy hour drinks if you worked nearby but it’s not distinctive enough to attract diners from beyond the neighborhood. Now that I think about it, it’s the kind of place that would pop up in my neighborhood (Carroll Gardens) and fail to excite me. Un-hideous but far from amazing.

Salud! Restaurant & Bar * 142 Beekman St., New York, NY