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Posts from the ‘Latin American’ Category

809 Sangria Bar & Grill

1/2 Certain segments of the population like to brag about never setting foot above 14th Street (or somesuch nebulous boundary). Whatever (that’s actually less offputting than those who silently yet resolutely refuse to  venture beyond the 11211 zip code). But if I didn’t work in midtown, it’s not that likely I’d frequent the 40s or higher on a regular basis. Upper Manhattan and the Bronx? Ok, now I’m totally clueless and a little hesitant.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I made the A train journey up to Inwood for a meal. I wasn’t scared like I thought I was going to be knifed or something, the unknown just makes me nervous. I feel the same way about Staten Island (I like to believe I have a better than average grasp on Brooklyn and Queens). NYC is an insular place. I currently work in a deparment of ALL native New Yorkers, which is pretty rare in my experience (no, I don’t work for the NYPD or FDNY or the city) and I wouldn’t be surprised if many (not all, mind you) of the five were unfamiliar with the neighborhoods outside of where they grew up and/or presently reside. I only know places where friends congregate or where good food lurks.

809_arepa_trio_1My initial impression of Inwood wasn't bad. Of course my only exposure was walking three blocks to and from the Dykeman Avenue station but it seemed akin to Sunset Park or South Slope: a Payless Shoes, H&R Block, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Chinese take out…I’m not sure if there was a Jimmy Jazz or not but there should’ve been. Lots of chains, a little grit, and no signs of gentrification beyond 809 Sangria Bar and Grill, my destination.

You might not even notice it from the street, it’s not flashy. The brightly lit, neon heavy place with sandwiches in the window, next store, made more of an impression. And I’m not sure how well they’re attracting diners (I think they’re doing a good job bringing crowds to the upstairs lounge, which is only open the last few days of the week). Our table was the only one occupied for a spell. Eventually two couples came in and as we were wrapping up a few other groups stopped by, one with like three children under three. Dates, partiers, newborns all welcome.

I’ll admit that the prices are high for the area (my entrée was $24) but it’s not a case of unwarranted gouging. The cooking is creative and the dishes are well thought out. The style borrows from The Domincan Republic (as everyone points out, 809 is the area code in the D.R.) and beyond and manages to avoid boring mango and avocado laced pan-Latino cliches.

809_stuffed_snapperI might’ve gone for a ceviche if I were solo, but the arepa trio topped with tufts of ropa vieja, pork picadillo and shredded chicken were moist and each distinctly flavored.There are two ways to go with entrees: the pick your meat, side and sauce churrasco or opting for seafood. My dining companion (logically chosen as my only friend who lives in the hundreds) has a reputation for being fussy, things that lived in the water or items with bones don’t please her. I was a little nervous but she eventually settled on a medium well skirt steak with yucca fries and three colorful sauces (I couldn’t tell you what they were). She didn’t complain so I’m assuming her meal didn’t completely suck.

I was pleased with the pargo relleno, a whole crispy-skin red snapper stuffed with a seafood risotto. The lightly spiced echilado-coconut sauce tasted slightly Thai, which I loved. Sometimes, I forget the lime, coconut and chiles similarities between Southeast Asia and the Carribean.

I totally didn’t need an 809 Mojito (rum, apple pucker, peach schnapps, fresh plums and peaches) and tres leches cake. My teeth almost rotted out. I’m trying to learn moderation in 2007, though it’s slow going. I pretended that I was being healthy by only eating half my fish, never mind that it was fried and doused in creamy saturated fat.

809_tres_leches_cakeOn my (long) way home, I decided that they’re nice in Inwood. As we were heading into the subway station, a guy on his way out gave me his soon-to-expire Metrocard (this may not seem like a big deal if you’re an unlimited buyer but I’ll gladly accept the $2 gift since I’m a pay per ride gal). The train was already at the platform as we were approaching the bottom of the stairs and a guy held the doors for us. Annoying when you’re in the car, yes, but it wasn’t rush hour and the train was practically empty since it was the second stop from the end of the line. Syrupy cocktails and a few glasses of Shiraz tend to cloud my thinking in more ways than one, they also have a way of inducing rare warm, fuzzy, mankind is ok feelings. I like people so much more when I have a few drinks in my system.

So, if you ever find yourself around W. 200th Street and are craving lamb chops, onion confit, balsamic panela reduction and ajillo mashed potatoes rather than cuchifritos, 809 is probably a good choice.

809 Sangria Bar & Grill * 112 Dyckman St., New York, NY

La Vuelta

I’ll admit to Long Island City dining ignorance. I don’t feel too bad because there’s not a whole lot of it to be informed about. I suspect that will change as condos continue popping up in the area and new residents bring higher standards.

But I recently started reviewing restaurants for (Hey, why not? I just hope it’s not a conflict to post my own takes here. I mean, these aren’t terribly useful and tend to be more about me than anything. What I’m paid to do is short, sweet and service oriented. Totally different beasts.) I need to represent diversity in neighborhood, culinary style and price range. It’s going to be tricky covering ten a month (that’s a lot of rice and beans, papi) because I’m accustomed to eating Asian (I know, that’s about as broad as Latin American) whenever possible and I started watching my damn points last week (yes, Weight Watchers. It’s laughable, I realize. But heck, if I even managed to shed a measly half-pound a week, that’ll be 26 gone by Christmas. I’m a turtle not a hare.) and lord knows I can’t turn down free food.

La_vuelta_empanadas I get the sense that La Vuelta does a brisk lunch and happy hour business and is trying to expand their reach. They recently started opening on Saturdays and will add Sundays next month. When we arrived around 8:30pm on a Saturday there were only two other tables occupied. It’s not surprising since the block is less than bustling.

La_vuelta_shrimp The food is all over the place (geographically, not haphazardly) with Argentinean skirt steak, cubanos, empanadas, nachos, and the like. We tried empanaditas, four tiny cheese filled pastries with salsa and two larger pork style crescents with bbq sauce. Not bad. James had said skirt steak, which came with mashed potatoes and chimmichurri. I went for grilled shrimp with coconut rice and a jalapeno-pineapple mojo (don’t tell anyone, but I’m not crazy about a lot of Western rice dishes. Biryani and nasi lemak: uh-huh. Paella and risotto: eh). They weren’t able to make the advertised pisco sours (no pisco) but caipirinhas and rioja sufficed.

Everything was well seasoned and the service nice as can be, but it’s definitely a neighborhood restaurant. And L.I.C. could surely use a few more.

La Vuelta *10-43 44th Dr., Long Island City, NY

Palo Santo

1/2 No matter what, I can never remember the name of this restaurant. I know it’s on Union Street, that the chef used to cook at Williamsburg’s La Brunette (a restaurant I always meant to try but never got around to before it closed) and that it consists of two Spanish words. And then I’m stuck so I have to sort through all Latin American listings in Park slope on Citisearch or New York (ok, not the latter—I just tested it and it’s nowhere to be found) to find it. Palo Santo, okay, I’m forcing it into my memory.

Palo_santo_gambas_1 It’s a curious place, stuck in the middle of a brownstone row and decorated in a woody willy-nilly fashion. There’s a warm, crafty vibe, enhanced by the front room’s fireplace. Reggae was the music of choice on my visit. I never went though a Bob Marley phase, but at least it's slightly more tolerable than Andean pan pipes or Gypsy Kings. Some commenter somewhere I can’t recall described the interior as looking like a ‘70s health food eatery and that’s not completely false, though I suspect they’re trying for more sophistication than that. Thankfully, sprouts are nowhere to be seen.

The menu changes daily and I forgot to take note of the chickpea strewn slaw that our shrimp a la plancha were served on. I’m not sure if it was the citrus used or an exotic herb that snuck in (the chef makes use of many esoteric items) but there was an overall bitter, acidic flavor that didn’t agree with me. That was the only miss, though. I forgot to change the setting on my camera after taking photos off the TV so everything ended up a dark, dull faux sepia toned mess.

Palo_santo_duck_mole_2 My duck mole was flavorful without being overwhelmingly rich as a fatty bird and dark sauce potentially could be. It came with a little corn cake topped with black beans that contained something crunchy. I want to say it was a fried skin of some sort but I don’t recall that being part of the description. I did ask about the two foreign-to-me herbs that enhanced the beans. They were Mexican papalo and pepicha, and no, I can't quite describe them beyond dubbing them forceful and distinct. You wouldn't want a mouthful.

James had seafood asapado, a soupy rice, which was kind of like a cross between risotto and bouillabaisse. We shared a hot from the oven banana chocolate dessert that was topped with melting cream. It beat another tired molten cake, that’s for sure. I refuse to eat those piping hot soft-centered sweets out of principle. I feel the same way about the oozing pucks as I do about rampant bad ‘80s music. There’s just no excuse in 2007.

Palo_santo_banana_chocolate_1 I’ve heard that if you sit at the bar you can order a $45 tasting menu that isn’t set in stone. I guess that’s an omakase. That doesn’t sound unreasonable, yet I would’ve preferred that the dishes cost a few dollars less apiece. The prices were slightly high (entrees $20+) for a casual weeknight dinner (though it looks like they have a more moderately priced menu during the day), and when you could easily spend $100 for two (which I didn’t) cash only seems silly.

Palo Santo * 652 Union St., Brooklyn, NY


I've passed by Izalco countless times on our way to Sripraphai and incorrectly assumed that it was Mexican. It's tough because when I'm in the mood for Thai that's it. I'm hardly ever wavering between Latin American or Asian; when I leave the house I know what I want (and no, it's not always one of those two broad cuisines) and I can't deviate.

Izalco_enchiladaOn this occasion I was specifically searching for Salvadoran food because other than the pupusas I sampled at the Red Hook ball fields last summer, I'm pretty naïve about Central American food and need to at least know enough to come up with a paragraph or two on the subject. There are actually quite a few Salvadoran restaurants in NYC. I picked this one because I was already nearby in Jackson Heights and had been thwarted in my quest for Uruguayan meat by the huge crowd waiting to get in.

I immediately liked Izalco's indoor-outdoor décor. Only the finest establishments erect interior awnings to evoke the sense that you're dining on a veranda instead of feet from elevated subway tracks. They went a step further and had distractions like a stuffed armadillo standing on the faux tile roof sticking out from the wall. A taxidermied deer head also sat above our table and an iguana and owl also made an appearance. I don't think that any of those animals play a role in Salvadoran cuisine, however.

Izalco_curtidoI have a phobia about eating in places that are about to close and another about being the only diner. There was still nearly an hour left before Izalco's 11 pm shut down, but the one other table left minutes after we arrived and I started feeling the pressure despite our waitress being very helpful and open to questions. So, we didn't order anything extravagant (not that Salvadoran food seems particularly ostentatious) or labor intensive.

Izalco_pupusas_1 I got a sampler of the three types of pupusas: cheese, chicharrones and refried beans. The stuffed corn cakes come with curtido, a vinegary coleslaw-ish condiment that I really like. The pupusas are pretty heavy so a little crunch and tanginess is not a bad addition. You also get a red sauce that I think is basically pureed tomatoes, it's thin and not spicy in the least. James tried an enchilada, which is probably what we'd call a tostada. The base is a crunchy fried corn tortilla topped with shredded chicken and weirdo but not untasty things like chopped carrots, sliced hardboiled eggs and cucumbers. We also had two different Salvadoran beers, Suprema and El Salvador which were in a Budweiser league. That wasn't a bad thing. Something about this food, at least the few snacky items we ate, seemed like perfect drinking food and you don't need fine wine for that.

Izalco * 64-05 Roosevelt Ave., Woodside, Queens

El Chivito d’Oro

1/2 I really wanted Uruguayan food to be distinctly different from Argentinean so I could be more emphatic in my piece about unique Latin American food, but at least as far as grilled meat is concerned they're kind of interchangeable. There is an Uruguayan and Paraguayan bakery in Woodside but as far as sit down restaurants go, I'm fairly certain that Chivito d'Oro is the only Uruguayan restaurant in NYC.

For some unknown reason, 37th Avenue is home to a slew of parilladas. This strip also seems to have some rule about consistent awnings and storefront, many seem to have a '90s nearly suburban style. One block south on Roosevelt it's mish mash paradise, the signage is a mess and practically every Latin American cuisine you can think co-mingles with Thai, Filipino and Tibetan. 37th is steakhouses, but not in the Peter Luger dry aged vein. Mixed grills are the specialties and the bargain of $19.95 for a single serving ($27.99 for two) that easily feeds two (or three daintier eaters) isn't lost on patrons. On weekend, the foyer at Chivito is jam packed. We didn't even bother on a Saturday around 10pm and went to Izalco instead.

Chivito_doro_chicken Due to the Italian influence on this part of South America, pastas are prevalent, but I'm barely a fan of even exquisitely prepared Italian food by Italians (I know, I'm a freak) so I've never ventured to that side of the menu. James wanted to be different and opted for a chicken dish, which isn't necessarily lighter than the red meat. His chicken francesa consisted of two pounded, breaded cutlets in a lemon sauce. I didn't taste it but with rice it could've nearly passed for Chinese food.

Chivito_doro_parrilladaIf you order the parillada, which you should, your carnivore's delight comes on a little tabletop grill warmed by candles. The contents include skirt steak, another kind of steak that I'm not sure about, morcilla (my Spanish tutor didn't think I knew what this was when recounting my meal the following week. Hey, I'm all about sangre, no fears here. The blood sausage is actually one of my favorite parts of the whole shebang), ribs, pork sausage and sweetbreads. They went easier on the organ meats than the Argentinean steakhouse I tried a few years back. My choice of starch was roasted potato wedges. I made it through about half of the items. The vinegary chimichurri is a must and cuts through the richness. Of course, it's oil-based and rich in and of itself. You can't think about calories in these situations. You might as well stay home and eat microwaved Amy's enchiladas, if you have food fears.

Chivito_doro_potatoes The clientele was a mix on our weeknight visit. There were plenty of Hispanic families, but there was also a table of Eastern Europeans who came after us, breezed through their meat and left before our last bites. There also wasn't a shortage of Queens-y types getting take out and reminding the counter guy not to forget the rolls (which are quite good and charred with grill marks).

I'm not schooled enough to recommend Chivito d'Oro over nearby favorites La Porteña or La Fusta or countless others, though I don't want to say they're interchangeable either. It's worth a jaunt on the 7 train to investigate, though.

El Chivito d'Oro * 84-02 37th Ave., Jackson Heights, NY

Honduras Maya

1/2 This was weird. I tried visiting Honduras Maya on a Tuesday around 7pm and it was closed up tight. When I lived relatively nearby I used to walk past on my way to the gym and always wondered how they stayed in business because there was never anyone inside. I feared they'd finally gone under, which would suck for my story I was trying to put together.

Then the very next day, Suany Carcamo (who I think is the owner) was mentioned in the first sentence of the New York Times's Under $25 column profiling the Red Hook Ball Fields, which seems to have hit mainstream media with a vengeance this summer. Just to pump myself up (believe me, no one else does) I must mention that I wrote about this venue May 2005 (and of course plenty of others covered it the year before) but it doesn't even come up in the first ten pages if you Google it so it might as well not exist.

I get the feeling that Honduras Maya functions more as a social club with sporadic hours and limited menu than a full fledged restaurant. They were open Thursday that same week and we weren't able to get sopa de caracol because the conch was too expensive to serve. Instead, we got baleadas, the ballfield specialty because sometimes it's best to stay simple. If you get a grilled meat plate with rice, beans, plantains, avocado, white cheese slice and salad, you'll also be brought a bottle of Kraft Italian dressing. Such is the side salad in most restaurants anyway.

We were the only proper diners, which lent a slightly spooky feel. There was a handful of  young guys going in and out who were drinking beer (which wasn't on the menu) and snacking on baleadas. As we were about to leave a typically "old" Park Slope dad with young boys came in. He seemed to know what he was doing and headed straight back to the kitchen to order, which you might have to do since there isn't a full staff or anyone to greet you when you walk in. I don't know if he was a regular or just bold. Or maybe I'm just a pussy.

Honduras Maya * 587 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Mi Bolivia

Mi_bolivia_aji_lenguaIt's hard to define an entire cuisine after a single meal. So, I won't. (But I will give an overview of Latin American cuisine  that's scarce in NYC.) Bolivian food is kind of meat and potatoes and thoroughly hearty. Must be the Andean air. Many of the dishes come with regular potatoes and chuños (a tiny freeze dried tuber) as well as hominy and rice. Lots of starch and chewiness. I had aji de lengua, tongue in a lightly spiced brown sauce. They also have a peanut soup, sopa de mani, that I've heard about but didn't try. Weekends are soupy at a lot of these places with changing menus of the day during the week.

Mi_bolivia_saltenas Salteñas are a heftier empanada with a stewier filling of either chicken or beef. They're served with a green salsa that our waitress pointed out wasn't called salsa. Instead of the Spanish word they use yagua. At least that's what she wrote down for me, but after some sleuthing it seems like llajwa is the more commonly used term. Either way, it's nice with a salteña. There is one other Bolivian restaurant in NYC named Nostalgias (love the added S, like how McGriddles is singular) and I'd definitely be willing to give it a try.

Mi Bolivia * 44-10 48th Ave., Sunnyside, Queens

Tierras Centro Americanas

Caldo_de_resOther the Pollo Campero, there aren't any other Guatemalan restaurants in the city that I'm aware of. And it doesn't appear that Tierras Centro Americanas is going out of its way to get the word out (my editor had to call and plead for 15 minutes to convince the owner to allow us to send a photographer for an article on lesser known Latin American food…and then they didn't end up using a photo anyway). This place used to be called Xelaju and appears to have recently changed names. There's also a Salvadoran flag on the wall and pupusas on the menu, which might reflect new ownership. The clientele seemed heavily Guatemalan, though.

Guatemalan_diner Unless you live in Eastern Queens, getting to this little storefront is a bit of a trek. And once you arrive, the scene might be mildly conflicting. On my visit the staff seemed very nervous and reluctant to approach us. I wasn't sure if it was the language barrier, if they thought I was going to deport them or what. I almost felt in need of one of those worry dolls. But the Sunday afternoon customers were insanely friendly. Nearly someone at every table wanted to help us order and make suggestions.

A large family suggested that I take a picture of who appeared to be the matriarch in a traditional dress. Unfortunately, I couldn't catch what it was called or the region it was from. A guy at the table on my other side confided that these handmade dresses can cost $1,000 and are for special occasions. Hey, why can't soup in Jamaica be a special occasion?

Salpicon I was only able to sample a few items so I can't speak with expertise on Guatemalan food. It's not like Mexican but they do serve thick fresh corn tortillas with everything. It was recommended that I order a soup so I tried caldo de res, a hearty beef concoction that felt fortifying and healthy as it was teeming with vegetables like green beans, chayote, potatoes, yucca, carrots and cabbage. That would've been plenty, but I had to try the salpicon because it sounded so crazy and un-Hispanic. With chopped beef, cilantro, onion, lime juice and radishes served with rice it was suspiciously similar to Thai larb. It's not spicy and has the oddball radish, but it felt Asian. James lamed out and had tacos, which are probably what Americans would call flautas, little rolled up things.

Guatemalan_tortillas Tierras is the kind of place where the jukebox will spontaneously blast Spanish death metal and then segue into a sappy ballad and Chinese women go table to table hawking bootleg dvds and customers actually buy them. One mom snatched up Snakes on a Plane (and a Sponge Bob disc) a day after opening in the theaters. That's so not Carroll Gardens and I totally appreciate that.

Tierras Centro Americanas * 87-52 168th St., Jamaica, NY


I find it irksome how New Yorkers are so tied to their neighborhoods, particularly Williamsburgers who treat the “nabe” like some hipster hobbit shire. I will gladly venture out of Carroll Gardens, though it recently struck me as odd that I haven't tried any of the newish restaurants in Clinton Hill/Fort Greene. In fact, I don't think I've set foot in the Pratt area since working there half a decade ago (jeez, its weird to quantify NYC time in terms of decades. It simultaneously makes you feel authoritative and really old).

For my first proper meal since my big S.E. Asian vacation I was aiming for something relatively local and recently opened. Little Bistro, Taku, Beast and Luz were the contenders, and somehow the latter won out.

The food is a Nuevo Latino mish mash, the décor modern and stylish, the clientele multicultural and both youthful and mature. It cuts a wide swath. James and I shared a trio of acceptable empanadas, tasty but kind of mushy. My entrée, a fairly traditional plate of lechon, plantains and rice and pigeon peas worked (and probably cost $5 more than at a Puerto Rican take out joint, a fair price for the ambiance). The pork was juicy and flavorful rather than dry and bland as it tends to be at these upper scale Hispanic restaurants.

James chose a weird dish of salmon crusted in brown sugar with something green and a lima bean puree. He wasn't fond of it, which wasn't surprising since it sounded a little off. The couple seated closely next to us ordered the exact same duo, he the fish, her the pork. Not that that's a testament to great ordering skills. I would suggest sticking to the less experimental dishes, and having a few strong caipirinhas.

Oh, and skip their version of a molten cake, which anyone with good sense would do anyway. I was just tempted by the accompaniments of coconut ice cream and caramelized bananas. James proclaimed the less-than-molten overcooked cake a “fucking muffin” which drew the amused attention of the loud Bay Ridgey girl right next to us (who'd replaced the earlier couple) who claimed to be an expert in molten cakes and joked that shed order hers “rare.” Unless you want to bond with your dining neighbors (and I know some people enjoy that sort of thing) keep quiet about your dessert's shortcomings.

Luz * 177 Vanderbilt St., Brooklyn, NY

Empanada Mama

I'm still not sure what the connection is between Empanada Mama and Papa's Empanadas, but they practically have the same menu. Only their prices separate them. No matter, more details from my New York Post taste taste can be found here.

Empanada Mama * 763 9th Ave., New York, NY