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Posts from the ‘latin american’ Category

Cubana Cafe: Cheap and Grimy Cuban, For Next to Nothing

For a student on a pretty tight budget, Cubana Cafe is a verifiable god-send. In a city of haute cuisine and sky-high prices, this tiny Cuban spot on Thompson and Prince is a cash-only dirt cheap oasis. Everything about the neighborhood establishment is simple: the food, the service, the drinks menu, the decor, and, most of all, the value. Cubana Cafe is simply a spectacular value.

The aquamarine storefront, sunflower yellow walls, salmon window frames, and baby blue tiled bar evoke the sultry and steamy heat of the Caribbean. Cuban kitsch is everywhere, from the candy-colored soda bottles lining the central column to the black-and-white photos of old Havana to the splashy tropical fruit tablecloths. A splotchy blackboard lists out the nights drink specials and wine options, while bottles of hot sauce sit in neat rows near the kitchen, just waiting to be dunked over quesadillas and rice. Soft Latin music tinkles in the background. The restaurant cumulatively seats no more than 30 with a mini bar offering up 5 more seats for solo diners and sangria seekers.

Surprisingly enough, the food at Cubana Cafe is not exactly authentic. It’s more pan-Latin with everything from crispy quesadillas (my favorite is the pork variety, stuffed with mole, black beans and melted cheese) to arroz con pollo to an over-stuffed poblano chile with shrimp and calamari, succulent pulled pork with starchy whipped plaintain and rich rioja wine gravy, and, of course, a classic Cuban sandwich. The food is simple and hearty, often starchy, and almost always under-salted. It’s rarely ever a work of art, and there’s certainly better Cuban out there. However, it’s so cheap and satisfying that salting it yourself and dousing it all in hot sauce seems like a small price to pay for a full meal and drink for under $15.

Cubana Cafe is casual and quiet, refreshingly inexpensive, and somehow still chic hole-in-the-wall. Although the food won’t blow your mind, the amount of money you’ll save will. Tired of overwrought New York dining experiences? Keep it simple at Cubana Cafe.

Perfect For: wallet-friendly eats, starving students, sangria seekers, a neighborhoody pre-game

Cubana Café on Urbanspoon

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Agozar!: Where The Kids Come To Party

If you couldn’t tell by the exclamation point in the name, Agozar! is a party, one big very downtown Manhattan party. The candy-colored facade with A-G-O-Z-A-R spelled out in bright cartoony characters and thumping Latin music pouring out onto the street say it all – this is a place to have fun. If you’re lucky, you’ll nab a coveted spot on the sidewalk patio for some sweet al fresco boozing coupled with fantastic Bowery people-watching. If not, don’t worry, the bar scene just inside is hoppin’ from happy hour ’til close, and the back dining room is made for fiestas with enough seating for large parties, enough staff to keep the margheritas flowing, and fans to make sure it doesn’t get too hot.

Agozar! is not a place for children (that is for you, crazy parents who brought their 8 year old into the booze den), refinement, or quiet conversation. It has one purpose: to bring out the fun in people, to encourage the party, to lift spirits. Everything from the bright yellow ceiling to orange walls, modern Cuban art, vast array of tequilas and rums, and free-flowing pitchers is designed to inspire good cheer. Expect to get down and dirty at Agozar!; the banquettes in the back are a little sticky from too many spilt drinks, the tables are a little wet from melted ice and quick wipe-downs, and the bathrooms are reminiscent of those on the first floor of frat houses – overused and undercleaned.
Perhaps the biggest surprise though of this Cuban drinks spot is that it’s actually a full-functioning restaurant with some mean Cuban cuisine. The menu is split into tapas and full-sized entrees, the vast majority of which are classic Latin/Cuban dishes. Expect options like the empanaditas, flaky and flavorful, the croquetas de hongo, fried balls of earthy wild mushrooms with piquillo sauce, and the ubiquitous arroz con pollo, prepared right with al dente rice and juicy seasoned chicken strips. Your best option is to select an array of small plates for the table. Recommended dishes include the Milanesa, a crock pot filled with addictive fried eggplant balls, gooey goat cheese and zesty tomato sofrito, and the Chorizo, skewers of bold chorizo sausage slathered in tangy chimichurri sauce.
If it isn’t already, Agozar! should be your go-to for a good-time – stiff drinks and stylish Cuban-inspired home cookin’ keep the bellys full and spirits high. Just come prepared to ‘rough it’ a little with basic amenities, loud music, and a frathouse feel.
Perfect For: margheritas and mojitos, birthday parties, celebrations, outdoor boozing, ladies night out, happy hour bar scene, putting the frat house in Cuban

Agozar! on Urbanspoon

Macondo: Bringing Latin Street Food Off The Street

Macondo’s shtick is pan-Latin street food – arepas from Venezuela, tacos from Mexico, churros from Spain, and so on and so forth. Yet, as you would expect from the sister restaurant to Rayuela, Macondo is no grimy street cart. Tucked into a surprisingly large railroad space on E. Houston Street, Macondo seems inspired by a hot and sticky summer night somewhere anonymous in Latin America.

The 6-seat communal high-top tables in the front are simple and rustic, flanked by distressed exposed brick, shelves of Spanish foodstuffs, and rope baskets; a long row of low stools along the open kitchen let diners peer into the culinary fray; a large faux blackboard listing every popular Spanish ingredient, from pequillo to jicama to mole, looms over the bar area. In the back, the ‘Green Room’ evokes a secret garden with ivy-laced lattice, pale wood tables, and twinkling candlelight. Lush and sultry, the Green Room is perfect for birthday parties, work events, after-hours drinks, and perhaps even a bachelorette bash.

Whether or not this is street food or gourmet cuisine, Macondo’s Latin American fare is refreshing, satisfying, hearty, and completely un-cliche! Most Latin spots in the city offer the same sort of stuff with the same sort of taste and the same sort of ingredients. Macondo manages to offer something new, something fresh and surprising. The menu is extensive, offering upwards of 35 items, all for under $20. Dishes range in size from small bites (patatas bravas) to slider-size sandwiches (chimichurri chico) to full-on large plates (arroz con pollo). For the best deal, opt for the $30 prix-fixe which offers 2 small plates, 1 bocadillo or large plate, and 1 dessert; it’s the best way to sample the best Macondo has to offer.

Out of the 8 dishes sampled, the 4 starters were by far the best. The ‘Almondegas’ or Brazilian meatballs were punchy and surprising; the size of golfballs and soaked in guava sauce, they proved to be immensely flavorful for such a simple dish. The salmon ceviche was just too sophisticated to be considered street food, layered in complex flavor, presented beautifully (as at Rayuela also) in a martini glass, and fresh as fresh can be; the soy ginger citrus sauce brought out the flavor and the texture of the bright pink and silky salmon, cut into large strips. The cheekily-named Chorishrimp should win the award for Best Latin American Comfort Food Dish; served in a piping hot pot, this stew-like mixture of chunky Colombian chorizo, shrimp, Albarino white wine, chili sauce, and tomato is served with thick wheat crackers for dipping and scooping; the result? A hefty, savory, and soul-satisfying dish you want all year-round. Lastly, the mushroom croquettas; bite-size and served with a creamy truffle dipping sauce, they were a well-balanced and refreshingly earthy accompaniment to the otherwise spicy and zesty Latin cuisine.

The rest of the meal suffered in the shadow of the crave-worthy starters, yet this by no means meant that the entrees and desserts should be written off. The short rib bocadillo was almost there, served on golden crisy slider buns and with a cone of fries; however, unfortunately, the short ribs themselves fell flat with not enough flavor to be memorable. The arroz con pollo was similarly bland when compared to the powerful starters; slightly gummy but with a nice crispy bottom, the chicken was over-cooked and the rice flavorless. Skip it in favor of juicy grilled skirt steak or mofongo. The desserts were hit or miss with a surprisingly tasty Latin American twist on creme brulee, made addictive with vanilla bean custard and caramelized sugar and a rather lame chocolate cake served too dry and crusty to enjoy.

Macondo walks the fine line between cheesy, sleazy and fun and is saved by its remarkably well-prepared ‘street food’. While it’s clear the grub is more meant for sceney Lower East Siders than those seeking authentic Latin cuisine, the vast majority of dishes served surprised and wowed with complex flavor patterns, excellent presentation, and an addictive blend of salty, savory, and sweet. Looking for a hoppin’ place for both great dinner and great drinks? Macondo’s your spot.

Perfect For: boozy pregames, ladies night out, quick bites at the bar, schmoozing with Latin men, bachelorette bonanzas, after-work cocktails, high-brow cuisine at low-brow prices, ceviche lovers, scenesters

Macondo on Urbanspoon

Rayuela: What Successful Latin American Cuisine Should Be

Rayeula epitmozies slick and slinky in the ever-hip Lower East Side. The heralded youthful Latin American powerhouse plays no games with high-end cocktails, mouth-watering inventive cuisine, and a shocking authenticity amongst all the hubbub.

The discreet space on a stretch of Allen St evokes a secret garden. The multi-level space uses a beveled stone bar, lots of flora and fauna, low lighting, a small pond, and a full-size tree to mimic the magic of an interior forest. A glowing backlit bar, textured bamboo side panels, sheaths of ethereal white fabric, and an expansive exposed brick wall enhance the sexy ‘natural’ environment. If you close your eyes (or down a few of the bartender’s dangerous concoctions) and shut out the urban ambient noise, you can almost feel the rainforest vibrating around you.

For a restaurant I only discovered last week and have heard little buzz about previously, Rayuela delivers remarkably good food with many astonishing dishes and few duds. The 5-course tasting menu is the way to go, offering up a diverse array of menu highlights for just $64. The regular menu offers appetizers for $12-17 and entrees for $25-30.

The tasting menu started of fresh and spicy with a small dish of seafood stew. Large hunks of diverse fresh seafood sang in a very hot chili-inflected stew spicy enough to clear out the sinuses. A ceviche duo followed with hamachi, avocado and orange zest in a firey red wasabi citrus sauce and the ‘seven powers of the sea’ (lobster, shrimp, scallop, crabs, clams, mussels and octopus) in a green tomatillo sauce. Both were light and zingy – the first reminiscent of a spicy sushi roll and the second of seafood salsa.

The third course was a duo of seared scallop with cilantro rice in hot chili sauce and of sweet sausage, octopus, and mussel in a cream sauce. Both were rich and savory, melding spicy, sweet, and umami notes artfully. The scallop melted like butter while the octopus ‘legs’ were chewy and bold.

The highlight of the meal was the pinnacle fourth course, a duo of steak tenderloin with mushrooms and melted cheese and of sugar cane duck breast with duck confit and guava sauce over a sweet corn arepa. The tenderloin was soft, tender, and slightly charred for a smoky effect. The melted cabrales cheese ‘fondue’ over the meat enhanced the complex flavors and left us rubbing our bellies happily. The duck breast was sweet and multi-faced with soft discs of pinky red meat, a starchy and substantial corn arepa (very much unlike the fried fatty things you find at street fairs), and guava sauce. While delicious, the overwhelmingly sweet notes make this a dish to be shared.

Lastly, the dessert. I am comfortable stating that the Chocolate Cortazar is one of the best chocolate desserts I have ever had in Manhattan. The multi-layered mousse cake stacks white, bittersweet, and milk chocolate mousses together on top of a thin sliver of dense dark chocolate cake and is offered with a small dollop of mate ice cream and macademia sauce. Soft, silky, and impossibly decadent, this dessert will wow without question.

Perhaps the best thing about Rayuela is the unpretentiously romantic vibe. Without pomp and circumstance, Rayuela sets the mood seductively with delicious interactive food (hello aphrodisiacs…), a litany of creative (and dangerous) cocktails, and a mellow atmosphere. The service is friendly and efficient with plenty of hands on deck and few bobbles (not to mention lovely Spanish accents…). Perfect for a date night or for drinks with friends at the beautiful stone bar, Rayuela stands out from the crowd of Latin American restaurants colonizing Manhattan.

Rayuela on Urbanspoon

The Ultimate Date Spot

Pasita embodies the essence of the West Village dining scene: cozy, top quality, friendly service, casual. On the corner of 8th Avenue and W.4th St, the railroad space oozes charm with an open kitchen (including a burning brick pizza oven), a tiny wine bar, handsome and soft-spoken waiters, soft live Spanish guitar, and a healthy dose of exposed brick. It’s the perfect storm of sensual music, delicious interactive food, unobtrusive service, and a laidback vibe.

Although I had already fallen hard for Pasita just by stepping in the door, I really knew I’d found true love when I tried their French-Venezuelan menu, focused on flatbread pizzas and mezze starters called Pasapalos. The food isn’t complicated or ‘haute’; it is satisfying and heart-warming. The flatbreads are innovative with fun flavor combinations like spiced beef, manchego and red pepper or pesto, roasted squash, arugula, and mozzarella. The small plates include arepitas (sand dollar-sized arepas), tequenos, yuca frites, and empanaditas. The tequenos are my personal favorite – dressed-up mozzarella sticks, they are delightfully gooey and downright delicious.
To wax poetic for a moment, the flatbreads are divine. Bursting with Spanish-inspired flavors and made with a soft and doughy yet crispy in exactly the right spots crust, they just hit the spot. They master the art of flavor manipulation, tantalizing with savory, sweet, and salty components. The Queso Valdeon variation is made for cheese-heads. Loaded with valdeon, parmesan, goat cheese, mozzarella, nata, fresh rosemary and a side of honey, this white pizza is a gooey cheese sensation, both marvelously savory and sweet. The Ropa Vieja is meaty and intense, with sharp manchego cheese, sweet caramelized onions, and spiced beef.
I’m a big fan of high-end pizza for dates because of the interactive sharing aspect; and trust me, Pasita’s funky flatbreads and sexy Latin vibe make this hole-in-the-wall gem the ultimate casual date spot. Split a bottle of the South American & Iberian wines with your date, share a basket of tequenos and a pesto & squash flatbread, and just relax to the sweet live tunes.

Pasita on Urbanspoon

Fantastic a casa Fox

a casa fox, what another great find on Orchard St. After The Orchard, Noodle Bar, Little Giant, and Blue Elm, I thought I had exhausted the grub options that little street on the LES has to offer. But no, on an Opentable-inspired whim, I discovered a casa fox.

This tiny Latin/Spanish restaurant just below Houston literally oozes charm. It is slinky, quiet, and comfortable. One roughly finished room, the perhaps 20-seat glorified hole-in-the-wall has bright bohemian cushions tossed on dark wood benches, handkerchief napkins, and a tattered library with tilting books and tealight candles on a stone/concrete wall. A cozy fireplace on one wall isn’t lit, yet tall pillar candles burn away. Slick electronica tunes from Zero 7 and The Scissor Sisters softly play in the background. The tantalizing smells of spices and grilled meats waft from the open kitchen. a casa fox encapsulates ‘date spot,’ infusing comfortable casual dining with irresistable Latin sensuality.

While the ‘camped out in a stone cottage in a rustic Spanish town’ vibe is the main seduction factor, the food isn’t half-bad either. In fact, the tapas-centric menu offers up some creative twists on classic empanadas, bocaditos, and clay pot dinners. The kitchen sends out small plates bursting with flavor. The empanadas are flaky and doughy with interesting fillings like portabello mushroom and smoked gouda. I just wish there was more of the filling in each empanada – seemed a bit skimpy. The fried risotto balls are delicious – stuffed with slightly crispy risotto and gooey cheese, you just can’t go wrong. The real highlight though was the Spanish take on mozzarella sticks – fried manchego cheese with membrillo. The sharp manchego paired beautifully with the sweet and gelatinous quince. My friend Alex and I loved it so much that we capped off our meal with a second order!

The food isn’t complicated and the vibe is super relaxed; however, a casa fox seduces with foxy music, a charming waitress, and an uber-cool rustic decor. The clientele are private, unpretentious, and mellow, most likely from the surrounding neighborhood. This cozy find is ideal for a romantic date (think: splitting a piping hot clay pot dinner over a pitcher of divine sangria, small candles flickering against unfinished stone…), a laidback dinner with a few friends, or a lazy lingering sangria outing that spans the entire evening.

Note: a casa fox is also available for private or corporate events – they will rent out the entire space and cater the meal.

A Casa Fox on Urbanspoon

Berimbau: A Little Out of Tune

A real fan of Brazilian cuisine (Casa makes my heart sing), I was pretty pumped to give Berimbau, a neighborhood Brazilian eatery, a try. However, the Time Out NY review couldn’t say it any better than “the only thing worse than a restaurant with bad food and a bad atmosphere is one with bad food and a great atmosphere.” Berimbau is the worst kind of disappointment in that the restaurant is immensely charming with festive music, great service, funky artwork, and an open kitchen yet the food is…just not very good.

On Carmine between Bleecker and Bedford, Berimbau attracts the well-dressed downtown set. A good-looking staff provides great eye candy in the simple setting. White walls, authentic art, and fresh flowers are the extent of the decor. The open kitchen offers up tantalizing smells – I wish I knew what they were cooking that smelled so great – I would have ordered it.

Don’t get me wrong, the food is not terrible. There are highlights: my chicken stew was simple, very flavorful, and served with well-salted rice and beans. However, even in this classic dish there were problems. For example, I had difficulty finding the chicken meat. I had to pick around a number of bones and gristle. The Pau de Queyo, a basket of 5 balls of cheesy bread, was delicious – but then again, how do you mess up cheese and bread? My boyfriend was very disappointed in his steak. It was over-cooked and under-seasoned with too much gristle. It needed to be juicier and more flavorful to be successful. His Calabreza appetizer was also disappointing, served on in a massive portion just lumped carelessly on a plate. The sausage, while fragrant and spicy, was also overcooked and tough. The savior of the night, for better or worse, were the savory yucca fries – crisp, tasty, and hearty.

Berimbau is a classic example of too much attention paid to the scene. The restaurant itself really is a bundle of fun – if only the food could pass muster.

Berimbau on Urbanspoon