WHAT I’M THINKING I was channel-surfing the other day and happened across a Spanish-language channel from New Jersey. A sports reporter was on the field at Shea Stadium interviewing Hispanic Mets, including Rey Ordoñez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Armando Benitez and third-base coach Cookie Rojas. I may not have been able to pick up everything the four guys were saying, but they were yakking their heads off, saying much more than they usually do when speaking English to reporters. Seeing them so comfortable with their own language, not having to search for words or translations, made me recognize how difficult it must be for all people to adapt to a second— or third— language. With this in mind I thought I would check out a place where the transplanted go to feel comfortable. I landed at Fifth Avenue Lechonera, a Brentwood restaurant that serves Latino comfort food to the masses. Comidas like this one can take away the pains and frustrations of daily living. After all, the food can take someone back home to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or even South Florida.
CASING THE JOINT From outside, you can see trays of steaming beef and chicken fogging up the front window, like you used to see in places that once lined the sidewalks of 14th Street in Manhattan. A counter inside is loaded with dozens of trays and vats filled with the makings of lunches and dinners. There are four booths across from the counter and a dozen or so tables in an adjoining room. This is self-service, like one of those Fireside prepared-food joints sprinkled throughout the Island. Only this feels like you’re in San Juan. A giant menu overhead offered about a hundred items. After our trays are filled we choose a table in the other room, near a window lined with tropical plants and cacti.
WHAT WE EAT I haven’t been to Cuba, but the Cuban sandwich ($3.65) here in little ol’ Brentwood is the best I’ve ever had. Made with steaming roast pork, ham, cheese, sliced dill pickles and crusty hero bread with mayo spread on top and mustard spread on the bottom, the towering mound is then pressed in a sandwich iron until the cheese melts. The beef stew ($6.35) has onions and peppers and comes with yellow (amarillo) or white (blanco) rice and black (negro) or red (roja) beans. (I still know my colors.) The pork chop ($5.89 por uno, $6.99 por dos) is a little dry, but it’s draped with thinly sliced onions and green, yellow and red peppers. Big chunks of boiled yucca have the consistency and taste of potatoes and are served with unusually strong red onions. Sweet plantains (95¢) are a must on the side. Someone next to me at the counter, who I think was amused at my culinary boldness, suggests stuffed plantains ($2.00). Unlike the sliced sweet plantains, this is a whole plantain split open length-wise and crammed with ground beef and cheese. Familiar foods like chili ($6.30), served with rice, beans, salad and bread, and a hearty slab of meatloaf ($6.25), with mashed potatoes offered as an alternative to the rice and beans, are satisfying and very filling. Like I said, comfort food.
WHAT WE DON’T EAT I won’t eat pigs’ ears ($3.09 a pound) or the ear dinner ($5.99) unless pigs fly. They won’t and I don’t. But you may want to try the pig knuckles dinner ($5.99).
VEGETARIAN ALERT What do you expect from a place whose name translates to “Roast Pork”? Near the old Academy of Music on 14th Street, we used to go for Spanish food at a place whose name I can’t remember. I do recall it had a neon image in the window of a guy stabbing a pig. This sums up the zeal for meat in Latino cooking, and in this case, Puerto Rican cuisine. On the other hand, rice and beans, salad and plantains provide a nutritious dinner if there is no pork flavoring the beans or chicken broth in the rice. A delicious lettuce and tomato sandwich ($1.75) is your only other choice.
CAVITY PATROL The flan ($1.50) here is okay, but the square of bread pudding ($1.50) is sweet and genuine.
By the way, I think “Cookie Rojas” translated means “Red Cookie.”
DAMAGE A dinner that will leave you stuffed is a revolutionary $6. All the way up to $9.