Decades ago, mercantile Manhattan was littered with Cuban luncheonettes that operated only during the day and served a constituency of Spanish-speaking laborers. As the Cubans migrated out of town, these places were taken over by first Puerto Rican, then Dominican proprietors. With the decline in industrial jobs and the upscaling of restaurant properties, the luncheonettes all but disappeared. Only a few remain.
We could use lots more of these places. Witness old-timer Margon, just east of Times Square, mobbed morning and afternoon with enthusiastic diners of every social stripe, fidgeting in anticipation of cheap and tasty eats. The long room is bizarrely narrow, so that you bump up against other customers as you scramble for one of the prized orange tables opposite the lunch counter, behind which eight or nine acrobatic employees stretch to fill the orders. Here flies over the counter an amazing octopus salad ($8)—vinegary, oily, oniony, olivey, and heaped so generously in the bowl that it cascades over the sides. There goes a steaming plate of chocolate-colored oxtails ($7), sided with such large servings of yellow rice, black beans, and sweet plantain that an additional plate is required.
The menu rotates by weekday, but always available are staples like paprika-roasted chicken, fried kingfish, and the signature Cuban sandwich ($4)—seductively concocted by a full-time wrangler posing in the front window, spreading the sandwiches thickly with marge and flattening them on a trio of foil-wrapped sandwich presses. Tuesday through Friday, the Dominican favorite chicharron de pollo is featured, with the twice-fried green plantain medallions called tostones, and if you don’t go away from that particular meal picking your teeth with pleasure, the café con leche is on me.
Pride of Westchester Square, the recently renovated NEW HAWAII SEA (1475 Williamsbridge Road, Bronx, 718-863-7900) is the Bronx’s most ambitious Chinese restaurant. It was originally a “Polynesian” joint, and the menu still bulges with flaming cocktails and big-deal entrées like volcano steak, chicken aloha, and seven stars around the moon. Skip anything with a South Seas taint and go straight to the Cantonese standards, including a memorable rendition of shrimp lo mein ($6.75) with a plethora of carefully peeled and deveined beauties rather than the usual tiny frozen specimens. The sushi isn’t half bad, either.
Anybody who can serve such good broccoli rabe—the semi-bitter Sicilian favorite here bathed in olive oil and strewn with garlic—deserves our plaudits. The rest of the menu at newcomer PIO’S (210 West 10th Street, 741-7971) is a mixed bag, with a few of the dishes outright delicious, a few more ho-hum. Our favorites include lobster ravioli in creamy pink sauce, seafood risotto, and a faux steak Florentine, made with a good-sized sirloin mantled with mushrooms, and not a bad deal at $16.95. In short, the best of several restaurants that have recently occupied this space.
Following in the footsteps of Teriyaki Boy, YOSHINOYA (255 West 42nd Street, 703-9940) is a franchise with 875 locations in Japan that’s probably preparing a full-scale assault on Manhattan. The specialty is an East-West fusion affair known as gyudon, or beef bowl ($3.59)—meat you’d expect to find in a good Philly cheese steak sautéed with onions and heaped over a Mount Fuji of rice, exuding a light soy aroma. There’s also a chicken teriyaki bowl, a vegetable bowl, a couple of soups, and not much more. If you really want to go Japanese, request one of the raw brown eggs (50 cents extra). Crack it over your bowl, then stir vigorously.