Welcome to the third annual “100 Best and Cheapest Restaurants” issue, this year spotlighting Latin food. While New Yorkers have long relished pernil and paella, the current influx of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking immigrants has created a whole new catalog of taste delights—from Salvadoran pupusas oozing cheese, to Peruvian chickens thickly coated with spices, to tender charcoal-grilled Argentine skirt steaks, to spicy Brazilian shrimp swimming in coconut milk. Though Spanish is not yet required in the schools, it has become compulsory at the dinner table. Burritos have long replaced burgers in the affections of students, as their parents gleefully knock back ceviches and wash them down with margaritas, and meanwhile, salsa has officially aced out ketchup as our national condiment, scooped by billions upon billions of tortilla chips.
Latin cooking traditionally conjures expectations of garlic, vinegar, pork, and chile peppers, but the über-cuisine is much broader and more nuanced, the result of a colonial legacy that included not only the Caribbean and the Americas, but outposts in Africa and Asia as well. There were also wild-card factors like the Chinese indentured workers brought to Ecuador early in the last century. As a belated result, Latin-Chinese restaurants called chifas are springing up in Corona and Sunnyside. The surprising influences and borrowings never stop coming, creating a very rich tapestry indeed.
To choose these restaurants I barnstormed the boroughs for five months by car, subway, bus, ferry, and foot, chasing down fresh tips and rechecking old favorites. I combed ethnic newspapers and electronic bulletin boards for new places, and interrogated friends, acquaintances, and even strangers on the street for closely kept dining secrets. The result is a ranked order of my 100 favorite Latin places in town, where you can often get a humongous meal—with leftovers—for $10 or less. With the economy spiraling downward, we need great inexpensive places more than ever.
The list is intended to be controversial—if you don’t like it, write your own! In deciding what to include, I’ve made some difficult calls. First off, I’ve considered Portuguese-speaking places in addition to Spanish, since their languages and foodways overlap by about 80 percent. (Besides, I love Brazilian food.) The Philippine appreciation of pork roast and menudo was justification enough for that archipelago’s inclusion, even though Spanish has not been officially spoken there since the Spanish-American War. I guess it goes to show: While official culture is fleeting, great food lasts forever.