On a corner in East Harlem is La Cabaña (2277 First Avenue), a small restaurant with just a few tables that is, nonetheless, roomier than most bodegas-cum-taquerias that have you leaning into shelves of dry goods. There’s a steam table of various stews, and a capacious kitchen, by New York standards. The waitress invites you to come take a peek at the ripples of beef in salsa verde with strips of nopales, the steamed rice dotted with diced carrot and peas, the pork spareribs sporting Christmas colors in a salsa of green tomatillos with flecks of red chile de arbol, and the two kinds of beans. She uncovers the compartments with a Vanna White flair.
If you are lucky to end up there on a weekend, there will be tamales Veracruzanos, Veracruz-style tamales of the owner’s home state. These are large squares of masa, wrapped in banana leaves, steamed with slim pork chops inside, the bone still clinging to the meat. There will be barbacoa ($13), panza ($7), and pozole ($7), the broth blond and scalding. Multicolored gelatins are lined up in the refrigerator case, and chopped fruit and vegetables wait in trays to be buzzed into juices. There will even be chamorro ($13), pork shank braised until meltingly tender, hidden on the lower reaches of the menu, though often unavailable.
If you can’t get that, the torta Cubana ($8) feels less like settling for a second choice and more like a gift. The sandwich comes crisp and slick, grease saturating its paper wrapping. Gooey head cheese melts in tandem with American cheese over roasted pork. Subsequent bites uncover other treasures — coins of pickled jalapeño, a slip of chicken breast, an omelette with bits of sausage in the mix. Half of one is a comfortable meal; eaten in its entirety, it primes you for a month of holiday feasting.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.