By Benjamin Parsons
With more than two million Latin Americans in New York, it's not hard to find great cuisine from that area.
Ruben's Empanadas is a small but renowned Argentine chain that does cheap and fast well. On Fulton Street near South Street Seaport, you'll find just a pastry case filled with empanadas and cakes, a few small tables, and a drink cooler with Argentine sodas. The variety of empanada fillings is staggering -- Spinach, Argentine sausage, and ground beef are always good -- but whatever just came out of the oven is probably best. At $3.50 to $4.50, one empanada makes a good snack, two a sizeable dinner. And there's a three for $10 special.
After trying lots of awful Tex-Mex places, I was impressed with the simple San Loco Mexico, in Greenwich Village and on the Lower East Side . The Village restaurant looks like a converted pizza parlor, and one wall is lined with wooden plaques that serve as the menu. The enchiladas are just spicy enough, always served piping hot, and the chicken or fish fillings are also cooked well. Enchiladas range from $4.75 to $6.35 for two. The burritos are also excellent, and a bargain $3.25 to $4.
El Cocotero is also small and cramped (low-priced, with New York's astronomical real estate prices, seems incompatible with large). This restaurant only has about a half dozen tables, but pleasantly swaying giant palm fronds dividing the tables gives diners a sense of privacy.
Try the stewed flank steak sandwich and the guasacaca, Venezuelan-style guacamole. The moist sandwich meat tasted as though it had marinated for hours, and soaked pleasingly into the crispy bread. The sandwich cost $7.55, so without the $2 side of guasacaca, a meal could come in at under $10.
To find Peruvian food, I logged on to the New York foodie discussion board Chowhound (chowhound.com) and discovered Rinconcito Peruano, a Spartan hole-in-the-wall just below Columbus Circle. Three of us started with a delicious, spicy, crumbly tamal and some thick-cut, crispy fried plantains. I had pescado al ajo, a fried whitefish filet topped with a red pepper garlic sauce. Dinner came to about $50 for three.
At Havana Alma de Cuba, the staff is efficient and friendly, and on Friday and Saturday nights a live Cuban band plays. The Cuban sandwich is fantastic, with real roasted shredded pork filling, not the sliced cold cuts most restaurants try to pass off. The red snapper coated in a green plantain crust was also excellent. The fufu de platano, or mashed plantain, side dish has the consistency of baby food, but complements the more forceful flavors of the other dishes well. Alma was the most expensive restaurant here, with entrees ranging from $12.95 to $16.95.