Cafe Largo; Castro’s

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Cafe Largo
is a decent neighborhood restaurant. It’s up in Harlem near City College,
closer than close enough to the subway stop at 137th and Broadway to make it
easily workable as a destination. Not that you should do so, necessarily. Only
if New York exploration and eating are among your hobbies would I recommend
a journey to Largo. Otherwise, make a mental note for the next time you find
yourself in the region. File it under, "rice: yellow, specialty."

An enthusiast
could devote a lifetime to the study of New York’s Dominican and Puerto
Rican chicken-and-rice joints. It’s no secret that some cafeteria-style
places outdo sit-down Latin restaurants at the same dishes. But the underground
scene is tumultuous, hard to follow. Its cooks are unsung. Talented ones have
other opportunities, because the network through which high-end New York restaurant
kitchens are staffed is Spanish-speaking to a significant degree. The corner
spots with their chafing dishes, their tv’s blaring soap operas and their
Friday fish specials–they’re as plentiful uptown and in the outer
boroughs as Starbuckses are below 96th St. If all their bell-peppered yellow
rice were amassed in a pile, scientists would compete at coming up with metaphors
to convey its mass, like they did with regard to that block of ice that broke
off of Antarctica last month (the best, by the way, was: "…equal to
the weight of all the cigarettes on planet Earth, if a cigarette weighed a ton).

No need
to sift the pile for golden grains. The fare at Largo, which opened in the late
90s, is essentially a made-to-order version of what a local Latin/West Indies
storefront eatery serves during a period of peak performance. The prices are
higher, though resoundingly justified by the dining room. It’s the kind
of place you might linger for a while without intending to. French doors thrust
open onto Broadway give the long, wood-floored, brick-walled room great light,
and the people-watching is even better inside. The mix of patrons is broad enough
that people at different tables are likely to be ordering off different menus.
Late afternoon on a Sunday, for instance, found college students brunching on
pancakes and plantains at the bar, while old ladies who’d probably been
at church before those kids stopped clubbing supped on fajitas and wrap sandwiches
a few feet away. We also saw a well-dressed family, and a middle-aged couple
who leisurely sipped one of Largo’s inexpensive Spanish reds.

I very much
wanted to start with octopus ceviche salad ($9), but the item was not available.
The shrimp ceviche I ordered instead ($7) was serviceable, if a little on the
oily side. You never know what you’re going to get when you order ceviche
where you’ve never had it before–everything from a lime-chili marinade
to Peruvian salt cod to what is essentially a sashimi vinaigrette bears the
name. Largo’s had medium-size shrimp bathed in olive oil and lemon, with
some onion that’d had its fangs soaked off.

Beef empanadas
($6) also evidenced a kitchen in the act of avoiding pretension, and perhaps
erring on the side of caution. The little patties’ crust suggested maternal
home-cooking. It was thick like a pot pie’s, fragrant and flaky when broken.
The chopped meat inside was generic taco-filler, also homey I suppose, yet surprisingly
bland. The demotic charm wore off and I got bored halfway through the first
of my pair of empanadas (should have ordered one beef, one chicken!), so decided
to ask our waitress for some hot sauce. But she was not to be found.

waited until after appetizers to select entrees, which was wise, because the
first course seemed to indicate certain things. Primary among these was adherence
to a Dominican tradition of mild flavorings, hence my need for fiery homemade
hot sauce. I hoped it would show up sin request with a plate of shrimp
creole or shrimp and rice, both of which ($14) are flagged with asterisks on
the menu–"Denotes Specialty of the House," says the footnote.
The simplicity of our small plates lead me to suspect that chicken dishes like
Pollo Largo ("chicken breast sauteed with fresh mushrooms in a white wine,
lemon & butter sauce, $12") would be too subtle for my tongue, so that
left the selection of grilled steaks, a fish fillet or whole snapper, or pasta.
Pasta? Would it be courting disappointment to ask Italian food of a kitchen
that appeared comfortable within only a narrow range of distantly related cuisines,
I wondered? Or would the choice reveal a previously hidden strength?

go easy on myself and say I didn’t court it–because if it’s on
the menu, it should be ready for prime time–but disappointment is what
I experienced. Penne puttanesca with grilled chicken ($10) was beyond subtle
and well past the point where weakness begins. A mundane puttanesca would at
least have had fresh olives, capers and some anchovy to speak of. Largo’s
had none of the above, and the tomato sauce was watery. The chicken was deliciously
charbroiled, though. I kicked myself for not going with the grilled skirt steak
($14) or sirloin ($15), but again it’s not my fault. The menu needs more

Arroz con
camarones ($14) comes in the shape of an inverted pie plate. It’s a cake
of rib-sticking rice. The shrimp are fat and juicy, if not correspondingly plentiful,
but then again it is a huge portion of rice. There’s a luscious moisture
that allows the yellow grains to hold shape, and it tastes like sweet peppers,
green olives (again from a can, sadly), capers (there they are!) and onion.
The effect is analogous to that of a brick-oven pizza at some reputable side-street
trattoria. Old-country flavor requires a certain amount of refinement and atmosphere,
in the city, to come through as effortless as it should.

We finally
did ask for hot sauce, but received only a bottle of Tabasco. Largo’s menu
calls the place an "oasis," and indeed it’s mellow.

Things ended
on a high note, thanks to the restaurant’s transcendent homemade flan ($3).
The stuff was like caramel ice cream cross-bred with a cloud. We took our time
with our wedge-shaped slice, nibbling and forgetting our complaints.

If you’re
down with the whole tourist-in-your-own-city thing and aren’t familiar
with Largo’s neighborhood, you might enjoy a stroll around it before or
after your meal. During daylight hours, I’d recommend going up to 145th
St. and then west over the footbridge to a high, scenic slice of Riverside Park.
From there walk east to Amsterdam Ave., then south to the City College campus,
switching to Convent Ave. or St. Nicholas Ave. depending on which beautiful
old buildings catch your eye.

Cafe Largo,
3387 B’way (betw. 137th & 138th Sts.), 862-8142.


And if you
live in Brooklyn and don’t want to spend an hour on the subway for just
a decent Latin-American restaurant near a college on the edge of one of New
York’s historic nonwhite neighborhoods, I have an alternative plan for
you. Castro’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant and Coffee Shop is well known
to Brooklyn foodies and art students attending Pratt Institute, and of course
to its many regulars, but it deserves to be more famous than that. Find it where
Myrtle Ave. runs into Bed-Stuy–about eight blocks from the Clinton-Washington
C station.

not an oasis like Largo. In fact it’s downright hectic. But hectic serves
Castro’s type of old-country flavor quite well. The restaurant is set up
like a short-order diner, with the kitchen up front, behind a counter with stools.
They keep the television turned up loud, and the Mexican jukebox cranked even
louder, so when played it drowns out the tv. Sometimes there are no waitresses
on duty who speak English. The menu lists about twice as many dishes as the
place actually serves on any given day. But that menu is bilingual, at least,
and there’re more than a couple of interesting items on it. It helps a
lot that Castro’s is a friendly place. I’ve eaten there half a dozen
times and haven’t had a bad time or a bad dish yet.

Show up
hungry and start with a soup–even the small ones are practically a meal.
The chicken and beef soups are full-flavored, salty broths with big chunks of
softened meat (chicken and beef, $3.50-$6.50). Best of all is chilate de pollo
($4.50-$6.50), if they have it (it’s omitted from the current menu, apparently
remanded to "special"-only status). It’s a chicken soup with
tomatoes and ancho (dried poblano) chilis. On Fridays there’s usually sopa
de mariscos ($5.50-$8.50), always with very fresh shrimp.

Shrimp entrees
are Castro’s most expensive items at $11.50. Camarones Veracruzana are
mild, herbal and lime-y. Like all Castro’s entrees, the shrimps come with
beans and rice, fresh tortilla, excellent guacamole, chips and salsa.

If they
don’t have the pipian con pollo (chicken marinated in green sauce, $7.50),
you can substitute nonmarinated chicken with green sauce simply poured over
it. The cilantro-packed salsa is so vinegary it seems to react chemically with
the meat on contact. You can have the same sauce on Mexican chorizo ($7.50).
Castro’s mole sauce is another herbaceous and nonspicy option–it’s
very satisfying if you want to forgo the lime-pepper-cilantro route, but available
only on chicken. Then there’s chipotle sauce, which comes into play with
stewed chicken or beef strips (both $7.50), and which I’ve never been able
to try. Castro’s makes superb soft tacos from all of the above meats, plus
goat. Most of them go for $2 or $2.50 each.

I most recently
visited Castro the day after the U.S. team eliminated Mexico from the World
Cup, and people there shared their anguish over the match when a clip from it
turned up on Univision between soaps. An animated discussion between the head
cook and a table of young construction workers went by too fast for me to follow–which
is to say, they didn’t speak as if addressing a complete idiot–but
I knew enough to appear deeply absorbed in my bowl of caldo de res.

511 Myrtle Ave. (betw. Ryerson St. & Grand Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-398-1459.