It’s always tense when a popular storefront morphs into a real sit-down restaurant with tablecloths, menu folders, and upped expectations. It’s a gamble for the buzzy little joint, particularly since it manifestly “ain’t broke”: fancier restaurants demand more from their customers. Not only do they have higher tabs (to cover tableware, linens, and waitstaff), but sitting down to a real restaurant meal takes more time. And while you might stop into a storefront straight from the gym, with ratty hair and no makeup, you’ll think twice before you visit a more elaborate restaurant in the same dishabille. Upgrading restaurateurs must temper their ambition with the risk of alienating their casual regulars.
While Latin American Café always had tablecloths, its small storefront on East Post Road was resolutely modest. Now, having taken over two adjacent businesses, Latin American Café has tripled its
size yet still retains its unpretentious storefront past—a tactic that also may help to retain its customer base—but, sadly, alcoholic options still are limited to beer and sangria.
Traditionally, Cuban food is a stick-to-the-ribs sort of fare originally designed to fuel colonists while doing grueling work on tropical sugar plantations. Latin American Café’s fried yucca ($6.75), chunks of the starchy, translucent, lunar white New World tuber (eventually brought by colonial powers to Africa, where it’s now a staple), served in all their plain, caloric sweetness, counterpointed by citrusy mojo (like a tangy, oniony vinaigrette), is a perfect example.
Unfortunately, two other Cuban musts, tostones (fried plantains) both sweet (complimentary with mains) and starchy green ($4.50), could have used another shake of salt, while the green plantains also were strikingly dry. A starter pairing green tostones and fried chorizos added some much-desired fattiness ($10.95), and we defy almost anyone not to be lured by juicy, sautéed sausage slices. Papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes) are even more winning at $3.50. This fat sphere’s perfectly crisp fried shell yielded to comfortingly fluffy mashed potatoes, which hid, in turn, a core of boldly pepper-spiked ground beef.
Portions at Latin American Café run from generous to massive. All entrées include a (sadly, forgettable) green salad, sweet plantains, beans, and brown, yellow, or white rice. We loved a generous bowl of tender, flaked puerco asado (slow-cooked pork with onions and mojo sauce) for $14.95 that soaked our mounds of salty, annatto-golden rice to make for a warming, homey main. Sadly, Latin American Café’s version of the Cuban standby, ropa vieja (shredded flank steak in a light tomato sauce) seemed wan at $15.95. Likewise, pollo al ajillo (sliced chicken in cilantro-and-garlic sauce) was blah at $15.95, lacking even a little brightness from a scattering of less-than-pristine fresh cilantro.
Short-armed/deep-pocketed diners would do well to remember Latin American Café’s specials, which promise a truckload of food for only a few dollars. A $9.95 lunch special offers a wide choice of entrées paired with the usual assortment of salads, plantains, beans, and rice; $12.95 dinners offer a similar selection and even larger portions.
Good news/bad news so far, but it’s almost irrelevant to its fans, who customarily eschew this restaurant’s $39.95 paella (admittedly, for two) for the humbler pleasures of its Cubano sandwiches served for lunch only. We found the tasty sandwich of ham, mustard, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and pickle lacking only in shattering, palate-scratching crispness. Nevertheless, sweet, densely milky batidos (fruit milkshakes) of guanabana and mango went a long way toward making amends, as do cool discs of dense (almost fudgy) flan, always made daily in-house.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
134 E Post Rd, White Plains
Hours: lunch, Mon to Fri 11 am–3 pm, Sat 12 pm–3 pm; dinner Mon to Thurs 3 pm-10 pm, Fri and Sat 3 pm–11 pm, Sun 1 pm–10 pm. Appetizers: $3-$11.95; entrées: $12.95-$39.95; desserts: $3.50
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦—Outstanding ♦ ♦ ♦ —Very Good
♦ ♦ —Good ♦ —Fair