The All -Americas City
Need a fajita fix? Got a passion for “pollo”? Or a craving for chorizo? Whether you’re looking for a Latino-style escape or just want an authentic, inexpensive bite, Port Chester’s got your passport to south-of-the-border.
By Marge Perry Photography by Stephen Ang
When Mary Bartolini talks about Port Chester, the town she has lived in for the past 23 years, she leans forward, eyes bright, her words tumbling out as she describes in salivating detail the South and Central American dishes you can get on almost every block.
This from the town we used to venture to only for after-hours drinking? The Port Chester of my high school and college years was a seedy town of smoky late-night bars. The Port Chester that Bartolini describes is an exciting cacophony of sights and sounds and bright flavors from Central and South America. I find it hard to picture.
With my interest sufficiently piqued by Bartolini’s exuberance, I set out
to rediscover this once down-at-the-heels village. What I learned was
that neither Bartolini’s—nor anyone
else’s—descriptions could do the foods of this little village justice. It’s a virtual World’s Fair and Epcot Center of cuisines, food traditions and ingredients of the South and Central America all in a few square blocks.
From the time you enter the heart of the village—which is still not much prettier than it was 20 years ago—it feels as though you have left the United States. You hear little, if any, English spoken on the streets. The downtown consists of restaurant after restaurant, punctuated by shops and boarded-up storefronts. The gold lettering and neon signs, which grace even the tiniest bodega, are mostly in Spanish, with just a smattering of English phrases here and there to remind you that you are, in reality, in New York State, County of Westchester, Village of Port Chester and on United States soil. Sitting inside the brightly lit Tortilleria Los Gemelos (formerly Tortilleria El Paisano), we are the only non-Hispanics in the joint. Around us, day workers and mothers with young children crowd the brightly colored folding chairs, their paper plates piled high with dishes from the Michoacan region of Mexico. We sampled such regional favorites as soft warm tacos of chewy beef tongue, and the rich but mellow-flavored tender veal-head meat, a stellar candidate to replace the current high-end, big-city restaurant rage for beef cheeks. If these sound too far afield for you, don’t worry. There are also choices more accessible to North American palates, such as spicy marinated pork, broiled pork, chicken and chorizo (spicy sausage)—all for between $1.75 and $2.75 per taco. None of the dishes, however, are put on the menu to appeal to North American palates. This is a restaurant owned by, and frequented mostly by, Mexicans—and it is here you find authentic dishes with heady rich meaty flavors and hints of sweet spice like
cinnamon and nutmeg.
Adelo Ramirez, owner of the three-year-old restaurant and tortilla wholesale business, says that 70 percent of his restaurant customers are Mexican, another 25 percent come from South and Central America, and “maybe five
percent are from here, the U.S. Maybe.” Just as the fare is geared to his Mexican customers, so are the prices. Adventurous non-Hispanic diners can sample true regional Mexican cooking without arduous travel—and do so while spending little more than what one might fork over for ubiquitous fast-food fare.
For $18, three of us had lunch and even took home a bag of chicharron, the twice-fried pork skin that is served as a crispy, rich snack in much of Latin America. (Proponents of the high-protein, low-carb diets should take note: these crunchy snacks have no carbohydrates, and a touch of protein. They are essentially fried fat.)
Adventurous and timid diners alike can find fare to their liking. For diners new to Latino foods, there are slow-braised pork stews and tacos, some made aromatic with signature seasonings of cumin and cinnamon, some cooked to melting tenderness in tomato, garlic and peppers.
For mainstream MEXICAN
food—that is, Tex-Mex style—try a favorite of the locals, Coyote Flaco. Here, diners seem to be the American-born, out for a Tex-Mex fix. Housed in an old Carvel shop, this crowded, funky shack serves up top-notch fare to its North American patrons. From our margaritas served in cactus-shaped glasses to the rich skirt steak fajitas, we loved the kitsch nearly as much as our meals. Be sure to sample the complex, multi-layered mole sauce. Coyote Flaco’s version of the sauce appears in several dishes, all of which have the aromatic, slightly scorched, smoky flavor that mole is known for. And while we’d return in a flash to this lively spot, three of us spent a total of $118 for dinner here, making it less of a bargain than the many spots where less English is spoken.
The famous rotisserie chickens served in many Peruvian restaurants also have nearly universal appeal, even with their distinctive seasoning. Peruvian roasted or rotisserie chicken is served in restaurants marked “pollo ala brasa.” One step across the threshold of these simple, brightly lit restaurants and the savory smell of the spice blends rubbed into the skins will coax you, trance-like, to your seat. The seasonings permeate through to the tender, moist meat of the chicken at Pollo ala Brasa Misti Restaurant, one of the larger of this type of restaurant. As is true of many of the Hispanic eateries in Port Chester, two people can stuff themselves silly, leave with lunch for the next day, and not spend over $20.
With change from our twenty, we had sampled half a roast chicken, which came with lusciously soupy and hearty black beans and rice, a ceviche with a lime dressing that successfully straddled the fine line between bright and tart and included surprisingly tender, sweet calamari and conch (as well as many other types of seafood), the obligatory Peruvian soda (tamarind or orange, both worth trying), and a tasty but very salty fish stew. We heard only one other table speaking English, and we used hand gestures to facilitate communication with our sweet-natured and eager waitress.
According to Peter Iasillo, executive director of the Port Chester-Rye Brook Chamber of Commerce (and former mayor of Port Chester), there are between 70 and 75 restaurants in the half-mile square area that makes up the village’s downtown section—and that doesn’t include all the pizzerias and delis. Iasillo estimates that about half of the restaurants are Latino—that’s upwards of 40 restaurants to choose from, if you’re in the mood for the vibrant flavors of South and Central America. Iasillo proudly says, “We’re known as Westchester’s restaurant capital. I get people calling me all the time, asking me for a certain kind of restaurant, be it Peruvian or Ecuadorian, or whatever. People are coming here to eat.”
The truth is, to sample Ecuadorian, Colombian, Brazilian, Peruvian, Mexican, and other South or Central American cuisine, you’d be hard pressed to find any area in the country with so many really great choices in such a small area. The food has, by and large, not been “North Americanized,” because it is being made for and sold to South and Central Americans. Lucky for us, the prices are also not geared to our usual concept of restaurant dining.
mary bartolini has seen port chester cycle through many ups and downs, and considers the village to be back on the upswing. Says Bartolini, “Yes, there are still some empty storefronts, but a lot fewer than there were ten years ago. And it’s cleaner and safer now, too.” She adds, “Port Chester was pretty rough before. This is the best the town has ever looked.”
Not all longtime residents view the changes so positively. While Bartolini loves the dining choices and the changes in the downtown streets, even she wishes that the redevelopment, which put a giant Costco and other large stores on the waterfront, hadn’t “taken over our pretty waterfront.”
Pat Albano, owner for 45 years of the Meateria, a butcher shop located in the heart of the village, says, “This area used to be great.” There were a lot of factories, a lot of employment. We had Italian, Polish customers. Fifteen years ago, we started seeing a lot of changes. Used to be I couldn’t get out of here on a Thursday or Friday night until 10:30, we were so busy. Now six o’clock, and we’re closed. The shopping centers took some of it away, and my customers changed. But the town is coming back a little. There are more stores, Hispanic stores, opening up.”
One of the best examples of the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” may be the 100-year-old Hubba restaurant, a glorified hot-dog counter famous in this region for its chili dogs. The long narrow room features counter seating and “menus” written on paper plates tacked on the wall. Hubba is now owned by Carlos Magan, a Peruvian who worked at the restaurant for 30 years before buying it six years ago.
Magan’s daughter Karen, who works behind the counter four days a week, says, “Years ago, there were 17 bars here, now there are only seven. For us, fewer bars means less business. But we’ve been here such a long time, through bad economies and bad weather, that nothing affects us.”
Karen Magan says that while the bulk of their business continues to be the high school and college kids from Westchester and Fairfield Counties who come for late-night snacks after the bars close, Hubba’s does an increasing business with Hispanics. “I think because we are Hispanic, and they see the language is spoken here, our business picked up.”
Whether Hispanic or North American, according to Bartolini, no visit to her beloved hometown is complete without one of Hubba’s famous chili dogs. The real challenge, of course, is saving room after eating your way through the town (but not through your wallet).
Marge Perry is a daily columnist for Newsday, a contributing editor for Cooking Light, and writes for The New York Times, Self and Better Homes & Gardens. She teaches throughout the tri-state area and can often be seen and heard on television and radio.