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THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Essence of Home Cooking, Puerto Rican-Style
$25 AND UNDER
By ERIC ASIMOV
November 14, 2001
DECADES ago, restaurants liked to boast, paradoxically, of their "home cooking." This was particularly true of roadside diners and cafes, where travelers in the years before interstates, jet planes and conference centers sought refuge from the hard, dusty miles. But it was also true in the urban hangouts and neighborhood joints that were homes-away-from-homes for new city dwellers, many of whom had left their families in rural America.
Nowadays, when chefs fancy themselves artists rather than surrogate mothers, home cooking is largely in disrepute, considered the sort of simple, easy fare sometimes disparaged as "comfort food" that one tries to rise above by dining in restaurants. If the phrase "home cooking" appears now, it's wrapped in irony, like the fashion term "retro," referring to past styles appropriated for the young and design- conscious.
But authentic home cooking lives on in New York restaurants, serving the same purpose it did 65 years ago: satisfying the longings of people far from home. Now, the newcomers are mostly immigrants who go to restaurants to find home. For everybody else, these restaurants offer wonderful opportunities to taste home cooking as it might be in homes vastly different from their own.
One such restaurant is La Fonda Boricua in East Harlem, a handsome little place that offers big helpings of excellent Puerto Rican home cooking. La Fonda Boricua, which essentially means Puerto Rican Diner, used to be a narrow counter, so anonymous that it operated for several years under an old sign, Gina y George. But this year, the owners, Jorge and Roberto Ayala, acquired the store next door and expanded.
La Fonda is now a spacious place, with exposed brick walls, plants and comfortable seating for 75. The walls are filled with paintings, from artists like Fernando Slicrup, Marcos Dimas and José Morales. The Ayalas have even consigned Gina y George to memory and put up their own sign.
While that is enough to draw you in, the food makes you want to stay, like a mellow octopus salad ($10), in which tender pieces of meat are mixed with cubed peppers and onions, cilantro and a lightly peppery vinaigrette. Chicharrones of pork ($6) is another such dish chunks of pork, each with a crisp layer of skin, a glistening line of fat over tender meat. Each bite is superbly flavorful and incredibly rich. Chicharrones of chicken ($6) is Caribbean fried chicken, crisp and greaseless, with each piece seemingly offering its own flavor.
Pork dishes include roast pork shoulder ($7), full of garlic and pepper with pieces of crisp skin tossed in and chewy, satisfying baked pork chops ($6) smothered in onions. Steak ($6), marinated in tangy citrus juice and pounded thin, is remarkably tender and also comes covered in onions. Arroz con pollo ($6), a classic Puerto Rican dish of flavorful, slightly smoky chicken surrounded by yellow rice, is also satisfying, but veal stew ($6) with yams and peppers is tough going.
While La Fonda has grown considerably since its takeout days, the menu has not, although Jorge Ayala says he plans to add appetizers and desserts when he gets his wine and beer license. Meanwhile, La Fonda offers numerous worthwhile smaller plates, like crisp tostónes ($2), or green plantains, served with a frothy citrus and garlic dipping sauce, and rice with a choice of several kinds of beans ($3). I'm partial to the plump and earthy red beans, but I've also enjoyed smaller pink beans, black beans and even chickpeas.
The service is extremely friendly, but if you need something chances are you'll have to get up from your table and find somebody to get it for you. Come to think of it, it's sounding more like home all the time.
La Fonda Boricua
169 East 106th Street, East Harlem; (212) 410-7292.
BEST DISHES: Octopus salad, chicharrones of pork, chicharrones of chicken, roast pork, pork chops, steak with onions, arroz con pollo, green plantains, rice and beans.
PRICE RANGE: Everything is $10 and under.
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.
HOURS: Daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Ramp at entrance; dining room and restrooms are on one level.