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THE NEW YORK TIMES
$25 AND UNDER
In Chelsea, Some Fish Stews Among the Pork Chops
By SAM SIFTON
September 25, 2002
They sit at the counter with their sunglasses pushed up on their heads, baggy shirts covering guns, radios, handcuffs. They eat rice, beans, pork chops, sliced avocado. They sit at the tables shoveling it in, tall uniformed men in shiny boots and the creased caps of the highway patrol or mutt-faced beat walkers in rumpled blue.
They come to Cabo Rojo from nearby galleries, pale-faced young women with tangled artist hair, for succulent roast pork, and they walk in on their way to the estimable Chelsea Commons down the street, bartenders taking a preshift meal: roast chicken, yellow rice, red beans, sweet plantains, a Coke.
They are neighborhood types, office workers, family a quick portrait of western Chelsea, with sound: New York-inflected Spanish, English with a Puerto Rican twang.
Emilio Matos, out of the puebla of Cabo Rojo in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico, opened this narrow cheerful room in 1959 and named it for his hometown. It was a Spanish restaurant then, in a storefront of what had been a Greek place, and Mr. Matos ran it until 1973. A nephew took over, said Mr. Matos's son, Emilio Matos Jr., and worked the room until 1997. "Then my sister Norma and I bought him out," the son said. Now he arrives at the restaurant at 5:30 a.m. to begin the day, and his sister, Norma Velasquez, ends it, closing the doors at 9 p.m.
The restaurant is no longer Spanish, but proudly Puerto Rican posters and large-frame postcards from Cabo Rojo decorate the bright yellow walls. The menu, divided into sections, one for every day of the week the kitchen is open, offers stellar variations on the island's favorite themes: sweet, salt, sour, fire.
Baked pork chops ($7) are available daily, offering tender, fork-ready meat fragrant with sofrito a sauce made of chopped onions, bell peppers, garlic, sweet chilies, tomatoes, cilantro and recao, a native herb. Fried in bacon fat, with achiote added for color, it is the island's national seasoning, the backbone of its cuisine.
There's a touch of it humming along like a bass line beneath the beef in picadillo con maduros ($6.25), or ground meat with plantains, and in the gravy that adorns the beef stew ($6) and in the sauce that floods a thick slice of meatloaf. And there it is again in the liquid that holds up the red beans, delicious across a pillow of fantastically yellow, toothsome rice. Generous servings of rice and beans (or, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, rice with pigeon peas) come with every order.
Octopus salad ($9.25) makes an appearance every day, with big hunks of the chewy, pelagic flesh appearing alongside crisp iceberg lettuce and the anemic tomatoes that are as much a feature of island life as fresh salt breezes and the sun. Better, for those eating fish, is anything made with the restaurant's ropy, delectable bacalao salty, savory salt cod, served sometimes in a salad ($7) and also in the codfish stew ($7.50) on Wednesdays.
Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays bring a terrific, vaguely sweet oxtail stew ($6.50) with generous helpings of meat and shockingly flavorful potatoes. Those with dinner plans should know that the kitchen generally runs out by midafternoon. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays bring forth garlicky moist roast pork ($6.50), its skin salted and golden, with nearly all its fat rendered into the meat. And half a tender roast chicken ($7.50, daily), with crisp skin and enough drippings to pour over the rice with pleasurable results, makes a fine lunch for those with afternoon access to a bed or couch.
Dessert can seem a mere postscript after feedings this size, but after the salt, Mr. Matos and Ms. Velasquez don't skimp on the sweet. An achiote-tinged flan ($1.50) makes for a delightful capper to a meal at Cabo Rojo, as does a credible, rich bread pudding ($1.50). Tembleque ($1.50), or coconut custard, is also available, and for anyone willing to suspend disbelief enough to imagine a world in which something that looks and smells like suntan lotion could be supremely appetizing, it is a perfect dessert. In a different environment, this would qualify as transgressive brilliance. Here, as with so much of the menu, it's just good food.
254 10th Avenue (25th Street), Chelsea; (212) 242-1202.
BEST DISHES Baked pork chops, chopped meat with plantains, oxtail stew, roast pork, baked chicken, rice and beans, flan, coconut custard.
PRICE RANGE Lunch and dinner, $3 to $9.25.
CREDIT CARDS Cash only.
HOURS Monday to Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Restaurant is up one step.