Apps Only: Esperanto
Esperanto is an eclectic, mostly Brazilian restaurant on Avenue C that's talked about more for its cheap mojitos and caipirinhas than its food. (The half-price bottles of wine on Monday are also a selling point). But the food is also reasonably priced, with a wide selection of small plates and sides; I stopped in last week to see if I could get a decent meal of appetizers out of the place.
We started with an order of Calamares Fritos ($7.50), fried calamari served with a spiced salsa roja that needed more kick; lack of heat would be a theme of the meal. The calamari was a bit undercooked for my taste.
The Pinchos de Carne ($7) was a painfully boring dish: skewers of beef, chicken and chorizo served with what the menu called a "spiced dip." The meat was nicely charred and pretty tasty but as far as I could tell the dip was the same salsa roja from the calamari, with some cumin stirred in to keep us on our toes.
The tangy Ceviche de la Casa ($7), a snapper ceviche served with crispy potato chips for dipping, was a bright spot in our meal. Here simplicity was a strength, with the familiar flavors of fresh, tender fish and lime juice dominating. Corn, red pepper and plenty of cilantro added to the refreshing nature of this staple dish. The chips were a nice touch.
If you're looking for a good dinner on the cheap, dig into the sides menu; the selections each run $3-4 and helped round out our meal. The Spicy Cashew Nuts ($4) were tossed in a spice mixture (again, not spicy as advertised, but flavorful enough) that came to life when doused by the lime wedge it came served with. These were a fine snack, although a few of the nuts lacked crunch. They'd be a great start to a meal. (Although when we tried to order them while we pored over the rest of the menu, our waiter refused to put in the order; apparently everything must be ordered at once.) Other winners from the sides menu included the garlicky Fried Yucca ($4), crispy on the outside and soft yet firm on the inside, and the Pao de Queijo ($3), airy, chewy balls of cheesy bread.
Finally, the Bolinhos de Peixe ($6), battered and fried balls of potato and salt cod, were a hit at our table. The spicy mayo they were served with was almost spicy. Almost.
All in all, Esperanto is a fine place to enjoy some small plates with friends. You won't be completely blown away by the food or the service, but the prices are very appealing and nothing is inedible. We spent $38.50 before tax and tip for three of us, well below the $15/head Apps Only target.