If you look at a map, the 5th Avenue outpost of Cabana is at the South end of the Upper East Side, but the menu and the website refer to it as their Midtown location. Judging by the customers and the prices, I'd say the Midtown designation is probably justified. Despite some skepticism about the "Nuevo Latino" cuisine that brands the place, the food is quite good.
We started the meal with an order of mariquitas ($6.95), plantains sliced thin and fried until crisp. They were a little bland and disappointing on their own, and the sour dipping sauce that came with them wasn't a help. I'd recommend springing for an order of guacamole ($5) to go along with it. It's full of large avocado chunks, good fodder for the chips to scoop.
Things started to look up with our first appetizer, arepas con queso ($6). The cornmeal cakes receive an extra layer of flavor from the grill before getting topped with mild queso blanco. My only quibble: the black beans served along with the arepas were given to us cold, but the layers of flavor in this simple dish still stood out.
Best of all were the frituras de vegetales ($8.95), broccoli and carrot fritters. Resembling over-sized falafel balls, the fritters were crisp on the outside but amazingly moist and gooey within. They were also packed with fresh vegetable flavor, we think bolstered by some cheese. They came served over a creamy chipotle sauce for some textural contrast and just a little bit of heat.
The lone vegetarian entrée, coco cabana vegetales ($14.95) is enough food for two people. When the dish first came out I thought that the vegetables might have come out of a bag in the freezer, but one bite told me otherwise. The green vegetables were only barely cooked, so they were still a little crisp There were also some starchy Caribbean vegetables to lend some heartiness to the dish: yucca, calabaza, and something called yautia (similar to a yam). The combination of the coconut milk and the curry put me in mind of a mild Thai curry, but the combination of those vegetables with that flavor made it something else entirely.
So Cabana ultimately won me over with its "nuevo latino" food. Whether you call it Midtown or UES, the bottom line is that the flavors have to be there. With its mix of the familiar and the foreign, Cabana delivers.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.