61-B Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10010 (b/n 25th and 26th; map); 212-213-2522
Service: Like Superman, it's faster than a speeding bullet
Setting: Slightly bigger than the coat closet at a fancy-pants restaurant
Compare It To: There's nothing quite like it, really
Must-Haves: Pernil in any form, especially the sandwich; shrimp ceviche; chicken in any form
Cost: $10 at most, including tax and soda
Here at Serious Eats World Headquarters we get tons of tips from people recommending their favorite undiscovered restaurant gem. A couple of weeks ago Justin, a passionate serious eater I've known forever in the food biz, e-mailed me about Latin Thing, a tiny steam table joint on Lexington Avenue that was a block from his office. He said that Latin Thing had become his go-to spot for a filling, cheap, delicious lunch at his desk. Now, Justin is no slouch in the serious eats department—we often get into hour-long conversations at food events about arepas, papusas and Chinese steam table joints worth eating at. So when he touts a place, I almost always take his advice.
Last week Robyn and I met Justin at Latin Thing to see if his delicious-spotting batting average would remain at Serious Eats Food Hall of Fame level. Actually, we didn't so much meet at Latin Thing as collide there. Latin Thing consists of three tables for two, a line of customers, and a steam table with three people working that steam table like demons.
But they could be working hard producing eminently forgettable food, or they could be working hard producing seriously delicious food at admittedly rock-bottom prices. That's what Robyn and I were there to find out.
Latin Thing has salads, small and large plates of food, and sandwiches.
If a sandwich is what you crave, get the pernil (roast pork) sandwich. It's kinda like a Cuban, only better. Though the menu says it's made with Cuban bread toasted to perfection, it is in fact barely toasted at all. Doesn't matter. A squishy hero roll is filled with house-made roast pork, melted swiss cheese, mojo (garlic sauce), and pickles and cilantro if you ask for them. By all means ask. This is one fine sandwich, squishy bread and all.
Everything else comes in large and small take-out containers, even the shrimp ceviche. One of the counter people will ask what kind of rice you want—white or yellow—what kind of beans you want—black or red—and then what kind of protein you want. The best way to go if you're really hungry is the platter Criolla, which comes with a choice of any two meats, rice, beans, maduros, lettuce, and pico de gallo. It's $7.50 plus tax and easily feeds two (at least in my reduced state).
Both chicken preparations ($6.95 for the large, $4.50 for the small), the Pollo Negro, chicken braised in soy sauce and Dominican oregano, and the Pollo Ecuatoriano, chicken stewed in tomato sauce and cilantro, are winners, surprisingly moist and flavorful.
You can't go wrong with the aforementioned pernil in any form.
The two beefs ($4.61 for the small, $7.53 for the large, with tax) carne roja, beef stewed in tomatoes and adobo, and the carne Caribbean, beef seasoned with caribbean spices ($6.95), are reasonably tender, but they both suffer from being made with insufficiently marbled meat.
A surprising winner is the shrimp ceviche. At $7 for the large ($5 for the small eight ounce size) it is not a surprise that it is made with less expensive baby shrimp, but those tiny suckers are succulent and perfectly cooked by the citrus juice they have been flash-cooked/marinated in. Latin Thing serves the shrimp ceviche Ecuadorian-style, on top of white rice, but the addition of the beans is a pan-Latin brainchild of the half Ecuadorian, half Dominican owner. The restaurant's manager, another family member, said, "It's more of a New York story than anything. We got a nice mix in our family—my nephew is half Ecuadorian, half Dominican, we got some Puerto Rican blood in there, too." The shrimp ceviche mixed with the white rice and red beans actually work in a stranger-in-a-strange-land, New York melting pot kind of way. Just to confuse matters even further, burritos and guacamole fill out the menu.
Justin, your winning streak remains intact. Latin Thing in indeed a winner. Call anytime.
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