Open Until: 3:30 am, Sun-Thu; 4:00am, Fri-Sat
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: close, 7 days
For years, Clinton Restaurant—on the corner of Houston and Clinton Streets—was a favorite for cheap Latin food on the pierced lip of the Lower East Side. And despite a name change last February to "Pinalito City," the core of the restaurant remains the same, even if prices have not. Pinalito specializes in Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisine, though there is a menu of Mexican and Tex-Mex fare with chimichangas, fajitas, chalupas, and the like. It's tasty enough, but the South American foods are where they excel.
We arrived shortly past one in the morning to find the restaurant bereft of customers—the chef sitting on a bar stool, sipping a beer and chatting and laughing with friends. On my entrance, the owner came over and assured me that they were still open and offered me a menu. Even though there were only two other diners who sat down for service, a number of folks came in for takeout—a good sign for a neighborhood with so many nocturnal options. Pinalito has a full bar, which seems a bit out of place, but one of the already-toasted gentlemen seated next to us ordered a martini. (It was left unfinished.)
I was happy to see Malta Goya on the menu next to the Snapples and sodas, but opted instead for a thick mamey batido ($4). The tropical fruit's floral qualities are amplified in the frozen drink and harmonize with the heavy spices of Pinalito's Cocina Caribeña. Also available made with papaya, guanabana, mango or banana, the refreshing shakes are a filling accompaniment.
Octopus salad ($13) marked a strong start to the meal, a hill of muted iceberg lettuce and tomatoes enlivened by hunks of marinated and grilled tentacle, green peppers and onions in a straightforward vinaigrette. The octopus is tender enough, and like the batido, the salad offers a necessary lightness to an otherwise heavy meal. The thirteen dollar price tag is a bit of a drag in a place where many entrees fall under $10, but there's pleasure in its simplicity.
In another nod towards healthy eating, you can pay an extra two dollars for a side of grilled yellow plantains ($5) whose sweetness radiates, unhindered by the slug of too much oil that often plagues the fried variety. Green plantains are also on offer, though they only come fried. The grill not only brings out the fruit's inherent sweetness, but also adds a lovely crisp exterior and smoky char that does wonders for the soft fruit.
That champion of Puerto Rican foodstuffs, pork mofongo ($6.50) arrived as a bulbous dome of mashed plantain, ready to be doused in a cilantro-rich gravy and hiding chunks of crispy chicharron. Though we encountered a piece of bone, the mofongo was heady enough to overlook the mistake. Sturdy nuggets of chicharron, their porcine funk tempered by the herbaceous gravy and starchy plantain mash are an easy recommendation, and like the egg foo young at Wo Hop, you can tell the kitchen takes pride in the dish. (The intoxicated men to our left apologized for interrupting our meal to ask what it was and then promptly ordered their own.)
Other large plates were equally successful, like roast chicken ($9, pictured at top) rubbed with adobo seasoning. While not the crispiest bird we've ever tried, the spice rub and rotisserie cooking left the meat plenty juicy. There were also thick slices of pernil ($9), roast pork with caps of crispy herb-spiked fat that melted on the tongue.
While Pinalito City may not be a destination restaurant, if you're in the area and it's before 3:30am, it's not a bad option. The Criollo comfort food is a testament to the increasingly gentrified Lower East Side's vanishing Hispanic roots (which had already long since replaced the area's eastern European roots). Your madre would be proud.
293 East Houston Street, New York NY 10009 (map) 212-982-3222
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.