In lieu of our traditional opening day roundup, Bronx Eats will be highlighting some of the best restaurants around Yankee Stadium for the next few weeks. Up first: Dominican food at Nano Billiards Hall.
Would you blame most New Yorkers for saying there's no real standout Dominican restaurant in town? Sure, you have your sweets, chimis, and mangu. But we're talking street vendors and grocery stores here. Malecon gets it fair share of praise, but destination worthy it is not. Few people would think to peer down the stairway--which looks as if it leads to a laundry facility--that brings you to Nano Billiards, tucked into the ground level of a residential building. Look inside, though, and you'll find what is far and away the best Dominican cooking in town.
I was first introduced to the lunch counter by Baron Ambrosia, who stumbled upon it while scouting locations for a film. Nano is not a restaurant, but a billiards hall and bar with afternoon lunch specials.
"I really wanted to get a Dominican place in for this scene," he told me as we drove past it one evening, "but I didn't want to do, you know, Caridad 3000 or whatever other generic place. I wanted something unique."
That he found. Nano is unexpectedly one of the South Bronx's best restaurants, a place that will change your mind—assuming you didn't grow up in Santo Domingo—about what Dominican food can be.
Most of the places I write about in this column are in neighborhoods with bad raps; many are dives. Nano is one of the surliest of the bunch, though the girl running the show has a New Yorker's warmth and Anita, the cook, is all smiles. In the afternoons, it is a quiet and mostly empty place. The pool tables are abandoned, and patrons linger over plates of rice and beans and stewed meats. Most keep to themselves.
When I first told my local Dominican-born friend that I wanted to go, she offered that Nano became a "very unfriendly" place at night. (And the food runs out by then anyway.) Whatever the vibe at night, over my year of dining there, most patrons have been exceedingly friendly and happy to explain the particulars of dishes.
The lunch specials ($4.50 for mains, $3.50 for sides) change daily. Depending on the day of the week you might find chivito (stewed goat), sancocho, locrio (pork cooked with rice), or moro de habichuelas rojo (rice and red beans cooked together). A particular favorite of the Baron's is the cerdo con moldrones (pork with okra), available on Tuesday. There's bacallao in both red and white sauce, pork chops (chuletas) and ribs (costillas), and beef, chicken, and pork stewed (guisado) in sauces accented by olives. A complimentary salad is offered with every meal; ask for the potato, which comes with beets and sometimes egg salad to boot.
Of the stewed meats, I'm partial to the chicken and pork. The beef, I find, is bland, clearly low quality, and overcooked. The sauces, though, are familiar and delightfully simple: onions, olives, garlic, tomato, oregano, thyme, and pepper.
While there's little physical evidence of those olives, they show up strongly on your taste buds: infusing the sauce with a briny punch, if a little too much salt. Pescado frito is often tilapia; skip it in favor of the refreshingly acidic bacalao in white wine sauce. But my favorite dish—and as sure of a crowd pleaser as I've had here—is the locrio de cerdo. The sofrito-inflected rice is cooked with pork chop and belly, which coat the crunchy seeds with a coat of rich porkyness. Taken with a lager, you can't ask for a more perfect pre-game meal.
185 East 167th Street, The Bronx, NY 10456 (map) 718-293-0607