Meet the Tiny Lunch Counter Tucked in a Midtown Loading Dock

[Photographs: Craig Cavallo]

Wooden dollies roll by on occasion. Their spinning wheels send vibrations echoing off weathered concrete and painted brick. Fluorescent tubes flicker along a pipe-lined ceiling. A phone rings sporadically. Rachel Ray's voice projects from a 17-inch flat screen TV that sits at the end of the counter. Two feet from the TV is Tony Molina and the six-burner range he's been cooking on for 18 years.

I found El Sabroso after helping a friend move things into a Midtown showroom. We took turns bringing boxes into the freight entrance of 265 37th Street. In the loading dock, where there should have been freight elevators, there was a lunch counter instead, with six stools, one table, and a glossy red menu with the words "El Sabroso Restaurant" at the top. While it's far from unknown, it goes to show that New York still holds surprises.

Tony Molina came to the U.S. from Ecuador more than 40 years ago. He opened El Sabroso in 1996 and keeps the hours of 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

First timers pause to look over the long menu, but regulars ignore it, preferring to approach the counter and ask, "Whuddaya got today?" instead. To which Molina rattles off, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, the dishes he's been laboring over since 5 a.m. "Stewed chicken," he'll say. Or "roast pork. Beef stew. Pollo al horno." Whatever the option, it's served on a paper plate, usually with rice and beans, and the meat glides from its bones with the grace of Adelina Sotnikova in a pair of skates.

I've eaten most of Mr. Molina's food by now. The buttery onions that dress a well-seasoned steak for Bistec Encebollado ($7.50) are a standout. The sort of accompaniment, though simple, is one that cannot be improved upon. I was stunned at the likeness between Molina's Stewed Chicken ($6) and room temperature butter, how both surrender their shape at the most delicate touch.

That Pernil ($6), pulled from the oven in its roasting dish around noon on one visit, has a lacquered crust of skin and fat that glistens under the flourescent lights. So too do bronzed chicken quarters braised a dozen at a time.

The juices and drippings mingle with soft yellow rice and stewed red beans. Shredded iceberg finishes each plate. To add more color there's ají, a fiery orange salsa that brightens the braised flavors and brings the starches' blandness into focus.

Molina's mornings are dedicated to prepping for the noon rush. He shuffles pots and rotates pans in and out of an oven too cramped to open all the way. He stirs things while he tastes others. A salsa goes from start to finish on one tiny prep counter. After 18 years, you get the sense Molina could do it all blind.

One morning there was just Molina, me, and my Bacon, Egg, and Cheese ($3.50). But then deliveries started to come in. The building manager came by and exchanged jokes. Molina's prep cook showed up at 11 a.m. Forty-five minutes later a herd of privy eaters came through the doors and reminded me that yes, this was still midtown.