10 Latin All-Star Restaurants In Westchester
The top ten all-around best local Latin dining destinations.
Four dishes from La Bella Havana, clockwise from top left: paella Valenciana with shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, chorizo, and chicken; a classic Cubano sandwich; pollo Cubano (boneless breast of chicken marinated in garlic- infused Cuban sauce); and vaca frita (pan-seared skirt steak with mojo onions, red, and green pepper).
Photography by Andre Baranowski
Cuba’s New Golden Age
La Bella Havana’s informal, tropical charm—with its thatched-roof bar under palm-leaf ceiling fans—and first-rate Cuban food that’s also affordable, make it a treat. Like many of the new wave of Latin restaurants, La Bella Havana (opened in 2011) is thriving by offering daily specials all week, making it feel like one endless party.
Take the $9.95 lunch special, with a choice of soup or salad, 12 main courses, and dessert. Salads, with combinations like avocado and pineapple, are fresh and delicious; the black-bean soup alone makes the restaurant worthy of a second visit. Main courses include its 2012 Best of Westchester-winning Cuban sandwich, a soulful ropa vieja (“old clothes,” a shredded-beef stew), and garlic-marinated pollo Cubano. Dulce de leche cortada (sweetened caramel milk curds) is a tasty dessert.
From the regular menu, try the appetizer of yuca balls stuffed with cheese and Cuban picadillo (lean ground-beef hash with olives, peppers, and raisins), or go for crab-stuffed avocado or coconut shrimp. The restaurant even makes a clever plate of bite-sized Cuban sandwiches, not to mention a Cuban Philly cheesesteak. Other specials include a $9.95 Sunday brunch, Monday couples’ night, kids-eat-free Tuesday—and that's just to start. And, on Friday and Saturday, enjoy the Havana Hookah Lounge, which is open from 11 pm to 4 am.
Fusing cuisines at Sofrito in White Plains: Manager Bianca Smith holds a plate of Latin sushi.
A Brazilian Thanksgiving
Whether or not you’re already a fan of a Brazilian churrascaria (steakhouse), Copacabana Steakhouse in Port Chester is a good choice. The rodizio, an all-you-can-eat feast born out of the gaucho harvest celebration, is an experience: A parade of slow-roasted meats is brought to you on skewers and sliced to your liking, while you also indulge in a salad bar and traditional side dishes, in an elegant setting. (Out back, there’s a patio where you can party later.)
The warm pão de queijo (cheese rolls) are insanely good, as is the salad bar, a corner-rounding cornucopia capped by a humongous wheel of Parmesan with honey on the side. You could make a meal there (and can, for $14.95), but back at your table, the sides arrive: red beans, rice, yuca flour, salsa, fried bananas. When you’re ready for the meat, flip a card from yellow to green and servers come by with bacon-wrapped turkey, pork sausage, chicken, pork loin, prime rib, and top sirloin. The $19.95 lunch rodizio jumps to $38.95 (with additional meats) at dinner; no sharing allowed. To drink? A Caipirinha, of course.
Don’t leave without trying the Brazilian national dish, feijoada ($28). Take it to go and unpack rice, gazpacho-like vinaigrette, yuca flour, cooked collard greens, peeled oranges, and—holy moly—a magnificent leaky container of pork ribs falling off the bone, floating in broth with black beans and bay leaves. Twenty-eight dollars is beginning to sound like a bargain.
Puerto Rican Dining: The Party Starts Here
Party-ready Sofrito greets you with its glittering tropical-colored décor (including the orange of the sauce for which it’s named), and El-Salvador-born Ricardo Cardona extends the welcome with his food. Chef for the New York Yankees and caterer for celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, he returned last year to revamp the menu. This is another Latin restaurant with roots in New York City, opened in 2011 by Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltrán and Genaro “J.R.” Morales, owners of the Manhattan Sofrito and Sazon in TriBeCa. In a common (and lucrative) business model, part of the restaurant functions as a nightclub on weekends.
Sofrito’s “Latin sushi” is fusion at its best—sushi rolls made with cooked chicken, ribs, and shrimp, served with sofrito mayo (a play on spicy mayo). Try the Spanish roll (chicken tempura, chorizo, farmer cheese, avocado, and sweet plantain). Or just stick with the classic mofongo (mashed green plantain). I loved Latin bouillabaisse made with brandy, saffron essence, and lobster sofrito broth, and will eventually get to the jibarito, a sandwich whose “bread” is fried green plantain. Tapas include irresistible bacon-wrapped sweet plantain bites (pair with a fusion cocktail). For dessert, a knockout tres leches.
Don Coqui, a competitor, opened an offshoot of its New Rochelle location in White Plains last year. Like its sister, the White Plains location follows the dance-club-and-dining formula but is more open and modern, a sea of white punctuated with pink light and red banquettes. Dance music plays day and night, and the agenda emanates from a sign: “Eat! Drink! Dance! Your shortcut to Puerto Rico.” It’s a model of branding devised by Don Coqui owner and restaurant mogul Jimmy Rodriguez Jr. (former part-owner of the Manhattan Sofrito); there’s also a location on City Island.
Food-wise, it’s fairly traditional, known for braised oxtail, pernil, and paella—which arrives in a beautifully presented heap: shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, chicken, and chunks of wonderful chorizo, topped with a half-lobster, on flavorful vegetable-filled rice. Also popular is the tripleta (a Puerto Rican version of the Cuban sandwich containing pork, chicken, and steak) and seafood appetizers such as lobster bisque. And of course, you’re also here to drink.
Four dishes from Acuario, clockwise: seafood paella; a ceviche sampler; pescado a lo macho (crispy chunks of fish over a spicy red sauce with little necks, calamari, mussels, crab and shrimp); and lomo saltado or beef strips, onions, tomatoes, and fries served with rice
Nuevo Latino: Fusion in Fashion
One name is synonymous with Latin fusion in Westchester: Rafael Palomino. The Colombian-born chef and cookbook author has opened seven restaurants across the tri-state area, including Port Chester’s Sonora, which opened in 2000, and Palomino, which opened in Larchmont last year. While there's some overlap among dishes, each restaurant tells its own story.
Sonora, off on a side street, is still going strong. Its elegance is almost overshadowed by the cave-like intimacy imparted by its terra-cotta walls bearing animal designs. Contemplate small plates while munching on grilled sourdough and sundried-tomato chimichurri: The cocas, Spanish flatbreads, are ideal with a glass of wine. Nice but tame vegetable empanadas are taken up a notch with a chocolate vinaigrette. Arugula salad with watermelon, beets, and goat cheese in pomegranate dressing, ordered as an afterthought, turned out to be a favorite item.
The menu categorizes dishes by country, but you'll soon discover this to be just a jumping-off point for bold, border-crossing fusion. Some of it can feel a tad overreaching: Mexican shrimp and sea scallops in a delectable Chardonnay, sweet corn, and chipotle sauce, served on black-bean and Monterey Jack ravioli, is corralled by a crispy potato bird’s nest that makes the dish; but, flavor-wise, there may be one too many departures. Skipping to Colombia, chicken relleno is chicken stuffed with sweet plantain, chorizo, and goat cheese. Desserts include an exceptionally good flourless chocolate cake decorated with a cookie “spoon.”
Overall, I prefer to make a meal of Palomino’s tapas—Austin-style sweet corn shrimp tamale, truffle mac and cheese, crab croquetas, littleneck clams (a special) with garlic and chorizo in broth, and homemade fries—and the charcuterie and cheese, served with stewed cherries. But main courses also display a deft hand in the kitchen, as with epazote-crusted salmon and organic roasted chicken seasoned with a lip-smacking mix of white coriander and caroway, with mango and rocoto chili barbecue sauce. The stylish southwestern fusion restaurant, whose soothing neutrals serve as backdrop to large paintings of palomino horses, expands Chef Palomino’s pan-Latin franchise to a new neighborhood in a way we can only hope he will duplicate in other areas. In any case, the restaurant has an idea others should adopt: a reusable tote to-go bag.
This photo and the next by margaret rizzuto, courtesy of Mambo 64
A Dominican Hurricane or strawberry lemonade are good drink choices at the Mambo 64 bar.
Nuevo Latino arrived in Tuckahoe last year with Mambo 64, whose kitchen is helmed by chef and cookbook author Arlen Gargagliano. Years in Spain, Peru, and the Caribbean inform her tapas-oriented menu (created with Chef de Cuisine Stephanie Landis), and her designer and artist brothers covered the hip quotient: a dark-wood, West Village feel enlivened by album covers and three-dimensional artwork.
The small menu of popular dishes doesn’t make you think too hard. Have a cocktail—maybe a Dominican Hurricane?—or fresh strawberry lemonade. Don’t go without getting warm, chewy Brazilian cheese rolls (pão de queijo) with strawberry-cucumber jalapeño salsa. Spanish sherry-sautéed garlic shrimp, with bread for dunking, is something you’ll want to bring home and devour in private. Guacamole gets tweaked with grapes, pecans, and chipotle.
The panuchos appetizer at Mambo 64 consists of toasted Colombian corn cakes topped with blood orange-infused red onions, black bean purée, and marinated chicken.
Main courses, strong on comfort, are at least as good. Pernil, Puerto Rican slow-roasted pork shoulder with crispy skin and garlic sauce, is paired with Costa Rican rice and beans (gallo pinto—“spotted rooster”). The even better jerk chicken with coconut rice sets out to prove that jerk need not be spicy. For dessert, get the orange-infused flan—the best flan I tried in the course of writing this piece.
Peruvian Date Night
Peruvian fine dining has gained a foothold with Acuario (see: 5 Restaurants With Amazing Tiradito Menus In Westchester) in Port Chester and 3-year-old Quenas in Harrison. Would you prefer a lively scene where you’re surrounded by fish tanks (Acuario)? Or a smaller, fancier place with folk music (Quenas)?
At Acuario, a vibrant space with high ceilings and orange walls, music pulsates from the bar and the place fills with a crowd that includes lots of families. Guests drink Sangria and Cusqueña (a Peruvian beer), and bread is served with an ají amarillo sauce (a Peruvian sauce made with tomatoes, cilantro, ají pepper, onions, and water) that’s not fooling around. Start with papas a la Huancaína: sliced potatoes, hard-boiled egg, and salad in a cheese sauce. Most Peruvian classics (from jungle, mountains, and coast) are on the menu—but in a place called Acuario, you know you’re getting seafood.
Ceviche, served with customary sweet potato and choclo (Peruvian large-kernel corn), hits all the right notes. Tiradito, a lesser-known (but trending) dish of raw (vs citrus-marinated) seafood in a lime and ají sauce, stems from the influence of Japanese immigrants in Peru. Pescado a lo macho brings a large bowl of red snapper, calamari, clams, crab, and mussels in a magical tomato broth. “Personal”-size jalea is also huge, a fried mixed seafood number whose batter casts its spell over not only the usual suspects but clams and crabs in the shell, with a few pieces of yuca tucked in to boot.
You can relax into Quenas, admiring the artwork and watching a video of Peru, but its charms are not fully apparent until evening, when the patio brightens with strings of lanterns. It tends to fill with couples. “One thing about Peruvian food,” said a woman on a double date, “is that they use rice and potatoes in the same dish.”
Photo courtesy of bartaco
Pair a selection of delicious tacos at bartaco with some house-made hot sauces and an order from the masterful tequila list.
Fair enough—lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry, one of several chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) dishes (such as the lo-mein-like tallarín), indeed comes with both rice and fries. But I prefer the more delicate pescado en salsa de mariscos o camarones, grilled fish and shrimp in a yellow cream sauce made with garlic and a non-spicy Peruvian pepper, and the excellent mixed ceviche in a cocktail cup, whose marinade (“leche de tigre”—tiger’s milk) is meant to be drunk as a hangover cure. Appetizers include tamal criollo (chicken, egg, and olive tamale), chupe (Peruvian shrimp chowder), and beef-heart kebab. Have all this with bottled Kuka beer from local Andean Brewing Company and complementary, traditional Peruvian corn nuts. And do have dessert: a combo of rice pudding and purple corn pudding, with a cinnamon stick, or yellow squash and sweet-potato fritters drizzled with honey.
Port Chester’s bartaco is anything but your standard Mexican place. Opened in 2011 along the Byram River (there are also locations in Connecticut and Atlanta), it’s a beachy scene with patio-style furniture, photos of people lounging, and servers in checkered shirts. But don’t let its laid-back nature fool you: While the menu is small, there’s serious food coming out of the kitchen, complemented by destination-worthy tequila.
Of course, you’re having tacos, and the fried oyster is a must (or try the Baja fish). But branch out to the mushroom mole tamale and charred corn on the cob with lime, Cotija cheese, and cayenne.
Were you looking for utensils? They’re in a coffee can—along with chopsticks for the rice bowls: brown rice topped with pork belly, portobello, and such. Go ahead and order one—it’s one of the best meals in Westchester under $10.
The 30+ tequilas, from blancos to añejos (aged), are all made from 100-percent agave; tasting flights are available, and there’s also a selection of mezcals. And bartaco makes a killer Margarita (with Maestro Dobel Reposado, Combier Liquer d’Orange, agave syrup, and fresh lime juice) and a strong Caipirinha with seasonal oranges and limes.