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Brooklyn's El Viejo Yayo, Hiding in Plain Sight

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This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there

[Bess Adler]

Compared to other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Williamsburg and Bay Ridge, Park Slope hasn't been very fortunate in retaining much of its culinary cultural heritage. For years, I wondered if the Slope had held on to any old bars or restaurants. If it had, they must be hiding in plain sight.

That's actually a good description of El Viejo Yayo, a huge, hyper-nondescript Dominican eatery that takes up the ground-floor space of three brownstones on Fifth Avenue between Bergen and Dean Streets. You wouldn't know it to look at the many simple, clean rooms and the rows and rows of dull tables and chairs, but the restaurant is 47 years old. (There was surely a interior renovation in the last few years.)

It was founded by a Cuban immigrant named Jeraldo (nickname: Yayo) in 1965 as a lunch counter. He served Cuban food, but when he sold the restaurant in the early '80s to Lepido Ramirez, from the Dominican Republic, the menu changed. So did the size of the joint, which now includes a few "party rooms." El Viejo is currently owned by Robert Garcia and chef Jerry Diaz. There is a second location on Ninth Avenue.

The food is good, and, given the whopping portions, reasonably priced. Just when you think you've gotten everything you ordered, another large square plate will arrive with more potatoes, more vegetable, more salad, more meat. There's no leaving this place without a doggie bag. I had the Mar y Tiera (steak, peppers, onions, shrimp) and the meat was simply seasoned, tender and flavorful. Nothing fancy, but well done on its own terms. Moreover, the broccoli and cauliflower were perfectly prepared.

As you might expect, given the joint's size, El Viejo is popular with families and groups celebrating all sorts of events. I also saw members of both New York's Finest, New York's Bravest and whatever it is they call correctional officers. A lot of Spanish is spoken. In fact, I may have been the only customer who didn't speak Spanish. And men seem to feel particularly comfortable here. They keep their lids on, be they wool caps or baseball caps, and slump in their chairs in sweatshirts, t-shirts and jean. One man arrived in his thermal underwear. Dinner wear enough for El Viejo Yayo, I guess.
—Brooks of Sheffield

El Viejo Yayo

36 5th Ave., Brooklyn, NY