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La Savane and Other Great Cheap NYC Restaurants

All photos by Robert Sietsema

In every borough restaurants open that we never hear about. Here are three newish and relatively obscure places I've recently stumbled on, and eaten in. Each is well worth the visit:

La Savane (239 W 116th St, 646-484-5293) — While gentrification has hemmed in Harlem's 25-year-old West African neighborhood centered on West 116th Street, the community has remained steadfast and even flourished, with 10 or so restaurants, three mosques, and innumerable import shops, hair-braiding parlors, halal butchers, and religious bookstores. The backbone of the community is a Senegalese group known as the Mourides, who practice a Sufi-inspired form of religious mysticism, but there are also immigrants from Mali, Guinea, and, increasingly, the Ivory Coast.

While the original collection of restaurants in the neighborhood each highlighted a single national cuisine of West Africa, recently opened places usually mount menus catering to the dining needs of two or three nationalities. Such is the case with La Savane ("The Savannah"), name checking the northernmost region of the Ivory Coast, which is composed largely of hilly and arid grasslands. The interior is bright, with just a few tables, and the staff is welcoming, even though English is very definitely a second language. But you will do very well if you speak only a little high school French. Somewhat confusingly, there are three overlapping menus, mainly offering a mixture of Ivory Coast and Senegalese specialties.


My crew and I dined sumptuously on mafe, a Senegalese stew of lamb in a creamy peanut sauce, served with an expanse of polished white rice topped with a steamed Scotch bonnet pepper, for extra spiciness. Not hot enough for you? You can also ask for the chile paste known as "pima."

We also enjoyed a grilled fish — I think it was a sea bass, though taxonomic identification proved difficult — topped with a wonderful dice of vegetables flavored, in the Franco-African manner, with mustard.

Alongside we asked for a plate of attieke, the signal starch of the Ivory Coast, consisting of a manioc porridge served with a pepper puree and, somewhat oddly, a bouillon cube.

A third dish was a mixed meat palm-oil sauce served with a loaf of plantain foutou. Altogether a delicious meal, washed down with ginger juice and bright red bissap, which is a punch made of hibiscus blossoms and pineapple juice. The massive meal cost about $45 for three. Don't even think of trying to bring in alcohol.

Monte de Sion Deli (7620 18th Ave, Brooklyn, 718-676-9394) — Though there is only one full-blown Guatemalan restaurant in the city that I can find, there are several Guatemalan bodegas in Jamaica, Queens and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn that are in the process of turning into cafes, as Mexican bodegas have done in the past. One such is the religiously themed Monte de Sion Deli, right on Bensonhurst's main drag of 18th Avenue.

Though the store is filled with herbs, spices, pinatas, canned goods, and 50-pound bags of rice, room has been cleared for a pair of tables in the front, with a nice view of the street, and a steam table has been installed in the rear of the store. There the provender consists of a few soups and stews per day (no antojitos to speak of), served with the hand-patted tortillas, small and thick, that are characteristic of Central America.

I chowed down on a very nice beef stew filled with chayote, potatoes, and carrots, with macaroni in its savory depths. Plain food, but satisfying. It set me back $8, including tortillas. Meanwhile, campesinas with their children rushed in from the cold weather for a glass of warm horchata and a piece of candy or two for the kids.

El Bombon (73-13 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, 718-205-2996) — While the most common type of Mexican eatery run by Mexican immigrants has been a beer-free taqueria that evolved out of a bodega, or a bar for homesick bachelors serving beer and antojitos, new, more-evolved restaurants are appearing in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, Corona, East Harlem, and Sunset Park.

One of the newest, boasting a gala dining room that doubles as a dance floor, is El Bombon ("The Bonbon" but also, "The Cute Person"), a newcomer to Jackson Heights. The sprawling menu takes some studying, but on a recent Friday afternoon a friend and I enjoyed a great meal at a small table that looked into the open kitchen in the front of the establishment.

The tacos came sumptuously dressed, not with a thin trickle of guac, but with bright green clouds of it.
We also enjoyed a gigantic plate of barbacoa de chivo, extensively braised goat so good we gnawed the tiny ribs clean. A platter big enough for two is served with yellow rice, refried beans snowed with queso seco, a dab of guacamole, plastic basket of warm tortillas, a spicy and opaque orange sauce to dip the goat in, and, as an unexpected bonus, a bowl of mole de olla, a homestyle Pueblan beef-and-veggie soup. At $12.50, this humongous meal has to be one of the best deals in Jackson Heights.

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El Bombon

73-13 Roosevelt Ave., Queens, NY