Critic Robert Sietsema's take on Peruvian food in Chelsea, a Lower East Side Venezuelan cafe, and more.
East Village ramen veteran Rai Rai Ken — founded 2000, and an important anchor of the East Village’s Little Tokyo — has amazed everyone by finally sprouting its first branch. Rather obscurely located in the Manhattanville neighborhood just south of City College, the new place is reminiscent of the original Rai Rai Ken, when it was just a ramen counter and not a full-blown restaurant. Two eating shelves provide only eight or nine seats and the unadorned space feels more like a Chinese restaurant than a Japanese ramen parlor — which is just fine, since the prices are even lower than at its downtown counterpart.
Priced at only $8 and up — cheap by ramen standards — selections skew doctrinaire, with broths based on soy, miso, and curry, and no Tokyo-style salt ramen or fancy-pants pork bone tonkotsu. In addition, there’s a vegetarian miso ramen with fried tofu and "seasonable" vegetables, and a frankly weird mabo ramen — intended to evoke Sichuan ma po tofu, and doing a rather bland job of it. No matter, the shoyu ramen is quite fine, a light broth with singed slices of pork belly, fish cake, bamboo shoots, scallions, and a crackling sheet of nori. The usual catalog of optional additions — corn, butter, boiled egg, spicy oil, etc. — are also available, and so are such starters as gyoza (pork or vegetable) and karaage (very nice fried chicken). 1467 Amsterdam Ave, (917) 639-3342
We have the Peruvians to thank for establishing the rotisserie chicken as an important nibble in the 90s (though other groups including Colombians and Lebanese had done it in previous decades). The Peruvians, however, coated the bird with a complex spice rub (some say it’s fundamentally Chinese), and furnished it with a mysterious, milky green sauce that turned out to be largely mayo and green chiles. While most Peruvian rotisseries also sell a few other Peruvian dishes, Riko, just south of Penn Station, breaks the mold by doubling as a full-service Andean restaurant, offering a large menu in addition to its quarter, half, and full chickens with fries and salad or beans and rice.
Those fowl are very good, plucked from the rotisserie freshly cooked and rarely reheated, and they partake of the overwhelming lure of the Peruvian chicken: cheap! (Quarter chicken plus regular sides: $7, half chicken $9.) One convenience provided by Riko is that you can substitute other sides for an additional 75 cents, running to fried cassava, green or ripe plantains, or even salchipapas — the wacky fries dressed with curls of hot dog. The rest of the menu features ceviches, fried and fricasseed seafood, mountain dishes such as papas a la Huancaina and tamales, meal-size soups, plus Chinese-Peruvian and Italo-Peruvian standards. And there’s a full and unusual dessert list. 409 8th Ave, 212-643-7555
Patacon Pisao ("Smashed Plantain") is the name of a sandwich, but also of a narrow café specializing in Venezuelan street food that opened late last year on the Lower East Side. The specialty of the house is patacon pisao: two fantastically flattened frisbees of tostones stuffed like a sandwich with roasted pork, grilled steak, or simply black beans, cheese, and avocados. Novelty fillings include bacon, lettuce, and tomato to make a crunchy BLT, and a hamburger patty with all the trimmings. Your only problem is getting used to a brittle bun.
Other Venezuelan snacks: the soft corn cakes called arepas split and made into sandwiches (including the Mexicana, with ropa vieja, jalapenos, and sharp cheddar), cachapas (corn crepes wrapped around similar fillings as the patacones), and tacuchos (like burritos). All of these can be customized from a list of extra ingredients, and smaller snacks such as fried yuca with chimichurri (pictured above), white rice with black beans, and, best of all, pastelitos (crisp empanadas of chicken mixed with mashed potatoes) are available. 139 Essex St, 646-678-5913