Sandwiched between Broadway and Ninth Avenue just south of Times Square, the Garment District seems like a throwback. Freight trucks idle in the streets as workers push garment racks, zig-zagging around traffic. Storefronts and second-floor lofts display painted windows that offer buttons, trimmings, and zippers. And everything seems covered with a permanent patina of grit.
One of the long-time features of this region is its hidden restaurants. These were often located next to the loading dock in buildings dating to the 1920s, and were accessed via a freight entrance, often without a sign. Aimed at neighborhood types — known as “garmentos” — intent on a quick bite, the fare largely consisted of soups, stews, and sandwiches. But this began to change late in the 20th century, as new waves of immigrant workers arrived.
The most famous of these hidden cafes was Nick’s Place. It opened in 1980 at 550 Seventh Avenue with only seven tables, replacing an earlier establishment, and was approached via a loading dock around the corner on 39th Street. The menu mixed Greek and American food, including moussaka and hamburgers, but what really attracted the crowds were the meal-size salads that were currently in vogue among the newly weight-conscious. By the turn of the century, tacos had been added. Nick’s place closed late in 2016, and the space remains empty. Any takers?
Two more loading dock restaurants remain in existence, even thriving. The cost of a belt-busting meal at both hovers in the $5 to $8 range, which accounts for their continued popularity. And the clientele are as diverse as today’s Garment District.
Just west of Eight Avenue on 37th Street, a narrow gray passageway with no exterior signage leads to Acuario (306 W 37th Street). Around noon on weekdays, a line forms and trails down the block. The establishment occupies a windowed kitchen deep inside the building next to a string of dumpsters, with a few seats in an alcove and along two counters in the hallway.
The owner is Rodolfo Perez, and the menu is Latin and, more specifically, Dominican. He took the place over a decade ago from what had been a hamburger stand. Now a steam table holds fricasseed chickens, Dominican spaghetti, pork roast, oxtail stew, and fried fish, with eight or so choices per day.
Since there’s no printed menu, you need to eyeball the steam table, and Perez is glad to discuss the day’s offerings as he sizes you up from behind the counter. On two visits I enjoyed the chicken, which was nicely stewed in cilantro-flavored tomato sauce and served with rice, beans, and an undressed salad; and the Dominican spaghetti. Though far from al dente, the pasta made a satisfying feed. Both cost $5. “Enjoy your stay in New York,” Perez says to me, as I finish up and walk out into the street.
On the other side of the Eighth Avenue intersection, which is nearly impassable with lunchtime crowds and tourists making their way to the nearby Port Authority, stands Sabroso (265 W 37th Street). This lunch counter was founded in 1996 by Ecuadorian immigrant Tony Molina, and has a similar set-up to Acuario, with a small kitchen behind a pair of windows. Here, there’s a communal table across from the freight elevators, which makes for more comfortable dining.
Some of the food is Ecuadorian, some Puerto Rican, the rest pan-Latin. In the Ecuadorian category is guatita, an intensely yellow tripe stew laced with turmeric. Plenty of rice and beans, and a little salad, come alongside. In the Puerto Rican category is an excellent pernil, a shoulder of roast pig rubbed with sofrito. It gets pulled into little hanks and served with the same sides as the tripe.
Other highlights of Sabroso’s menu include beefsteak with fried onions, goat stew, and a meal-size hen soup, all about a dollar more than Acuario’s offerings — though worth it, in my estimation, if only for the amazing homemade hot sauce called “aji.” Both places mainly function at breakfast and lunch on weekdays and Saturdays, though certain items begin to run out around 1:30 or 2 p.m. Both places are a reminder of the days when good, cheap food was served in Manhattan without fanfare.