Named after a fort built for Continental Army troops commanded by George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and still largely rural farmland as late as 1900, Washington Heights is a sprawling and nearly mountainous neighborhood that runs from 155th Street up to Dyckman Avenue in northern Manhattan. The dominant population has long been Dominican, though African-Americans, Salvadorans, Russians, and Mexicans constitute important minorities; the neighborhood remains one of the last bastions of affordable housing in the borough, though it has pockets of relatively high-priced real estate. It's also a great source of cheap eats that has long been neglected even by the most adamant and adventuresome foodies. Among its 500 or so restaurants, here are a few of my favorites, running roughly from south to north.
Elsa La Reina del Chicharron (1249 St Nicholas Ave, 212-795-3667) — There's no disputing that Elsa is the reigning Queen of Fried Pork Rinds, and she sits on her throne dispensing strips of pork belly, skin intact, which fry up greasy and supremely crisp.
They make an entire meal when sided with boiled yuca and pickled purple onion (shown). Other Dominican pork-bearing dishes also available, tumbling in on an avalanche of rice and pigeon peas.
Como Pizza (4035 Broadway, 212-928-7867) — This dependable pizzeria turns out the best regular slice on this stretch of Broadway — nicely cheesy and thin-crusted.
The place also does garlic knots, chicken parm heroes, calzones in four permutations, and Jamaican beef patties deposited — as they should be — in coco bread.
Mi Paso Centro Americano (4129 Broadway, 212-928-0866) — Washington Heights is dotted with Salvadoran pupuserias, but this one also serves a decent rendition of Mexican food.
From the Central American side of the menu, there's a fine seafood soup; pupusas made with either masa or the rarer rice dough and stuffed with cheese, pickled loroco flowers (something like oregano), smooshed beans, and pork rind; and a magnificent Salvadoran pureed-pork enchilada (shown), which might strike you as more like a Mexican tostada.
John's Fried Chicken (4193 Broadway, 646-371-9538) — This branch of a beloved East Inwood spot delivers Southern fried chicken with a Dominican twist: the bird is brushed with white vinegar prior to frying, resulting in a slight tartness.
Good empanadas and a memorable seafood salad also available, but start out with the chicken.
Marisco Centro (1490 St Nicholas Ave, 212-740-2000) — One of a small handful of grand seafood palaces in Washington Heights, Marisco Centro offers whole fish and filets cooked several ways (but skip the shellfish).
The Puerto Rican classic asapao — a vinegar-laced rice and seafood stew, shown in the picture — is here rendered magnificently, but be warned the mixed drinks in the nautically themed barroom leave something to be desired, so stick with beer or sangria. Retail seafood market in front.
Le Cheile (839 W 181st St, 212-740-3111) — If you're familiar with the bustling, slightly upscale commercial hub around Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, or the hardscrabble area east of the George Washington Bridge Bus Depot with its outdoor markets, the hilly area west of Broadway and north of the bridge will come as a surprise — handsome co-op apartment buildings with semi-chic shops and bistro-level restaurants, plus a bit of scenic beauty with the George Washington looming over all.
This two-story pink Irish tavern (the name means "together" in Gaelic) offers polished versions of fish and chips, bangers and mashed, burgers, chicken pot pie, and shepherd's pie (shown) in humongous servings.
George's Pizzeria (726 W 181st St, 212-568-6891) — George is Washington Height's answer to Dom DeMarco, a flour-dusted artisan who labors day and night to make a superior product, and something of a neighborhood celebrity.
His slice isn't quite as good as Di Fara, but the crust is perfect, the cheese above average — good enough that customers come from adjacent neighborhoods for George's pies.
Tacos El Paisa (1548 St Nicholas Ave, 917-521-0972) — Don't let the derelict Xmas decorations that obscure the marquee of this small taqueria deter you — once inside, the rhythm of the narrow space prevails, and all eyes are on the circular meat holding contraption that looks like a flying saucer, where the taco master selects his cuts of meat. Ordering is easy from the picture menu on the wall.
Shown here, the quesadillas are particularly lush, this one loaded with (skin-on) chorizo something like a spicy Polish sausage.
Lulo (1626 St Nicholas Ave, 212-543-9661) — This Dominican eatery has an old-fashioned lunch counter, and plenty of sunny window seating. It specializes in goat, either stewed or roasted. Shown here: a single serving with the rice and gandules divided into two portions. That means two diners can fill up for $5.50 each.
The goat is delicious, but then so, we'd assume, are the oxtails, roast pork, hen stew, spice-rubbed rotisserie chicken, and red-sauced codfish, on a menu that varies by day of the week.
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