Westchester is experiencing a surge of Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants hitting the scene. And unlike the little family-operated eat-and-run cafes, these ones sport white tablecloths, evocative designs and modern twists on time-honored cooking. They can be real bargains, too. And let's not forget the scene: Many of these restaurants offer live music once a week or more, and even salsa lessons. Here are four places worth trying out.
A cheerful, unaffected spot in White Plains, Sofrito has a large main dining room with a multicolored floor, bright fabrics hanging overhead, and little fish ornaments that seem to float in the air (175 Main St., White Plains; 914-428-5500; sofritowhiteplains.com). The long bar, suitable for dining, is animated by a waterfall and sky-blue lights. Two rooms off to the side are more subdued. A downstairs lounge has music on Thursdays (piped-in from a Spanish speaking radio station) as well as DJs on Fridays and Saturdays.
The menu is a hit parade of traditional Puerto Rican favorites. A good example is pernil, an intimidating mass of slow-cooked pork shoulder with a thick, crispy skin. Ropa vieja (stewed shredded beef) can be chewy, owing to the cut of beef used. This one is no exception (although some like it this way). Another ubiquitous favorite is mofongo, essentially mashed sweet plantains blended with nearly burned garlic and pork cracklings. It's the kind of dish that follows you home. Costillittas (pork ribs) are enlivened with a delicious guava barbecue sauce and come with potato salad. Well-seasoned rice and beans come with most courses. For dessert, the creamy flan is better than average.
Servers are brisk and good-natured, and the international wine list is fairly priced, although beer and tropical cocktails are really the way to go.
Saturday night sizzles at La Bella Havana, a buoyant Puerto Rican restaurant housed in an old commercial building on Yonkers' lower Main Street (35 Main St., Yonkers; 914-920-9777; www.labellahavana.com). Diners will find an electrifying salsa band, nudged into a corner near the entrance, playing to an appreciative crowd of mostly Latinos.
Old Havana is the design theme here. Walls are painted to look as if plaster is falling off brick walls and old-fashioned streetlights are suspended from the ceiling. The neighborly table arrangements, including room-length red banquettes, ratchets up the energy. When the weather is warm, half a dozen tables are set up outside.
If you're not up for a full meal, pull up a stool to the bar and enjoy the music with a couple of appetizers, all of which are under $10. Empanadas stuffed with shrimp are brightly seasoned, as is the tamal Cubano (stone-ground corn studded with salty bits of pork and cooked in a corn husk). Also recommended is the frituras del bacalao. If these tempt you to stick around, you could try one of the heartier selections like vaca frita, which is seared skirt steak emboldened with a garlic mojo (a traditional sauce based on garlic and vinegar that can contain myriad ingredients). Other options include baby back ribs with a tropical guava barbecue sauce and paella Valenciana, a capacious serving of shellfish, chorizo and rice that can easily feed four.
Mojitos, the touchstone of Latin restaurants, are first-rate. Or you can peruse the more than 25 specialty drinks and refreshing (not too sweet) sangria. The token wine list is fairly priced.
One of the more upscale Cuban restaurants in Westchester, Havana Central, opened in May at Westchester's Ridge Hill shopping center in Yonkers (238 Market St., Yonkers; 914-423-5500; www.havanacentral.com). Big, brash and festive, it's the latest outlet of a Manhattan-based chain with one location in Times Square and another near Columbia University in Morningside Heights.
The open, color-splashed dining room sports a swanky, pre-Castro mood with a black-and-white tile floor, overhead fans, palms, high-backed banquettes and a busy bar that dispenses mojitos at the volume of a garden hose. It has already become a popular nightspot for the local Latino community. Every evening there are live salsa bands; and if you dare, free salsa lessons are held from 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays.
Certain Cuban dishes are better suited for cool weather than the tropics. You'll find that the cuisine's base flavors are garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaf, and fruits. These add depth to a fine oxtail stew braised in red wine and chorizo, as well as vaca frita, shredded beef marinated in lime, peppers, garlic and onions. On the lighter side is an excellent, not-too-sweet mango-glazed salmon. Among other seafood options are coconut shrimp with sweet potato fries, and two kinds of paella: shellfish and vegetable.
CIENEGA LATIN CUISINE
Tucked away in one of the drab commercial precincts of New Rochelle, the modern Cienega Latin Cuisine appears out of place (179 Main St., New Rochelle; 914-632-4000; cienegarestaurant.com). The design is urban neutral, with barely a nod to its Caribbean roots. Long and roughly wedge-shaped, the dining room is awash in creamy white, lined with muted green banquettes. In the rear is a small black bar suitable for snacking. Some couples -- and more than half the clientele appear to be Latin -- dress up, at least on weekends.
The cooking here straddles traditional and contemporary. One specialty is "quinotos," fire-roasted shrimp and octopus with a 5-spice Chinese sauce and quinoa. Other specialties include pan-seared salmon with a tomato-parsley gastrique (flavored syrupy reduction of vinegar, sugar and other ingredients) and lobster with chipotle peppers. If you are drawn to more traditional dishes, there are standbys like pernil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder that is cooked here with orange mojo, and grilled skirt steak with red wine rice, chimichurri, crispy garlic and plantain chips.
The cocktail roster is not as flamboyant as some of the other Latin spots around, but most of the standards can be found. Mojitos are good (not great); a fine summer cooler is the strawberry-mango frozen margarita. The short international wine list carries many bottles in the $30 range. There is live music on Thursday nights, though not necessarily of Latin origins.