While plucky NYU students seem to be moving further and further into the depths of Brooklyn, the upper reaches of Manhattan remain a vibrant, relatively untouched, and surprisingly affordable enclave in a city that’s become increasingly priced out. Case in point: East Harlem, otherwise known as El Barrio among its predominantly Latino population. That’s not to say that the neighborhood isn’t gradually gentrifying, but for now, at least, it remains a vital hub of Latino life in the city.
This also means that the food is totally amazing. El Barrio is filled with delicious Mexican, Dominican, and Puerto Rican restaurants, and it’s worth taking the 4 or 5 train up from Union Square for a culinary day trip (plus, you can check out the awesome Museo del Barrio). To find out where the best eats are located, I consulted my partners in crime and Actual Latinos Edgar and Ben. Here’s our definitive list of El Barrio’s eats:
As the name suggests, this hole-in-the-wall specializes in–you guessed it–tacos. They’re small and cheap ($2.75 each), but can make a meal if bought in bulk. Taco Mix also isn’t interested in your nonsense East Village variations of the taco: they keep it 100% authentic, and serve tacos with either oreja (pig ear), tripa (tripe), buche (pig’s maw), suadero (beef), al pastor (marinated pork), and chorizo. The al pastor is what they’re known for, and rotates on a giant stake at the front of the store. Taco Mix also has great burritos that come smothered in sour cream and cheese, but they’re a bit pricey at $9. Finally, the tortas are decent, but there are better ones to be found in El Barrio.
Ben says: “Taco Mix’s only saving grace, in my humble opinion, is its 24-hoursness. And this isn’t that “open 24-hours” lie that McDonald’s on 117th & 3rd tells you because when you’re shambling home after a Brooklyn Nonsense Party at 4 in the morning you’ll find only one employee there (maybe) cleaning. Taco Mix really is open forever and can offer you a torta or taco when no one else can in those early morning hours. But really, there are many other places that do everything Taco Mix does better. (Even, embarrassingly enough, tacos.)”
Edgar says: “The al pastor is really good, and it’s nice and authentic. They even have a pineapple on top of it that they put on your taco! It’s also cool to see that the staff is not just Mexicans, but that there are also Dominicans working there. I think it says a lot about how diverse the neighborhood is. I also really like the salsa bar/fixin’s station, where you can get all sorts of spicy accoutrement.”
One of the more famous pizza joints in Manhattan, Patsy’s is known for its oven-fired pizza and Italian roots. You can either sit down and eat it in the restaurant, or buy it by the slice from the surly dudes next door (prepare to be scowled at). A plain slice is $1.75, and the fancier varieties are a little more expensive. It’s a nice, thin pizza with plenty of flavor, but try to stick to the simpler flavors: I had a margherita pizza that was surprisingly bland, but you can’t go wrong with the cheese.
Ben says: “Patsy’s is required, for the comfort, ease, and taste of a plain slice or the customizable options—anything with basil, really.”
Edgar says: “It’s a bastion of when Spanish Harlem was Italian Harlem.”
Gentrification has arrived in fair East Harlem, and it’s come packaged in an adorable bakery on 119th and 1st Ave. Evelyn’s is a small, often empty shop with delicious sweets and SoHo sensibilities, and features plenty of vegetarian options (sandwiches, salads, soups) if you’re put off by El Barrio’s meat-heavy offerings. I haven’t tried it yet, but Ben’s a fan–read his take below!
Ben says: “I fear she is before her time. SoHo prices, so no business really. I never see anyone in there and it’s a shame. She really does offer new and “dangerously delicious” sweets on the cafe menu along with fuzzy organic goodness in their weekly offerings. I’ve tried more of the bakery items than the regular menu, but I’d have any one of those again. Really, just pick whatever speaks to you and you probably won’t regret it even if you remember you’re paying Dominique Ansel prices in East Harlem for small portions of pastry delights. The one entree I had was the Lemon Zested Tuna Salad that come with cranberries, pecans, roasted vegetables, and raspberry vinaigrette. (There’s a reason that vinaigrette’s on almost everything on the menu: it’s damn tasty.)”
Meaning “the eagle,” this bird’s ready for take-off with some fantastic horchata, wide selection of pan dulce, and decent entrees. The prices aren’t bad, but it’s not hard to find better options around the neighborhood. I will say that their breakfast burritos are pretty awesome, however. They’re thick, filling, and come stuffed with eggs, rice, beans, and chorizo. Grab it for a quick bite before hopping on 6 train at the adjacent subway station!
Ben says: “The horchata from El Aguila is the best in East Harlem hands down. I’ve tried almost every other institution here and they all get it wrong; it’s either too chalky, too thin, too sweet, too bland, or too expensive, but theirs is just perfect. And they don’t even use a machine! They keep it “authentic” with those ribbed transparent barrels and just swish the delicious liquid around for a bit right before serving. Usually, if the server’s been there enough and likes you, she’ll ask Quieres hielo? (I’m of the firm opinion you shouldn’t try to get a negligible amount of extra liquid in exchange for the balance that melting ice brings to the overly-sweet-to-some agua fresca, and, besides, sucking on a pearly ice cube coated in cinnamon-sugar on a hot afternoon in a park is one of my favorite NYC summer pastimes.)”
Bodega Taqueria at 116th and 2nd Avenue
What? A taqueria inside a bodega? Don’t be deceived by its simple appearance: this grill boasts one of the best tortas in El Barrio. The shop is a kind of neighborhood institution, and folks from around the block come by to hang out, play board games, and order food. Bizarrely, during the holiday season, they even set up a tiny nativity scene underneath the withered tree outside. Their tortas run for $8, and they’re stuffed with meat and cheese and avocados. I like the breaded beef, but you can’t go wrong with lengua either. Their quesadillas are also passable at $4, but really, try that torta. Just be warned: they only take cash!
Ben says: “I champion the torta con milanesa de pollo and the taco de tinga at the deli/taqueria on 116th & 2nd, obviously. The only negative thing I have to say about this place is that they don’t take card, so make sure you’re ready to pay in cash. Note: it’s prime corner real estate and cash-only status is a magnet for panhandlers and sometimes they’re drugged the fuck out. I’ve never had a bad experience with anyone and neither should you as long as you treat them like human beings, but just be ready to have a conversation with one occasionally. Besides the food, I have to say that I love the staff. I once left my BUTCH PLEASE hat at the counter because I was too lost into my torta to register anything else during or after and when I inevitably went back a few days or a week later, the guy brought it out from behind the counter and gave it to me. Quality people and food. Tip them! They’re lovely!”
Edgar says: “The name is actually ‘Ocelotl’ from the Nahuatl. They make authentic Mexico City-style food. You get plenty of options in terms of what protein you want, for your tacos or torta. They really pile on the ingredients, using things like oaxaca cheese, avocado slices, and habanero salsa. Stay away from the habanero salsa: I recommend the green salsa, but if you’re really brave, get the habanero. Also, it’s cool that the staff is all Mexican in a bodega that’s predominantly staffed by Puerto Ricans and/or Dominicans. It really showcases the co-existence of Latin cultures in East Harlem.”
I haven’t actually been to the brick and mortar establishment yet, but Delicias Mexicanas has served as a reliable option if I’m not feeling the slush lakes outside and want to leave my nourishment to the good folks at Seamless. They have your typical spread of Mexican delicacies, including some tasty soups and their signature mouth-watering cemitas. I also appreciate that they try to compensate for the lack of meat in their veggie burritos by, you know, stuffing them vegetables. They’re a little, uh, non-traditional (it’s strange to find mushrooms and peas in a burrito), but they’re absolutely massive and can easily make two meals. Give it a shot if you’re having a day in!
As for some other great stops that I haven’t been to yet myself, here’s what Ben has to say…
Ricardo’s Ocean Grill
Ben says: Ricardo’s Ocean Grill is where bougie people go to celebrate their successes and birthdays. (The staff like to trot out a free dessert to the tune of 50 Cent’s In Da Club.) I remember when it first opened they gave you free lemondrop shots with your bill but I think they’re doing well enough now that they don’t offer that anymore, but the servers are friendly enough that they’ll offer you things if you’re a repeat customer or just charm them enough and it isn’t hard because they have the most attractive servers nearby. There’s also apparently an offer for a free glass of wine if you “Join the Ricardo family”—they have a steak house further down 2nd Ave near the “SpaHa” section of East Harlem bordering the UES—and they’re going to start offering brunch March 1st…I mostly go for their happy hour because the Ricardo Lemonade is silky sweet and cheap(ish) or to try any one of their ceviche, with my favorite definitely being the Mixto as it offers tasty cuts of octopus. When I’m craving something light, I eat the Avocado Salad with corn, red peppers, cilantro, hearts of palm, baby arugula, and lemon dressing. Surf’N’Turf fans will like the meat because it’s meat and we already discussed the steak house so we know they know what they’re doing, plus the fries are of the nice, thin-cut variety. The Grill also definitely boasts the sleekest decor in our area, rivaled only by Evelyn’s Kitchen off 119th & 1st for quality and ambience at that price point.
Ben says: “For our Cubans and their lovers, Amor Cubano is the obvious frontrunner. I think this is where Edgar orders his chicken soup from when he’s feeling sick, although I may be mistaken, but even if that’s not the place they do have a tasty chicken soup and of course Cubano sandwiches. Must also mention black bean soup because it’s just delicious and done right anywhere there’s a Cuban restaurant. They also do live music some nights if that’s your thing. It’s off 111th & 3rd.”
Edgar says: “Yes, this is where I get my soup. The caldo de pollo and the ropa vieja are great. There aren’t many Cuban options up here, but this one is really good.”
Ben says: The best dive bar that offers food in the neighborhood is by far Camaradas off 115th & 1st. Great for a casual first date, or for going out with your lover(s) for the nth time because earlier in the night it’s relaxed and lowlit with quiet murmurs appreciating the local art for sale on the walls, and later happily loud and friendly with live music and a full room of patrons. I think they have the best sangria deal around, it’s actually delicious. Two people can split and take one pitcher easy, and find it hard to resist the inevitable offer of another. (I don’t think I have actually said no a single time…) The yucca fries are crunchy and scrumptious if you want food, but I’m usually busy just drinking.
East Harlem Café
Ben says: It’s easy to remember my favorite East Harlem cafe because it’s called East Harlem Cafe. I know right? It’s conveniently located one street away from the 6, off the corner of 104th & Lexington. Every time I’m by those streets I go in for a Chai Latte because it’s the best Chai Latte I’ve had in NYC. Chai can be so all over the map when you’re all over the map in NYC; it’ll be too spicy here or too harsh there, but at East Harlem Cafe I get it by saying Can I have the Vanilla Chai Latte with Soy? because I can’t remember anymore if the first time they offered it like that or I was just being particular but my god if it isn’t the softest and most comforting drink I’ve ever had in my mouth then I don’t know. I’ve never been able to make it last the walk home, at times burning my mouth in the process. Sometimes I’ll take the local just so I can have a Chai Latte from East Harlem Cafe. Every time I drink it I have Chopped fantasies of what kind of food I could infuse with this heavenly flavor and texture. I haven’t been able to move on to anything else or notice the cute clientele clacking away on their laptops but I’m sure they and the menu’ll win you over with your favorite cafe go-to while I sip on my chai and get carried away. Also, this Best Coffee Shops by Subway Stop Map just came out and look who’s there right on the dot at 103rd St.