Cafe Largo; Castro's

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Cafe Largo is a decent neighborhood restaurant. It's up in Harlem near City College, closer than close enough to the subway stop at 137th and Broadway to make it easily workable as a destination. Not that you should do so, necessarily. Only if New York exploration and eating are among your hobbies would I recommend a journey to Largo. Otherwise, make a mental note for the next time you find yourself in the region. File it under, "rice: yellow, specialty."

An enthusiast could devote a lifetime to the study of New York's Dominican and Puerto Rican chicken-and-rice joints. It's no secret that some cafeteria-style places outdo sit-down Latin restaurants at the same dishes. But the underground scene is tumultuous, hard to follow. Its cooks are unsung. Talented ones have other opportunities, because the network through which high-end New York restaurant kitchens are staffed is Spanish-speaking to a significant degree. The corner spots with their chafing dishes, their tv's blaring soap operas and their Friday fish specials?they're as plentiful uptown and in the outer boroughs as Starbuckses are below 96th St. If all their bell-peppered yellow rice were amassed in a pile, scientists would compete at coming up with metaphors to convey its mass, like they did with regard to that block of ice that broke off of Antarctica last month (the best, by the way, was: "?equal to the weight of all the cigarettes on planet Earth, if a cigarette weighed a ton).

No need to sift the pile for golden grains. The fare at Largo, which opened in the late 90s, is essentially a made-to-order version of what a local Latin/West Indies storefront eatery serves during a period of peak performance. The prices are higher, though resoundingly justified by the dining room. It's the kind of place you might linger for a while without intending to. French doors thrust open onto Broadway give the long, wood-floored, brick-walled room great light, and the people-watching is even better inside. The mix of patrons is broad enough that people at different tables are likely to be ordering off different menus. Late afternoon on a Sunday, for instance, found college students brunching on pancakes and plantains at the bar, while old ladies who'd probably been at church before those kids stopped clubbing supped on fajitas and wrap sandwiches a few feet away. We also saw a well-dressed family, and a middle-aged couple who leisurely sipped one of Largo's inexpensive Spanish reds.

I very much wanted to start with octopus ceviche salad ($9), but the item was not available. The shrimp ceviche I ordered instead ($7) was serviceable, if a little on the oily side. You never know what you're going to get when you order ceviche where you've never had it before?everything from a lime-chili marinade to Peruvian salt cod to what is essentially a sashimi vinaigrette bears the name. Largo's had medium-size shrimp bathed in olive oil and lemon, with some onion that'd had its fangs soaked off.

Beef empanadas ($6) also evidenced a kitchen in the act of avoiding pretension, and perhaps erring on the side of caution. The little patties' crust suggested maternal home-cooking. It was thick like a pot pie's, fragrant and flaky when broken. The chopped meat inside was generic taco-filler, also homey I suppose, yet surprisingly bland. The demotic charm wore off and I got bored halfway through the first of my pair of empanadas (should have ordered one beef, one chicken!), so decided to ask our waitress for some hot sauce. But she was not to be found.

We'd waited until after appetizers to select entrees, which was wise, because the first course seemed to indicate certain things. Primary among these was adherence to a Dominican tradition of mild flavorings, hence my need for fiery homemade hot sauce. I hoped it would show up sin request with a plate of shrimp creole or shrimp and rice, both of which ($14) are flagged with asterisks on the menu?"Denotes Specialty of the House," says the footnote. The simplicity of our small plates lead me to suspect that chicken dishes like Pollo Largo ("chicken breast sauteed with fresh mushrooms in a white wine, lemon & butter sauce, $12") would be too subtle for my tongue, so that left the selection of grilled steaks, a fish fillet or whole snapper, or pasta. Pasta? Would it be courting disappointment to ask Italian food of a kitchen that appeared comfortable within only a narrow range of distantly related cuisines, I wondered? Or would the choice reveal a previously hidden strength?

I'll go easy on myself and say I didn't court it?because if it's on the menu, it should be ready for prime time?but disappointment is what I experienced. Penne puttanesca with grilled chicken ($10) was beyond subtle and well past the point where weakness begins. A mundane puttanesca would at least have had fresh olives, capers and some anchovy to speak of. Largo's had none of the above, and the tomato sauce was watery. The chicken was deliciously charbroiled, though. I kicked myself for not going with the grilled skirt steak ($14) or sirloin ($15), but again it's not my fault. The menu needs more footnotes.

Arroz con camarones ($14) comes in the shape of an inverted pie plate. It's a cake of rib-sticking rice. The shrimp are fat and juicy, if not correspondingly plentiful, but then again it is a huge portion of rice. There's a luscious moisture that allows the yellow grains to hold shape, and it tastes like sweet peppers, green olives (again from a can, sadly), capers (there they are!) and onion. The effect is analogous to that of a brick-oven pizza at some reputable side-street trattoria. Old-country flavor requires a certain amount of refinement and atmosphere, in the city, to come through as effortless as it should.

We finally did ask for hot sauce, but received only a bottle of Tabasco. Largo's menu calls the place an "oasis," and indeed it's mellow.

Things ended on a high note, thanks to the restaurant's transcendent homemade flan ($3). The stuff was like caramel ice cream cross-bred with a cloud. We took our time with our wedge-shaped slice, nibbling and forgetting our complaints.

If you're down with the whole tourist-in-your-own-city thing and aren't familiar with Largo's neighborhood, you might enjoy a stroll around it before or after your meal. During daylight hours, I'd recommend going up to 145th St. and then west over the footbridge to a high, scenic slice of Riverside Park. From there walk east to Amsterdam Ave., then south to the City College campus, switching to Convent Ave. or St. Nicholas Ave. depending on which beautiful old buildings catch your eye.

Cafe Largo, 3387 B'way (betw. 137th & 138th Sts.), 862-8142.


And if you live in Brooklyn and don't want to spend an hour on the subway for just a decent Latin-American restaurant near a college on the edge of one of New York's historic nonwhite neighborhoods, I have an alternative plan for you. Castro's Authentic Mexican Restaurant and Coffee Shop is well known to Brooklyn foodies and art students attending Pratt Institute, and of course to its many regulars, but it deserves to be more famous than that. Find it where Myrtle Ave. runs into Bed-Stuy?about eight blocks from the Clinton-Washington C station.

It's not an oasis like Largo. In fact it's downright hectic. But hectic serves Castro's type of old-country flavor quite well. The restaurant is set up like a short-order diner, with the kitchen up front, behind a counter with stools. They keep the television turned up loud, and the Mexican jukebox cranked even louder, so when played it drowns out the tv. Sometimes there are no waitresses on duty who speak English. The menu lists about twice as many dishes as the place actually serves on any given day. But that menu is bilingual, at least, and there're more than a couple of interesting items on it. It helps a lot that Castro's is a friendly place. I've eaten there half a dozen times and haven't had a bad time or a bad dish yet.

Show up hungry and start with a soup?even the small ones are practically a meal. The chicken and beef soups are full-flavored, salty broths with big chunks of softened meat (chicken and beef, $3.50-$6.50). Best of all is chilate de pollo ($4.50-$6.50), if they have it (it's omitted from the current menu, apparently remanded to "special"-only status). It's a chicken soup with tomatoes and ancho (dried poblano) chilis. On Fridays there's usually sopa de mariscos ($5.50-$8.50), always with very fresh shrimp.

Shrimp entrees are Castro's most expensive items at $11.50. Camarones Veracruzana are mild, herbal and lime-y. Like all Castro's entrees, the shrimps come with beans and rice, fresh tortilla, excellent guacamole, chips and salsa.

If they don't have the pipian con pollo (chicken marinated in green sauce, $7.50), you can substitute nonmarinated chicken with green sauce simply poured over it. The cilantro-packed salsa is so vinegary it seems to react chemically with the meat on contact. You can have the same sauce on Mexican chorizo ($7.50). Castro's mole sauce is another herbaceous and nonspicy option?it's very satisfying if you want to forgo the lime-pepper-cilantro route, but available only on chicken. Then there's chipotle sauce, which comes into play with stewed chicken or beef strips (both $7.50), and which I've never been able to try. Castro's makes superb soft tacos from all of the above meats, plus goat. Most of them go for $2 or $2.50 each.

I most recently visited Castro the day after the U.S. team eliminated Mexico from the World Cup, and people there shared their anguish over the match when a clip from it turned up on Univision between soaps. An animated discussion between the head cook and a table of young construction workers went by too fast for me to follow?which is to say, they didn't speak as if addressing a complete idiot?but I knew enough to appear deeply absorbed in my bowl of caldo de res.

Castro's, 511 Myrtle Ave. (betw. Ryerson St. & Grand Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-398-1459.

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