Welcome to our celebration of Latin-owned restaurants in CapNY! Schenectady-based, Honduran-born artist Oscar Bogran and I (Maureen Sager, Executive Director of ACE) explored a range of restaurants that are deeply inspired by Latin American heritage and culture.
“Artisan food” is a term used to describe food produced by non-industrialized methods. It’s often handed down through generations but now in danger of being lost.
And here’s what you get when you eat each of these restaurants:
- Authenticity — the owners and chefs are dedicated to sharing their rich culture through food. They talked to us about each and every dish, thrilled to share their stories.
- Affordability — we didn’t spend over $15 per person at any of these restaurants, and often, we spent under $10.
- Family Operated — every restaurant included family in their operation.
- Minority and Women Ownership — all are owned by people who were born in Latin American countries, and four out of five are headed by women.
Casa Latina, Salvadorean and Mexican Cuisine in Hudson
At Casa Latina, everything — from the guajillo salsa to horchata (a sweet, cinnamon-flavored rice drink) to the soft, warm corn tortillas — is made on site. A few blocks off of swanky, expensive Warren Street, Casa Latina is an affordable oasis. There are four indoor tables, outdoor seating, and a parking lot (a rarity in Hudson). Mexican paper decorations and Frida Kahlo portraits spruce up the funky, functional décor. And, the food is prepared in sight of the tables. You’ll see for yourself, the Romero family knows how to cook, and they know how to hustle!
Our super-friendly waiter, Javier (the son of owner/chef Maria), walks us through the menu. We ask what’s the specialty of the house, and he says everyone loves the tacos (it’s true, they’re fantastic). But tonight we’re looking for something less usual, so he tells us to try the sopes ($8), a traditional Mexican dish consisting of a fried masa base with savory toppings. You’ve got your choice of cheese, beans, pork, or steak. They’re hearty and heartwarming, and will keep you filled up on a cold winter’s day. One of the chefs, Alberto, is from the Puebla region of Mexico, and these sopes are his specialty.
Make Sure to Try: The Pupusas
While you’re here, make sure to try the pupusas ($3-$4), too. What are they, you ask? Pupusas are a delicious corn masa flatbread and the national dish of El Salvador. Owner and head chef Maria Romero is Salvadorean, and these recipes are ones that her familiy has made for generations. The pupusas are filled with one or more ingredients and served with curtido (cabbage slaw) and salsa. We tried the loroco sopes (loroco is small, green flower buds that are used for flavoring in Central America). They’re fantastic!
Oscar declared that their homemade horchata ($3) was one of the best he’s ever had. “Every sip tastes like Christmas,” he said, thanks to the canela (cinnamon). The Romeros’ humble demeanor belies the accolades they receive from a huge range of visitors, and in just three years, they’ve become a Hudson institution.
Casa Latina Pupusas Y Más, 78 Green Street in Hudson, NY; (518) 653-1334. Open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 9pm; closed Sundays.
Flores Family Restaurant, Schenectady
For our trip to Flores Family Restaurant, Oscar and I were joined by Lorraine Morales Cox, Associate Professor of Visual Art at Union College. Lorraine’s father is Puerto Rican, so she knows Latin food. And, we talked about the textures and insights we get when a restaurant is Latin-owned.
Flores Family Restaurant is a bustling, Salvadorean-owned spot on State Street in Schenectady, with a lively lunch crowd. Our waitress, Kati, told us the midday rush is largely Spanish-speaking workers who have jobs in Schenectady, and don’t want to eat McDonald’s for lunch. The menu caters, she said, to the Caribbean styles of Latin food — it’s mainly Salvadorean, but there are additions from many other countries, so that customers can get both familiar and new foods.
Don’t Miss: The Roast Chicken and Pork
Kati helped us navigate the Flores specialties. “You have to get the pupusas, and the pollo la braza (roasted chicken),” she advised. It was great advice! Lorraine also ordered pernil — slow-roasted pork shoulder or leg. It’s a dish she grew up eating as a child, and it’s often served during Christmas. She loved Flores’ version, with its strong cilantro flavors. The meats were all extremely tender and delicious, and came served with beans, a soup, and plaintains. The pupusas are fantastic — especially the loroco (a Latin American vegetable from El Savador) and the ayote (zucchini) versions — and come with a wonderful, homemade, red sauce, along with rice and cabbage.
In addition to the food specialties, there are a wide variety of house-made drinks here, too. The horchata is delicious! There’s also a great tamarindo drink. Plus, there’s a Salvadorean specialty, marañon, which is the Salvadorian name for the cashew fruit. Jugo de marañon is cashew juice, a light sweet juice somewhat similar to guava juice and almond milk combined. Semilla de marañon is the seed, the actual cashew nut. We highly recommend all of them, and we may be experimenting with some additions of rum in the future.
“There’s an intimacy here,” Lorraine said. “It feels like they’re cooking and serving food for family.” And she added, “I’ve driven by this place so many times in the past. I had no idea I was ten minutes away from having pernil for dinner!” We’re hoping that lots more people make the same discovery.
Flores Family Restaurant, 1427 State St, Schenectady, (518) 723-2281. Open every day, 11am-10pm. (Note: their website says that they’re open for take-out only, but they are indeed open for dine-in, too.)
Empanada Llama, Albany
Maria Lloyd is the owner and creator of Empanada Llama, a terrific Peruvian restaurant on Delaware Avenue in Albany. Here, the empanada reigns supreme. There are seven different kinds of savory empanadas on the menu each day. Plus, you’ll find three sweet versions, like Banana Nutella and Apple Pie. And these empanadas are decidedly different than the Puerto Rican or other versions you may have had. These are stuffed full, with crispy, crunchy exteriors, so that the fillings are the headlines, rather than being overpowered by a thick, doughy wrapper.
Maria became a cook and restauranteur only after she came to the United States. Initially, she came to study graphic design. But 25 years ago, while raising two daughters, she saw that Americans were falling for the empanadas she was making at international food festivals. Cooking provided a way for her to bring money in while raising her two daughters, while her husband Joe worked double shifts to make ends meet. She opened the restaurant with the help of her daughter, who now lives in San Diego.
Don’t Miss: The Green Empanada & Green Sauce
Maria grew up in Piura, in northern Peru, where there are nice beaches and a beautiful climate all year round. The food at Empanada Llama reflects her northern background, with noted differences from food in Lima and Cuzco. One specialty is the green tamale, which is only found in Piura (it’s fantastic, and silky soft). Don’t miss out on the homemade green sauce, which, if you’re lucky, you can also buy for take-out.
Happily, Maria sat with us for nearly an hour and told us so much about her life and experience in both the U.S. and Peru. During our conversation, she also adapted our food to suit our preferences. She made me some gluten-free empanadas, which you can get if you call ahead. The yucca is also gluten-free, as are the delicious tamales.
Thankfully for us, the empanada business worked, and she remains a fixture at the Delmar and Schenectady Farmers Markets. The store front on Delaware Avenue has been open for five years, with a variety of Peruvian foods and handmade gifts.
Angel’s Latin Restaurant, Catskill
Angel’s Latin Restaurant is a steam counter. For the uninitiated, steam counters are made of stainless steel, and hold steamy bins of hot food, set behind glass. You tell the server what you’d like to eat, and they’ll heap generous servings into containers for you to take home or eat in. Steam counters are common in Manhattan, Brooklyn and other cities, but not so much here in CapNY. So, if you’re a former NYC resident, Angel’s will be a nostalgic treat. This unassuming, bright orange storefront on Catskill’s Main Street offers authentic, hearty, delicious Dominican food at great prices and in huge servings.
Upon entering Angel’s, Oscar and I were greeted by Nilfa, a friendly young woman who stands behind the counter, ready to answer questions about the huge array of food prepared by her aunt and her aunt’s husband.
There’s a very wide variety of choices here, with specials on each day of the week. On the night we visited, there was stewed chicken, roast chicken (my favorite!), three kinds of rice (red, white, and black, which had an Asian / soy sauce twist of flavors. The black rice is a specialty of Angel’s), and your choice of beans – red or black. There was also goat, two kinds of pork, two beef dishes, bacalao (salt cod), and yucca. Some nights, you’ll also find oxtail.
Ask For: Tostones with Garlic Sauce
Oscar talked to Nilfa and her aunt in Spanish, asking whether they had tostones (fried green plantains). Nilfa replied that the tostones are always made to order, so that they’re extra crisp. And you’ll be glad to know, they’re SUPER delicious and served steaming hot. Be sure to ask them for the garlic sauce, served on the side. It’s another specialty of the house.
Angel’s ”is completely run by family. Kids do the dishes. Everyone in the family contributes,” Nilfa told us. On the night we were there, the clientele was entirely people of color, and we asked Nilfa if this was usual. “Yes,” she said, “though sometimes we do get a mix of people. I try to explain the menu and the food when someone is not familiar with Dominican food.” Their menu also caters to the foods of other Latin-Caribbean countries like Puerto Rico, “because Dominican is lesser knows. We try to have some things that are familiar,” Nilfa said.
Our HUGE dinners cost $6 for a small plate and $8 for a large plate, for meat, rice and beans, and sides. Crazy good prices, and completely delicious!
Oaxaquena Triqui, Albany
You’ll find the restaurant Oaxaquena Triqui in the back of the bodega of the same name — seven simple tables, with absolutely killer food. School girls in uniforms are doing their homework at one table, while their mother, Griselda, heads up a team of female cooks in the kitchen. Oaxaquena Triqui is bustling — the tables are full, the staff is jumping. Nonetheless, Griselda takes the time to walk us through the menu, and we ask her what their specialties are. The answers absolutely surprised — okay, shocked — us!
The first specialty we tried is not on the menu, but Griselda told us it’s a favorite — “chapulines.” Oscar replied, “Sancudo?!”, and she laughed and said yes, “the ones that jump around.” Turns out, chapulines is Spanish for grasshopper. Oscar, who grew up with a vegan mother, said that this was a challenge, for sure, but he was up for it. His review? Salty, spiced, crunchy and interesting!
The second specialty was no less shocking — Huitlacoche Huarache, otherwise known as “corn smut,” a fungus that grows on rotten corn. It’s a Oaxacan specialty and I’d read it about it, but never had a chance to try it. So…we ordered it, and it’s good! Tastes like a funky mushroom (which is exactly what it is!). Squeaky and squishy and totally unique. I recommend it, if you’re an adventurous eater.
Don’t Miss: The Chicken Mole
The third item we tried was the mole, a world-famous Oaxacan specialty. When I went to Oaxaca in the early 90s, I tried at least six different kinds of mole, and none of them was much like the chocolate-flavored sauces you find here in the States. Indeed, Griselda bristled when we asked if her mole tasted like chocolate. “No!”, she exclaimed. “Mine is spicy,” she said, and told us that she uses 30 ingredients to make it, and it takes two days until it’s ready.
Some of the ingredients are only found in Oaxaca, so she brings them herself, or they’re delivered here by visiting relatives, like her mother-in-law, who was in town when we visited the restaurant. We also tasted some ground-up, spicy worm powder, made of the same critters you find in mezcal. It’s quite good. These kinds of ingredients are what make Griselda’s spicy mole so special. And, the chicken was unbelievably tender. (Pro tip: if you don’t like spicy food, you can ask for the amarillo (yellow) mole, which is not advertised on the menu.)
There are a LOT of other choices for Anthony Bourdain-type adventurers — cow tongue, menudo (tripe stew), cecina (salty beef), chicharron (pork skin), squash blossoms, and more. But there’s so much here for everyone. The neighborhood and atmosphere are not fancy, but the food is fit for a king. Can’t recommend it enough.
Our Tips for Exploring Latin American Restaurants:
- Ask Lots of Questions — Everyone really enjoyed explaining their offerings. Additionally, we often found specialties that aren’t even included on the menu
- Speak Spanish, If You Know Any — Oscar was able to draw out conversations better than I was, for sure! He was able to engage people who weren’t that comfortable with their English, and he helped me, too, because I’m not comfortable in Spanish.
- Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover — Many of these settings are very humble. The storefronts are not fancy, the interiors are utilitarian, and they might not be in the “best” section of these downtowns. However, the adventure will be super fun, and the food is fantastic. We guarantee it.