The hardest thing about New York City is finding something that already exists. It’s easy to be in the know about the trendy, new restaurant that’s covered by all of the publications. And the vintage staples are favorites, keeping their original signs and attracting out of town clientele. It’s the places that somehow fall into the in between that are tougher to find. The decades old, smaller restaurant serving really incredible food in a relatively obscure area. How do you Google search that? The truth is, you really can’t. You need to rely on good recommendations from reliable sources to steer you in the right direction.
This is where the TV personality and native New Yorker Adam Richman enters the picture. At the New York Times Travel Show, Richman demonstrated an Argentinian inspired “Sloppy Zo” followed by a book signing. While we chatted it up, he shared his favorite uptown restaurants with me; the unknowns, the hard to discover, the good stuff.
La Fonda Boricua is an authentic Puerto Rican restaurant located in Spanish Harlem. Although the sign on the outside reads “tapas” there’s absolutely nothing from Spain on the menu.
This restaurant is the reincarnation of an area favorite that closed in 2008. Using the same name, and similar menu, the new management hoped to return authentic dishes to the neighborhood when it reopened in 2012.
The bar area is located near the entrance, and around the corner there is booth seating, long tables and a higher top area for larger parties. Large, colorful paintings by local artists cover the walls, adding neighborhood flare to the restaurant. The clientele proves that this place is a local favorite; young men wearing flat hats and large chains, an older woman enjoying a beer, a couple out on a date.
Only one woman worked the front of the house, making service incredibly slow. It took nearly 30 minutes to get glasses of water, and even longer for her to return to take our order. Yet, when the food arrives, and you take the first bite of a crispy chicken empanada, you immediately forget how long it took for the food to arrive.
Flaky, crisp dough encases the tender, flavorful pieces of shredded chicken. A light, slightly spicy tomato sauce is served on the side, which cuts through the richness of the empanada. The ratio of filling to dough is spot on. They seriously know how to perfect these little pockets of goodness.
For our main courses, we ordered three different types of protein from each part of the menu: Tilapia in a garlic sauce with sweet plantains, Pernil (Roast Pork) with fried plantains, and Mofongo with chicken.
The Mofongo arrived first, gorgeously presented. The square tray with four individual slots held each component of the dish.
Mashed plantain mixed with shredded chicken hold a circular shape, with a large bowl of creole style sauce on the side. Pour the creole sauce on top, and continue dipping the mofongo into the deep red liquid to infuse more flavor and a mild spice. The plantain surrounding the chicken isn’t the sweet variety. It’s a much milder flavor, and it adds texture. Pieces of chicken mixed throughout are tender, a different use of the meat found inside the empanada. It’s a wonderful, authentic dish.
If you’re feeling very adventurous, you can take a page from Man vs. Food and try the giant mofongo. But the small one will definitely do the trick, as well.
Tilapia was recommended by the waitress, with an option of three different sauces for the preparation. We selected the garlic sauce, with a side of sweet plantains.
The fish is beautifully prepared with a gorgeous golden brown coloring on the outside. It’s flaky, moist and infused with the garlic flavor. This was the first protein to disappear from our plates. And on the side, the sweet plantains are pure perfection.
Finally, the last entree of the evening, the Pernil arrived, a favorite suggested by my new friend, Adam.
Slow cooked and tender, the roast pork is prepared simply. No dressing on the pork, just a ramekin on the side of a thick, horseradish mixture to infuse a bit of spice and creaminess. The fat is rendered out of the meat, leaving delicious roasted pork.
Despite being completely full, the FourSquare community insisted that anyone visiting La Fonda must try the Guava and Cheese Dessert Empanada.
Wow. Sweet guava mixed with slightly tart cheese filling, which is reminiscent of what’s found inside the traditional blintz. Caramel sauce and powder sugar add layers of sweetness to the flaky empanada dough. Pretty much, it’s a pocket of delightful gluttony.
By the end of the meal, we completely forgot the fact that the service was so slow. The food is truly phenomenal. Every dish seems simple, from the roast pork to the fish to the empanada, yet the flavors are so complex. It’s truly a place where the food is more then meets the eye. So thank you, my new friend, for introducing me to La Fonda. I will certainly be back.
La Fonda Boricua – 169 East 106th Street – New York, NY
La Fonda Boricua
Location: East Harlem, NY
Type: Puerto Rican
Perfect For: Adventurous Eating, Authentic Dining, Cheap Eats
Reservations: Not Available
Favorite Dishes: Tilapia with Garlic Sauce, Mofongo, Pernil, Sweet Empanada