What is that saying about best laid plans going astray? Well, the gods were laughing at our dinner plans last night when we exited the 7 train at 82nd street and strolled up to our destination only to find the lights off and the proprietor pulling the gate down. The disappointment was immense at first, particularly since this little Colombian restaurant came highly recommended, but serendipity intervened in the form of a stray passerby who, observing the plight of seven lost souls, took it upon himself to be our guardian angel. We were left blessing our good fortune as his suggestion, Pollos a la Brasa de Mario: El Palacio de los Frisoles, turned out to be incredible.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Elmhurst/Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens will know that the Latin American restaurants there are a dime a dozen. I counted at least twenty different places between exiting the subway and arriving at our destination. This might give one pause, but it got me musing on the economies of agglomeration. It seems counterintuitive at first: why would a business want to open itself up in the near vicinity of its competitors? But when you think about it, it makes sense—these establishments benefit from, among many things, common suppliers and specialized labor and from a consumer point of view, the variety of choice is awesome. Just like Flushing’s Chinatown a few stops down the 7 line, this little stretch along Roosevelt Avenue is home to a ton of similar looking spots and I’d be willing to wager that you’d find it difficult to find a terrible meal among them. And if you do find a disappointing meal, I can assure you it won’t be at Pollo a la Brasa de Mario.
Announcing itself loudly with bright red and yellow paint and a neon ‘Abierto 24 HRS’ sign blinking in the window, the giant cartoon chicken on the storefront declared the specialty of the house with a shout. We made our way up the stairs to our second floor table, soaking in the atmosphere: every television tuned to the Colombia-Uruguay soccer game, cumbia blasting, servers rushing about, the tables packed with families, couples, and solo diners; this place hummed with frenetic energy. It passed the auditory, visual, and olfactory tests, the only thing left was the taste exam.
Was there any doubt it would pass with flying colors? We dispensed with such frivolities as appetizers and salads and jumped right to the main event: two orders of grilled skirt steak, three orders of fried pork belly, three whole chickens, and a plethora of unexpected sides accompanying each dish. A word on the sides—plates and plates of sliced avocado, heaping piles of rice and beans (we were eating in the palace of bean stew after all), freshly baked arepas (doughy little corn rolls), and, arguably the most delicious thing to hit our mouths the entire night, tostones (deep fried sliced plantain). Not your normal tostones, which are often disappointingly small and either over-fried and dry or undercooked and limp. These bad boys were palm sized discs liberally slathered in mojo (a garlic cilantro sauce), crunchy yet yielding to the bite, the best tostones I’ve had in my life by a wide margin.
The first thing to come and the dish that sticks out in my mind more than any other was the grilled skirt steak. The price was $20 a plate, which I assumed bought you one steak. I was shocked to discover that each order came with three (!) steaks along with roasted potatoes, grilled chorizo and a massive bowl of chimichurri. What an incredible deal; I would eat there every day if I lived close by. Next came the pork belly: crackling and unctuous, a texture that only pork belly and pork belly alone can achieve, served with nothing more than a few sliced limes. Along with the pork came the especialidad de la casa—rotisserie chicken—the skin golden brown and crispy with meat that fell off the bone and was juicy beyond measure; devoured within moments. This was all washed down with large, bordering on copious, amounts of Aguila beer (the national beer of Colombia).
After departing fully sated and satisfied, we hopscotched our way back towards the train station, ducking into some of the many bars that also line Roosevelt Avenue for refreshment. To be honest, this portion of the evening is somewhat hazy, but things pick back up with razor sharp clarity after visiting another 24 hour establishment, the gloriously entitled La Abunduncia Bakery. The first sip of café con leche did a wonderful job in restoring my faculties, not to mention providing an admirable compliment to the bread pudding it helped wash down.
Last night Roosevelt Avenue stole my heart through my stomach. I cannot wait to go back.
P.S. There are a bunch of places named Pollos a la Brasa de Mario. I believe that at least some, but not all, of them share the same owner (I have no evidence for this other that the name and menus are the same).
81-01 Roosevelt Ave, Jackson Heights, NY (718) 639-5555
(About Mensday Wednesday: Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.)
Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time and the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food.
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