i love good, hearty cuban food. i first fell in love with it while living in west LA where i dined pratically once a week at versailles on venice blvd. being a money-starved hungry college student, versailles fit the bill with their $7.95 roast pork plate, a super portion of tender, slow-roasted pork chunks smothered in their famous salty-tart garlic sauce and topped with crunchy marinated raw onions. on the side was fragant, seasoned white rice, a cup of black beans, and sweet, sticky, melt-in-your-mouth plantains. heaven.
my recent vacation to nyc in july prompted a CH search of must-eat hole-in-the-walls. in planning where to eat around the rockefeller center, i came across old posts for margon, a cuban place on 46th st and was intrigued by everyone's descriptions of the food. so i had to go.
my boy jeff and i rode the sauna train to rock center and headed down towards 46th. by the time we were within 100 feet of the restaurant we were dripping sweat. it was a hot, muggy, overcast day with a dark sky that was threating to pelt us with torential rains. glancing across the street, i saw several plastic-metal signs but couldn't distinguish margon anywhere. finally jeff spots the small sign hanging low and we dash in front of traffic as thunder peals overhead.
the place was long and narrow, lit with that aging yellow-white glow of archaic florescents. a long empty steam table ran down the left side and deserted tables lined the right. it almost looked like it was closed and all the food had run out. but we walked deeper under the low ceilings and found piles of chicken, pork and rice towards the back. a young, portly hispanic woman greeted us cheerily as we started pondering the menu boards above and drooling over the selections below.
i was so tempted to try the pork and chicken dishes; they looked so tender and juicy. but i stuck with the chowhound rec of octopus salad. she reached into the fridge behind her and produced a small round plastic to-go tub of the salad, then proceeded to pile a mound of yellow rice and black beans on a plate, topping it with a few chunks of plantain. she placed it on a tray and set it above the steam table. my eyes were glued.
my tastebuds were not to be immediately satisfied however because jeff was still staring at the different selections. argh. he asked about a couple of different dishes which the woman briefly described. he then came to a stew. "what's that?" "that's red snapper stew" "is it good?" she clucks a reply in a tone i usually only associate with the mama serving up soulful chicken n waffles at roscoe's, "oh honey, it's good." a few spoonfuls of fish stew plop into a bowl another dish of yellow rice and beans appear.
we sit down and dig in. my first taste is of the octopus salad. it' cool. a refreshing bite and chewiness in the sliced octopus. then the brininess of the ocean, tartness of the lime, and sweetness of the meat hit. there's a textural contrast in the crunch of the onions and chile peppers, cooled by the soft, acidic tomatoes. wow. i scoop the yellow rice up to my mouth, thinking this would be a nice neutral palate cleanser and starch stuffer before my next hit of tasty octopus salad, when i take in the aroma and taste the rice.
whoa. serious flavor was steeped into those grains! i can't even describe it, but one would think they used the stew broth from their chicken dishes to cook the rice. it was just so flavorful and hearty and... yeah.... i inhaled the rice and beans (beans i'm just never big on, they're just beans to me) and almost forgot about my octopus. honestly, i think the rice and beans were too heavy for the light octopus as a pairing. whenever i recall margon, the first thought in my head is that glorious rice. trust me, the octopus is fantastic, but i could return just for that rice.
ah yes, i did get to try jeff's snapper, which during this orgasmic moment he was happily devouring. the fish was chopped up and blended into tomatoes, green peppers, and several spices that i couldn't distinguish. flavors melded together nicely and it was hearty. but after having the bright flavors of cilantro and lime in my octopus, the fish wasn't as impressive. i'm sure had i started out with the fish, it'd rank higher on my tastebuds.
we were snapped out of reverie by several loud claps of thunder and then what sounded like nails raining down on the metal fire escapes above. sheets of rain sliced the muggy air. dry and warm, we continued scarfing down our food happily.
the plantains were good, not as cooked down as versailles (the way i like it). it provided enough starchy sugar to satisfy the sweet tooth i've been encountering after my meals lately. i kept glancing over to the steam table longing to try the pork chops. the woman behind the counter drawls, "s'good?" "oh yeah..." i reply.
i'm thinking of heading back to ny next spring. margon. maybe i'll get the pork chops and try the cubano next time. man, spring is so far away...