Venturing Beyond Lower Manhattan and the Biggest Sandwich in East Harlem

I will admit, I’m a bit of a lower Manhattan elitist. Come Friday night, I’m perfectly happy in my East Village bubble, and I balk at the idea of going to bars that require much travel.  Above 14th street? Playa please. Mid-town is for tourists and working drones.  And you know I really care about you if I’m going out to Brooklyn to hang out.  But, that doesn’t mean I don’t love exploring other parts of New York City.  The other day (after a long wait for an M train that never came) I managed to get on the F to Queens to check out the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 contemporary art branch out in Long Island City.  Not only did I really enjoy the museum, a great spot with a couple installations and pieces that really blew my mind (more on this in a later post), but it made me realize that once you’re on a train (although on weekends, it’s anybody’s guess as to if or when these trains actually run), venturing to the outer boroughs really doesn’t take long.

A few weeks ago I took the train all the way up to East Harlem (that’s around 110th Street, for those who need some orientation) and spent the afternoon soaking in the sun at Conservatory Garden on the upper east corner of Central Park.  It’s the only formal, manicured gardens in the iconic park, and a peaceful place to catch up on reading (or blogging, as the case may be), take a stroll, let your mind unwind, walk your rabbits (see photos below), and admire the beauty of this little oasis in this enormous, bustling city.

I’d been learning the hard way that Manhattan means over-crowded cafes, frenetic stores, and bumper-to-bumper foot traffic on all sidewalks.  

Even when I had wanted to find a cute little bookstore or corner in a coffee shop to do work at, I was always foiled.  Too many people. Too many gangly hipster couples gazing into each others’ eyes over their double-shot cappuccinos (I made that up–I don’t really drink coffee so I’m not sure if that exists).  Too few tables, a scarcity of chairs, an abysmal dirth of armchairs, and certainly not enough power outlets.  So the hour I spent alone on that park bench, writing away on my computer, under an archway of bowed tree branches, with the rays of the the brilliant sun wrapping around me was pure bliss.  It’s just too bad that it’s going to be too cold for the next four months to do it again!

Anyway, some pics of the gardens:

ooh. pretty.
Flowers still exist at the end of fall!
So Upper East Side… but it’s East Harlem! Gotcha!
Just a regular day walking her bunnies in the park for this Upper East Side resident…. what?!
I want reading in this park to be part of my regular routine.

After sitting out in the sun in just a tank top in November for a couple hours, and enjoying every last minute of sunlight I could in the park–I didn’t leave until shadow fell over most of the park–I headed into East Harlem.  It’s a mainly Hispanic neighborhood, i.e. not a 6-foot-tall blond model or hipster in shrink-wrapped leather jeggings in sight.  In fact, people here have the opposite fashion sense: wide, loose-fitting pants reign supreme here, and I am a big supporter.  Obviously I had to take advantage and eat some Latino food because you know I’m a foodie at heart. With the help of my trusty restaurant advisor, Yelp (seriously, you guys, if you’re not using Yelp, you really need to get on that train), I found a tiny Mexican restaurant called Cafe Ollin at E 108th Street and 1st Ave.

Here’s my unequivocal endorsement for Cafe Ollin: Go there if you want uncommonly delicious, cheap, filling, authentic Mexican food (not Tex-Mex).  Nothing fancy. No bells or whistles.  No woven brightly-colored table cloths or sombreros, and nothing painted a golden yellow (have you noticed that all Mexican restaurants must be painted golden yellow?).  Just bare tables and chairs; a couple Catholic decorations on the walls; a few small, potted cactuses on the table alongside the hot sauce; and a TV playing futbol–obviously mandatory.  The chips were thick, corn-tortilla style chips; they tasted like handmade tortillas that were cut, fried, and salted right before being put on our table.  The salsa verde had a bit of kick, which any legit salsa needs to have.  You don’t really respect a Mexican joint that serves mild salsa, just like you don’t respect a Pho place without Sriracha sauce.  (AM I RIGHT?)  I love tomatoes so I normally prefer tomato salsa to tomatillo (green) salsa, but this stuff was tasty.  And garlicky.  And had just the right amount of cilantro/onion/magical Mexican seasoning to it.  Yum. They had a fridge full of intriguing soft drinks, too–the South American kind, which are made with real cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.  We got a goiabana (passion fruit) flavored drink, hilariously named “Boing.”  I was tempted to try the horchata, which I for some reason had always thought was a minty drink.  But it’s actually made with milk and rice and vanilla or cinnamon, and milky drinks and I don’t always see eye to eye. (Remember how I kind of think most white, creamy foods are gross?)

Our entrees did not disappoint after the great chips and salsa.  On the suggestion of our waitress/dona of the restaurant, I got one of the cemitas, a traditional Mexican sandwich.  I’d never heard of these things before, but the waitress made a good sell for the spicy pork cemita, so I was happy to trust her.  The thing comes out and it is literally the size of a basketball–almost as tall as it is wide.  A lesser person might have been daunted by the enormity of this sandwich, but no, I tackled it with verve and gusto.  Between two plate-sized sesame seed buns sat a tall stack of ingredients, all fresh, seasoned well, and a wonderful combination of flavors.  Each bite of the sandwich (which, believe me, was actually difficult to bite through the entire sandwich at once) took you through the multiple layers of goodness: lettuce, tomato, onion, Oaxacan cheese, black beans, avocado, spicy pork, all topped off with a smoky chipotle sauce.  This is the type of sandwich I want to have available to me when I’m hungover, and don’t want to move from my couch, but could really use a huge portion of excellent-tasting food to make me feel like a normal human being again.  I could have used some more tomato in the sandwich, because I could put more tomato on just about anything, but that’s me.

This picture does not do justice to how big this sandwich was.

My friend got tacos with–get this–cactus!  I was so intrigued by cactus because I’d never had it before–would it be tough? what do they do with the prickly things?–and it actually tasted just like sauteed green peppers, perhaps even more tender, and with less of that green pepper kind of bland taste.  Interestingly, the tacos came with potatoes, as well as jalapenos, avocado, and cheese, but the texture and flavor were spot on.  I really liked what I tried of his dish, and would probably order it if I went back.  He also said it was some of the best Mexican food he’d had in the area, which, for East Harlem aka Spanish Harlem, is saying a lot.

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3 thoughts on “Venturing Beyond Lower Manhattan and the Biggest Sandwich in East Harlem

  1. Hey, I came across your blog while ‘googling’ Cafe Ollin. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your journey throughout East Harlem.

    I am the son of the owner and I actually make many of our sauces and salsas, so your positive review of our restaurant makes me smile.

    I’d like for you to come by some other time and enjoy another meal on me when you decide to trek back to East Harlem.

    P.S. If you follow through on my offer ask for Orlando (me). I’m usually there in the afternoons. An e-mail beforehand would be great.

    1. Hi Orlando, thank you so much for the nice comment! I really did think your restaurant served great, unfussy, delicious food! I will be sure to get back there at some point!

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