Feast to West, V: Niagara Cafe
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • December 02, 2011 @ 7:00am
There’s an incredible amount of charm to Niagara Cafe, a bustling ambiance that’s equally as valuable for its atmosphere as its refreshing selection of deep-fried food. You know those days when you’ve been scolded by your boss, gotten rear-ended in your car or suffered through the day with a throbbing migraine? Those are the days when a huge piece of deep-fried pork soothes the soul and satisfies the belly.
The dozen times I’ve visited Niagara Cafe—for lunch, dinner and post-dinner snacks—the Puerto Rican restaurant never fails to be busy. Part of the magic is that owner Raul Hernandez and his staff are versatile: there’s a quick line for takeout, booths and tables for a comfortable sit-down meal and a separate bar area with a flat-screen TV. There’s plenty of energy in the air—a fairly-loud radio churns out Top 40 music and the buzz of nearby chatter offers more liveliness than your average meal.
When Intern Dan and Ben T. strolled in during the early afternoon last week, we had pastelillos (pasta-LEE-Ohs) on our minds—and in our hearts. In their simple description, they’re basically fried meat pockets of glory—a crunchy outside shell cradles spicy beef and cheese, a combination that’s perfect when paired with the hot sauce that’s available at each table. Considering a pastelillo runs for $1.84, it’s worth it to buy three or four and never look back.
Dan sided with the “camarones fritos con arroz y habichuelas” (breaded fried shrimp with rice and beans), which included six large crunchy shrimp, white rice, tostones (twice-fried, flattened plantains), a tomato-based soup with red beans, cocktail sauce and mojito sauce. While fried shrimp are pretty fundamental, the coating certainly wasn’t soggy, the portion was appropriate and the several different sides kept the meal from becoming boring.
A quick note on the plantains: unlike your grocery store banana (their species relative), they’re not sweet or particularly “fruity”—they’re crunchy and starchy, and the addition of the mojito sauce lends a tangy flavor.
Ben T.‘s choice, “chuletas con arroz y habichuelas” (fried pork chops with yellow rice and beans), came highly recommended by Buffalo Eats’ Donnie Burtless, and it lived up to expectations. While my two hearty pork chops weren’t as hot, moist or oily as Donnie described in his post, there still was a contrast between the thin deep-fried outside and the pork within. I couldn’t help but add a little of the mojito sauce—meant for the plantains, of course—to lubricate and add flavor to the pork chops. There were small pockets of fat—where I believe there’s the most flavor—near the bone, a point of excitement for me.
—Appropriate for a date? Maybe, but casual.
—A work lunch? Absolutely.
—Late-night snack? Yes. Niagara’s Cafe’s open until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and until 8 p.m. Sunday.
—Upscale, dress-up dinner? Probably not.
—Inexpensive? Definitely—the dinners run for $8.28, the lunches are just over $5.00 and the pastelillos are an absurdly good bargain at $1.84. You’ll be full—with leftovers, perhaps—for under $10.00
—Service: No complaints, and Hernandez is an upbeat, personable owner as well.