Cheap Eats: Latin/Caribbean/Mexican

These great Latin, Caribbean and Mexican restaurants offers fantastic food at reasonable prices.

Costa Chica in New Brunswick
Photo by Laura Moss.

Centro Latino II (West New York)
Try not to scarf up every slice of the hot, buttery garlic bread you get gratis at this no-frills Cuban spot. Cornmeal-crusted fried empanadas filled with guava and cream cheese or shredded beef and potatoes are $1.25 each. Daily specials like cod creole, pot roast and chicken soup that puts grandma’s to shame range from $3.25 to $8.95. An $11.95 order of shrimp and yellow rice comes with two sides. Make one of them sweet plantains—creamy and caramelized enough to serve as dessert. 6500 Park Ave, 201-295-0001—CB
Doco Café and Market (Jersey City) Native Honduran Marcela Knipper and husband Tim last year took over a health food market and added a coffee, smoothie and prepared foods counter staffed by local Boys’ Club and Girls’ Club alumni. They take turns whipping up custard-like amaranth casseroles ($4); nutty quinoa black bean salads ($3); and plantain balls ($3.75) stuffed with refried beans and chorizo and topped with crema Centroamericana—“a sort of a salty crème fraiche,” says Knipper. On your way out, grab a $3.99 slice of bread pudding, made with Amish chocolate milk and chocolate croissants. 29 McWilliams Pl, 201-855-6767,—CB

Don Alex (Elizabeth, Union, Kenilworth)

Peruvians treasure corn. At Don Alex, they start you with a complimentary bowl of canchitas—big, crunchy kernels you’ll have to force yourself not to polish off at once. Try a classic starter like Peruvian corn on the cob with soft queso blanco cheese ($4). The popular purple corn drink chicha morada ($2 a glass, $6 a carafe) is a must. Tender, flavorful, whole roast chicken comes with sides ($15-$22) and feeds two or three. Equally good are specialties like tallarin saltado (spaghetti with beef or chicken, $10.50); and choros a la chalaca (mussels with spicy salsa, $10). 356 Rahway Ave, Elizabeth, 908-354-9270; 1988 Morris Ave, Union, 908-378-5695; 625 N. Michigan Ave, Kenilworth, 908-349-8060;—BY

Downtown Deli & Restaurant (Vineland)
New Jersey boasts the nation’s third largest Puerto Rican population. In South Jersey, alas, the food is hard to find. All the more reason to visit Cumberland County’s largest city for Downtown’s $1.50 frituras—handheld fried snacks ranging from cod pancakes to orbs containing plantains and ground meat. Servers load your saucy, sizable meat, chicken or fish entrée on a plate heaped with pinto or red beans, pigeon peas and yellow or white rice ($5.30). 705 Wood St, 856-690-9315—TN

El Caney (Bergenfield)
Tony Gonzalez, his mother, Nereida, and his wife, Cynthia, deftly conjure the flavors of his Cuban homeland at the aptly named 300-square-foot “The Hut.” The aroma of sofrito—sautéed minced onions, garlic and multicolored peppers—welcomes you. Sofrito turns ground beef into picadillo: as a $6.50 combo with rice and beans; beneath fried potatoes in a hot-pressed sandwich ($6); in a stuffed potato ($2.50), and as the filling in crispy fried empanadas ($1.50). Generous daily specials ($7.50 or less) include shredded beef (ropa vieja); cod, chicken, or oxtail stew; fried flounder; and shrimp in tomato sauce. Satisfying soups ($2.99 and $4.99), Cuban-style sandwiches ($5-$6.50) and homemade flan, rice pudding and flan cocho ($2-$2.50) round out the menu. Kids 12 and under can get a 16-ounce container of picadillo, yellow rice and yummy sweet plantains to take out for two bucks. Now that’s a happy meal. 49 West Church St, 201-374-1107—MACF

Sabor Unido (Newark)
One of the few restaurants in the Ironbound that doesn’t restrict itself to fancy steak and seafood, Sabor Unido celebrates the authentic Portuguese-Brazilian food the Campos family brought from Sao Paulo. Offerings include feijoada à transmontana, a pork, offal and sausage stew ($10 and $17), grilled sardines ($9.50 and $15) and the fish stew caldeirada de peixe ($10 and $17). 77 Jefferson St, 973-368-8553,—BY

Taste of the Islands (Vineland)
One order of curried goat, jerk chicken, steamed cabbage and rice and beans from Jamaican husband-and-wife Samuel and Monica Murray will set you back $12 and take about four meals to consume. Samuel, a former Harrah’s pastry chef, fires up his charcoal grill on the sidewalk. The aroma is all the advertising Taste of the Islands needs. 731 Landis Avenue, (856) 691-9555—TN

Cinco de Mayo (New Brunswick)
From its fresh-made chips and salsas to its $1.25 gelatinas for dessert, the food is classic Mexican. Choose from 17 varieties of taco ($1.95-$2.95), six types of burrito ($4.50-$6.50) or entrées like Oaxacan chicken (or goat!) mole ($7.50), steak with Nopales cactus leaves ($8.95) and the great meal-in-a-bowl that is posole con puerco ($7.50), a rich, spicy broth brimming with pork and big, tender kernels of hominy. Don’t overlook breakfast. The Mexican-style egg platters ($4.95-$6.95) are a good reason to get up early. 206 French St, 732-214-1551,—BY

Costa Chica (New Brunswick)
Its two locations score with budget-minded Rutgers students for $4.50 cheesesteaks and $4.95 “hamburguesas.” But the real deal is a rollicking roll call of soft tacos (11 kinds, $1.95); quesadillas (six kinds, $2.75-$5.95); burritos (six kinds, $3.95-$5.50), enchiladas (six kinds, $7.50-$12.95) and less familiar fare such as flatbread-like Mexico City huaraches con carne ($2.25). For $9, two can make out like banditos with the Botana Costa Chica appetizer, groaning with guacamole, smoky black beans, queso fresco, strips of grilled chicken, pork, beef and—this is Jersey, after all—hot dog halves and fried bologna. 314 Handy St; 350 Jersey Ave, 732-545-2255,—PT

Tacos Bravos (Bridgeton)
Come for a taste of Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca. Start with tlayuda ($10), a big, flat crispy tortilla showered with cheese, vegetables, meat and fresh greens. Familiar choices like tacos ($2), tostadas ($7) and quesadillas ($6) come with delicious Oaxacan salsas: Green is like a thin guacamole; red is mainly a purée of dried red chiles. As Oaxacan farmers do, sip horchata, the rice and almond drink ($1.50 and $2.50). On Sundays, traditional stews—goat, shrimp or menudo (organ meats)—are $8. 742 North Pearl St, 856-451-8583.—BY

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