Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to the lower level of Grand Central for some quesadillas.
In my lifetime, Grand Central Terminal has always been the most pleasant of the city's big transportation hubs, with its grand Beaux-Arts design, instinctive pedestrian flow, and customer-friendly track-notification system. But back in the days when the building was open all night, and you could smoke and drink brown-bagged cans of beer, it wasn't quite a food destination.
That's all changed, and in addition to its main function—and alongside longtimers like the Oyster Bar and the old Campbell Apartment—a fairly large portion of the terminal now serves as a food and drink spot for commuters, tourists, and area office workers. There's the Great Northern Food Hall up top, and the Dining Concourse down below—a food court where you can choose from a dozen different restaurants and kiosks, including Shake Shack, Magnolia Bakery, Doughnut Plant, and Julian Medina's newish addition, Latineria.
Though something of a celebrity chef, Medina has a solid track record of running popular, clubby-feeling restaurants with food that's better than you expect, specifically at Toloache and Coppelia. Latineria is a counter-service spot with a menu of Latin crowd-pleasers. It's located right next to (and shares the kitchen with) his older, more taco-centric GCT booth, La Chula.
After getting your food from either counter, handed to you under an obscene amount of packaging even if you're dining in, you find a table from those scattered about the dining area. It's impressively clean and reasonably comfortable down here, considering your location. Eating in the dim, noticeably less airy spill-over area, dubbed the Side Car, is a slightly grimmer proposition.
Most of what I ate over the course of two large dinners at Latineria (and La Chula) was good. Not as good, certainly, as my favorite Puerto Rican/Dominican/Cuban lunch counters of old, but not nearly as bad as I feared train station food would be. The Pernil, for example, ordered on a Friday evening, was wonderfully tender and juicy, the fat left intact on the big chunks of roasted pig, though I wish the accompanying black beans and yellow rice had more presence. You'll want to request hot sauce; they hand out vinegary Valentina, which improves just about everything.
The Cubano also hit the spot, a well-constructed sandwich with layers of that good pernil, sliced ham, swiss, house-cured rice-vinegar pickles, and mustard, all pressed and warm between a crisp Cuban roll. And the empanadas were first-rate, a pair of crisp and chewy dumplings stuffed fat with, in my case, Beef Picadillo, which I suspect was simply the Ropa Vieja; and Cheese & Corn, which was delightfully sweet and gooey.
Stay far away from the Sancocho, however, which is an overly salted (yet somehow still bland!) disaster of a soup, littered with starchy corn and a depressingly dry square of gray beef. Speaking of depressingly dry, the Pollo Rostitizado, or Peruvian Roast Chicken, was one of the most desiccated birds I've ever been served, and the platter wasn't helped by the overly stream-tabled sides of Fried Yucca and Sweet Plantains.
To be honest, though, the best dish I ate down here was from Medina's La Chula next door, a Quesadilla overloaded with burnt-fried cheese and more ground chorizo than I've ever seen in one dish. Oily as hell, to be sure, but delicious. The Churro Sundae, also at La Chula, was pretty basic—they were out of Dulce de Leche, and had to use Nutella instead, a poor substitute—but it satisfied in an elemental sweet-and-cold way.
If you find yourself hungry at Grand Central, and you're bored of Shake Shack, by all means, get the Quesadilla, or the Empanadas, or the Cubano, at Latineria and La Chula. Heck, get the Churro Sundae too while you're at it.
Latineria and La Chula are located in the Lower Level of Grand Central Terminal, and are open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends (212-599-7501; latinerianyc.com)