Niagara Cafe was filled to the gills when we stopped by on a recent weekday, buzzing with teens to elderly patrons digging into their Puerto Rican fare.
The Niagara Street establishment is decorated in typical diner style, but the décor is not the focus here. The menu is subject to change without notice, but the prices when we stopped in matched an old menu we found online, within 50 cents or so. Nothing is more than $10, except the “family package,” which is $16 for a whole chicken, large rice and beans. We assembled a crew to taste as much as we could and the food did not disappoint.
The rotisserie chicken is one of Niagara Cafe’s most popular dishes, and the quarter breast of white meat ($6.90) was succulent and well-spiced, smoky, sweet and tangy. It went well with turmeric-scented yellow rice with pigeon peas and sweet Maduros, or caramelized plantains. A side order of beans were soupy but toothsome, with a nice tomato base and enough broth to pour over the rice.
Chuletas, or fried pork chops, was the priciest dish we ordered at $10. As one of our party exclaimed, “All pork chops should be done this way.” They were crispy and pounded thin, lightly spicy but not too dressed up, with no grease to speak of. Our order came with three chops and one of them was a bit dry, but we picked the bones clean.
Carne Guisada, or beef stew ($9.20) was a controversial order, with several of us ready to lick the bowl and others unimpressed. One said it tasted like Campbell’s canned stew, but the large chunks of fork-tender beef, broth-soaked potatoes and beefy broth are worth a try.
Tostones, or fried plantains ($3.25) were large, flattened patties of savory plantain, with a slight banana flavor and crispy, starchy texture. They were a bit bland by themselves, and the tomato-based sauce on the side did little to improve them. We could have skipped these for another Pastelillo ($2.25), a fried pocket similar to an empanada, filled with spicy beef ground fine and fried to shattering perfection. The Pastelillo flavors change daily, so check back often.
Another unfamiliar dish that turned out to be a favorite was the Alcapurria ($2.25), a roll made of Cassava, a yamlike root vegetable, and filled with that same beef mixture. Cassava is slightly sweet and starchy, which played well against the beef, and made an excellent side for the spicier chicken and pork.
Finally, we had to try the Roast Pork Hoagie ($6.25), a classic sandwich with ample pork, lettuce, tomato and onion on a fresh, squishy white roll. The pork was tender and shredded nicely, with that oven-smoked flavor that had me licking my fingers.
Niagara Cafe is worth a visit, whether you live close by or make a special trip. The food is reasonable enough to try a slew of sides, or feed the family for under $20.
Where: 525 Niagara St. (885-2233, niagaracafe.net)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.