One way to find interesting food is to cruise around a neighborhood, making notes when you see something that looks like a restaurant. On a recent drive up North Clinton, I first saw Chimo's Sandwich Shop, which had actually been recommended a few times, then Las Palma a block up. Speaking with the owner of Las Palma led me next door to the Carolina Bakery. Small, family-run, ethnic spots rule, and three more are now on my list.
Chimo's, run by Dominican Freddy "Chimo" Montero, has been open since 1996 at the corner of North Clinton and Avenue A. It's called a sandwich shop, but there are many choices apart form the pressed sandwiches so popular in the Antilles. Regular-sized sandwiches are $4 (or less), and huge. Dinners, which include rice and beans, cassava, plantains, or mangu (stay tuned) also start at $4.
Bill Klingensmith (check out his online dining guide at www.2taste.com) and I had way too much food for just $13. Our Cuban sandwich wasn't quite traditional. It had the ham and roast pork, but also turkey, and instead of the sharp flavors of pickles and mustard, it had mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, and onion. A DiPaolo roll was heavier than Cuban bread, but still pressed fairly well.
Two meaty pork chops came in the large stewed pork chop dinner, along with rice and beans and salad ($6). The pork was tender and tasty, and though the salad was dull, we were too busy stuffing our faces to complain. We topped the meal with an empanadilla, a fried dough pocket with meat, and a cola champagne. To repeat: All this somehow cost just $13.
Chimo's has a bunch of unusual stuff. Gizzards come stewed or in a salad, and orejitas (pig ears) will appeal to a few. The aforementioned mangu is a concoction of mashed, green plantain with butter, garlic, and onions. Malanga is a root vegetable that Freddy's wife, Margarita, described as like a yam, but not sweet.
Chimo's is small, largely takeout, with just a few tables. But it's clean and bright (belying the impression from outside). It will be closed for a couple of weeks at Christmas, then open in January with a new menu (prices up by about a quarter) and some remodeling. Because Chimo's has working lunch patrons, the service is quick. All in all, it's a great takeout lunch option, less than five minutes from downtown.
Las Palma is a block north, owned since September by Elizabeth Valdez and her husband, who are Cuban. Their menu is smaller than Chimo's, but they have more, nicer tables and a small bar (their liquor license is pending). Driving south on Clinton, I saw signs in the window advertising a Cuban sandwich for $3 and asopa de pescado for $1.50. A minute later I was ordering.
The Cuban sandwich was dynamite. Traditional all the way (pickles and mustard, pork, ham, cheese), it was on sweet Cuban bread from the Carolina Bakery next door, and pressed (probably) on a Foreman grill. It was a little smaller than Chimo's (both have their virtues).
The waiter was friendly, but we had a language gap. He seemed to be saying all he had was a large portion of the soup, so I went with it (a whopping $2.50). It had small bits of fish and rice, and a lemony, fragrant flavor. It made me feel like singing.
On another visit, fried pork chunks were dense and a bit odd ($7 with mounds of rice and beans). My companion ordered pork rib stew and that scored big, falling-off-the-bone tender and rich with flavor ($7). We also had tostones con salsa de ajo (fried, green plantain with garlic sauce). Most folks prefer ripe (sweet) plantains (maduros), but tostones are groovy, too; great for dipping or sopping up sauces.
Next door to Las Palma is the Carolina Bakery, and I'm not sure which Antilles island it represents. In addition to the bread for Las Palma's el Cubano, Carolina also has its own sandwiches: turkey, salami, and pastrami for $3, ham and cheese for $2 (50 cents for egg or lettuce and tomato).
More exciting are the Hispanic pastries, including various filled pastelones, which look something like turnovers. For years, I've searched for quesitos (cheese puffs) to rival those from the old Iris Bakery at Norton and Clinton, and here they are: delicately crisp on the outside, light and sweet inside, delicioso.
Margarita Montero is Puerto Rican, born and raised in Rochester, and also president of the North Clinton Avenue Business Association (NCABA). She was cleaning up the neighborhood when I first came by, and was hanging wreaths and garlands on Clinton the next time. It takes work to make an inner-city neighborhood attractive to customers, and Montero and others are working at it.
For me, an area is attractive when it offers compelling products and services. Chimo's, Las Palma, and the Carolina Bakery are all places to return to many times, all within a block. Nothing could be finer.
Chimo's Sandwich Shop, 1038 North Clinton Avenue, 266-1405. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Las Palma, 1193 North Clinton Avenue, 266-5760. Hours: 7 days, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Carolina Bakery, 1165 North Clinton Avenue, 266-2068. Hours: 7 days, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.