Get (Elevator) Shafted at Aries Cafe

Ah, Columbus Day: the holiday that reminds you that the cultural wars over Christmas are not too far off. I’m banking on the extreme majority of Midtown Lunch readers knowing the deal, but for those out-of-towners: while Columbus Day is generally regarded by many Italian-Americans as a holiday celebrating one of their own (who could also have been Jewish – hava nagila, baby!) many are now regarding it as an imposition upon native peoples.

What better way to declare a food blog’s position on Columbus Day than by hitting up a cuisine of one of the original islands discovered by Columbus and brought kicking and screaming into Latin America? Aries Cafe was recently mentioned by ML’s Twitter and having worked the next block over, literally next door to El Sabroso, I was definitely excited to give this place a shot. It last made an appearance on our pages during the storied and fabled Brooks Era. The time elapsed between merits a fresh look. Dueling Dominican/Caribbean elevator shaft eatin’ spots across 8th Ave? Don’t mind if I do!

The entrance to the 306 elevator shaft is currently right next to a large construction partition. Doubtless a lot of the workers grab their lunch at Aries. It’s on the south side of 37th, just past the Mi Ju Sewing store.

Hell of a line for 12:15. It was literally to the door. Remain to the right, there are freight and UPS delivery guys coming and going at all times.

Pork chops? Nice.

The kitchen looks like it’s the size of a standard coat closet cut in half. I didn’t see any obvious ventilation equipment, so I hope for their sake there’s plenty of water to drink.

You can score some bootleg DVDs and CDs if you want to. No need to schlep all the way down to the L train or Chinatown for your badly jostled camrip of Looper!

The hot offerings are stacked up and replenished pretty frequently since the containers are understandably on the small side. Today on the offering was stewed chicken, stewed beef, stewed goat, oxtail, and spaghetti. There’s also baked sweet plantains, the kind that’s a whole plantain. It’s not the normal maduros or tostones – fried sweet or fried green plantains – so don’t be surprised if you come for crispy or caramelized and get something that’s still sweet but not deep, dark brown. Unfortunately, there is still no menu – you gotta ask what they’ve got or call ahead. The odd part, I didn’t see the pork chops that one guy had nor did they mention them. Maybe I oughta come back with a better command of Spanish to ask?

This is $5 worth of food. It weighs something like 2ish pounds. Those beans? They aren’t just a layer over rice. They leave a punt inside the rice to scoop in MORE beans. Comparatively speaking, the goat isn’t a massive outlay of meat. You gotta be sure you speak up, too – it’s a noisy crowd and kitchen, and when they asked if I wanted gravy, my “yes, please” might have sounded more like “no thanks.” Nevertheless, there’s quantity – but as to the quality?

The beans are damn near creamy in their texture and are fully yielding to the bite. I could eat a bowl of these as soup and call it a meal. There’s lots of nice sofrito-esque flavor in there. It’s a good solid baseline of red beans. I can’t speak to individual variations between El Sabroso, Aries, and other Caribbean regional adaptations, but these are wonderful.

The goat is earthy with a nice low currylike spice to it. It’s not at fall-off-the-bone doneness but it’s pretty darn close. There are some really chewy parts of what I’m not sure of, perhaps fat or sinew, but they’re not at all unpleasant and lend to the tenderness of the goat. This is not lean meat but it’s smoky and delicious. Plus the pieces I had didn’t contain the tiny independent bones that love to sneak up on you when you eat it. First-time goaters, be wary of these little bastards. Biting down on one too hard can result in you helping your dentist’s kids through grad school.

My co-worker couldn’t stand the smell and decided to go get some of his own chow after I told him the details. He opted for the oxtail.

I’m used to really huge braised oxtail chunks but these look nice and meaty for their size. This one’s the smallest of the bunch but look at all that delicious marrow. There’s no line I could write about sucking it all out that wouldn’t be “that’s what SHE said” fodder but suffice to say, the oxtail looks amazing. My co-worker was really surprised at how delicious it was and alleged it was authentic – he grew up on a Dominican block and compared it to the same kind of oxtail you can get in Washington Heights. He too was a bit unhappy that there was so little meat, though.

To be honest, I still lean towards El Sabroso for two major reasons: 1) they have a menu, and 2) they have more than five options. Plus, El Sabroso does their own hot sauce that goes great with the dishes; Aries only has packaged commercial stuff. Aries is a buck or two cheaper, though, and you get a lot more. While I can’t claim that it’s better or worse than the oxtail or goat I had growing up, I can definitely say that both are worth a shot. Hell, at the very worst, you can picture yourself as some kind of secret lunch agent as you sneak your way into an elevator shaft for your lunch.

The + (What my Dominican co-worker said while drooling):

  • There’s nothing better than getting your food from a non-food-serving location
  • Loooooads of amazing beans
  • It’s cheap as anything!

The – (What the El Sabroso elites would say):

  • It’s not that hard to make copies of a daily menu or at least have a whiteboard.
  • How loud do you have to shout to make your order heard and understood?
  • There’s not enough meat to a portion and too much cheap filler.

Aries Cafe, 306 W. 37th St. (just around the corner from 8th)

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