By: Michael Engle
In the previous installment of the Five Dollar Food Challenge, I visited Spanish Harlem and, on a whim, found El Aguila to be my new go-to for authentic Mexican cuisine. This time, I again returned to Spanish Harlem, but I intentionally ventured farther east for the sake of exploring a different section of the area. For my most recent Five Dollar Food Challenge, I found myself at La Isla, a local outlet for casual Caribbean cuisine.
Dining with a $5 limit is totally possible at La Isla! One $5 option is the "lunch special" from 11a-4p (except on Sundays), which consists of a choice among roasted half-chicken, fried chicken, fried pork chop, or ribs, along with rice and beans. Alternatively, one might choose to spend $5 on various frituras, which sit on a heated display shelf by the front window, inviting passersby to order one for the road. La Isla offers, among other warm snacks, meat-filled cassavas, meat-filled plantains, and meat patties.
Having never had the chance to sample a proper Cubano sandwich, I parked myself at the bar and ordered one for $5. Most Cubano sandwiches, including this one, are comprised of roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese, served on Cuban bread and finished in a panini-like press. (Curiously, mine seemed to lack pickles, even though the menu suggests that they should have been included.) The sandwich came out steamy, flavorful, and filling. After one bite, a friendly worker suggested that I might take my experience further. He offered a ladle's worth of broth from a meat stew, along with a tablespoon of minced garlic in oil. I instinctively combined the two extras, and gave my Cubano a French Dip twist. My sandwich also came with a portion of plantain chips to top it all off.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed my sandwich, I desperately wanted to sample the oxtail stew, which is La Isla's Friday-only special. (Other du jour offerings include Saturday's goat stew, Monday and Wednesday's mondongo guisado--tripe soup, and Thursday's shrimp soup.) I also would have considered trying the mofongo, which is a spiced plantain puree that can be topped with an additional protein. Unless you order the lunch special or a sandwich (as I did), you should reasonably expect to spend $8 or $9 for a main dish; based on what I saw other customers order, you may wish to take some home for a late-night snack. That being said, La Isla offers tasty, fast, and authentic island food, as well as an incentive to visit every day of the week in order to sample everything they have to offer.
La Isla, 1883 3rd Ave (between 104th St & 105th St), NYC 10029, tel. (212) 534-0002.