It pays to keep a sharp eye out for good cheap food; I often fail to notice worthy places right under my nose. Take Café Latino, a 40-seat, counter-service storefront at the rear of Center Plaza, that long, curved building across Cambridge Street from Government Center. I passed it several times as I was writing my review of Zo, the Greek spot next door, and thought, "Nothing to see here." That's because Café Latino is tucked away in a space dominated by Plaza Deli, an ordinary-looking American sandwich shop. A Chowhound tip brought to my attention what I'd missed before: that the guys over in the right-hand corner serve fantastic Puerto Rican food, most of it in portions big enough for two meals.
The so-called Daily Special plates (which rarely vary) are a great value: heaping platters of rice (white or black-bean-studded yellow rice), beautifully seasoned stewed pinto beans, plantains (ripe, in the form of crisp-fried, flattened, deep-fried slices called tostones, or green, in the tender, sweet version known as maduros), and an enormous mass of meat. Costillas a la BBQ ($7.99) is translated as "BBQ pork chop," but is actually roasted ribs in a sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce. Pollo asado ($6.99) is nearly half of a skillfully roasted chicken, hacked into pieces. The true standout is pernil asado ($6.99), a daunting pile of garlicky roast pork shoulder, moistly falling into delectable shreds, with some rind left on for dark, crackly, chewy contrast: superb. Sandwiches include a respectable, hefty Cubano ($6.99); skip the non-canonical lettuce and tomato and add mustard. Empanadillas ($2) are oversize, fried-to-order turnovers of finely chopped, sweetly seasoned beef or chicken with potato cubes: delicious with or without dribs of the accompanying Thousand Island–like sauce.
Watch for occasional (actual) specials, like the amazing, rich "lasagna" ($6.99), made with thin-sliced plantains instead of noodles, its meat sauce strewn with raisins and olives. Sancocho ($5.99/medium; $8.99/large), a gorgeous, hearty beef stew full of starchy vegetables, is served with rice or bread. Beverage options include the usual American soft drinks ($1.75–$2.25), plus some Caribbean alternatives like malta ($1.75) and tamarind nectar ($1.75). A breakfast menu includes American-style egg sandwiches ($2.75–$3.25), breakfast burritos ($4.95), and egg plates ($4.50–$5.95); lunch also includes pizza ($2–$2.75/slice; $15.75/pie). But Café Latino's wheelhouse isn't Yankee fare. Go instead for the Puerto Rican dishes in all their abundant, bargain-priced, nap-inducing glory: they're the ones that will make you glad you didn't overlook this place.
Café Latino, located at 3 Center Plaza, in Boston, is open Monday–Friday, 6 am–3 pm. Call 617.227.6800.