July 13, 1998 | Insatiable Critic

Plantain Hollywood

        If I hadn't backed into a fiery radiator and burned my thigh my first day in ballet class at the age of 8, I would definitely have been a ballerina. I was so tall, Maria Tallchief struck me as an omen of my personal destiny. Born to dance, condemned to eat for a living. I came alive again in the late seventies at Regine's, the quirky Ice Palace, Xenon, and just before dawn at Studio 54. Then disco faded. But like Baryshnikov, I would not surrender. So when my midnight crony -- a man-about-town legendary for his devotion to topless dancing and a pathological Pétrus habit -- puts together a posse of aging disco emeriti for a night at Jimmy's Bronx Cafe, I'm in.

        Not like I don't have a few jitters. What do I know about the Bronx? I went to a Yankees game once and reviewed a shore dinner on City Island. I read Tom Wolfe, so I know what can happen if you get a flat tire in the Bronx. There are men from the Bronx in my life, most comfortingly the Road Food Warrior. Yet even he is wary: "What cabbie will take us there?"

        "Easy. I'll use my drive-me-to-Harlem technique." We pile into a taxi. I give Doctor Ruth her fifteen seconds, wait for the meter to drop, then hit the guy matter-of-factly with the news.

        "Whaaaaa," he says. "I nevah been dere." So much for that ploy. Whoosh, we're back out on the street. I try a more direct approach on the next cabbie, lounging at a red light. "Can you take us to the corner of Major Deegan Expressway and Fordham Road?"

        "Get in fast, lady," he says. "That's where I live." We zoom up the West Side Highway, veering off at the Major Deegan. Eyes right after the Fordham Road exit, and there it is. In neon. Jimmy's Bronx Cafe, overlooking the Harlem River. There's even valet parking. And what a surprise: I'm expecting West Side Story, a steamy cauldron of Latino hipsters. Instead, we see balloons at a baby shower, Mom and Pop with the kids, happy-birthday fanfare. It's a criollo commissary for the neighborhood as well as a sports bar with signed jerseys from Latino jocks. Most everyone in our little galaxy of downtown swells has been here before and knows the drill. The waiter swoops in with polyester napkins, a vamp for VIPs when everyone else gets paper.

        My Pétrus-sniffing pal has given my anonymity away. "I never heard of you," Jimmy Rodriguez admits with unshellacked candor. Street-smart, charismatic, slick, he speaks with an enduring innocence and unabashed confidence. Rodriguez lacks the defensive cool so epidemic downtown. But then, he got his start peddling fish on the street with his dad and brother, and it's come to this: a 450-seat dining room, space for 1,000 in the adjoining club, catering hall below. This is where Castro fueled a year ago, where El Duque celebrated his first win for the Yankees after escaping Cuba on a raft. "I used to play Little League as a kid with Bobby Bonilla," says Rodriguez, incredulously. "Now I'm catering to the Yankees. I feed Joe Torre." His Yankees profits go toward Little League uniforms, for 50 local teams so far. "My goal is to have a Little League team on every block wearing Jimmy's uniforms," he says. "I'm doing for the Spanish people what Sylvia did for the blacks. I want to bring pride back to the Bronx."

        The chef hits us with the specials, mostly good and very good -- crisp fried plantains to scoop up black-bean mash, savory empanadas, sweet and juicy spare ribs, and yucca patties stuffed with bits of filet, about $30 per person, drinks and tip included. A roving photographer with a mate zipped into a Mickey Mouse suit wants to take our picture, but we're hot to disco. By the way, unlike at Regine's or Decade, dinner here doesn't get you into the club. That's another $20, and don't come in jeans. Ian Schrager, James Truman, and Robert Isabell once got nixed at the door. It took a call to Rodriguez to get a waiver. "I tell the doorman, if it's a gentleman in jeans, let him in," says Jimmy, tall and Hollywood-glam in a suit and shirt of midnight blue.

        Uh-oh. I'm a goner now. Rodriguez takes my hand and leads me onto the floor. I'm doing the merengue, or maybe it's the salsa. No stand-apart boogie here. It's close-up dancing, prefeminist, go where he goes. Jimmy whirls me around and into the hands of a minion. He's a tall, handsome fashion ad, too. But not Jimmy. Never mind, I'm still twirling. That's what you get for your money: Jimmy's staff assigned to keep folks dancing. Free salsa classes Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. Karaoke in the bar on Tuesday and Friday. Mythic Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Colombian bands fire up live Fridays through Sundays at one or maybe two, and the room goes electric just as we're fading. Why so late? "We're Spanish," says Jimmy. "In Spain, they don't eat dinner till midnight." Outside, a line of service cars wait to take quitters home.

        I remember my Studio euphoria. I didn't need alcohol or toot to get me high. Dancing till two or three in the morning was enough. Now I'm hooked again. One week later, the chef is preoccupied, reconciling with his wife in the club, and we order off the traditional Caribbean menu, entrées $8 to $40. With a few exceptions, dinner is love's labors lost. Two weeks later, that chef is gone, and a second is out sick. But inexplicably, the kitchen is better than ever. Sensational clams Cassino, empanadas, and a duo of soups, lukewarm but delicious -- "seven seafood with rice" and the special sancocho (a cosmic stew of lamb, chicken, and beans) -- are dinner enough. Tonight's calamari is tough, a paella with too-cooked sea critters disappoints, and the pork medallions have an odd aftertaste. But the filet is marvelous in a sweetish sauce with logs of fried yucca, as is the perfectly cooked giant lobster tail. Feet are already tapping. A last spoonful of flan, two tastes of the tres leches cake, and a powder-room stop (jewelry and hair doodads for sale) -- then Jimmy introduces us to Felipe Lopez, the St. John's basketball star and, boasts our host, "the first Dominican player to sign with the NBA."

        On into the roil of silver lamé, teeter-totter ankle straps, salsa rogues, and limber ingenues. Intimidated? Not me. I'm dancing. Jimmy hands me off to his second. Suddenly, a stylish stranger has me swiveling in sync. Now two men are actually fighting over who gets the next dance. So what if they get paid for this? The small man in the camel-colored suit finally gets his turn. "You can dance," he assures me. "Don't let anyone tell you no. You've got the rhythm. That's Spanish, you know."

        "Maybe I'm part Spanish," I muse.

Jimmy's Bronx Cafe, 281 West Fordham Road, at the Major Deegan Expressway 718 329 2000

Cafe Fiorello