As we become increasingly health conscious when it comes to dining out, the concept of fast food that can be prepared on-demand from fresh ingredients has been popularized by chains like Chipotle, and Moe’s, among others. It’s no accident that these restaurants feature southwestern flavors, because — let’s face it — Mexican food is awesome, and the variety of preferred-ingredient combinations is almost endless. Who misses a Burger when you can do a Burrito Bowl dozens of different ways? What’s really fun and exciting for a foodie like me is to see the Chipotle model emulated to expand beyond Mexican into tasty Mediterranean and Latin cuisines. Recently, I was invited to visit Cocina Del Sur, a midtown fast-casual restaurant specializing in Latin dining that is both healthy and indulgent. Let’s check it out!
Aside from the food, the Latin flare extends to the music and decor of the restaurant, which customers seem to enjoy.
Open since 2016, owner Ronny Abenhaim draws on his South American roots to create Cocina Del Sur’s simple menu of fresh and vibrantly flavorful ingredients. Ronny explains, “although Cocina Del Sur has a bit of every country in South America, it has a heavy Colombian influence since that’s were I grew up. You can find many of my childhood favorite dishes and ingredients on the menu.”
Diners can custom-build a meal from two basic starter options: a Plate, which includes your choice of two side dishes and a sauce for $10.95; or a Salad or Bowl, which includes a base of Lettuce, Rice or Quinoa, plus three additional ingredients and one sauce for $8.95. A selection of seven different proteins, with choices like grilled organic chicken, organic tofu, and grass-fed hangar steak can be added to your meal for a nominal extra charge ($1.00 to $4.50). All meats are brined and marinated overnight to be extra flavorful and tender.
If this seems confusing at all, the staff is very friendly (on my visit I met Kevin and Daisy, who are both really nice and excited to be working with Ronny at Cocina Del Sur), and they will be happy to explain how ordering works or to answer any questions about how the food is prepared.
Customize your level of spice with a choice of sauces that include Green Chimichurri, Pico Del Gallo, House BBQ, Tomatillo (with little Avocado in it), Chili Pepper, Mango Salsa, or the House Dressing.
On my visit, I brought along my foodie friend Anne and we had fun customizing our meals from so many delicious options. I chose the Bowl option (pictured above) with a base of cilantro rice, with roasted corn, black beans, crispy fried onions as my ingredients, and garden-fresh pico de gallo as my sauce (total $8.95). I then added the organic grilled Chicken ($1.00) and a sliced half ($2.00), which brought my total to just $11.95 for a huge, healthy and delicious meal!
Anne also chose a bowl with cilantro rice, roasted corn (which is cut from the cob after roasting in-house), caramelized onions and black beans, adding sliced, grass-fed hanger steak to her meal for an additional $3.00, bringing her total to $11.95 as well. If you dine regularly at Chipotle, Chop’t or Sweet Green you can see that Cocina Del Sur’s prices are very competitive.
Anne chose the Green Chmichurri sauce, which goes so well with hanger steak, and they gave us an extra Pico De Gallo to share! You can see how fresh it is. “The sauces are what takes you to a certain country in South America,” Ronny explains. “What sauce you add to your meal is kind of what decides ‘which ride you will take.’ For this reason, everything is made from scratch, chopped and prepped in house; since our lunch hours are very busy, nothing stays on the shelves for long and everything feels very fresh. We don’t own freezers or microwaves and we don’t allow cans in our kitchen. We use seasonal and quality ingredients to get better flavor and keep the menu healthy.”
We also ordered a side of Sweet Plantains ($3.50) to share. These plump plantains were fried up just the way we like them: sweet, moist and tender and just slightly caramelized on the outside. Perfect!
If you want to add a healthy beverage to your meal, why not try one of Cocina Del Sur’s fresh juices, which are a specialty that Ronny wanted to have on the menu, as they are made with exotic fruits imported from South America. “Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil are right on the equator line,” Ronny explained, “so the climate is perfect for all the delicious, exotic fruits in the world. Growing up, I would have breakfast and lunch accompanied always by a different juice freshly made in the blender minutes before. I can’t always find Passion fruit, Guanabana, Honeydew, Watermelon, Mango, Blackberry, Nispero, Lulo, Tamarind here in the US, so the fresh juices is the only category on the menu where we are always looking for ways to bring these beautiful fruit flavors from South America.”
I tried the Blackberry Juice, made with a Colombian Blackberry which is a bit different in color and flavor from the Blackberry in the states. Ronny described it as being “like a combination of a raspberry and a blackberry,” which is flash frozen at its peak ripeness, then vacuum sealed and sent to the restaurant. The juice was sweet and light and very refreshing. All juices are $5.50 and come in a bottle for grab-and-go-convenience.
Our order was ready in about ten minutes and we sat at one of the small tables in front to dig in to our Latin feasts! Everything in the bowl was bursting with fresh flavor! The rice was fluffy, the black beans tender from hours of slow-cooking, and the corn had that just-picked sweetness with a subtle roasted flavor, while the crispy texture of the fried onions added such a perfect compliment to the other flavors. The very generous portion of creamy avocado was perfectly ripe as well. Most importantly, the chicken was grilled to perfection, moist and tender.
Anne also loved her meal and noted that the hanger steak was perfectly cooked: seared on the outside and just a little pink in the center. If you’ve eaten food that is so good, you wish you could eat the plate, that is how I felt about my meal at Cocina Del Sur. Eating their health but undeniably indulgent food made me feel comforted and happy, but also excited about a return visit! “Our customers tell us how fresh and flavorful the food is at Del Sur,”says Ronny. “In Midtown, it’s hard to find good food at a decent price, and served quickly, so we can offer a freshly-made, healthy meal for around $15 dollars in under 15 minutes. And our menu is so flexible, you can visit us 30 days in a row and have a different meal every day!” Asked what he enjoys most about operating Cocina Del Sur, Ronny didn’t hesitate, “I get to do what I love, and I get to feed a lot of people each day and remind them that it is food that makes them happy!”
Cocina Del Sur can also cater your Holiday party! Contact them at the email address or phone number shown above to get all the details!
Cocina Del Sur is Located at 40 West 38th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues) in NYC. Hours are from 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM Monday through Friday (Closed Weekends). Connect with them online at Del Sur Dot Com and Follow them on Instagram at @delsurnyc! You can order from them on Seamless as well!