Jimmy Rodriguez disappeared two years ago. The man who, in 1992, turned a car dealership into Jimmy’s Bronx Café—one of the city’s hottest restaurant-nightclubs—became a local hero over the next dozen years as he splashed his name on restaurants like Jimmy’s Uptown in Harlem, Jimmy’s City Island in the Bronx and Jimmy’s Downtown on East 57th Street. But in 2003 and 2004, all were shuttered. This past July, Rodriguez returned, somewhat quietly, with a new restaurant in an old space—and no sign of his first name.
At Sofrito, located in the old Jimmy’s Downtown, he’s serving Puerto Rican cuisine in a not especially bedazzling environment. Rodriguez has updated the interior with graffiti murals and earth-toned walls. One of the city’s longest bars—at 100 feet—has a blaring TV every yard or so. The main dining area, a circular space in the back of the restaurant, features couches lining the perimeter and tables in the center.
The menu, too, is oddly uninspired. Jimmy’s Downtown was considered a forerunner in the Nuevo Latino movement—along with places like Patria and Chicama. Sofrito, on the other hand, sticks with $14 versions of Puerto Rico’s greatest hits: pork chops, arroz con pollo, empanadas—you get the idea.
The word sofrito refers to the sauce made with annatto seeds, onions, green peppers, garlic, pork and other herbs—and also means “frying lightly” in Spanglish slang. Half the appetizers have met the fryer: calamari, chicharrónes, green plantains and a dish of glistening, fire-engine-red, fried pork chunks that are as addictive as they are unhealthy (a side of Russian dressing offers no relief from the heat). Nonfried items, like barbecued pork ribs, didn’t fare so well; no amount of spice could help the overcooking.
Chef Felix Garson’s entrées work best when he sauces heavily. His garlic shrimp has a winning, thick white-wine sauce, and the critters are large, fresh and crisp. The ropa vieja distinguishes itself with a salty glaze—which reminded me of Chinese oyster sauce—that paints every crevice of the stewed meat. The house paella (pictured) uses lobster instead of shrimp, but each individual component (chicken, chorizo and clams) tasted overdone and bland.
If you ask the manager, as I did, who Mr. Rodriguez expects to eat here, you will be told that the focus is on neighborhood regulars. But as I picked over a serviceable rice pudding and a flan that tasted like cheesecake, struggling to hail our waiter above the din of the music, the thought of a Sutton Place crowd dining here four times a week seemed absurd.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Sofrito with the Rodriguez establishments of years past. Scenesters seeking buzz will find reasonable bang-for-the-buck here; the vibe might be reheated, but it still is a vibe—a recent Thursday visit found it two-thirds full, and gastronomes can appreciate a good Latin skirt steak. But when you’re branded the inventor of a cuisine, the impresario of a generation, a man who’s fed Fidel Castro and hosted Derek Jeter’s birthday party, the past is hard to escape—and Sofrito is ultimately just a halfhearted reminder of what used to be.