Archive | Dominican RSS feed for this section

Man V. Mofongo: The Battle in the Bronx

26 Mar

Caridad & Louie's

When Mike from Yonkers sent out his email declaring Caridad & Louie’s the destination for our group, he prefaced it by stating: “I hope we didn’t frequent this place. (I have an odd feeling we have),” we could forgive him for his confusion. Even though he insisted his bride to be was doing all the work in preparation for his upcoming wedding and that he was just an innocent bystander, the overwhelming effects of that momentous day were obviously taking a toll on his psyche. We assured him that odd feeling was wrong. In our 13 years of scouring the boroughs (Staten Island excluded), Westchester and New Jersey, we had yet to visit Caridad & Louie’s (est. 1970) located on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx very close to our last group’s get together, The Dumplin’ Shop The Little Shop of Dumplins.

But something about that east Bronx location was a jinx for Zio. With his intentions set on joining us, a text blared on my phone just as we were assembling:  “Sorry, I will never be there in time. Stuck on the BQE. Going home.” I received a similar text when we convened at The Dumplin’ Shop.

When I informed Zio that Rick, who due to the harsh winter had not been able to escape his caretaking duties at the Overlook Hotel that was his house in Atlantic Highlands, was actually going to be in attendance but a little late, it still didn’t matter. “It’s out of my control,” he wrote, the disgust obvious in his text tone, leaving us to wonder why he was on the BQE in the first place.

It was that kind of winter for Rick.

It was that kind of winter for Rick.

We were seated in one of Caridad & Louie’s two massive dining rooms. The restaurant was sparsely filled, the bar area and second dining room was dark, but the steam table take out section was bustling. Claiming the “Best of Two Worlds,” Caridad & Louie’s advertised itself as Latin/Italian. But one look at the hefty colorful menu with photographs of some of the dishes displayed, the Italians in our group, not to mention the Jew and the African American, would not dare order from Italian food section.

Can't argue about the location, but the other claim???

Can’t argue about the location, but the other claim???

“I hear the grilled pork chops are good here,” Eugene announced.

“I heard that too,” Mike from Yonkers added.

So when they waiter came for our order, both Eugene and Mike from Yonkers chose… “bacalao.”

“Do you know what bacalao is?”  I asked Eugene.

“Codfish,” was his reply. “Also known as baccala.”

The waiter looked at me. “Since these two gentlemen have recommended the grilled pork chops, that is what I will have.”

Gerry also went with pork chops, but chose the fried variety while Rick ordered the pernil (roasted pork).

We couldn’t resist an order of mofongo de chicharron de cerdo,  smashed plantains with pork cracklings to start. When it arrived we each broke off a chunk of the mountain of mofongo. “Remember, Mike, there are five of us,” Gerry said to the voracious Mike from Yonkers who had been known to devour a dish meant for sharing leaving one of us without even a scrap.

After a few bites of the mofongo, I wondered if I had broke off a piece of one of my teeth.

“No, that’s just a piece of the cracklings,” Gerry said.

“What  happens when a crackling cracks a tooth?” I wondered out loud.

The Mofongo

The Mofongo

Before we could finish the dense mofongo, our platters arrived, all were momentous in size and all were accompanied by rice and beans.

The pork chops, though just a bit dry, were worthy of their previous accolades, but it was Rick’s pernil, tender, garlicky and with a nice charred skin on some of the pieces, that was the highlight.

The specialty of the house of Caridad & Louie

Grilled pork chops: The specialty of the house of Caridad & Louie

We were all finished except Mike from Yonkers.“How is the bacalao?” I asked him as I watched his unique method of spreading the codfish stew onto the rice as if he were coating a cracker with it.

“It’s good,” he said, “but the rest is coming home with me.”

Our group looked at each other. Mike from Yonkers was a notoriously deliberate eater, yet, as I’ve indicated here, a prodigious one, but here, at Caridad & Louie’s, to quote a once popular television program, “In the battle of Man Vs. Food, on this day: food won.”

Caridad & Louie’s

1660 Gun Hill Road

Bronx

It’s a Floridita Thing

29 Apr

I’ve never been to Cuba, but I hear the place in Havana that Hemingway made famous is a serious tourist trap. Floridita The old writer probably wouldn’t have appreciated having tourists pose next to his bronzed self at the famous restaurant’s bar.

Buy that man a daiquiri.

Buy that man a daiquiri.

Instead, he would better appreciate what can be found in and around my neighborhood in New York. Floridita (4) The options are many here, including pizza. Floridita (6) Maybe a cafe con leche and a slice of tres leche cake…not to mention pastrami and roast beef at the Floridita Bakery. Floridita barI guarantee there are no bronze replicas of Hemingway at this Floridita. But do they make a proper daiquiri?

Since the daiquiri is a Floridita thing, the Floriditas of New York aim to please.              Floridita daiquiriThis daiquiri might not conjure images of raucous nights with that crazy writer in old Havana, but at least you don’t have to travel through Mexico to get it. And they even take credit cards.

Cuban Chuletas in a Casa in Chelsea

20 Nov

Rick’s choice of a Venezuelan place in Chelsea quickly raised some eyebrows amongst our group when we were notified. A few months earlier, we traipsed to Inwood for Venezuelan cachapas on Dyckman Street Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street.  It wasn’t only the relatively quick repeat of a cuisine that was odd, it was also the location. Chelsea, in its present incarnation, is not a neighborhood where we would think to find our kind of restaurant; meaning one suited more for our penny pinching tastes.

Still, we gave Rick the benefit of the doubt and to El Cocotero we all planned to meet. But a couple of hours before our meeting time, Rick sent an email that read as follows:  “Guys. Just got a call from the wife and we have to go to the hospital! It may be a false alarm, but please go enjoy Venezuelan food without me.”

The false alarm was a reference to the impending birth of his first child; the due date set for early December. We all wished the best for Rick, but his pronouncement was just too sudden and late in the day to stop us from heading to Chelsea.

Before anyone else had arrived at El Cocotero, Zio had scouted it out. “It’s so dark in there, you won’t be able to find your mouth with your fork,” he wrote in a text.

You couldn’t tell that power had been restored weeks ago in Chelsea judging by the lack of light in El Cocotero.

When I entered, I immediately thought Zio was exaggerating. It was dim, for sure, but the flickering candlelight wouldn’t stop me from stuffing my face. Reading the menu, however, was a more challenging issue. Without my reading glasses, the menu print seemed as insurmountable as trying to read a Russian novel without a magnifying glass.    Thankfully, Eugene’s eyes were stronger than mine and he informed all of us that the cachapas were ten dollars—almost $4 more than what we paid at Cachapas y Mas on Dyckman Street.

To make matters worse, the table we were given was so cramped that there was the very frightening prospect of rubbing thighs with Mike from Yonkers while trying to get the food from fork to mouth.

“This is a date place,” Eugene blurted out.

Indeed it was, and Mike from Yonkers was not my date. Since Rick was not going to be joining us, there was no reason to endure eating at a romantic restaurant with the likes of Eugene, Gerry, Mike from Yonkers and Zio—and I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

Our group slunk out of El Cocotero, lamely apologizing to the manager as we exited.

The prospects of finding something Chow City like in Chelsea, we knew, were not good, but we had to try. I knew of a nearby Szechuan place that I liked, though it was probably as expensive as the Venezuelan we just left.

And then I remembered passing a Cuban diner on 8th Avenue on my way to El Cocotero that looked like something closer to our criteria. I mentioned it and our ensemble headed in that direction.

In front of Casa Havana was a placard advertising Thanksgiving dinner for $10.95 and another displaying a glistening suckling pig for $12.95. Eugene didn’t have to see anymore to be convinced. He was halfway to a table when Gerry, still out on the street, whined that he had eaten Cuban food the previous day.

We looked at him. You could never tell whether Gerry was joking or serious.

“Really, I did—in Montclair,” he said.

We all hesitated. Eugene came back out of the restaurant. “What now?” he barked.

This was becoming a fiasco and Gerry knew it.

“All right, let’s just go here,” he gamely conceded.

While our Mexican waitress brought the Cuban menus to our ample table, Dominican meringue played over the restaurant’s loudspeakers. Glancing at it, I noticed that the prices were lower than what we would have experienced at the Venezuelan place around the corner, but more than we would have paid for similar food uptown.

There was nothing out of the ordinary on the menu; rice and beans, fried pork, fried fish, roast pork, shrimp in garlic sauce, beef stew, etc.

“Do you have the turkey?” Eugene asked our waitress, referring to what was advertised outside the restaurant.

She shook her head. “No, we just have that for that other day,” she said, meaning Thanksgiving.

Instead, he settled on shrimp criolla while Zio, keeping to his fishy pattern whenever we gather,  ordered the “lubina frita,” fried bass.

After his Cuban meal in Montclair, Gerry eschewed the entrees and instead chose a Cuban sandwich with a small bowl of black bean soup. Mike from Yonkers was rebuffed by his first choice of fried snapper and had to go to plan B: the baked chicken. I decided on the “chuletas,” (pork chops) in red sauce with yellow rice and black beans.

While we waited for the platters to decorate our table, all of us except Zio, who sipped a mango “batido,” had $5 Mexican beers.

Embargo beer options at a Cuban Restaurant.

The food came and we plowed through it without many exclamations. No one complained. No one praised. The chuletas were skimpily thin and swimming in a non-descript tomato sauce that benefited greatly by a large dousing of the house hot sauce.

Shrimp Criolla, yellow rice and black beans

Because the food did not inspire discussion, we had no choice but to listen to Eugene describe the annual Christmas party he attends—the one with the Viennese dessert buffet—as well as the many meals he eats at the all-inclusive resort he frequents in the Dominican Republic.

Who knew Shakespeare vacationed in old Havana?

Gluttons for punishment, to name just one of the things we are gluttons for, we could have just called it a night in Chelsea. Instead, hoping we would find something to praise, we all had dessert. Sadly, even the desserts; coconut pudding, coconut cake, tres leches cake, and chocolate cake, did not surpass uptown standards.

And, as he suspected it would be, Rick informed all of us that indeed the trip to the hospital was a false alarm. If only we could have said the same thing about our trip to Chelsea.

The Marathon to Malecon.

8 Feb

Malecon Restaurant
4141 Broadway
Washington Heights

It took three attempts for our group to get to Rick’s pick,  Malecon in Washington Heights. The journey to the busy corner of 175th Street and Broadway where Malecon is located had its winding trails and steep inclines, but in the end was worth the effort.

Malecon was touted by Ubie, Rick’s hairdresser/stylist/barber, as the best place for “Dominican” food in New York. And though we don’t know anything about Ubie’s food savvy, Rick’s hair is definitely impressive, so we just had to go on that.

The first detour on our trip to Malecon occurred a couple of months earlier when on the date we were to gather, Rick informed us that there was an event at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg featuring the barbecue of Myron Mixon.

The Brooklyn Brewery: The first leg of our journey.

Though I’ve been through a few barbecue wars myself, I don’t follow them on television. Apparently Myron Mixon is a barbecue celebrity and had just written a book on his expertise. This event was in celebration of that publication and included barbecue prepared by Mixon himself. Rick’s influence got our group invites to the event and he presented us with the option of the “Dominican place” or free barbecue and beer. Our decision was unanimous. We would postpone Rick’s pick to experience the Brooklyn Brewery and Mixon’s renowned barbecue.

After arriving promptly at the Brooklyn Brewery on an empty stomach and quickly downing two very cold and very delicious beers, while waiting (and waiting) for Mixon to lay out his food, I desperately reached for the pickles—the  only thing to eat—in hopes of not passing out in a mound of barbecue. Finally the ribs and brisket were assembled on the steam tables and our group, showing the skill and confidence accumulated by years of experience, positioned ourselves at  the front of the buffet line.

Our plates piled high, we began to dig in. The ribs were worthy of Mixon’s reputation; seasoned perfectly, smoked to moist tenderness topped with a subtle glaze of semi-sweet sauce. The brisket, however, even sliced thin, was like eating shoe leather. How could a barbecue master allow such a debacle? Shouldn’t pride itself prevent one from tarnishing one’s revered status? In other words, if I were Mixon, I would have dumped all the inedible brisket rather than foisting it upon the scavengers lining up for the buffet. But that’s just me.

Myron Mixon displaying his gnawing ability.

A few weeks later, channel surfing, I noticed Mixon’s silver-bearded visage on television. He was on a barbecue competition called “BBQ Pitmasters” on TLC (The Learning Channel). I watched as he competed in the “ribs” category and came in third behind a man named Tuffy Stone and the winning team called “Slap Yo Daddy,” comprised of Asian-Americans from California. When the results were announced, Mixon had the same look on his face that I did when sampling his brisket.

A month later, we tried again to visit the “Dominican place” recommended by Ubie. Late on the afternoon of our scheduled gathering, Rick emailed to say a work crisis had come up and he would have to cancel. I was on my way to a Little League tournament game with my son in the Inwood section of Northern Manhattan. I thought I might be able to get to the dinner in nearby Washington Heights, son in tow, if his game ended promptly. But Eugene was cranky and wanted to meet sooner than later; bitter that when most of the world was sleeping, he would be camped out on the RFK Bridge overseeing construction there. Since this was Rick’s choice, it didn’t make sense to assemble without him, but I was away from my email and deferred the executive decision whether to cancel or not up to Gerry. He, wisely choose to cancel.

Malecon’s cafe con leche receptacle.

We quickly rescheduled and this time there were no cancellations. I admit to not being a stranger to the food of Malecon. Though the Malecon I was familiar with was on the upper west side and known, to me, as “El Malecon.” A visit to Malecon’s website revealed that they were related.

The Malecon in Washington Heights was most definitely the big brother of the two. Not only was it located in the heart of New York’s biggest Dominican community, it was larger than “El Malecon” and its menu was much more extensive.

My experience with El Malecon centered around the monstrous roast chicken dinners they featured that included rice and beans or other starches like yuca, tostones or maduros. That and the restaurant’s addictive café con leche that went perfectly with its “desayuno,” the hearty Dominican breakfast comprised of longaniza (sausage), eggs, mangu (mashed green plantains) and guineo (boiled green bananas).

The self-proclaimed King of Roast Chicken.

The Malecon in Washington Heights had everything El Malecon had on the Upper West Side and much more including a large selection of mofongos, parrilladas (grill combinations) and something called picaderas.

Gerry ordered a pequena (small) picadera plate that was big enough for at least half of our rotund group and included a combination of fried meats; sausage, beef, pork, and chicken along with fried plantains.

Picaderas: the “pequena” plate.

Big brother Malecon, unlike El Malecon, was much more festive with tropical murals, meringue blasting and offering ice buckets of Presidente beer which, without hesitation, we crowded our table with.

There were side dishes and a few appetizers that looked tempting and Rick considered a few. I shook my head. “It will be too much,” I said, recalling my previous El Malecon experiences. And I didn’t get an argument from anyone.

A Presidente to accompany the King of roast chicken.

The vast menu made choosing difficult but I narrowed my choice down to one of that day’s specials—Malecon has a number for each day of the week—thinking I might get the roast pork or the bbq beef ribs. I went with the latter along with gandules (pigeon peas) and rice. Mike from Yonkers was considering a mofongo, but realized he didn’t get rice and beans with it…as if he needed more starch. Instead, he chose the codfish stew.

Bacalao guisado

Along with touting the restaurant, Ubie recommended Malecon’s legendary chicken and Rick ordered a “whole” as opposed to a half, which would have been more than enough. Both Eugene and Zio had the “fish of the day,” which was something fried and filleted and even smothered in an unknown sauce was, according to Zio, “still crispy.”

As I expected, the platters were large, the food densely delicious, though the ribs a tad on the sweet side, and the Presidente the perfect accompaniment. It was no reflection on Malecon’s quality, however, that everyone, excluding Eugene and myself, had leftovers; a first for our group.

Despite being overstuffed, I couldn’t resist sampling the coconut flan while Rick and Mike from Yonkers were easily convinced by our waitress to try the tres leches (three milk) cake. The flan I had was as dense as the rice and gandules, but the tres leches was moist, dripping with sweet milk and so good that it alone would make another journey,  detours and all,  to Washington Heights a high priority.

Tres leches cake.

Spanish Grease

11 Jan

After my second son was born in early 2004, the rest of that year seemed like a blur. I do, however, remember the trip to Brooklyn to El Viejo Yayo #2. And after re-reading what I wrote below, my exhaustion was evident and probably colored my less than enthusiastic response to our experience there.

El Viejo Yayo #2
317 9th Street
Brooklyn

 

 

It was tough; only the group of gluttonous gourmands could get me out for my first nocturnal venture since the birth of my second son, but out I staggered, on very little sleep, to Brooklyn, destination: El Viejo Yayo #2 (bonus points for anyone who knows what a “yayo” is).  This was Rick’s choice and, based on our Tandoori Hut experience, we were hoping history would repeat itself and that an inside tip, in this case a Latin restaurant recommendation from one of his Hispanic co-workers, would lead to a restaurant scoop.

Yayo 2 was in Park Slope Brooklyn in the increasingly trendy locale of 5th Avenue. But this was no trendy place. With the exception of the adornment of well-fed fish in a large fish tank, Yayo 2 was a simple, clean, relatively spacious, Dominican slanted, Latin restaurant. We were all able to assemble for this one and there was plenty of room for us. The meringue music was playing continuously and there was baseball (albeit exhibition baseball) on the television. The ambitious menu boasted not only Dominican specialties such as chicharron de pollo and an assortment of steaks and stews; it also had an “Italian corner” and a “Mexican corner.” All of us wisely stayed away from those corners and stuck to the Dominican dishes.

Unlike my local Dominican restaurant, El Malecon, Yayo 2 offered a selection of mofongos; double-fried tostones, stuffed with garlic, onions and pork cracklings, shaped into a cup and mixed with an assortment of meats and seasonings. To start we ordered two; one with pork chunks and another with sausage. They came to the table almost immediately and whether it was the density of the food along with the Presidente beer or whether it was my exhaustion, I was practically done before getting started. But the Yayo steak I ordered was soon to come and I was curious to sample Zio’s “horse steak Yayo style” as well as Gerry’s kingfish, Rick’s barbecue ribs, and Charlie’s chicken stew. The way he was protectively hunched over his fish, I knew better than to think I would get a nibble of Eugene’s fried tilapia.

 

Mofongo: The beginning of the end.

 

Soon my Yayo steak appeared; a slab of flattened, charred beef covered with onions and accompanied with a monstrous portion of yellow rice and red beans. Looking at the bounty in front of me, I knew I was in trouble. With the mofongo now anchored heavy in my gut, I began to labor my way through the tough, dry steak and pile of rice and beans. It didn’t help that opposite me I had to watch Zio heartily devour his horse steak—don’t worry, no ponies were harmed in production of Zio’s dinner. The steak was identical to mine, but covered with two eggs—over easy. I did sample a bit of Gerry’s kingfish, and Charlie’s chicken stew, but I couldn’t get myself to touch one of Rick’s ordinary-looking, and in his opinion ordinary-tasting, ribs. I was done; and to the surprise of the others, with half the slab of meat still on my plate.

Well, at least I thought I was done. I just couldn’t resist a tropical dessert and opted for the coconut pudding. A good choice, but not as good as the excellent flan I sampled from Gerry’s order.

 

 

As we left the restaurant having just barely met our $20 minimum, my stomach was beginning to misbehave. I do not blame Yayo #2 for this; exhaustion can do strange things to your body. But with the exception of the mofongo, which I very much liked despite its plaque inducing ingredients, and the desserts, Yayo #2 was a disappointment and not in the league of El Malecon in quality or value. Insider tips can be tricky; the insider might have an acquired taste for flattened, charred slabs of beef. You just never know. Despite how I felt the rest of the night, within 24 hours of the Yayo #2 experience, I was, I’m proud to say, able to regain my usual voracious appetite.

My son, the one mentioned being born just a few weeks before we visited El Viejo Yayo #2, will turn seven in a little over a month. Why does it feel then, like I was just there? And he was just a baby. Okay, that’s as deep as you’ll get me to go here.  I’ve not returned to El Viejo Yayo but from what I’ve gathered on the internet, it has not changed much. There is still a number one (36 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn) and a number 2, the one we experienced. It now has a website (www.elviejoyayo.com) and the menu, with a few minor deletions and additions, and, of course price increases due to inflation, has remained the same though El Viejo Yayo #1 seems a bit more stylish and doesn’t have the noted Italian or Mexican corners.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: