Banana Republic

No sooner did I master such words as fufu, the Cuban dish of mashed plantains mixed with pork rind, than I was confronted with mangu, its Dominican equivalent - except the Dominicans serve onions with mangu, and call the dish containing pork rinds mofongo. I still have a few things to learn about the ever-broadening cuisines of Miami, and I hope future experiences are as pleasant as the one I had recently at Cafe Mangu, the area's first full-scale Dominican restaurant, which opened late last year.

Located on Bird Road across the street from the Bird Bowl and next door to a Gabe's Burgers drive-through, Mangu, with its large, mansard-like roof and awning, is not hard to find. There's even a big sign on the roof that says "Cafe Mangu Dominican and Chinese Cuisine." But forget about the Chino fare; Mangu now specializes only in Dominican. That seems a good idea. God only knows what the Chinese call a dish of mashed plantains and onion.

Mangu's art deco, L-shaped dining area is awash in seafoam greens and pinks. The ambiance is reminiscent of the Beach, with only a couple of island notes: A large sketch of a woman seated in front of a horse-drawn refresco-vendor's cart, and, in the corner, a merengue, guira, and tambora, which are used on weekend evenings only. If Dominican music is as lively as the cuisine, this joint must be jumpin' on weekends.

As we waited for our Dominican friend to arrive, we perused the appetizer list and settled on an order of pastelitos de pollo y carne, fried pastries filled with chicken and beef ($1), and an order of longanizas, Dominican-style pork sausages served with fried green plantains ($4.75). Some of the appetizers, such as the masitas de puerco (at $6.50, the most expensive starter) and the aforementioned mofongo, are familiar to aficionados of Cuban cuisine, but others - we were told later by our friend - are more indigenous to the Dominican Republic, such as pastel en hoja, or green plantains steamed in banana leaves.

We had received two sausages of about six inches in length, accompanied by about a half-dozen tostones, and four pastries, but by the time our friend showed up, all that remained was a morsel of the delicious, spicy sausage, and a single pastelito. We washed down the buttery, flaky pastries, which tasted very much like empanadas to me, with Presidente beer ($2.25 a bottle). While the dishes are described in English, they are slightly more elaborate than the explanations. For example, the pastelito filling contained juicy raisins, an unexpected taste treat.

Entrees include many popular Dominican stews, and range in price from $10.95 for a filet mignon sauteed with mushrooms and served with rice and plantains, to $4.95 for various style sancochos, or "boiled dinners." Cubans use the word sancocho as a synonym for an unappetizing dish, but that definition doesn't apply to Mangu's concoctions. We tried two: one with meat and red beans, and one with meat and vegetables. Both were excellent and had a hearty beef flavor. Our friend told us that these were authentic Dominican-style sancochos, prepared with different cuts of beef and chicken and, "if made at home, any other meat the cook wants to throw in - almost always six or seven types." With each order, we received large bowls of steaming white rice dotted with fresh parsley.

Most of the main dishes are priced in the $4.95 to $6.95 range, and include a difficult-to-find Dominican dish called chivo (kid) cooked in wine, and paticas de cerdo guisados con garbanzos y arroz blanco - stewed pigs' feet with chick peas, served with white rice. In addition, five grilled meats - from chicken to pork chops to skirt steak rolled with bacon - are on the menu, as are several seafood dishes.

Over cups of espresso, we finished off our meal by sharing a dish of majarete ($1.85), a creamy, custard-like pudding made from corn, milk, and sugar. Other desserts are similarly priced and include homemade flan, rice pudding, and shortcake. Oddly, the dessert listing is not translated into English, but you'll be able to figure out most of them. If you can't, ask. The chef-owners - two young, friendly, Dominican women named Marinita and Victoria - and the waiters speak very good English. As for me, if only I could get straight the difference between fufu, mangu, mofongo, and mashed green bananas, I could probably learn to merengue.

CAFE MANGU
9280 SW 40th Street; 226-0336. Hours: Daily from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

 
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