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A location on this most famed Beach boulevard usually provides enough foot traffic to sustain even the most mediocre restaurant (and as a result, more than a few mediocre restaurants do business along this stretch), though the throng of tourists thins considerably on the block between Fifth and Sixth streets, where the Mare Grande sits. Two former businesses in this space, an upscale pizzeria and an Argentine steak house, folded faster than a WAMI talk show, but Casa Salsa has gotten off to a promising start. During our first visit, on a Friday night, the place was packed.
Too packed. Although the three levels of outdoor seating can comfortably accommodate 50 people, the indoor tables, which seat twice that many, have been pushed so close together there's barely enough room to slide a tortilla between two of them. This meant that we could make out every word that the two couples -- one seated to our left, the other to our right -- were saying. It was almost as if we were sharing the same table, and no doubt I would have picked up some relevant comments concerning the food if they weren't speaking in Spanish: The clientele here is largely Latino.
To its credit Casa Salsa has refrained from hanging on its walls black-and-white photos of old San Juan, movie stills from West Side Story, and autographed glossies of baseball great Roberto Clemente. In fact I detected no discernible Puerto Rican motif in the minimalist decor. The dining room's mustard-yellow walls are bedecked only with red, corkscrew-stemmed plastic light fixtures. But in a corridor wall toward the rear of the restaurant you can eyeball several gold records and other Ricky Martin-related memorabilia. Martin, a former member of the Puerto Rican superstar group Menudo and now a solo pop heartthrob, is one of Casa Salsa's seven proprietors. He and his partners also own Ajili Mójili, a renowned San Juan restaurant.
The Puerto Rican theme may not be visually prominent, but it is certainly evident in the sound of the place: Latin rhythms pulsate through the restaurant's audio system (a bit too loudly by the outdoor tables), and live salsa and plena music are performed on Friday and Saturday nights from 10:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. It also shows up in the bar's specialty drinks, made with Puerto Rican rum, and most significantly in the food, orchestrated by chef Linda Denizard, who hails from Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Okay, maybe there is one minor visually thematic touch: Waiters wear pleneros, the island's popular white straw hats with cloth bands.
We began our meal with the soup of the day, plantain in chicken broth, or as our amiable and talkative waiter described it, "Puerto Rican matzo ball soup." The concept is indeed similar, although the two plantain spheres that sat in the soup's broth apparently lacked the binding abilities of matzo meal: Both disintegrated when touched with a spoon, clouding the tasty chicken stock. Another soup, this one from the regular menu, is made from the yautia, which many people know by its Cuban name, malanga. (The English translation on Casa Salsa's menu is "white yam.") One of the oldest root crops in the world, it possesses a much stronger flavor than most tubers; I think of it as a love-it-or-hate-it food. The taste is often compared to walnuts, but to me it suggests chestnuts, butter, and a touch of must. I love it. When boiled it becomes soft and creamy, losing much of the mucilaginous texture that some folks find objectionable. This makes the yautia ideal for soups; the version here is a simple but delicious puree of yautia with chicken stock, celery, and carrots.
Like many other starchy root vegetables, the yautia is versatile, so I wasn't surprised to see white-yam cheese balls as one of the seven "fritters" offered as appetizers. (Technically a cheese ball isn't a fritter; for that matter neither is a turnover, though they're grouped together that way on the menu.) These one-inch yautia "bolitas" were breaded and fried on the outside, soft and delicate inside. I'm surprised our waiter didn't refer to them as "Puerto Rican Tater Tots." You can order the fritters individually, but we opted for an assortment platter of four: white yam, pumpkin (sweetened with banana and sugar), bacalao (salted codfish) in a soft pastry casing, and savory meat turnovers made with ground beef, onion, peppers, and raisins. (My wife was surprised that the turnovers contained no Spanish olives. We didn't detect them in any of the dishes here.) The fritters are served with ajili mójili sauce, traditionally a tomatoless salsa made with sweet chili peppers; Casa Salsa's version comes with a tomato base that Americans are more accustomed to.