Dreaming in Puerto Rican
I had figured my wife would be thrilled at the prospect of dining at Benny's Seafood Restaurant. After all, a reliable source recommended it to me as a "real Puerto Rican joint," and my wife is a real Puerto Rican gal. As it turned out, her reaction to the idea was a little less exuberant than I'd anticipated. "Find someone else," she said.
It occurred to me that perhaps she'd heard incorrectly; maybe she thought I said, "Sort of leaky restaurant." In fact her reluctance was the result of a conviction that Benny's cooking was bound to suffer by comparison to her mother's. After lengthy and complicated negotiations I convinced her to accompany me, though credit card statements at the end of the month will likely make the deal feel an awful lot like bribery.
Speaking of married life, Benny's is owned and operated by Ben and Wanda Ojeda of Cabo Rojo, a town in southwestern Puerto Rico. The restaurant's freshly painted, pale-yellow walls are adorned with framed posters from the island, but otherwise this could be any type of pretty storefront luncheonette. Tables topped with vinyl cloths seat 70 and are set upon a white and green tiled floor. A counter runs across the left side of the room. Wooden fans and faux-Tiffany light shades hang from a forest-green ceiling. Clean and simple.
Although Benny's bills itself as a seafood establishment, land and sea are equally represented on the nine-page menu. Appetizers, for instance, feature a variety of meat, poultry, and seafood fillings fried in empanada dough (empanadilla) or yuca dough (alcapurria), or tucked within a masa of yautía (taro root) and green plantains steamed tamale-style in banana leaf (pastel). We were particularly partial toward the last, which came packed with pungent pork.
The strong of heart can start with fried blood sausage imported from Puerto Rico, or green banana ceviche stocked with chicken gizzards. Gringos and their kids may favor fried cornsticks with "mayo-ketchup dip," or an "empanadilla de pizza" (translated as "fried pizza patty"). When I see such foods placed on ethnic menus to satisfy some perceived American palate, it makes me think that maybe other countries don't hold our national eating habits in particularly high esteem.
Soups like clam chowder and chicken noodle are eminently skippable. So are pastas such as fettuccine alfredo and linguine marinara, especially in light of the plethora of more authentic choices for dinner. The least interesting of these, a pair of fried pork chops with light, evenly browned crust, were reasonably tasty with a squeeze of lime. Fresh, steamy white rice and a cup of firm, tomato-sauced pinto beans came on the side, the latter containing unexpected cubes of sweet, tender pumpkin squash. "Roasted pork wedge" with yellow rice and pigeon peas (arroz con gandules) was imbued with fuller flavor than the chops, but came shaped and textured like a slice of pot roast -- and not an especially moist one.
Stewed pork heart and liver, stewed pork belly and ear, and stewed beef tripe are also on hand as entrées, but everyone at Benny's seems to order the mofongo, which is served in the wooden mortar in which it's pestled. To make mofongo, garlic is crushed in olive oil and removed from the mortar, then fried plantains are mashed with pork cracklings, and all are finally blended together. The resultant texture is similar to turkey stuffing -- matter of fact, I've been seriously entertaining the notion of using it as such during the upcoming holiday.
You can request a mofongo straight up, so to speak, but Benny's menu touts an entire page of meat, poultry, and shellfish toppings. The most popular mofongo (and from what I observed during my visits, the best-selling dish overall) is the one piled with thick chunks of terrifically juicy fried pork. A cup of chicken consommé comes alongside for wetting the mix, which tends to dry out and toughen as it cools, but we polished off our serving so fast the broth sat untouched. Portions come large and small, the latter big enough for two to stuff themselves silly with.
Benny's menu translates asopao as "Puertorrican gumbo." The bowl of thin, soupy, tomato-based stew was mostly taken up with soggy rice and pieces of chicken meat still on the bone, but it lacked the customary chorizo that would not only have given the "gumbo" reference credibility but could've also lent the timid soup some spicy/salty snap. Instead the kitchen just added too much salt. Until this point my wife had shown noticeable restraint in commenting upon the food, but she was now lamenting the "olivelessness" of the asopao, and used the opportunity to also note the cuisine's lack of culantro, sofrito, and in general, spunk. When I mentioned that olivelessness wasn't actually a word, she responded in Spanish -- never a good sign.
Not much of a breadth of seafood entrées -- just lobster, shrimp, and snapper. Any of the three are available breaded and fried, or sautéed in garlic and butter, or awash in a pimiento-sweetened, slightly spicy, tomato-Creole sauce. I tried the last over perfectly fresh, delicately cooked pieces of snapper. Fish dinners come with choice of two sides, and range in price from $14 to $19. Benny's is a bargain.
Technically speaking, you won't need teeth to partake of any of the three made-on-premise custard desserts, but having at least one sweet tooth will help. In ascending order of cloyingness: a light, grainy majarete of yellow cornmeal and coconut milk; a nominal vanilla flan; and a smooth, dense coconut tembleque.
Beers are basic, house wines the sort you get at diners, but other beverages are compelling. Maví is made from the bark of the naked-wood tree, which along with ginger, cinnamon, sugar, and water is boiled, bottled, fermented at room temperature for three days, and served chilled, like iced tea. Consider this an acquired taste. Eggnog is likewise not for everyone, but those who enjoy it will appreciate the Puerto Rican rendition called coquito, a thickly blended shake of egg yolks, condensed milk, coconut, rum, and grated nutmeg. It packs a punch, and at the end of your meal they'll likely offer a teeny cortada-cup's worth to send you on your merry way.
As I left Benny's, full-bellied with a hint of rum on my breath and a balmy tropical breeze sweeping softly across the strip mall, I felt as though I could be standing in Cabo Rojo -- assuming they've got strip malls there too. I turned to the toughest critic in the household and asked if she felt the same way. "Maybe Cabo Rojo," she replied, "but not my mother's house."
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