Every time I've gone to Little Havana for Cuban food lately, I've come home without having had any.
It's not that I can't find a decent Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho; some of the best cafeterias and bodegas line this strip. But in the past couple of years, rents on SW Eighth Street -- in comparison, say, to Ocean Drive or Miracle Mile -- have been low enough to attract all manner of ethnic eateries. Now a whole lot more than Cuban culture is represented here; a single block might contain Mexican, Italian, Nicaraguan, Brazilian, Chinese, and Vietnamese establishments. I admit, though, the idea of going to Little Havana for anything but Cuban fare is almost disconcerting. And it certainly wasn't my intention to be so easily swayed from my vaca frita mindset. But despite frustrated cravings, on my last outing (the third in a week of coming home minus black beans and rice), I just couldn't resist the lure of El Padrinito, a two-year-old down-home Dominican restaurant.
Like many other budget places in the area, El Padrinito could easily escape attention: Banquet-style chairs look like a commercial for vinyl-repair kits; plastic sheets cover the tablecloths like slipcovers on your grandmother's couch. The 60-seat room is brightened up with plants, though they can't do much for the holes in the wall.
Forget all that. Listen to the band -- there's likely to be one playing in the evenings and during the afternoons on the weekend -- and order some authentic Dominican chow. The fare here is so genuinely good that all physical discomforts are immediately forgotten.
According to Raymond Sokolov, author of Why We Eat What We Eat, Dominican cuisine "should be considered the most original because island chefs, starting essentially from zero after the savage decimation of the indigenous Tainos, were able to concoct an entirely new roster of dishes with foods brought in from all points of the compass subjected to an essentially Spanish culinary point of view." What Sokolov is trying so laboriously to say is that Dominican cuisine, though rooted in Spanish tradition, has its own identity. But that identity is closely linked to Cuba and even more so to Puerto Rico, those Spanish-Caribbean islands that were historically dependent on the same trade routes as the Dominican Republic. As a result, Sokolov writes, "what we perceive today as typical of one island or another is often a dish that, after 400 years, has emerged as a local favorite rather than an exclusive local invention with a pedigree that can be clearly established." Thus, overwhelming similarities between island recipes are simply explained. (Interestingly, in doing research for this article I unearthed much more information on the Puerto Rican versions of some dishes than I did on the Dominican interpretations. In fact, I located the greatest trove of Dominican recipes in a Latin American cookbook, not one about the Caribbean.)
Take, for instance, what Sky Juice and Flying Fish cookbook author Jessica B. Harris calls the national dish of the Dominican Republic, chicharron de pollo, a delicacy also found in Puerto Rico and on other Hispanic Caribbean islands. The skin on these deep-fried chunks of chicken crackled deliciously. Seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika, and lime juice, the chicken nuggets were part of a mixed appetizer that also featured steaming-hot tostones, delightfully light fried rounds of green plantains still bearing the marks of the potato masher. Chunks of battered and fried queso blanco, fluffy and meltingly rich, were interspersed throughout.
El Padrinito's printed menu seems extensive at first glance, but owing to varying availability, the selection is more limited than it appears. So the list of house specials is a wiser place to start, particularly when it yields pescado en salsa de coco. This was a generous grouper steak dredged in flour and pan-fried, then cast in a delicate coconut milk sauce that neither obscured nor undermined the white-fleshed fish. Sensational. Beautifully seasoned red beans and buttered white rice were served on the side, along with a lettuce-and-tomato salad, making this a gigantic portion.
Bring a big appetite with you to El Padrinito. The asopao de pollo, for one, requires it. I have never seen a larger serving of this stuff, nor one I'd more like to finish. This "soupy rice," descended from the Spanish asopado and almost identical to the asopao served in Puerto Rico, was terrific: a golden stock, rich and savory, stewed with rice, bell peppers, onions, and parsley, and accented with succulent boneless white-meat chicken. Tostones, excellent for dipping into the brew, were served alongside.
Mofongo, another dish commonly considered to be more of a Puerto Rican specialty, was magnificent: Sweet plantains were mashed, then fashioned into a bowl shape and topped with the diner's choice of lobster, squid, or shrimp Creole. We went with the shrimp and were won over by the six fragrant jumbos that peeked over the edges of the base. A garlicky tomato-based sauce, chunky with onions and bell peppers, complemented the starchy plantains perfectly. Chopped iceberg lettuce and tomatoes garnished the dish, adding texture and temperature contrast.
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It's almost impossible to consume dessert after a meal like this -- a nap is more in order. We managed to down a wonderful corn custard anyway, a sweet similar to flan but with a grainier feel, nubbly with bits of corn.
I'm still on the lookout for a solid Cuban meal. But until I can successfully circumnavigate the El Padrinito temptation, I just might have to find it someplace other than Calle Ocho.
3494 SW 8th St; 442-4510. Monday -- Friday from 8:00 a.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Asopao de pollo
Pescado en salsa de coco