The big review: 3 Puerto Rican joints

 

Where to get the best mofongo. You do know what mofogo is, right?

Old San Juan
Tastiness from Old San Juan. Photo: Ricardo Ferro
 

By Enrique Fernandez

Mofongo! It sounds like a battle cry.

Actually, it's a word of African pedigree for a classic Puerto Rican preparation of mashed green plantains with garlic and pork crackling. Puerto Rican food is zesty, with the criollo taste kicked up by the enthusiastic use of cilantro and culantro, as well as the mildly peppy chile called ají dulce. Here's where to get your fix.

OLD SAN JUAN

At Miami's veteran Puerto Rican outpost, Old San Juan, the asopao (literally "soupy") offers flavors similar to a Cuban arroz con pollo, but much wetter, and can be made with a variety of proteins. The lobster asopao was deliciously flavored, even if the lobster was overcooked. The mofongo tasted fine but was a bit dry, even with spoonfuls of the side cup of broth, and the crackling tasted like bacon.

The cuajito -- pork tripe -- had been recommended, and the lunch buffet also offered the beef kind, mondongo. Both were good but the cuajito was silky. The conch mofongo and asopao was flavorful -- in a marinade, like a ceviche -- but a bit tough.

Old San Juan Restaurant, 1200 SW 57th Ave., West Miami; 305-263-9911, oldsanjuanmiami.com; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues-Sat, noon-9 p.m. Sun. Dinner entrees $10.95-$34. Beer and wine. Free parking.

BENNY'S

Both the mofongo and conch at Benny's Seafood were much better. The mofongo, a house specialty served in a pilón (wooden mortar), was appropriately soft, and the crackling was just that, crackling -- good chicharrón. The fish broth for moistening the mofongo tasted house-made, and the whole thing was topped with tender conch in a salsa criolla of tomatoes, onions, garlic and peppers.

The fritters -- outsourced at our other stops -- are also house-made. However, a plate of surrullitos -- fried corn sticks -- was disappointing. The salmorejo de jueyes, a saucy crab dish not unlike Cuban cangrejo enchilado, is one of the glories of the Puerto Rican menu.

Along with a very good espresso (Yaucono, a Puerto Rican brand not found in supermarkets) came a complimentary thimbleful of coquito (Puerto Rican eggnog) that could send one into insulin shock.

Benny's Seafood Restaurant, 2500 SW 107th Ave., Miami; 305-227-1232; noon-9 p.m. Tues-Sun. Dinner entrees $7.95-$23. Beer and wine. Free parking.

EL COQUI TAINO

No mofongo or asopaos at El Coquí Taino, a modest mom and pop. Instead, it's the specials of the day and nothing else -- except fritters, an authentic rendition brought frozen from the island.

Its proximity to North Miami's recording studios means that major stars, from veteran popster José Feliciano to younger artists like Ricky Martin and Daddy Yankee, drop in for their Puerto Rican fix. I'm sure they're not disappointed. This is true Puerto Rican home cooking.

Red beans were cooked down to sweetness. Pork chunks looked dry, but were juicy beneath the crunchy crust. A simple beef stew was addictive, as was the similarly basic chicken fricassee. And the cuajito was not only silky and tender, but came in a rich broth, not the commonplace tomato sauce that's overused at criollo restaurants.

The great salsa pianist Charlie Palmieri had asked his equally gifted brother Eddie to take over his band in Puerto Rico so Charlie could move to New York. He was under doctor's orders to watch his diet, and Charlie simply could not keep himself from overeating in "La Isla."

Puerto Rico is a culture of sensual pleasures. They might kill you, but in the process they will thrill you.

El Coquí Taino, 1617 NE 123rd St., North Miami; 305-892-3719; 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon-Thurs, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri-Sat. Entrees $5.95-$7.95. Beer and wine. Free parking.

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