It has literally been 22 months since I've eaten Puerto Rican food. Why?
Well first of all, that's when I last visited La Isla Del Encanto.
Secondly, my Puerto Rican husband can't cook. (Shh, don't tell him I said that.)
And thirdly, although Southern California is probably one of the most ethnically diverse regions cuisine-wise, there is an undeniable lack of Puerto Rican restaurants here in the Southland. Yeah, yeah, Señor Big Ed's in Cypress does serve Puerto Rican food but they're a combination Mexican/Puerto Rican eatery that's also a bit of a drive for those of us located north of the 10 freeway. Sazon in Culver City has one or two Puerto Rican dishes sprinkled amongst a slew of other Latin fusion dishes. There used to be a pan-Caribbean restaurant called Sabor Y Sons Express in Inglewood that served Puerto Rican food but they closed a few years ago.
It hasn't been until this February that chef/owner Augusto of Mofongos Restaurant put Puerto Rico back on LA's gastronomic map. And I'm not talking in a half-assed way either: no part Mexican-part Puerto Rican, no Latin Fusion, no pan-Caribbean. This place is 100% Boricua, baby.
Operating six nights a week out of La Espiga Cafe, a cafe and coffeehouse by day, Mofongos would be a little difficult to find if you didn't know any better. But take one look at the dry-erase board outside listing the restaurant's daily Puerto Rican specials as well as the cars of Puerto Rican ex-pats proudly donning their flag that are likely to be parked out front and you'll know you're at the right place. Walk in and you're greeted with the same hospitality that my Mami-In-Law would have showered you with as a guest in her home back on the island.
I was most excited by the restaurant's several side dish offerings since they're the same snacks I remember noshing on when my husband and I crawled the various kioskos along the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico two years ago in search of between-beach eats. Our beef alcapurria, a totally tubular (no pun intended) fried snack made with plantains and yautia and stuffed with meat came fresh from the fryer and was made even more of a guilty snacking pleasure with a side of mayoketchup, a mayonnaise and ketchup hybrid that's popular in Puerto Rico. We also enjoyed a delicious pastelillo--a fried pastry in the likes of an empanada and filled with seasoned beef--and a cola champagne--a bright orange soda that tastes like someone mixed diet cream soda and root beer together--before our entrees arrived. We limited our appetizers to two selections this time, but can't wait to try the restaurant's other snacks such as pasteles, tostones, relleno de papa, and surollitos de maiz.
The restaurant's chuletas (porkchop) dish consists of a thinner chop that gives you more of its seasoned crusty sear with each bite. Although we found the chop a tad on the salty side, the meat itself was tasty and tender; any overzealousness with the salt was nothing that a hearty side of arroz con habichuelas (rice with pink beans) and maduros (sweet plantains) couldn't help to offset.
The star of our dinner show, however, was the restaurant's mofongo, a virtual molded bowl of mashed green plantain, garlic and chicharrones that in this particular instance, contained ropa vieja, a dish of stewed, shredded beef. The moist, mealy mixture has an appearance reminiscent of cornmeal or masa with a slightly coarser texture and bursts with garlicky, fried pork skin flavor. Depending on that day's specials, you can choose from different toppings for your mofongo as well as the type of cracklings your mofongo is made of. The restaurant's menu default is chicken mofongo--made with chicken and topped with chicken--but on this particular day they had pork mofongo as well as a shrimp and ropa vieja topping. And you know I love me some pig and cow so pig and cow it was. I gave my baby and husband a little bit of this mound that was the size of a small dog bowl, but it was so tasty that I was selfish with this one for the most part. I ate the whole thing. Plus the sweet plantains and salad that came with it.
The restaurant was by no means packed when we came for our early dinner, but the excitement and island pride buzzing from the handful of patrons who were dining there that evening was enough to fill the small space. Festive beats from the island greet you as soon as you walk up. A gentleman enjoying a bistec encebollado with a Coco Rico soda at one of the restaurant's two outdoor tables practically wiped his plate clean. Inside, an older couple chatted up a storm with our extremely friendly server Mercedes reminiscing about their old Nuyorican neighborhood. Chef/owner Augusto, wearing a Puerto Rican flag baseball cap, took his time cooking in the restaurant's small kitchen, a sign not of slow service, but of a lot of pride and care put into the food. Now if I'm excited about this place (me being Chinese and all), I can't imagine what the Puerto Rican community in Los Angeles must feel to finally have a taste of home in the Southland.
Mofongos at La Espiga Cafe
5757 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Open Tuesday-Sunday from 4-9 pm