Several Christmases ago, my mother-in-law went all out and rented a beautiful house on the north coast of the Dominican Republic for our family holiday. This house not only had a swimming pool and enough bedrooms for the extended brood, it came with a chef.
For the first couple of days he served us the kind of perfectly OK American and Continental meals most guests want — oatmeal for breakfast, gazpacho and beef tenderloin with mushrooms for dinner.
“Could you make some Dominican food for us to try?” I asked him one night after dinner. He was more than happy to oblige.
The next day we feasted on mangú — mashed plantains — with pickled onions, fried eggs and sausage at breakfast. For the evening meal we sat down to sancocho, a soup thick with different cuts of meat and cubed root vegetables.
I developed a serious crush on this honest, hearty food at the house and at small nearby restaurants. But I had little success finding any once I returned to Atlanta. Once in a while, when I was driving around an unfamiliar part of town and saw a Dominican flag displayed in front of a storefront, I’d get excited. Almost always it would be a hair parlor.
So count me thrilled to have discovered Cafe Restaurant Dominicano near the Norcross-Tucker border, where the flag leads you to some of the tastiest Caribbean food in metro Atlanta. Owners Cristino Hiraldo and Zoilo Rodriguez opened this modest, dimly lit spot about 16 months ago as a gathering place for the Dominican community. Guests come at lunch for $6 plate lunches from a steam table and at night for a full menu and full bar. Very late at night it morphs again into a nightclub, with live music from a small stage in the corner of the dining room.
If you visit during the day, you may find some of the tables still pushed off to the side from the evening before. A television will be tuned, loudly, to a soap opera or soccer game. And the steam table will brim with appetizing choices.
A plate lunch consists of one starch (typically white rice, boiled yucca or boiled green bananas), one of a half-dozen meat choices and a big pile of mixed lettuces with corn and tomato slices.
When I can’t decide, the caring woman behind the counter says, “It looks like you’re going to need a taste of this and a taste of that.” I start with a big mound of moro de guandules — rice and pigeon peas cooked with spices and coconut milk. Then, after much discussion and stirring of vats, I get a trio of meats ($11 for the combination plate). What do I like best? The rich oxtails in gravy? The bony nuggets of dark-meat chicken? The pork riblets in a musky red chile sauce? All of it. A tall glass of tart passion fruit punch ($2.50) tastes just right with this saucy food.
As I pay, a conversation with the woman who served me, named Areceli, convinces me to come back for breakfast and try the mangú.
But before I can, I’m back on a Saturday night with some friends to explore the menu. At 8 p.m., the room feels like a party about to happen, with blaring dance music and a room full of diners. We pass on the offerings of the full bar and instead toss back some cold bottles of Presidente lager ($3) while we decide on an attack plan for the menu.
Our server doesn’t speak English as well as Areceli, but she’s just as attuned to our dining needs. When it becomes clear to her that we’re sharing all our food (not the typical dining style here), she decides to course out the meal and gives us sharing plates and serving utensils.
We begin with bowls of mondongo ($8), a thick and velvety beef tripe soup that we crank up with hot sauce and lime wedges. Each little cube of tripe is a tender marvel.
Chivo guisado ($10) brings fantastic hunks of stewed goat in a mild red chile sauce that soaks into fluffy white rice like nobody’s business. These chunks of feathery soft meat and sharp bone have all the snarfable pleasure of pork and all the savory intensity of lamb, but with a character all its own.
Our waitress clears away these first courses and resets the table with fresh plates for chicharron de pollo ($6.99) — hunks of boldly seasoned and well-fried chicken with pickled onions. We also dig into a fine chillo frito ($15), or whole fried snapper. The fish had been scored to its substantial backbone on both sides and fried to a golden crisp; the strips of flesh pulled off like all-natural fish sticks.
We got all the typical Caribbean side dishes — mounds of salad, crispy fried green plantains, gooey-sweet ripe plantains, stewed pigeon peas with white rice and Puerto Rican-style mofongo, a mound of mashed plantain with a breath-commandeering garlic sauce.
Mofongo has a fluffier, cakier texture than mangú, which is dense and a little sticky. But if I want mangú, I have to come at breakfast or soon thereafter. No problem, since I’ve been dreaming of Dominican breakfast since that vacation and return late one morning. And here it is: a tripleta ($7) — the morning trio of fried eggs (crisp whites, liquid yolks), globby queso frito (fried white cheese) and discs of pan-seared Dominican salami. It comes with a beyond enormous mound of mangú and pickled red onions, which I come dangerously close to finishing.
My only question about this restaurant concerns its name. The sign over the door, the name on the credit card receipt and the name on its Facebook page all have different orderings of the words Cafe, Restaurant and Dominican/Dominicano. Whatever it calls itself, consider it a destination for memorable cooking. If you love Caribbean food, go.CAFE RESTAURANT DOMINICANO