Pass the word.
Ready the belly.
Chances are, you are now as confused as I was after reading my friend Mike’s poetic invitation to go eat mofongo at La Casa del Mofongo, a Dominican restaurant in Washington Heights. What is mofongo, I wondered, and why is there an entire "house" dedicated to it? As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in my musings. None of the people invited, not even Mike, were familiar with the Dominican delicacy (but all being curious MFA students, we researched it immediately online). According to wikipedia, mofongo is a dish "made from fried green plantains or fried yuca, seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings, then mashed." It sounded interesting, so we decided to get “crack-a-lackin” up to 182nd street on a chilly Monday night with only a vague concept of mofongo in our heads.
La Casa del Mofongo does not look like one’s expectation of an ethnic restaurant that specializes in an obscure dish. I was expecting a cramped, China Town-esque eatery with fluorescent lighting and perhaps pig parts hanging in the windows. What we discovered on arrival was essentially an upscale Dominican sports bar/restaurant. Couples and families sat around tables on comfortable rattan chairs in a bi-level dining room painted in warm earth tones. There was a spacious bar area to the right of the entrance hung with baseball paraphernalia, in which patrons enjoyed happy hour. Televisions tuned to a Spanish sports channel were visible from anywhere in the restaurant. The only obvious sign that you were in “The House of Mofongo” and not a spot in midtown was a large, plastic statue of a mofongo-filled mortar in the entrance, and the fact that the wait staff spoke minimal English.
The menu at La Casa del Mofongo is what really conveys that you're not in Kansas anymore, but you're not all the way to Kinshasa, either. Familiar Mexican staples like quesadillas are listed, as well as platters of grilled meat and fish, or fried chicken. Such items were tempting, but we were there for mofongo, and mofongo was what we got. After making the difficult selection from the 30 odd mofongo dishes on offer (among them mofongo with goat, chicken, grilled steak, guacamole, octopus…), what came out of the kitchen was not for the faint of heart, or appetite. I use this cliche only because it applies perfectly: it’s an artery clogger with the plantains being cooked in pork fat, and mashed with chicarones (crispy pork rinds). And at La Casa del Mofongo, this traditional side dish is featured on the plate as a second main event. My plate of mofongo con cameron (mofongo with shrimp) arrived with a mound of mofongo the size of a softball surrounded by a generous portion of large sauteed shrimp.
We all tucked in to our various monfongo platters (because it is the kind of food that involves tucking in), and the reactions were generally positive. The stewed octopus was a little rubbery, but its tomato-based sauce had a nice zest. Grilled skirt steak was a tad overcooked but marinated well, and the shrimp on my plate were coated in a deliciously garlicky sauce. Always a fan of braised meats, the goat mofongo was my favorite, a shank served bone-in with meat practically dissolving in its rich brown gravy. But the real star, was of course, the mofongo itself. The consistency was somewhat like lumpy mashed potatoes, which sounds unpleasant, but works in this more textured dish. Hints of garlic came through, but the pork flavor was dominant, the swine melded into the mash in both succulent shreds of meat and crispy chicharones. It was a delicious, albeit very hearty, way to soak up the various sauces.
After dinner, we went down to the bar for some discounted beers ($2 Coronoas ?!?!) that were festively adorned with cocktail napkin "hats." It was decided. The experience was so good, Mofongo Mondays would become the new ritual. If you visit La Casa del Mofongo, I expect you may also become a regular.
La Casa Del Mofongo is located at 1447-51 St. Nicholas Ave (Between 182nd and 183rd St). 212-740-1200. Open daily, 24 hrs. Dine in, take out or delivery available.