In search of a Dominican feast

Finding quality native food in island restaurants isn't easy, but it's worth the effort

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 Meat is non-existent at Crudo in Santo Domingo, but the Caribbean influence and flavors are undeniable.

Meat is non-existent at Crudo in Santo Domingo, but the Caribbean influence and flavors are undeniable. (Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Strange as it may sound, finding good Dominican food isn't so easy in Dominican restaurants.

The best Dominican food, I'm told, is served in Dominican homes. If you get that kind of invitation, well, lucky you; you'll eat well. If not, and you want to eat like a local, you'll have to dig into the restaurants a bit.

While there is no shortage of international cuisines represented — Italian, Japanese, Mexican, steakhouses and all sorts of fusion — across several days of visiting the Dominican capital, I wanted the purest close-to-home grub I could find. There were several successes. But maybe next time I'll luck into someone's family dining room.

Meson D'Bari: I sat one evening at El Bohemio, a small outdoor bar in Plaza Bartolome de las Casas in the Zona Colonial, the safest, most historic and tourist-heavy patch of the city. Behind the bar was a friendly young Dominican named Valentin, who insisted I try his specialty: the diablito. Many Latin cultures have varying versions of said drink, but Valentin's was simple: a shot of Brugal 151 rum (the midtier label from the nation's most ubiquitous rum manufacturer), topped with grenadine and set ablaze. Valentin let the blue flame dance for a moment, then suffocated it beneath a plastic cup.

"If you want to get drunk, you drink one, two, three, five diablitos and a beer," Valentin said.

What does this have to do with eating Dominican food? Not only are Valentin's diablitos an ideal aperitif, he pointed me toward one of the better meals I had on the island. About four blocks up, he said, check out Meson D'Bari. Then he kissed the tips of his fingers, as a cartoon Italian chef might.

Indeed, the two-story blue building up the street, decorated in slightly mismatched artistic elegance, served what is best described as high-concept Caribbean food. My crab empanada appetizer was fresh, tender and flavorful and proved that empanadas can be more than the thick doughy globs we often know in this country.

Valentin suggested the stewed chivo — goat — and it arrived lean and tender, on the bone, in an earthy brick-red sauce. The crab-stuffed eggplant was a lively accompaniment. From 8 p.m. on, the place only kept filling.

On the way out I noticed the long first-floor bar teemed with locals and a few tourists while a Dominican baseball game flashed on the television in the corner. It looked fun, but I had a better idea — back toward one of Valentin's diablitos.

Meson D'Bari, Calle Hostos 302; Plaza Bartolome de las Casas, at the corner of Calle Padre Billini and Calle Arzobispo Meino.

D'Comer Colonial: On sight, I suspected how good this no-frills, pie-shape lunch room at the edge of the Zona Colonial would be: Everyone hunched over their plates seemed to be local. When a couple of them noticed an obvious tourist peering in, a few broke into large grins and waved frantically.

Their smiles seemed to be saying, "You found it! The place where we eat!"

A day later, I was back, and I found my most memorable meal in the Dominican Republic.

The setup was simple: There was a lunch counter with trays of food — beef with potatoes, chicken in red sauce, chicken in yellow sauce, three kinds of rice — and the woman who made it all. She dished out the food as I pointed to things until my tray seemed ready to buckle.

I wound up with a healthy heaping of white rice, two kinds of chicken (the third was gone, but its brown-red sauce with green olives remained, and she gladly poured some of it over my rice), a tender, lightly tangy beef worthy of any Passover table and a charred, nearly carmelized white rice topped with smoky brown beans. And, of course, this being the Dominican Republic, half an avocado.

The yellow walls were undecorated, and the lights above nothing more than humming florescent bulbs. The lack of distractions made the scene all the more perfect, because every bite was a succulent success. It was fresh, hearty Dominican food, and confirmation sat a couple tables over, where my tour guide from the previous day wolfed down a lunch of his own.

He spends his days with American and European tourists, but with 30 minutes to himself, he came to D'Comer Colonial. It made me think I was as close to a home-cooked meal as I could get.

Corner of Calle Isabel La Catolica and Calle Arzobispo Porte; open only for lunch.

Adrian Tropical: Well-known among both tourists and locals for "authentic" Caribbean food, Adrian Tropical's biggest attraction might be its sun-drenched deck built above a crashing Caribbean Sea. Idyllic as the scene is, the realities of the Dominican Republic's biggest city also loom: trash on the rocks below and children outside the restaurant using their limited English — "hungry" — to ask for money while patting their stomachs. Armed guards shoo them away.

In a seafood-heavy country, ceviche seemed to be the way to start. Though it bore little resemblance to the ceviche we know in the States, the spongy white fish — mero, the waiter told me, which is grouper in English — was fresh and drowned in lime, with slices of green pepper and carrot.

From there I tried a series of Dominican classics: monfongo (mashed plantains shaped into a ball, which are sort of bland), tostones (fried unripe plantains that are even blander) and shrimp Creole (a near staple as a result of being Haiti's neighbor). And, at the waiter's insistence, avocado.

While the Dominican folks — people on business lunches, it appeared — seemed to be favoring the grilled steaks and seafood, which came out sizzling on platters, I dug into my Dominican food. And wouldn't you know, the avocados were some of the best of recent memory.

The best thing, though, was the juice: a blend of eight fruits with nothing more added. If nothing else, visit Adrian's for the view (go at lunch) and get the juice. It was one of the most memorable things I drank in the Dominican.

Avenida George Washington 10205

Crudo: Worth noting not only for its fresh and delicious fare relying on classic Dominican spices and flavors but also for being all vegetarian in a meat- and fish-heavy city. And, as its menu says, it is also "todo organico."

The broad menu includes pasta, Mediterranean food, burritos (a rarity in the Dominican) and fresh juices, but I headed to the most classic Dominican dishes, such as the soy beef sauteed with green beans, corn and red pepper and the fresh and lively eggplant.

Calle Arzobispo Porte 152

jbnoel@tribune.com

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