Unforgettable Flavors

Unforgettable Flavors RestaurantSince writing about a Jamaican Jerk shack a couple of years ago (read blog), I have been on a hunt for a similar eatery serving this Caribbean cuisine that many establishments disappointingly offer as pale versions for my taste buds. So, when a reader following my blog made mentioned of a nearby location, my ears perked up as I listened attentively.  Unfortunately, due to distractions and slow-firing synapses, I  did not follow-up with my intention and I forgot the name of the place.  A couple of weeks ago, such place was highlighted in one of my restaurant online review weekly mailings.  That night itself, I paid the first of a series of visits to write this review.

Amuse Bouche Demi-tasseUnforgettable Flavors (yeah, I know, how could I forget it) is located in College Park, MD, at the basement of a multi-story apartment building in a cluster of them, a most unlikely place to run an eating business.  After reading many glowing reviews online and tips on how to reach the place, I did not have problems finding it and walking through its doors, unlike some online reviewers and a Washington Post reviewer, who wrote two paragraphs on his woe (seriously?). Walking into the brightly lit space with only 8 formica laminate tables, a take-out sofa, and some wall countertops, one notices that half of the shop space is taken up by the order counter and the kitchen. Despite the lackluster appearance of things in the space, although brightened up by the vivid wall paint and equally colorful paintings, there is a buzz that forecasts that something exciting is happening here.  While sipping on the complementary amuse-bouche of a demi-tasse of soup (different concoctions on each visit: oxtail stew, red snapper bisque, chicken and 16 beans – all well-seasoned and packed with flavor) that injected more anticipation within, I quickly surveyed the menu with the traditionally inspired dishes that would make up this review.


Sorrel Drink

Pineapple Ginger JuiceMost Jamaican eateries have their homemade drinks and juices displayed in the mixer sitting on the order counter, and this place is no exception – but I had to try them.  The first glass was Sorrel, a hibiscus flower drink.  The wine glass contained the reddish drink that had its characteristic slightly tart quality, a light tannin puckeriness, slight ginger bite (a new twist), and a judicious amount of sugar that was just right for my taste buds, all elements bringing a smile to my lips, and a sense of antioxidant relief to the body. Another day’s drink was made with pineapple juice and ginger.  This mixture was irresistible with the fresh and naturally sweet fruit juice, punctuated by a stronger ginger note that provided some heat to the back of the throat and woke all the senses up.  The chef said it was made with fresh pineapple juice, which I appreciated every drop of its oh-so-goodness.   Again, the sugar level was just right, allowing this sugar-sensitive imbiber to return to his tall glass without any reservation.

Beef Patty

Spinach PattyOne of the litmus tests of a Caribbean eatery is usually with the Patties.  The first version I tried was made with beef. The cut-up pastries arrived on a bed of mixed leaf salad (nice chefy touch) looking similar yet different from the versions I’ve had.  The pastry was the orange-hued flaky dough, a tradition trait, but there was no pocket of air like others I’ve seen.  The filling was savory without the usual over-seasoning (others), and there was a mild chili burn that crept up after a few bites.  What I enjoyed about these bites was the home-made quality and the balanced seasoning that did not make them too “beefy”.  A spinach version was ordered on another occasion.  The pale flaky crust (traditional look) held a smooth filling exuding a mild vegetable flavor with bare bitterness, an intriguing Indian-inspired spice note, and a level of savoriness that brought a level of satisfaction and fascination with each bite – I just could not get enough of it.  The side sweet sauce was unnecessary when we already have a wonderfully made vegetable pastry like this version here.   The patties here standout in a subtle way with their well-balanced flavors and seasoning, as well as their in-house made appearance, which make them worthy meal-openers.

Jerk WingsAnother appetizer savored was Jerk Wingettes.  Usually, I would turn my nose up on an order of wings as I find most renditions to be characterless and rather pedestrian.  But I was curious to see how these wings would be treated with the classic Jamaican seasoning.  One bite into the first morsel hooked me immediately.  The flesh was well-cooked, firm yet moist, with a slide-off-the-bone quality.  But what reeled me in was the jerk seasoning that was generous on each piece, dried out from the cooking and smoking, and permeating all the way to the bone judging by the light pinkish hue (not signs of raw meat) found in each bite.  Before I knew it, my partner and I wiped the plate clean with no shame.  The side of ranch dressing was home-made, tasting more flavorful than the store-bought version – but, it was more a distraction from the real star of this small plate.



Ackee and Saltfish with Fried BreadA portion of the menu is dedicated to breakfast, and there was a single dish that grabbed my attention.  For the longest, I had heard of Ackee and Saltfish, and I was thrilled to find it here.  So, after a busy morning helping out at a food pantry, I arrived past breakfast time to order this, and Chef Neville was happy to oblige me with this late order.  The dish arrived with a melange of colorful ingredients looking like scrambled eggs accompanied by some fried bread.  My first bite spoke ,”Now, this is what they have been talking about.”  The yellow bits of the Ackee fruit had the soft texture of French-style omelette while they exuded a light tartness that made them more intriguing, this coupled by the acid in the tomato pieces  The shredded salted fish still retained its salinity along as its slightly rough firmness.  But it was the pieces of fried bread that tied all flavors together with its perfectly fried lightness, and a slightly savory dough that acted as the perfect canvas for all the disparate elements in this composition. I was thoroughly enjoying this dish not just for its satisfying flavors, but also for the cultural and gastronomic journey that whisked me away to warm waters.  This is truly The Breakfast of Champions (what say you, Mr. Bolt?), at least for that part of the world, and for this diner that afternoon.

Spiced Tilapia Sandwich and Fried PlantainsFor another trip during lunch, I chose the Spiced Tilapia Sandwich that is listed on the menu as one of their popular dishes.  The plate arrived with fish fillets sandwiched by Coco bread and the usual tomato and lettuce garnishes. Since I’m not a big french fries type of guy, I opted for something more interesting and appropriate for the cuisine – fried plantains.  The pieces of seafood were well-cooked since they were quite moist and tasted fairly fresh, while the Coco bread was pillowy soft and added a slight sweet note to the mix.  However, my taste buds were distracted by a number of things. The filets were underseasoned and I was barely detecting any spice heat that would make them exciting.  Furthermore, the soft texture of the fish paired with the soft bread became a gray-on-gray textural issue for me as I was yearning for some contrasts in the flavor and texture departments – maybe a slightly crispy outer coating would have done the trick for me.  The inherent muddiness of tilapia, found in the dark red central nerve, was overwhelming for me on this occasion – I usually remove this portion when cooking this fish.  But all these issues are easy quick fixes that I know this creative kitchen can get it right.  The perfectly fried plantains (in clean fresh oil, yes!) were not too sweet nor too bland, reminding me that this is not dessert nor plain starch.

Jerk Chicken/Brown StewBraised Oxtails

Rice and Peas, Braised Curry Spinach, Curry CabbageNo Jamaican establishment would have the following meat dishes amiss from its menu, and I managed to savor a number of these offerings here.  On my first trip, I ordered a combination of Jerk Chicken and Brown Stew.  The Jerk was properly cooked with no excess moisture (usually from baking), with the firm flesh falling off the bone, and with the skin completely rendered of fat.  The seasoning was “proper” with the right mixture of aromatic spices and the scotch bonnet heat that was both present and lingering in each piece.  There was a certain smokiness that added to the flavors which I read that the kitchen has found an ingenious way of imparting it without illegally sending smoke billowing out  of the apartment building, unlike the aforementioned place in the opening paragraph.  One forkful of the Brown Stew said Grandmother’s Chicken Stew; well, my grandmother’s.  The chicken was fork-tender while holding its meaty integrity.  But it was the level of savory umami-ness that permeated throughout each bite that prevented me from putting my fork down.  It even pressed me to ask the chef if any soy sauce was present, to which he replied that it had burnt sugar to give the depth of flavor in the sauce.   An order of Braised Oxtails was equally satisfying.  The meat to bone proportion was generous in favor of meat, and each meaty morsel was braised long enough to be fork-tender without falling apart.  But again, it was the sauce that made the dish with its meaty savoriness as well as a great depth of flavor that would make it finger-licking-good.  The topping of butter beans nearly stole the show with its proper cooking and amazingly smooth quality that was making overtures to cheekily compete with its beef partner.  The sides that came with these orders (2 per order) were equally savory and impressive.  The Braised Curry Spinach won me over immediately with its smoothness like creamed spinach (maybe a bit of dairy here) and the garam massala spicing that took these greens to another interesting level.  The Rice and Beans were proper but with the use of Basmati rice that give it a twist; the undersalted perfectly cooked fluffy grains were the perfect foil to the rich brown stew sauce.  The Curried Cabbage was irresistible with the non-mushy leaves cooked with a light hint of curry and enriched by some butter that complemented the cabbage’s sweet notes.  As one notices, the kitchen does pay attention to small details, and such gesture makes the whole meal worth being resavored in the mind, even days after.

Salmon in Buerre Blanc SauceCoconut Curry Shrimp

Back to the first visit and to the sea.  My dining companion was in a mood for something rather light, and he caught eye of a salmon special listed on the specials menu board outside.  What arrived was visually appealing and it brought a smile to my friend’s mouth.  But what got him effusive with complements was the first bite of this dish – I had to have a taste of what he was raving about.  The salmon was perfectly cooked, slightly firm but moist, further moistened by a beurre blanc sauce that was rich and slightly tangy.  The topping of julienned squash, zucchini, and carrots added the healthy element to the dish, alongside a triangle of crispy puffed flatbread.  You know a dish is that good when the complements do not stop at the last mouthful, as was in the case of my friend.   A lunch order on another visit was Coconut Curry Shrimp.  When the plate arrived, I knew that the dish’s neat beautiful appearance was going to reveal something good.  The pieces of deveined shrimp were perfectly and skilfully cooked without a trace of rubberiness, which I found very impressive.  Equally impressive was the sauce that was not overwhelming with its slight coconut creaminess, the judicious scent of curry powder, and the right chili heat from dried chili flakes.  A tinge of sweetness was the agent that rounded these flavors in this impressive dish whose sauce was nearly licked off the plate – again, we see the chef’s sense of restraint and balance in his cooking. The side of Mac and Cheese made me appreciate this dish after taking a haitus from it. The perfectly cooked penne (in between al dente and overcooked) was topped by a light and flavorful bechamel sauce and gratineed with a mixture of cheeses that exuded some tartness and bitter notes in the rich creamy mix. Sometimes less is more, as in the case of the toppings in this home dish.

Escovitch Red Snapper

Escovitch Red SnapperI could not get away from the sea with the offerings here, which is of no surprise to any Jamaican.  I had in mind to try the Kingfish, which I requested it cooked “escovitched”.  However, Chef Neville came out from the kitchen to tell me that Red Snapper was a better choice, and that he would prepare it especially for me – how could one say no to that.   What came out from the kitchen was truly worthy and a spectacle for the senses.  After taking the necessary photos, I contemplated how much could I eat from the dish since I had finished off the jerk wingettes.  What was left at the end were just fins, head, and bones.  The fish was fresh tasting with its unique slightly dark seafood flavor, perfectly cooked to retain the moisture yet crispy on the edges.  The escovitch sauce possessed restrained amounts of vinegar, sugar, and chili heat along with the noticeable acrid notes from the scotch bonnet pepper, allowing for the seafood flavors to standout from a sauce that could possibly overpower the delicate flesh.  Wow.  Such skilful tight-wire act needed no comprehension by my taste buds which instinctively ravished what it knew as damn good.  What is a non-smoker’s version of a post-meal smoke especially after ingesting this incredibly well-executed dish?

Rum Cake

Lemon Meringue CakeWell, the answer to the above question (although meant to be rhetorical) is some great desserts.  Rum Cake was immediately the bulls-eye once I saw it in the display counter.  One bite into it was not what I expected at all. Familiar memories of steamed Christmas pudding came to mind (from my adolescent years in England), and I could detect bits of soft prunes and raisin in this amazingly moist and spongy cake; the kitchen staff later confirmed my suspicion of its make-up.  The rum scent was fairly adequate along with the dark molasses-like notes, but I was in the holiday mood for more alcoholic indulgence with these bites.  This was definitely not the usual rum cake but one that captivated me with this Christmas pudding version which is rarely served around here.  An order on another visit was highly recommended by online reviewers – Lemon Meringue Cake.  Again, this sweet cake commanded all my attention.  The moist cake was perfectly cooked with the right amount of ingredients and a noticeable lemon oil scent, coupled by the equally scented tart pastry cream interspacing the layers, and topped with some shavings of white chocolate.  Mind you, I had already finished off some jerk wingettes and a whole red snapper.  But this citrusy sweet finale prevented me from falling into gastronomic lethargy, and I had no problem finishing off every crumb off the plate.  No thanks to the online reviewers for contributing to my struggles with a mini-diet.

Unforgettable Flavors RestaurantRespect, Skill, Understanding, Honoring Tradition, and downright Good Eats – these are the elements that I encountered at every visit at this unassuming restaurant that just kept my interests searching for more.  Despite a minor hiccup with the fish sandwich, the rest that I savored from its menu kept calling up these thoughts about what the kitchen and Chef Neville were capable of.  Starting from the drinks, leading to the Patties and Jerk Wingettes, to the Jerk Chicken, Brown Stew, Braised Oxtail, along with the myriad of side dishes, to the seafood dishes, and finally the desserts, especially the spiked Christmas pudding.  Obviously, not only does this establishment know what they are doing, but the kitchen possesses the understanding and skill level to impress anyone who walks through its doors with its Jamaican offerings (Chef Neville has done a few stints at big hotels including The Willard).  As I end the year with this posting (Highlight 2014 blog coming soon) on a very high note, I’m glad to have stumbled across this eatery that makes me look forward to another place like this while I chase after the next gastronomic peak.  With such impressive cooking, who could forget the delectable dishes at Unforgettable Flavors.

Unforgettable Flavors on Urbanspoon

Directions: From the Beltway, take Route 1 South. Turn right at next light, Cherry Hill Rd. Pass shopping area, and look for Seven Springs Apartment on left – take the second entrance. The restaurant is located at the basement of last multi-story building on right, across from pool.

La Casa del Mofongo

It was 5 degrees Farenheit this morning with at least 5 inches of powdery snow turning the DMV landscape into a Winter Wonderland.  With the Federal Government and Schools closed due to the second visit of a Polar Vortex, a new weather-related vocabulary for our region, I have some extra time to catch-up with some household duties and some needed rest, as well as to pen this blog on a Dominican restaurant.

La Casa del Mofongo

La Casa del Mofongo is located in Silver Spring, MD on the super busy Georgia Ave., just a stone-throw away from the Beltway exits.  I had noticed it around a year ago when passing by there for some business, and its large self-promoting storefront piqued my curiosity with its bright colors and large photos of its dishes.  Dominican food establishments are few and far in between in an area where the Latino community is dominated by immigrants from Central America especially from El Salvador.  But the metropolitan area has seen waves of new Latino immigrants from other parts of the Spanish-speaking world especially from the Caribbean.  So when I eyed La Casa del Mofongo, I knew I had to step into it to learn more about this type of cuisine and taste their dishes.  I paid it a couple of visits, one with a couple of DC natives, and another accompanied by a long-term acquaintance from the island.

Chinola/Passion Fruit Juice

Guanabana/Soursop-Milk drinkWalking in, you notice the deep-colored walls more befitting for the Caribbean sun, covered with large flat screens with direct transmission of Dominican baseball games, along with a ceiling looking like a checkerboard.  The place is quite spacious covered with high tables on the sides and cafeteria-style furniture in the middle.  Taking our seat, the waitress took our order of drinks consisting of a glass of Chinola, or Passion Fruit Juice, and Guanábana, or Soursop Juice.  The Passion Fruit was quite tart and sweet at the same time, tasting rather concentrated in flavor while waiting for the ice cubes to dilute it down – definitely a good dose of exotic fruit and Vitamin C.  The Soursop was not so mouth-puckering since it is a milder fruit as well it was mixed with some milk, which is a version I have never tried before; I must say that I enjoyed this fruit-dairy mix, and my friend stated that it was common to mix fruit juices with milk on the island.  A similar concoction is mixed with orange juice, bearing the intriguing moniker of Morir Soñando or Die Dreaming.  Initially, I was hesitant to taste the impossible combination of orange juice and milk, but a sample of it convinced me that this was a tasty combination reminding me of orange sherbet.  Unfortunately, they had run out of this drink, but a glass of it will be an order on the next visit.

Pastelitos/Meat PattiesAfter finding out that the establishment served the Dominican meat pastry, Pastelitos, which was curiously not on the menu, we ordered one filled with chicken, and the other with beef.  The chicken patty was flaky and quite greaseless to the touch, with the chicken well shredded, quite tasty but just a tad too dry for my taste.  The side condiment of Dominican ketchup was a tasty helper made up of the tomato condiment and mayonnaise.  The beef version was also tasty, stuffed with ground meat cooked with a bit of vinegar.   My Dominican friend remarked that it was customary to cook the beef with that acidic liquid, which I find to be rather odd at first.  The other appetizers listed on the menu are Fried Salami, Longaniza Sausage, and Fried Cheese, but I prefer to have these fried pastries as my meal opener.

Pollo Guisado/Chicken Stew

An order for the main course for a friend of mine was Pollo Guisado, or Stewed Chicken (poorly translated as Sautéed Chicken on the menu).  A big bowl arrived filled with pieces of the poultry sitting in a pool of reddish sauce, served along with the Dominican staple rice and beans.  I had a taste from my friend’s bowl, and the chicken was literally falling off the bone, perhaps a bit overcooked (judging by some brown bits on the meat) and slightly stringy, but well-seasoned from the use of the latino mirepoux, sofrito, tomato sauce, and a good hit of the ubiquitous latino seasoning, sazón.  It was a bit overseasoned and oversalted for me, but it is meant to be eaten with plain rice which would temper the flavor.  My friend seems to enjoy this poultry dish, along the side of beans that seemed to have the same generous sazón treatment as the above dish.

Bacalao/Salt Fish StewA main dish on another trip for my Dominican trip was Bacalao, or Salted Fish Stew (again poorly translated as Catfish on the menu).  Dried salted cod has been rehydrated and cooked until flaking off the skin, then furthered cooked in a light tomato sauce.  Again, I had to dip my spoon into my friend’s bowl (they don’t seem to mind since they know my MO) and had a good tasting of it.  The codfish was properly cooked and quite moist from the rehydration and cooking with the light sauce, but I would have preferred a bolder tomato sauce with more depth in flavor and with a bit more seasoning.  However, we both appreciated the fact that it was slightly undersalted which made this fish dish very palatable; the contrary is more common in other versions that I have savored.   Again, the stew is served along the side of rice and beans.

Fried King Fish

Continuing with the seafood motif, another friend targeted the King Fish dish on the menu.  The piece of fish arrived well fried without any batter and nearly greaseless, topped by sautéed sweet peppers and onions slices.  I initially found the steak overcooked judging by the extra firm outer layer (a common trait in Caribbean cooking), but after a few bites, I was starting to enjoy the rather moist interior portions and the proper seasoning throughout each bite.  Furthermore, the fish flakes were akin to a steak with their firm and meaty quality, reinforcing the notion why the Caribbeans call this fish its royal name. The topping added some sweetness to the fish without detracting it from its spotlight; however, I would have preferred a light sauce alongside to add moisture to the fish steak.

Mofongo de Camarones/Shrimp MofongoComing to La Casa del Mofongo, one has to have at least a plate of its signature dish sitting on the dinner table – Mofongo.  This dish traces its roots back to West Africa and it was brought over to the Caribbean by African slaves.  Interestingly, the Cubans still use its African name, Fufu, for its version of this starch dish.  In the islands, instead of yam, the dish is made with fried green plantains, and mashed well into a pulp.  And this place knows its Mofongo.  Mine was well-seasoned with a mojo of olive oil that has been well-spiked by a good hit of garlic.  Furthermore, pieces of crushed chicharrón, fried pork belly, has been thrown into the mix, which added more unctiousness to the plain starch.  The topping of shrimp in red sauce (also comes in a white sauce) was the right order with its seafood sweetness, and the savoriness and moisture from the tomato-based sauce made the rather dry mound of starch more palatable.  The ring of lettuce and tomato slices around the dish was unfortunately soggy and unnecessary, but it was not enough to distract my tongue from this Piece de Resistance. A side order of fried ripe plantains was a satisfying sweet accompaniment to the meal.

Sancocho/Meat Stew

Going against my customary ways, I forgoed a seafood order on the second trip for a popular Dominican meat dish, Sancocho.  The large bowl landed on my table with chunks of pork ribs and beef, cooked just right to fall apart in the mouth.  But the element that impressed me the most was the broth that was filled with the right flavors produced by some sazón and some recaito, a latino wet seasoning, and tasting full of depth calling my taste buds to revisit its flavors with more spoonfuls.  The pieces of yucca, a common island staple, and green plantain, provided the starch and body to the flavorful soup and meat pieces, enough for me to ignore the side of white rice.  This bowl was satisfactory both for the soul and the stomach, and I now know why this is perhaps the island’s national dish.  The side of Haas avocado provided the necessary balance with its fresh creamy ripe state.

Dominican DessertsLa Casa del Mofongo is one of the few Dominican eating establishments in the area providing tasty authentic dishes from the island, a cuisine that is not familiar to most tongues around here.  Its strengths are found in the seafood dishes like the King Fish and Bacalao dishes, the meaty Sancocho stew, and ultimately the dish that this eatery is most known for, Mofongo.  The tower of desserts in the dining room, consisting of flan, rice pudding, and sweetened beans, are equally enticing, so long as one has more room for them after ingesting the healthy-portion dishes.  But this place will whisk the diner away from the current bitterly frigid Polar Vortex with a sip of its exotic juices, including the odd combo Morir Soñando, the Dominican Baseball league in the background, and the flavor-packed dishes hailing from the island.  Polar Vortex or not, this place is the right locale to be transported away through its island offerings.