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.

El Nopalito Grill

One cuisine that has received its fair share of bad rap in this country is the one south of our border – Mexican.  Most of it can be attributed to the mediocre and uninspiring fare served in Tex-Mex restaurant that most of us have eaten as a foray to our experience with this cuisine.  However, my introduction to its true authenticity began when I was teaching in a Catholic girls school in Bladensburg, MD.  At the bottom of the hill was a fast-growing pocket of Mexican immigrants.  Not being too shy to find a good eat anywhere, I asked the locals and they pointed me to a small hole-in-a-wall.  It was in this dive that I discovered true Mexican dishes – Mole Poblano, Shrimp Cocktail, Mexican Ceviche, Quesadillas, Enchiladas, Tamales, and exotic drinks like Horchata, Tamarindo, Fruit Shakes and Mexican Sodas (made with real sugar).  This experience provided me the opening door to a rich culinary tradition, and I knew that this was a vast territory that I had to explore.

Having received an online offer to El Nopalito Grill, I was excited to try another Modern Mexican restaurant after having discovered Casa Oaxaca (see blog) a couple of months back.  It is located at the corner of a rather busy intersection, nestled between several businesses in a strip mall located in the upper reaches of Silver Spring  – this MD suburb city is so extensive hence it is easily confused with neighboring cities at the same time.  Looking at the restaurant’s online site, I was impressed by the owner/chef’s resumé which reads as a pedigreed culinary training: stints at Le Pavilion, Red Sage, Coyote Cafe, Bistro Provence, Four Seasons Hotel and Filomena, all restaurants that ring a familiar bell to the DC cognoscenti.  With a new Spanish teacher colleague in tow, I stepped into El Nopalito Grill with some anticipation and a hungry stomach.


A good indicator of the quality of cooking in an establishment is usually found in the simple things, like chips and salsa.  The Nacho Chips were light and almost greaseless, and my dining partner remarked that the Salsa was freshly made judging by the lack of a canned metallic taste or high acidity.  It was indeed fresh and filled with small chopped tomato pieces swimming in a slightly sweet tomato sauce spiked with some pungent onions, fragrant cilantro, and searing chiles.  Another simple yet telling dip is the Fresh Guacamole.  It came prepared a la minute with large chunks of ripe and creamy smooth avocado with bits of sweet onion and seasoned with just salt, very much like how guacamole is simply made in Mexico (the US version tends to come with tomato, cilantro, and lime juice).  These dips were very tasty and refreshing, good enough to build up more anticipation for what was to come.


DSC_8885.jpgWe decided to try out a couple of salads.  The first was the Mango and Jicama Salad.  Slices of  julienned mango and jicama along with thin slices of red onions were sitting on a bed of fresh greens.  I enjoyed the combination of the sweet soft ripe mango paired with the rather bland crunchy pieces of Jicama, akin to the texture of pear sans the sweetness.  The red onions slices added some sweet pungency to the dish, and the avocado salad dressing was good but not discernible in any special way; perhaps it was overwhelmed by the onion and mango.  But it was refreshing indeed and not your typical salad fare.  An order of Palmito Salad came with heart of palm rings along with slices of orange on a bed of salad.  The elements on the salad felt disparate and even the cilantro dressing could not serve as the liaison between the non-binding ingredients.  It was not bad, just ho-hum.


As for our main courses, we made our selections from the Tapas menu.  Since my new colleague is a pescatarian, we zoned in on the Ceviche.  It came with pieces of marinated fish and shrimp sitting on a bed of lettuce and pickled onions, and topped with thin fried tortilla strips.  Although the menu states that the dish comes with jalapeño peppers, I could not see any or taste the spice heat.  This flavor profile would have made a difference since the dish carried a one-note acidity which did not elevate the seafood pieces.  Furthermore, the use of fish, I suspect Tilapia, was unfortunate as it had a muddy flavor that overwhelmed the whole dish.  The pieces of shrimp were plump and sweet and they were pretty much the saving grace in the dish.  Realizing that these small missteps in the Ceviche could be overlooked, I knew there were some dishes on the menu that would definitely get my attention.


Another dish suitable for any pescatarian is the Chile Relleno.   Traditionally, this dish is filled with a meat or cheese stuffing.  However, this restaurant’s rendition takes this humble concoction to another level.  The roasted poblano pepper was stuffed with a melange of shredded crabmeat, bits of shrimp and a mild cheese, sitting on a pool of tomato and tomatillo sauce.  The slightly piquant and smoky pepper made the perfect partner to the mild, seafood-sweet and rich stuffing that made the dish irresistible to this diner.  The well-made sauces provided a slightly sweet and acidic element to each bite, which brought more interesting notes to the whole dish.  A definite order in my books.


I ordered the Duck Tamale which is a novel dish for me and an interesting spin on this regular Mexican fare.  However, I was later told that the kitchen had run out of it, and I settled for the Chicken version with a certain sense of disappointment.  However, the first bite proved to be quite the opposite of a let-down.  The steamed white cornmeal was light and fluffy, packed with flavor and studded with bits of crushed fresh corn which brought a slight sweetness and earthiness to the simple dough.  The chicken stuffing was shredded pieces that were still moist and well-seasoned.  The banana leaf that wrapped the tamale during its steaming had imparted a fragrant vegetal note to the whole dish, and it provided a beautiful design element to the plate.  Here, we see another example of the Chef’s ability to take a simple humble dish to a sophisticated level.  If this is the Chicken Tamale, I cannot wait to taste the duck version on my next visit.


One dish that called my attention while perusing the menu, and to also satisfy the meat-lover reader, was Beef Carnitas.  A thin piece of flank steak came grilled and paired with a trio of yellow, green and poblano mole sauces.  The steak was tender, smoky from proper grilling, and rich tasting from some ageing before its visit on the hot grill.  The different mole sauces added notes of acidity, salty, sweet, and smoke (dried chile exudes this note) to the already rich-tasting dish.  What I appreciate about this dish was the level of care in the cooking of the meat and the delicacy of the different sauces that did not overwhelm the beef.  This dish will definitely satisfy the beef lover, despite the small portion which was enough for me, for its wonderful cooking and flavors.

El Nopalito Grill serves authentic Mexican fare that reflects a rich culinary tradition that does not resemble what most Americans are used to or familiar with.  Despite a few small missteps in a couple of dishes that we savored, the successful ones point towards a knowledgeable and skillful kitchen that delivers delectable dishes that are well-made and quite sophisticated at times.  Here, one senses this ethnic cuisine heading in a new direction that would entice the novice.   This restaurant may tempt you to hike up into the suburbs to savor the Mango and Jicama Salad, Tamale, Chile Relleno or the Beef Carnitas.  I see another visit for me soon to sample the rest of the menu in the near future.

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