The first Spanish phrase I ever truly understood was arroz con pollo. I was probably 3 or 4, and admittedly, my infantile comprehension remained limited the larger concept I had down if the details were a little hazy. In my childish brain, arroz con pollo represented everything that was not weenies and beanies, scrambled eggs, and grilled cheese sandwiches: arroz con pollo was exotic but delicious in a way that perfectly jibed with my white, middle-class 3-year-old's fantasy of Otherness.
Chicken and rice. Whoever first paired this bird-brained animal with the grain it so loves to peck, back in the dark ethers of history, ought to be canonized. Somebody apparently domesticated chickens around 3200 B.C., and humans were cultivating rice in Asia 6,300 years ago (although there's a lot of scientific contention about the dates). At any rate, never has a more perfect marriage of two foods been devised. Cultures that eat chicken and rice have learned the trick of cooking them together, simmering the rice in stock or sautéing it first in chicken fat so that every grain absorbs all the nuances of the bird that buttery schmaltz gives the dish its umami (the silky, savory, yummy richness we taste from the glutamates in protein French chef Brillat-Savarin identified this meaty flavor as osmaszöme, and it's the basis of monosodium glutamate).
You take these two elements, succulent fowl and starchy grain, and then, depending upon where you live, you jazz them up. The Bahranians have their dijaj machboos made with black limes, rose water, and curry; the Cajuns and Africans their jambalaya. Khao man kai, the national dish of Singapore, is made with a mind-bogglingly complex bean sauce. And so on and so forth.
4900 Linton Blvd., Delray Beach (in BocaRay Plaza). Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. till 9:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 till 9:30 p.m. Call 561-496-2727.
As for the Latins, they have a zillion ways to compose chicken and rice dictated by region, the cook's mood, and what she has on hand left over to throw into the pot. But the arroz con pollo at Alegría Café is nearly identical to the one I fell in love with as a toddler. It starts with a spicy-hot chorizo sausage and chicken pieces sautéed in a heavy cast-iron pot so that they render their fats and juices. Then finely chopped onion, bell pepper, and garlic get heated until the vegetables dissolve to mush: This is the sofrito. Now the rice, tomato broth, chicken, and sausage are added back in, along with a scattering of green olives and peas, and the whole caboodle goes into the oven. Naturally, all these fine and salty flavors musky tomato and sweetness of roasted garlic, piquant olives and the rich, barn-yardy chorizo simmer together to produce an unbelievably comforting but never boring meal: satisfying, relatively healthful, and huge. The big black pot at Alegría Café costs $17 and would generously feed two hungry people with leftovers to take home I think we got four full meals out of it by the time we'd sucked down our last, delectable grain of spice-infused rice.
Chef Ricardo Orozco opened Alegría in October, transforming this little strip-mall space on Linton Boulevard into a butterscotch- and rose-colored backdrop for a menu that reads like a greatest hits of the Latin kitchen. The café is cuted up with a series of faux wooden doors (each different, painted trompe l'oeil-style along one wall), simple white tablecloths, and flickering candles. It's an ideal setting for Orozco's mushroom tapas and paella Valenciana from Spain, the grilled Colombian skirt steak with garlicky, parsley-based chimichurri sauce, and Cuban ropa vieja and media noche sandwiches. There are Mexican fajitas, chicken wings, mini empanadas. A half chicken roasted "Sinaloa style" is served sizzling with paprika and pepper. A "seafood fantasy" composed of shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, squid, and whatever fresh fish Orozco has on hand, sautéed together with tomatoes and white wine at $22, it's one of the pricier dishes on the menu (the cheapest is the media noche, at $12). This is a Latin food lover's dream of a neighborhood café, with all the requisite starches to round out those proteins: black beans and rice, tostones and maduros (green or sweet plantains), yuca frita, sweet potato fries (all $5 per side order), and gigantic fresh salads featuring avocado, hearts of palm, and artichokes (these are $10, clearly meant to be shared around the table). And then, of course, pitchers of sangria and inexpensive bottles of red wine.
Orozco started us off with little pressed rounds of grilled sweetbread, and we ordered a plate of empanaditas ($6) and the ensalada Alegría ($10) to split. The empanaditas are hearty snacks, four tender pastries dusted with cornmeal they're both crusty and flaky wrapped around a melting filling of spinach and queso blanco, the mild, salty, home-style cheese of Mexico. You drag these morsels through a bowl of sour cream and chipotle pepper dipping sauce for a marvelously layered snack loaded with soft creams and peppery peaks. Our green salad centered artichokes and hearts of palm (two of my favorite vegetables) on a bed of lettuce, tomato, red onion, red cabbage, and black olives in a vinegary dressing. Refreshing, but better-quality marinated olives and artichokes would have improved it.
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We ordered the grouper criolla special ($24) and of course the arroz con pollo for dinner. Both were excellent representations of Latin home cooking the moist fish fillet was infused with all the flavors of its rich, hearty sauce, a delightful blend of seafood stock, black pepper, tomato, garlic, and roasted red and yellow bell peppers that had been reduced to a velvety pool of utter deliciousness. Mildly flavored black beans and yellow rice came with it, and we inhaled a plate of yuca frita, fried crisp, salted, and served with a rather strange roasted corn mojo. (The oil may have started to turn rancid; we left the mojo almost untouched.)
Then my black pot of chicken and rice, practically heaving in its own steam, a great bargain and almost perfect. I shouldn't force a comparison burdened with all the weight of childhood nostalgia what pot dish today could rival my first bite, the single swallow that opened my mouth and heart to a whole gigantic world outside the crib? But Alegría's arroz con pollo is good stuff. A little salty, maybe.
Ricardo's special bread pudding ($5) floats an island of custard layered with guava and raisins in a shallow bath of chipotle chocolate sauce. There's a scoop of homemade Colombian coffee ice cream alongside, and here was another blast of nostalgia it tasted just like the coffee ice cream at the old Howard Johnson's (yes, HoJo's made fabulous ice cream, once upon a time). And thus, we ate up an entire textbook example of Latin America's great contribution to global cuisine and the three ingredients I hope I never have to live without: coffee, chocolate, and pepper.
Our whole bill, sans sangria, came to $74. We could go back and have the roasted Sinaloa chicken at lunch, if we wanted, for a mere $9, a shredded skirt steak for $8, or a trio of grilled chicken, steak, and roast beef sandwiches with a salty pile of sweet potato fries. And for those last few nights before payday, Alegría's generous early-bird menu offers a choice of four appetizers, seven entrées, and two desserts. Start with Prince Edward Island mussels in spicy tomato broth or Ricardo's Mexican-marinated chicken wings, follow with Sinaloa-style chicken ($15.95), grilled skirt steak ($17.95), or pan-fried fish of the day ($16.95), then make a happy ending of bread pudding or tres leches to be out in time for your 7:30 show. Almost makes you want to move to the wilds of West Delray, doesn't it? Now, if only somebody'd open a kava bar and an indie cinema in the same strip mall, we'd be totally hooked up.