Against my better judgment, I'm a fan of Ricky Martin. I used to watch the World Cup soccer games because I enjoyed the sport, but in 1998 I watched for the sole pleasure of hearing Martin's limb-stirring, pop-Latin tune "La Copa de la Vida," which the World Cup Federation selected as the competition's anthem. I formerly associated Puerto Rico with my husband because we spent our honeymoon there, but now I think of the place as the country of Martin's birth. I can't even pump gas without fantasizing that this flavor of the month will pull up in his Jeep, mistake me for an attendant, and ask me to "fill it up." (This actually happened to a friend of mine in Puerto Rico, only he wasn't too thrilled about it.)
In short, I don't just want to listen to "Livin' la Vida Loca," I want to experience it. OK, not really. For one thing, I'm too old for such idolatry, and I was never very good at screaming and fainting. And in truth Martin's act doesn't make me crave him nearly as much it does hot Latin food, namely asopao and mofongo, two of Puerto Rico's national dishes.
Easier said than eaten. While the former Menudo singer is surely overexposed these days, Puerto Rican restaurants aren't quite as visible. But maybe Martin will do for Puerto Rico what another Ricky -- Ricky Ricardo (a.k.a. Desi Arnaz) -- did for Cuba: put the "hip" in Hispanic. Martin's already begun to capitalize on his fame by introducing his own restaurant, Casa Salsa, to Ocean Drive on South Beach.
La Cocina Puertorriquena, a six-year-old restaurant in Pembroke Pines, is one of the few places in Broward that offers asopao and mofongo. (Translated, the name means "Puerto Rican Kitchen.") And while the eatery, appointed with framed travel posters of Puerto Rico and red vinyl tablecloths, doesn't evoke the same visceral response as the pop package that is Martin, La Cocina Puertorriquena presents clientele with a complete experience: distinctive island specialties, live music on the weekends, and a small dance floor.
Owner Alex Munoz hails from Colombia, but his wife, Lucy, is from Puerto Rico, which is why a drink special called "Lucy's Best" -- pineapple, mango, and lime juices with a rum base -- is on the menu. (There is no "Alex's Best.") Though the eatery has only a beer-and-wine license, Munoz is permitted to sell beverages like margaritas and daiquiris with a low-proof, premade alcoholic base. I slurped down a refreshing pina colada, which tasted more of coconut than rum.
As for wine, the eight-vintage international list can prove expensive; for example, a Kendall Jackson chardonnay was listed at $36. A carafe of sangria for $9.95 is a better investment and complements appetizers like the longaniza con tostones. The homemade sausage was delicious, crisp-skinned, stuffed with chunks of pork, and oozed too much fat for my taste. But the fruity wine cut the annatto-colored oil nicely. The accompanying tostones, disks of fried green plantains, were crunchy but also a smidgen too greasy.
Another traditional starter is copa de cuajito, but if this "cup of pork stomach" isn't exactly your cup of tea, don't worry. You can still enjoy an authentic experience without going to stomach-churning lengths. For instance alcapurria is a common Puerto Rican appetizer featuring ground beef centered in a dough comprised of pureed plantain and yautia, a root similar to taro. Shaped like a banana, then fried, the resulting fritter was slightly sweet and dense with fragrant filling. Our only complaint (once again): It was greasy.
We avoided other fatty, fried appetizers by ordering a vibrant yuca con escabeche, which was chunks of al dente yuca marinated with onions and served warm. La Cocina Puertorriquena also offers several seafood salads similar to ceviche, including ensalada de carrucho pequena. Tossed with celery, onions, and bell peppers, the cracked conch in this salad was dressed with lively citrus juices. Conch is usually as tough as Silly Putty left in a pants pocket, but this specimen was moist and pliable.
The menu demands careful consideration, because in addition to more than 30 beef, pork, chicken, and seafood entrees, 30 variations of mofongo are offered. Originally an African dish that was brought to Puerto Rico by slaves and then adapted to local kitchens, mofongo is a plantain puree mixed with crunchy pieces of pork. At La Cocina, the plantain mixture included plenty of garlic, a necessary component to my way of thinking; otherwise, mofongo can be bland. We tried two mofongo platters. The first, mofongo con churrasco, was a skirt steak served with the plantain mixture molded into a small mountain alongside. The skirt steak had a deep, musky flavor and was garnished with sharp white rings of onions, but we found the meat too fatty in places and not as well-cooked as we would have liked.
The second platter, the mofongo relleno de camarones al ajillo was a basket made from crushed plantains. The basket was stuffed with mofongo, upon which perched a pile of shrimp in garlic sauce. The shrimp were perfectly fresh, and even the garlic sauce was understated enough to let them shine. As for a cup of beef broth, provided for dipping the mofongo (which tends to be dry), it needed skimming, not to mention an infusion of beef flavor.
The seafood lover will delight in the asopao de mariscos, though asopao fans might be disappointed. This large bowl of seafood -- clams, mussels, squid, and shrimp -- was served in a rich, saffron broth, and the seafood was top-of-the-line, high-quality stuff. I like my asopao, which should be a cross between paella and soup, much thicker, though. (A classic asopao recipe calls for two cups of uncooked rice for every seven cups of boiling water; one cup of uncooked rice absorbs two-and-a-half cups of water alone.) The rice in this bowl was meager and overcooked, the starch dissolving. A rice pudding we sampled for dessert also suffered from the same pasty fate.
On the other hand, rice with pigeon peas, a side dish, was beautifully cooked, the firm kernels echoed by the near-crunch of the round beans. Buttered white rice, served with pollo especial, a minced chicken stew tangy from chili peppers, was also a pleasant partner. Other side dishes, including red beans and black beans, suffered from overcooking.
If I were to take a close look at Ricky Martin, I'd probably find what music critics have been saying: He's a decent vocalist with a couple of good songs (written by others), an assortment of sexy dance moves (taught to him by others), and a smart management team. Riding a crossover trend, he's also in the right place at the right time. The same could be said of La Cocina Puertorriquena. While the restaurant has been pleasing local Puerto Ricans for years now, it's currently being visited by curious Anglos hungry for a little something different. In the end, no matter how much you pick at it, you come up with a satisfying and entertaining meal.
La Cocina Puertorriquena. 6742 Pembroke Rd., Pembroke Pines, 954-962-0777. Open daily from 11 a.m. till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight.
Yuca en escabeche
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Mofongo con churrasco
Asopao de mariscos