Who Needs PR?
The age of imperialism ended, oh, 50 or 60 years ago. Not a particularly glorious era. European countries exploited distant lands and beat down peoples and cultures. The United States caught on to the trend fairly late in the game. In order to catch up, we had to grab territories from a wimp-ass European power--which pretty much meant Spain, France, Italy...almost wide open, really. Oh, well. Spain's were the closest.
But all that ended. Except that Puerto Rico remains a sometimes reluctant American possession.
Thanks to colonization, though, the people of this Caribbean territory developed dishes unique to the region and almost unknown in the Dallas area. Their cuisine mingles native, Spanish, African and other influences into something resembling everything your taste buds know about old-world cuisine and new, yet is quite different. Plantains share the plate with olive oil, for instance. So what if it's not a real country. To borrow Texas marketing parlance, it's a whole other country.
Consider it this way: One of the island's classic dishes is called mofongo. But for a few extra letters, mofongo could be Rick Perry's favorite meal.
Give it a moment; it will come to you.
Unfortunately, it may take Texans awhile to figure out this unusual cuisine and Mofongo, the new Puerto Rican outpost located in the wood-frame wilds of Bedford. Open four months, the restaurant strives to re-create true Puerto Rican flavors. The kitchen crew consists of three imports, including owner Vivian Tenorio's mother. So far, so good. Modern bastardizations result, however, when cuisine and culture butt heads. This is the reason traditional Tex-Mex falters in rural Indiana. Hoosiers can't abide the piquant bite of lip-scorching chiles, so restaurants must soften recipes. Mofongo's namesake item, a bone-dry lump of mashed plantain, meat and garlic, is definitely an acquired taste. Menu boards posted on the back wall do little to prepare novices for a parched banana-like ball reeking of garlic. On a Saturday-night visit, young counter staff greeted uncertain Texans with "It's all good," repeated ad nauseam. Instead, they should explain that Puerto Ricans pound perfectly good fruit into a tacky mush as a sop for garlic-laced olive oil or a savory liquid. Mofongo con carne frita arrives with a small container of oil--not enough to quench the plantain yet sufficient to create a slimy mouth feel. Chunks of fried pork accompanying this version conveyed a welcome balance of herbs and salt but were fatty and overcooked.
Now, cooks trained in the art of peasant or second-world recipes rarely lop extraneous gristle from meats. So we were prepared to applaud the restaurant for this nod to authenticity. But this is buffet service, a place with spare tables, self-service trays, plastic utensils and those disposable plates divided into three compartments so common at family reunions. Try sawing through a hunk of tough pig with a flimsy plastic knife. The plate teeters at every thrust, threatening to tip its contents onto and through the thin paper napkin protecting your lap. Buffet service generally means an unpolished staff, too. Eager, in this case, but unpolished. If you dare order the signature dish, expect a short wait, five minutes or so. No problem, really. Nothing to look at but a few simple black-and-whites of the homeland, but that's OK. Unless, of course, the eager, unpolished pups mess up, as on one visit when they spooned out items from buffet troughs immediately, leaving a guest to wait for her plantain bomb while we settled down to dinner.
So you have to brave little inconsistencies. Oh, but there's a positive side to Bedford's new buffet.
Mofongo con pollo also comes with a small container of oil for the plantain mush. Same sliminess, same pronounced garlic. The roasted chicken set alongside, though, is a thing of beauty. Perfectly cooked, tender and bold, the chicken is worth the interminable drive from wherever to the Mid-Cities. Flawless white meat flecked away from the bone easily at the turn of a plastic fork. It draws bursts of pepper and herb from adobo, one of two ubiquitous flavor profiles.
Recipes vary a bit from family to family, but in general the spicy rub pops with crushed oregano, peppercorns, salt, garlic and other herbs. Adobo combined with sofrito (the other common seasoning), a mix of sautéed onions, garlic, sweet peppers and such singed a bright yellow by the addition of achiote makes the restaurant's beef empanadas absolutely stunning. Encased in a flaky, buttery crust, the meat filling relies on hefty doses of adobo and sofrito. Cooks toss either or both into just about everything baked, fried, steamed or mashed, both on the island and at Bedford's island outpost. By varying amounts they create subtle, almost bland dishes smacking faintly of some vague herb or potently savory items fully capable of kick-starting taste buds--all with the very same seasoning. Mofongo's empanadas are examples of the latter. Imagine beef infused with just about every flavor known to humankind, somehow balanced to reveal salt, pepper and garlic forward without hiding an undercurrent of oregano and coriander. Not bad for a simple street-vendor dish.
Chulestas--pork chops cooked to plastic-fork tenderness in adobo, sofrito and tomato sauce--also stand out. This time the savory seasonings emerge slowly from the tomato base, enveloping your mouth. Hell, bring on the gristly pork if it's this good. Yet the spicy additions can be applied quite subtly, as in carne guisada, a run-of-the-mill beef stew. It's unsurprising and almost bland. That's not really a condemnation. This is home cooking, and sometimes tender beef in a comforting, unthreatening sauce fills the soul. It just doesn't satisfy it.
Sides will seem familiar: white rice, rice jaundiced a neat yellow by sofrito, an afterthought salad. And plantains, of course. Tostones are slices of pseudo-banana, cooked for a bit, smashed flat, then fried. Little flat banana fritters, with much less flavor. They also serve faintly sweetened plantain slices.
Mofongo's kitchen staff prepares everything in house, including desserts. The restaurant asks customers to pay for desserts separately unless picked up at the beginning of the meal. It's disconcerting to watch chilled custards wilt at the table while patrons meander through the other courses. Still, the flan is marvelous, with a light, comfortable sweetness and a delicate consistency that still bites back against the fork. Rice pudding was mediocre on one visit but well-executed on another. It's nothing like the milky, sticky English version sold in grocery stores. Granular, laced with cinnamon and raisins and a modicum of sugar, it soothes a palate worn thin by mofongo.
If only the staff would direct gringos away from that dish. 2113 Harwood Road, Suite 325, Bedford, 817-545-0222. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday 11:30 a.m-6 p.m. $
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