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Ah, Puerto Rico!

Sun, fun, bright colors, swimming in warm Caribbean waters, nights full of hot salsa music and the best horn players in the whole wide world. And the food ? spicy, luscious, exotic. If only we could put down our work-a-day routines and run off to Puerto Rico for romance and a plate of mofongo.

Well, you?ll have to bring your own romance and there?s no beach, but you will get hot salsa music and mofongo, along with other kinds of real Puerto Rican food, at El Coqui, the new hot spot at the corner of Mendocino Avenue and Fifth Street in Santa Rosa.

The place has been drawing crowds for lunch and dinner, due in part to the bubbly personality and enthusiasm for all things Puerto Rican of Jacqueline Roman, who is co-owner with Christina Jackson. Roman was born into the Puerto Rican community in the Bronx, but visited her family?s farm on the island most summers when young. She learned the authentic cooking of the community from her mother and grandmother, and brought that knowledge with her when she moved here over 20 years ago. Now she?s sharing it with the rest of us.

The Puerto Rican ambience begins the minute you walk in the door. There?s the territory?s flag. The walls are decorated with the sleeves of vinyl records by the island?s musical stars. Pictures of Puerto Rico hang on the walls. Palm fronds lend atmosphere, as do the tropical-style ceiling fans. Salsa music blazes from the sound system.

If you go to New York on the second Sunday in June, you?ll find the Puerto Rican Day Parade dancing and strutting up Fifth Avenue. For years, it has been the city?s biggest street party. You?ll also find honest-to-goodness Puerto Rican food, the same as you?ll get at El Coqui. The restaurant is named for the little tree frogs indigenous to the island, who chirp ?co-qui, co-qui, co-qui? after the sun goes down.

Service at El Coqui is fast-paced and friendly. There?s beer and wine, but no liquor and hence no rum. Why no rum? ?I don?t want to deal with drunks,? said Roman with to-the-point New York frankness.

If you?re at all familiar with Puerto Rican cooking, you?ll know about plantains. What potatoes are to the Irish, what rice is to Asians, what pasta is to the Italians ? that?s what plantains are to the Caribbean. They are relatives of the banana, but starchy rather than sweet. And they figure prominently in many of the island?s dishes, including Mofongo ($5.75 **?). This appetizer is made of fried green plantains mashed with fresh garlic and presented in a mound. It?s thick, chewy, salty and savory. Typically it comes with chicharron ? pork cracklings ? and you can order them, but they?re $2 extra. With shrimp, add $3.

One of the joys of Central, South American and Caribbean cooking is the empanada, a turnover filled with meat, onions and spices. In Puerto Rico, they?re called Empanadillas de Res ($5.95 ***). A round of dough is given a filling of ground beef and spices, then folded over and the edges pressed together. In South America and Mexico, empanadas are baked, but these are deep fried. As a result, they?re a little greasy, but rich with flavor and very tasty.

Another uniquely Puerto Rican appetizer ? well, they like them in the Dominican Republic, too ? are Tostones Montaditos de Carne ($7.95 **?). A fat green plantain is cut into half-inch thick rounds and marinated in adobo-flavored water. Adobo is a mix of chilies, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil and vinegar. The rounds are then deep-fried, cooled, pressed and fried again. The restaurant serves five of them covered with little cubes of salted and spiced tender steak. It?s a great value for the money, and an appetizing one at that.

El Coqui whips up some truly delicious sandwiches, big enough for dinner and certainly, if you?re downtown, one of the tastiest lunches you?ll find. The Cubano Sandwich ($10.95 ***) is a wonderful layered mix of pork, cured ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayonnaise and mustard on a big soft roll and a delight to chomp your way through. Just as good, and even more gooey, is the Chicken Sandwich ($10.95 ***), made with a baked boneless chicken thigh piled high with cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato slice, mustard and mayonnaise on French bread. Yum.

Another value meal, this one among the entrees, is Chicharron de Pollo ($10.95 ***), or crispy fried chicken. The big plate holds a thigh and a breast, nicely done with that classic fried-chicken flavor, plus yellow spiced rice, black beans studded with pitted green olives, three tostones and a helping of avocado-tomato-onion salsa.

Who can resist a dish called ?canoes?? That would be Canoas ($12.95 ***) in Spanish. A big, sweet plantain is fried in orange-colored cooking oil, then split open and covered with spiced ground beef and cheese. It?s accompanied by red beans and rice ? the national staff of life in much of the Spanish and creole parts of the western hemisphere ? and more of that good avocado-tomato-onion salsa.

Pollo al Horno ($14.95 **?), which translates to baked chicken, is a rich, spicy stew of shredded chicken thighs mixed with ripe red and green sweet peppers. The accompaniments include fried rounds of sweet plantain, red beans and yellow rice, and the same good salsa as before.

The kitchen uses plenty of spices, both by themselves and as adobo or sofrito. Sofrito is a mix of onions, garlic, coriander and browned peppers colored with annatto seed, which imparts the bright-yellow color to the island?s rice and other dishes. But, you?ll notice, there is no hot spice, like that given by pungent chilies, in these dishes. You?ll also notice a 16-ounce bottle on each table. This is pique, a spicy hot liquid that steals the show when you start drizzling it on your Puerto Rican food. It?s made by pouring hot water on pineapple peelings and core, letting them ferment for a day, straining the liquid into the bottle and adding hot chilies, garlic cloves, black peppercorns, oregano and salt, then letting this mixture sit for five days. It?s tangy, sweet, spicy, and its presence on the table lets you know you have found a true Puerto Rican restaurant.

Flan ($4.25 ***) is a popular dessert around the Spanish-speaking world, and the one made at El Coqui is smooth, creamy custard underneath a top layer of dulce de leche. There?s a nice coconut ice cream dessert with fried bananas that have a crunchy, sugary crust; the ice cream isn?t house-made.

To sum up: Who knew that Santa Rosa needed an authentic Puerto Rican restaurant? Christina Jackson and Jacqueline Roman, that?s who. And thank them for it, because it?s the real deal.

<em>Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.</em>