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.