All of that dancing and feasting during “In the Heights,” the musical set in the Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights, gave me a taste for, well, feasting, anyway. Never been much of a dancer.
In Buffalo, hunger for Puerto Rican mainstays may be credibly addressed at Niagara Café and La Flor Bakery on Niagara Street, Monte’s Grocery on Swan, and La Kueva on Hertel Avenue. When it comes to Dominican cuisine, I know of one source: La Casa de Sabores at 1 Letchworth St., a corner just west of SUNY Buffalo State previously known only for its peerless views of the Buffalo Police Department impound lot.
The cooking of La Casa de Sabores, and its spot-on versions of Dominican classics, was emphasized recently when visiting Major League Baseball teams ordered trays of takeout from Letchworth Street to make sure their superstars were fed right.
Inside the restaurant, meals run on two tracks, fast and regular.
In a hurry? Step up to the steam table, have a look at the offerings, and a counterwoman will fill a to-go container with your choices.
White rice, yellow rice with pigeon peas, or mangu (mashed plantains with pink pickled onions) goes on the bottom.
On top, choose from bone-in chicken stewed in a rich tomato-paprika sauce pollo guisado, roast pork (pernil), pork ribs simply stewed or barbecue style, housemade fried chicken bites (chicharron de pollo), among other things. Plus beans, ladled in at your direction, or on the side.
A small ($7) is a substantial lunch. The pie-plate-sized large ($12) will feed two.
Also always ready to be served in a jiffy: tres golpes (the three hits) is a classic Dominican breakfast of fried egg, fried cheese and fried salami, over mangu. Add fried smoky Spanish longaniza sausage ($3) and it’s cuatros golpes – or I would daresay a home run.
Mangu is more flavorful than mashed potatoes, fortified with bits of garlic and pork. Medium size ($10) includes two pieces of garlicky sausage fried to a crisp, chewy browned cheese and oozy-yolked eggs.
Dominican cuisine as represented at La Casa de Sabores is not exactly spa cuisine. Yet when considering the persistent excellence of Dominican baseball players, I have to admit that tres golpes is literally the breakfast of champions. (Rice and beans is a vegetarian mainstay.)
Those dishes and pastelitos, fried turnovers in beef, chicken or cheese ($2) are almost always ready. Maduros ($4-$8), ripe plantains caramelized to near-dessert levels, are there for the scooping.
If you’re willing to call ahead or wait, the Casa de Sabores menu really opens up. Non-steamtable dishes take time, as they should.
If you want to sit down to eat, feel free to take one of the chairs down off the table, where it’s been since the floor was mopped, and have yourself a seat.
Also, picnic tables are accessible through the door behind the counter’s end.
The reward for those waiting is soaking up the pulsing rhythms of bachata music pouring from the restaurant’s speakers. Its sunny sway got my hips and shoulders moving, which is extremely not me. Once I just let go, I felt the flavor.
Let yourself go for a chimichurri, which is a sandwich in the Dominican Republic, not a sauce. It has shredded cabbage ($10), choice of protein, like griddled chicken or beef, and kicked-up Thousand Island dressing.
Bacala ($10-$15) is salted cod, soaked and stewed with tomatoes, onions and olive oil, until the dense filets flake apart fork-tender, their fishy intensity tamed with long-cooked onion and tomato sweetness.
Salmon, tilapia and shrimp ($10-$15) can be deftly fried, or prepared scampi style, sautéed with garlic and a touch of wine.
Another specialty is the patacones pisao ($12), which posits slabs of fried green plantains as the bread in a snackwich. Silky pernil roast pork, chicken or beef (add $2) are topped with a slab of fried cheese, a slice of tomato and spicy mayonnaise.
At the suggestion of the counterwoman, I got mine with camarones ($15). My reward was a plethora of pinky-sized crustaceans that had been cooked in a long-simmered tomato sauce, with onions and olive oil.
The plantain “bread” was arid to my palate, which is where the parcha came in. Passionfruit drink is the tropical antidote to the plantain dryness factor.
Or, in case of mofongo, a bowl of beans. Mofongo ($13-$19) is fried chunks of plantain that are pounded in a mortar and pestle to incorporate fried garlic and pork. The result is a stiff dome of tropical twice-baked potatoes, drier on the palate for lack of butter.
Chip chunks into your beans, and turn to the accompaniment. Would you like chunks of fat-veined pork shoulder, tossed in spices and fried to a crisp? Carne frita is there for you. Fried chicken, beef, fried fish and scampi are all available sidekicks.
The food is not just a Dominican thing. La Casa de Sabores has something for the whole city.
1 Letchworth St. (370-1484)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Wednesday.
Prices: sandwiches, $3-$10; plates, $7-$19.
Atmosphere: Caribbean beach cafeteria
Wheelchair accessible: no
Gluten-free options: many choices
Outdoor dining: picnic tables are out back.
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