Fortunately, a culinary détente seems to be in the making. Steadily and without much pachanga, a cadre of restaurateurs are trying to drop a Douglas Rodriguez on upper Manhattan’s Dominican palate. Trying to hew to their Caribbean culinary roots while embracing innovation, variety, possibility, and, yes, a little thing called brunch.
Café Largo, on Broadway and 137th Street, is the granddaddy of the upstarts. Started out as the one place in the area for those of us who grew up Dominican but who did so inside the United States; the one restaurant in the area where you could order mangú and mimosa, where they served up a brilliant pasta puttanesca alongside a top-notch chicharrón de pollo, where the flan’s so existentially sabroso that people truck in from as far as NJ to get some. (Now, that’s the sign of quality, when you have NJ Cubans traveling into NY for a piece of flan.) After a prolonged hiatus, Café Largo has returned to its former digs and brought along a pair of friends: The raw-brick restaurant is now linked to an immaculate taqueria (which seems to be struggling) and an upscale gourmet store called Vinegar Hill (which does not). Vinegar Hill serves dynamite salads and prepared meals and excellent bread and what I would argue is the second-best uptown pizza, just a point shy of Patsy’s gold standard. Marc Calcano, the handsome, intense master of this empire, grew up in an apartment around the corner from the place. “When I was a kid walking down Broadway,” he said to me while standing in his kitchen, “I always thought my community deserved better. I wanted people in the neighborhood to be able to eat quality and variety. I don’t think that’s something that has to be reserved only for downtown.”
Calcano must have been tapping into the zeitgeist, because at or around the same time that he opened Café Largo, El Alto got its very own fine-dining Italian restaurant, Aquamarina, and also Hispaniola, an Asian-influenced heavy hitter with top-level cocktails like the Rubirosa and El Generalísimo and superb contó-style box meals. And there’s 809 (named after the Dominican Republic’s main area code), opened only recently by the Moronta family (who are also the proprietors of Dyckman Express) but already popular. 809 is more relaxed than the Arka Lounge and has an inviting vibe I for one love. But the newcomer to the movement is also the one to beat: The Mamajuana Café. From its décor to its menu to its impeccable service, the Mamajuana was clearly designed to impress. On Tuesdays they offer an outstanding flamenco night; their waitstaff (as all the women around me continue to point out) includes some of the cutest Dominican boy servers ever; and they produce one of the best brunches north of 96th. The Mama-juana is named after a traditional Dominican home brew, so as you might imagine, their cocktail menu rivals the ones at both 809 and Hispaniola; and their signature Mamajuana Mojito, a Mojito first courtesy of Kathy Peña, must be sampled to be believed, and will without question soon be imitated. The manager’s recommended dish is a puerquito, but unless you’re a party of five or looking to attain yokozuna weight, I advise you to stay clear. It’s caramelized pig leg heaven, but the portion in question is roughly the size of the pig it was taken from. Turned our take-out bag into a mace, could have broken a door with it.
Now, four or five restaurants might not seem like much—especially if you live in the LES or in Silver Lake—but for those of us who’ve lived through 20, 30 years of nothing-but-mangú, it feels like the birth of a whole new era.
Of late I’ve had both the bad old days and the bright new ones on my mind. Maybe it’s because I live in Boston during the school year and in El Alto the rest of the time. Maybe it’s because I have some friends who will only eat Dominican food if it’s being served in a Café Largo or 809—too fino for anything else. And other friends who will only eat at the traditional joints, at the Caridads and the Dyckman Expresses—no newfangled fusions for them. Maybe it’s because I’m not for one campo or another. I’ve been in-country over 30 years, a decade of that time in upper Manhattan, and I’ve yet to succumb to either side of the New World–Old World debate. I guess ultimately I’m just one of those Shazam mother*******. I’m two people simultaneously, held together by the lightning that is memory. Sometimes I like to sit in Margot on Broadway and have a sancocho with a side of concon. Sometimes I like to drop in on a Hispaniola or a Mamajuana and have the pasta or the butterfish or even, yes, the puerquito. Sometimes I want mangú and sometimes I want steak and eggs and sometimes I want them both. I guess it’s the fate of immigrants como yo: to live in multiple worlds simultaneously. Can be a real pain in the ass though. In a world that privileges singular identities, we multiples are often ill-served. So imagine how thrilling it is, how nourishing, to have a neighborhood, a community, that is starting to catch up to you, catching up to how you like to eat. No wonder I call it home.
Café Largo 3387 Broadway (212-234-1811). Caridad Restaurant 3533 Broadway (212-862-4053). La Casa del Mofongo 1447 St. Nicholas Ave. (212-740-1200). 809 Restaurant Bar & Grill 112 Dyckman St. (212-304-3800). Hispaniola Restaurante 839 W. 181st St. (212-740-5222). El Malecon 4141 Broadway (212-927-3812). Mamajuana Café 247 Dyckman St. (212-304-0140). Margot Restaurant 3822 Broadway (212-781-8494). Restaurante Rancho Jubilee 1 Nagle Ave. (212-304-0100). Vinegar Hill 3385 Broadway (212-281-2083).