El Mofongo Caribbean Restaurant
3701 S Cooper St, Arlington. 817-466-8802.11am-8pm Mon-Thu, 11am-10 pm Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
Every food culture has that one dish. People native to that region rave about it and endlessly compare versions with the way their grandma made it. Case in point: the Puerto Rican specialty dish mofongo –– fried green plantains mashed with garlic, spices, and different meats, served with gravy. El Mofongo Caribbean Restaurant has both created and cornered the mofongo market in South Arlington for a little more than a year, but the place also offers a veritable bouquet of Boricua comfort food. If you’re not accustomed to the Afro-Caribbean foodstuffs, fear not. The servers were happy to describe the food in terms a non-Boricua could understand.
Sadly, the week my guests and I visited, the kitchen was out of the ingredients for most of the appetizers. Of the few that were available, our server described sorullitos de maiz con queso as similar to hushpuppies. The appetizer looked like a short corndog minus the stick. Half a dozen of these lumps were stuffed with a little cheddar. The sweet fried batter surrounding the cheese wasn’t unpleasant, but the slight amount of cheese made for some taste bud confusion: Was this meant to be sweet? Savory? However, the excellent pastellilos (empanadas) made us nostalgic for the long-gone Mi Tierra, formerly housed about five miles north on Abram Street. The flaky, crunchy, fist-sized pastry crusts cradled fairly generous portions of ground beef or slow-simmered shredded chicken. Eating them was more of a knife-and-fork than hand-held operation –– excess flaky crust pieces decorated our shirts and fluttered like volcanic ash onto our table. Two were plenty to share among three diners.
We tried two of the six kinds of mofongo on the menu. The namesake dish comes as a side with the meat of your choice served next to (not inside) the fried ball of plantains and roasted garlic. Plantains have an odd texture –– firmer than a banana. Mashing the fruit yields a starchy goo, which makes a good base for El Mofongo’s half-ton of roasted garlic, sautéed onions, and spices. The pulverized plantains were heartier than potatoes, and their thick, garlicky goodness was a lovely accompaniment to the four small pieces of seriously flavorful, bone-in dark meat fried chicken. With the shrimp mofongo, four plump crustaceans arrived swimming in a small lake of buttery garlic sauce. There wasn’t a lot of shellfish (especially when the price tag of the dish hits $13), but the sauce was absolutely delicious as an additional dipper for the starch. Grilled fajita-style onions and red and orange peppers added a little color and zest to all of the mofongos. Be warned: Plantains have a gelatinous mouth-feel similar to okra. If you don’t dig okra, choose something else.
The bistec, served with yellow rice and peas, didn’t look appetizing. The long, thin, flat slab of beef was cut like boot leather. What it lacked in appearance, it made up for in surprisingly savory taste and tender texture. The meat was accompanied by a mountain of perfectly caramelized onions. The flavor of the tasty golden rice was boosted by traditional sofrito seasoning (celery, onion, garlic, and herbs).
Desserts are housemade and may be scarce if you come later in the evening. The flan de queso struck the perfect balance between sweet, creamy flan and a firmer cheesecake. Thanks to the heavier cream cheese base, the desert didn’t jiggle like J.Lo, and the dainty puddle of caramel sauce added an extra sweet kick.
Service at the little restaurant located in the same Arlington strip mall that houses Thai House and Havana Bar and Grill was friendly but slow. Most of the dishes coming out of the kitchen are scratch-made, and it’s plainly a small operation with only one person at the front of the house.
El Mofongo Caribbean Restaurant
Sorullitos de maiz con queso $5.99
Beef or chicken empanadas $2
Chicharron mofongo $10.95
Camarones al ajillio mofongo $12.95
Bistec encebollado $11.95
Flan de queso $2.50