A Restaurant With Balls

Mofongo comes of age in Inwood and Washington Heights

Mofongo is the bedrock of Puerto Rican cuisine. Flaunting its African roots, this woody mash of fried green plantains is sweetened with pork tidbits and moistened with lardy gravy. It has been the centerpiece of menus at Latin lunch counters since the 1960s, including the East Village's now-defunct El Nacional, where you watched, tongue hanging out, as the plantains were pummeled in a wooden mortar with cloves of raw garlic.

Nowadays, these downtown lunch counters have all but disappeared, and the freshly made product is difficult to find. Nevertheless, mofongo remains more popular than ever in uptown 'hoods like Inwood and Washington Heights. Albert's Mofongo House is among a spate of new restaurants in Manhattan's mountainous northern regions that showcase the dish from a Dominican perspective.

This newly opened establishment right on Broadway—offering table service, dim lighting, and upscale ambience—is an outcropping of an older steam-table joint around the corner on Dyckman called International Food House, which flogs an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring black beans, yellow rice, roast pork, fried ribs, spaghetti, and rotisserie chicken (lunch $7.99, dinner $8.99).

Not a bad feed according to Scooter, who insisted on raiding the buffet as the rest of us knocked back balls of mofongo. He later enthused, wiping his lips daintily on a napkin, "Thirty percent of the meats on the buffet are worth eating."

Though the mofongo is not mashed to order at Albert's, as compensation the servings are the size of slow-pitch softballs. Each golden orb comes festively perched atop a pilón, the carved wooden mortar in which peasants (and later, lunch counter cooks) did their mashing.

The Dominicans have created a dining galaxy that revolves around a single foodstuff. Thus there are 26 versions on a menu gleefully called Mofongomania.

Best is "traditional mofongo" ($12.95), in which the orb is ramified with pork renderings and sided with a pile of fried pork ribs called chicharron de cerdo, a Dominican obsession. A cup of cilantro-laced broth stands alongside in case you want to moisten the plantain mass.

The mofongo that comes with other selections omits the rendered pork tidbits (damn!)—but don't assume that automatically makes it vegetarian, even though eggs, fried cheese, and frozen mixed vegetables are some of the available accompaniments. Needless to say, mofongo goes best with some sort of lubricating gravy, as in chivofongo ($11.95), which features goat chunks in brown goat gravy laked around the mofongo ball.

Other choices include crabmeat, chorizo, tripe, or—the house special— shrimps and cheese. Though probably not efficacious, Viagrafongo ($29.95) promises a cock-erecting collection of seafood.

The mofongos are swell, but the menu's real strength lies in its upscale pan-Latin cooking. I've never had better shrimp asopao ($19.95), a Puerto Rican rice stew laced with white vinegar, or a tastier Argentine skirt steak (here quizzically referred to as a Romanian steak). It comes with chimichurri—the garlic, parsley, and olive oil condiment of the Pampas. One bite and you'll feel like hopping on one of Argentina's semi-feral ponies and using your mofongo ball for an impromptu game of polo.

 
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