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Puerto Rican Party Time


November 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Among the specialties at Jibarito's is mofongo with pork.

Jibarito's, a little Puerto Rican diner just off the Miami end of the 79th Street causeway, is extra lively on Saturdays and Sundays. Crowds spill out front, where musicians jam while owners Peter and Julie Avino barbecue ribs, chicken and kebabs. The smoky aroma stops passing traffic, and folks dash out in their Sunday best to get a packet of 'cue to go.

The couple left Utuado in the mountainous region of central Puerto Rico 17 years ago, heading to Miami to raise their two sons. Both manage hotels during the week, but help out on weekends at the restaurant they bought for their older son two years ago.

''We were tired of spending a small fortune at more upscale Puerto Rican places so we basically opened this so other Puerto Ricans could eat home cooked fare at reasonable prices,'' Julie says. ``We kept it simple, nothing fancy, but customers come back just for the ribs.''

Julie's brother Pedro arrived a few months ago to manage the place during the week. The whole family works the weekend crowds, and during the holidays lechón asado (whole roast pig) adds to the festivities.

There is plenty of space outside at picnic tables set on a platform under a chickee. With musicians banging wood boxes and cowbells or strumming guitars, the atmosphere is as close to a jibarito barbecue as you'll find off the island. (Jibarito, pronounced hee-bah-REE-toe, is the diminutive of jibaro, which loosely translates as ''hillbilly.'' Guajiro is the Cuban equivalent.)

Local boricuas (Puerto Ricans) stop in at 6:30 a.m. for a breakfast of eggs with bacon, home fries, grits, toast and coffee for $2.99 or tostadas con queso (grilled cheese toast) for $1.25. Popular lunch items or snacks include alcapurrias, plantain fritter torpedos filled with spiced ground beef; arañitas, fried grated green-plantain ''spiders'' with a fat body and shreds for legs; or morcilla, soft, fat blood-pudding sausages.

Stop in for supper and try the mofongo, a mound of fried, mashed plantain with fried cubes of pork, or creole chicken or shrimp in garlic-laced butter sauce. Chuletas a la parrilla are two thin, bone-in, end-cut grilled pork chops heaped with sautéed onions. All main dishes come with a choice of maduros (fried ripe plantain strips) or tostones (smashed and twice-fried plantain chips) and habichuelas rojas (red beans) and white rice or pigeon peas with yellow rice.

Another specialty dear to Puerto Rican hearts is the pastel boricua, a soft dumpling made from boiled green banana and plantain dough stuffed with pork bits, pimento and olives and steamed in a banana leaf -- good with a splash of hot sauce.

The signature dish is the Jibarito, a fried plantain sandwich filled with steak, onions, lettuce and tomato with mayo and ketchup.

For lighter appetites, there's asopao de camarones (shrimp stew with rice), and on weekends a thick potage of gandules (pigeon peas) with rice. Other weekend draws are the cuajito con guineitos, a soulful stew of pigs' ears and stomach; mondongo (tripe stew) and churrasco (grilled skirt steak).

Costillas are the real crowd-pleasers -- meaty pork ribs grilled over charcoal in an oil-drum barbecue and brushed with Peter's secret sauce with a hint of citrus in a sweet tomato base -- finger-licking good.

Wash it all down with beer or fruit juice -- peach, mango or tamarind. If you can find room for a postre (dessert), try the dense, sweet caramel or coconut flan. Then join the other happy jibaritos in song -- or dance. This is the kind of place you leave with newly forged friendships and a full stomach.

Jibarito's Comida Puertorriquena, 930 NE 79th St., Miami; 305-754-4500; 6:30 a.m-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday with outdoor festivities from about noon to closing.


Jibaritos Envuelotos ('Hillbilly' Bananas)

12 finger bananas

1Ú2 cup vegetable oil or 4 tablespoons butter

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Peel bananas and slice in half lengthwise. Heat oil or butter in a skillet. Fry bananas over medium-high heat until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with cheese. Serve hot. Makes 24.

Source: Puerto Rican Cuisine in America by Oswald Rivera (Four Walls, Eight Windows, $16.95).

Per serving: 68 calories (63 percent from fat), 4.7 g fat (0.7 g saturated, 1.1 g monounsaturated), 0.2 mg cholesterol, 0.4 g protein, 6.9 g carbohydrates, 0.7 g fiber, 4 mg sodium.

Linda Bladholm's latest book is Latin and Caribbean Grocery Stores Demystified.

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