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Puerto Rico's Bright, Colorful Food Sparkles Early Birds And Morning Coffee
Puerto Rico's Bright, Colorful Food Sparkles
By John Birdsall
July 30, 2004
Fingernails ablaze with the stripes and star of the Puerto Rican flag, our waitress sets down a heavy aluminum casserole of Sopa de Mariscos ($16.95 for two): sparkling-fresh mussels, little scallops, squid, shrimp, half a Dungeness crab and a tomatoey broth punched up with saffron and a hint of fire. It's fantastic, an explosion of flavors and suave textures.
This sopa, or stew, is typical of the exuberance (not to mention the culinary chops) behind much of the food at El Coqui, a new Puerto Rican restaurant in Antioch.
It's the kind of labor-of-love place that succeeds through the passion of its owners. During many years as a chef, culinary instructor and caterer, Puerto Rican native Margo Lopez-Ruiz dreamed of owning a place like this. In May, she and husband, Ruben, transformed a bland storefront in Antioch's sleepy old Rivertown District into a flashy tribute to all things Puerto Rican: support columns decked out like palm trees, posters of baseball greats Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda, banana-tree murals (there's even a portrait of pop idol Ricky Martin). And the food is every bit as big and vivid as the decor -- in some cases, with a certain unexpected subtlety.
Take the appetizer Relleno de Papa ($2.50): a big oval cake of deep-fried mashed potato (fluffy, tinted yellow with achiote) filled with highly seasoned ground beef. Surprisingly, the effect is light and delicate.
Or the delicious shrimp cocktail, Coctel de Mariscos ($6.95), big moist shrimp poached in white wine and olive oil, sprinkled thickly with diced onion and chopped cilantro. Seafood cocktails in places at this price-point are usually drowning in chile sauce, ketchup and horseradish; here, it's all about the pure sweetness of shrimp, virtually unadorned.
Much of the food is uncompromisingly traditional, such as the Puerto Rican classic Pernil Asado ($12.95), roast leg of pork. Hunks of long-cooked meat are chewy, almost flaky, dry without being desiccated (a repudiation of the current trend of slightly undercooking pork). Ask for it with Arroz Con Gandules, rice cooked with sofrito (a saute of chopped onions, peppers, garlic and various herbs), studded with pigeon peas.
Tradition has its downside, too. Alcapurria ($2.50) is probably something you just have to have grown up eating to like. The mahogany-colored deep-fried turnover has a gummy dough composed of grated green banana and yautia (a starchy tuber), its filling a mixture of ground beef with green olives and capers.
Pasteles ($3.50 each), Puerto Rican tamales, feature a similar dough, this time filled with big pieces of roast pork. They're starchy, infused with the slightly sour, intensely green flavor of the banana leaves in which they're steamed -- definitely not easy to love.
But Mofongo Con Camarones Guisados ($6.95 a la carte), served in a Day-Glo wooden mortar, is tradition transformed, thanks to the kitchen's deft hand with seafood. On its own, mofongo -- a mixture of mashed deep-fried green plantains with olive oil, garlic and bits of crispy pork skin -- can be stiff and bready, like dried-out turkey stuffing. Topped with moist sauteed shrimp, however, and doused with El Coqui's tangy criollo sauce of tomatoes, bell peppers, cilantro and red wine vinegar, it's fantastic.
Unfortunately, there's a bit of a disconnect between the polished quality of some of the cooking and the service. The busser takes his sweet time getting around to our table. And while our waitress is helpful with advice about ordering, when I ask for extra plates for sharing the seafood stew, she looks at me as if she thinks I'm crazy. It's funny in a way, almost charming; but on a busy night, when the staff is stretched thin, you might end up exasperated.
Even the kitchen has its blind spots: a tendency to oversalt, and the inconsistencies typical of new restaurants of this size. Tasty as it was, our Coctel de Mariscos arrived warm, just cooked, instead of chilled as the menu promises (perhaps the kitchen is wary about prepping more than it thinks it can sell?). Dessert suffers from the opposite problem. Beneath its blanket of cinnamon, arroz con dulce ($3.50), housemade coconut rice pudding, tastes like the fridge. But these are blips: When it gets things right, El Coqui shines like the polish on our waitress's fingernails.
Reach East Bay food writer John Birdsall at email@example.com.
el coqui: Review visit on July 14, 2004
WHERE: 509 W. Second St., Antioch.
HOURS: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; noon-10 p.m. Saturdays; noon-9 p.m. Sundays.
PARKING: Unrestricted street parking, plus a free public lot in the same block.
DATE OPENED: May 2004.
PRINCIPALS: Margo and Ruben Lopez-Ruiz, owners (Margo is also chef).
RESERVATIONS: For parties of six or more.
PRIVATE PARTIES: Yes, in the dining room; catering is also available.
NOISE LEVEL: On a slow night, low. Puerto Rican salsa pulses through the dining room at a reasonable level.
MOOD: Puerto Rican festive in a relaxed and casual setting; like a meal in someone's basement family room, fixed up for a party.
BATHROOMS: Large and clean; disabled access.
SPECIAL AREA: The four comfortable booths lining one wall, underneath framed souvenir photos of San Juan and a glossy portrait of Puerto Rico's pop heartthrob, Ricky Martin.
TIP: 18 percent.
SERVICE POINT: Helpful, especially if you need descriptions about dishes you haven't tried or advice on sequencing a meal; but don't expect anyone to fawn over you or hold your hand.
4 forks (overall value rating of our visit out of a possible 5)
CUISINE: Traditional Puerto Rican cooking.
PRICES: $$ (dinner entrees $7.95-$11.95).
HOME RUN: Sopa de Mariscos for two.
STRIKEOUT: Alcapurrias, a deep-fried turnover.
VEGETARIAN: Ask your server: The kitchen will saute vegetables with sofrito and serve them with meatless black beans.
KIDS MENU: A pan-fried chicken breast, pork chop or Puerto Rican-style beef stew, all served with french fries or rice and beans ($5.95).
DESSERTS: There are only two choices: flan or coconut rice pudding (both homemade).
FREEBIES: Soft, fluffy French bread and butter.
BEVERAGES: Beer, wine and soft drinks, including tropical fruit drinks. The wine list was just printed, Puerto Rican beer is coming, and low-alcohol cocktails (pina coladas, margaritas, and daiquiris) are available.
CHECK: $75.62; three appetizers, four entrees, one side dish, two beers, one dessert.
Early Birds And Morning Coffee
July 8, 2004
``In Puerto Rico, there is a wonderful tradition that, no matter where you go, you have a cup of coffee to enjoy before you begin business, work or a visit,'' says Luis Edgardo Cotto, partner in La Paloma Sabanera in Hartford. This new coffeehouse and bookstore recently opened at 405 Capitol Ave. and Babcock Street, next door to Snack It, a Jamaican eatery. ``This tradition is what we want to share with people here. It's a wonderful way to forget about the stresses outside, even for just a few minutes.''
The invitation to escape the rigors of everyday life is always appealing, especially when lured with fresh brewed coffee. When you enter, the house's rich aromas transport you south to where the beans are picked and the blends created. La Paloma offers five varieties of coffee: a featured flavor such as French vanilla or hazelnut that changes weekly; a decaf, including a Mexican organic blend on this day; two premium blends from Puerto Rico, known as yauco selecto and cafe madre isla; and a Fair Trade organic coffee from a co-op trader in either Peru, Colombia, Guatemala or Nicaragua.
``If you like strong coffee with a robust flavor, you're going to like what we have here,'' Cotta says. He also notes that there are variations for those seeking milder flavor. For example, his Peruvian coffee is medium roasted for medium richness.
Morning coffee sippers will enjoy the house's fresh baked pastries and treats such as a quesito (cheese pastry), besitos de coco -- ``kisses of coconut,'' or macaroons -- and pastelillo de guayva, a guava-filled pastry. There also are scones, biscotti and cookies. For a heartier appetite, there is a grilled ham and cheese or a grilled salami and cheese sandwich for just $2, also served at lunch.
A sandwich menu offers choices from $3.75 to $5.50. Selections include El Cubano, a Cuban sandwich with pork, ham, swiss cheese and pickles grilled on a flatbread called pan criollo. Cold sandwiches include roast beef, tuna, ham, turkey served on fresh baked country white, rye or wheat.
To nourish the mind, there are shelves of fiction and nonfiction books on Latino people and subjects, written by Latino authors in Spanish and English. By stocking their shelves with these books, Cotto and his sisters Letitia and Carmen are filling a void not addressed by the giant booksellers. Along with books, works by Latino artists near and distant are displayed. With backgrounds in arts administration, human services and library services, Cotto and his sisters are living a dream by sharing their heritage through the coffeehouse. Its name refers to ``dove of the savannah,'' an endangered species of bird local to their family's home village in Puerto Rico, celebrated in an annual festival. As La Paloma takes flight, its fuel may just be its morning coffee.
La Paloma Sabanera is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.