would be hard to identify, there is so much fine mofongo in New York. But I have a hunch it might be prepared in the unassuming kitchen of 188 Bakery Cuchifritos, on 188 Street, just off of Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
I worked around the corner for six months last year protecting trees, meeting some incredible people along the way.
Anthony Bourdain agreed with me, chowing down here in Parts Unknown, and his signed glossy adorns one wall of the joint, where patrons customarily ignore it and go on with their ordering and chewing.
The specialty is Puerto Rican/Latin cuisine. The crunchy pork chicharrons Dominicano are out of this world, a nice challenge to your Lipitor. It’s a boomerang of a bone, cleaver-chopped and served in bite-size wedges of crispy skin, meat and fat.
The place has other distinctions. It is as far as I have seen the only restaurant in town with a dedicated Lotto booth on the premises. A busy one, too. Made a former New Yorker happy by taking her here to dinner.
You can fill your stomach here every day of the year, from 9 am to 11 pm. It has been in business for 30 years, and even has a Facebook page. Whether you go for breakfast or dinner it is jammed, a line for takeout snaking through the door. The counter people efficiently juggle phone orders and packing up meals.
I tend to like any handwritten sign, so the menu board at 188 Cuchifritos is a delight.
Customers cut across a wide swathe of the population.
Usually there is a fairly high proportion of street people wandering in and hoping for a handout, alongside the paying customers. The common denominator here is a craving for sustenance.
The mofongo al pilon – a plantain dish derived from Spanish, Taino and West African cuisines–is stuffed with pork cracklings and served with a tomato-and-garlic infused gravy. The cook mashes starchy platanos in a classic wooden mortar and pestle and it comes to the table as a dome that you explode with your fork. One foodie reviewer described the taste with the buzz-word umami, and I think that as pretentious as that is, it’s not far off.
While waiting for the mofongo to emerge from the kitchen you might study the cartoon tiles on the wall. I have translated some of them, albeit clumsily.
Married man, spoiled donkey.
Two children and a mother are three devils for the father.
The guests are happy but that’s when they leave.
Okay. I never claimed to study Spanish in school, and anyway my mouth is watering too much to make good sense of the jokes. There is also some fine artwork on display.
Home-made hot sauce readily available and in an awesome recycled container.
The frituras, fried snacks displayed in the window, include one I love but don’t know the name of.
I just tell the wise waitress “the football shaped one,” indicating the oblate spheroid with hand gestures, and she knows what I mean.
I have now done research and found that it is more correctly alcapurria, a yucca fritter stuffed with picadillo, the classic Latin American blend of beef, tomatoes, and olives. I’ll try to remember that for next time.
It is possible to order pig ears, tongue, or stomach, though I haven’t done so. Yet.
I can’t decide which I like better, the counter or the five or so tiny tables. The service is always superb no matter where you sit. If you order like we do you and sit at the counter, though, you can barely fit all the plates in front of you. Yes, you can even get a salad to cut the fat if you insist. Plenty of rice and beans to take home, though of course you’ll have to eat without the cartoons for entertainment.
“I don’t know any place porkier,” was Bourdain’s summation. I would just add: when you are next in the Bronx, get lucky and go.