Living in Atlanta for almost seven years gave me a renewed appreciation for that Southern comfort and hospitality I grew up knowing in our very Latin home. The black culture there is very proud and true to its roots of hosting visitors in an extraordinary warm way. By contrast, hospitality in D.C., where I grew up and have since relocated to, is driven far more by political affiliations and interests. I didn’t realize how much it lacked that “joie de vivre” I experienced in the South.
If you’re familiar with that culture of openness and ultra-friendly lifestyle but have never been to the Southern states, I say skip it, save your money and plan a trip to the Dominican Republic (DR)! On a recent and my first visit to the brown island, I made my way to Puerto Plata on the northern shore. From the moment I landed, there was no doubt I was about to spend a few days of zestful enjoyment and true “mi casa es tu casa” spirit.
As soon as my passport was stamped and I grabbed my bags, I was greeted by a live band playing merengue and bachata, two Latin dance styles with their genesis in the DR. If that wasn’t a clear indicator of the local jovial approach to life, then the rest of the trip was going to be a surprise.
Fortunately, my expectations were set by existing knowledge of how Caribbean islanders do things. The island is known for boasting a plethora of lovely scenes, beaches, resorts and colorful entertainment such as the music. Though I was anxious to see artifacts and landmarks, I was focused on getting to know the food through the eyes of hospitable natives. It was only logical that I would want to explore the cuisine and dining scene of an island so similar to my own. The one thing I had to get my fork into was mangu, a mashup of a certain variety of green plantain.
Gran Marien, the all-inclusive resort where I planted myself, offers a slender view of what’s traditionally served up by a mix of obliterated Indians called Tainos and mostly black Hispanics. Like most Caribbean islands having inhabitants of African descent, the food is not really organic as most indigenous people were killed off during European settlement. Similarities in cuisine are seen across the straits in staples such as beans, plantains, rice and tropical fruits like coconut, mango and limoncello (Cubans call it mamoncillo), a round semisweet fruit made of white flesh. However, there are differentiating ingredients, dishes and cooking methods that keep their fare interesting and highly sought after in Dominican-saturated cities such as the Bronx.
At the resort, I particularly appreciated the Brazilian steakhouse which deviated from what you’d normally see stateside. Instead of an herbed red bean salad, they had well-seasoned black beans paired with boiled sweet plantain and yucca. The “snack bar” or mid-afternoon lunch option grilled up meat burgers and French fries with tart passion fruit on the side. That didn’t work so well but the genuine effort by the chefs and staff made it somewhat tolerable. The morning buffet did their food the most justice. A fantastic montage of savory and sweet dishes kept the lines wrapped around the chafing servers. It’s always a good sign when the locals approach for second helpings. This was the one single place where the level of friendliness was borderline suggestive! Curvy waitresses ensured your coffee was always full and asked without too much invasion if anything needed refilling. Considering that all-inclusives are not my first option, the breakfast experience was a perfect start to the day and if nothing else allowed a first-timer to seek out more authentic food. I went for it every day the week I was there. I needed to see and taste more. Surely, a vastly rich island such as the DR had wider selections.
If you’re adventurous and have a more exploratory palate, ditch the eats at the resort and talk to the locals to find out what’s going on in the streets. A chatty cab driver will gladly direct you to the right hole in the wall serving the most popular food. On the one off day I enjoyed, my father, a colleague and I stumbled across a cafeteria-looking spot with a very stale exterior façade. We took the recommendation from a street vendor a few blocks away and went in on good faith.
And just as I had envisioned it, the “fast food” joint was exactly what I’d been looking for. Nothing too complicated or fancy. Just good home cooked food. La Cocina De Gladys… Y Algo Más is a homey spot with hotplates for $6. I went for mondongo, a robust stew delicacy of tripe and potatoes. It’s the one dish you can’t leave the island without trying. I’d say it requires a certain appreciation for particular cuts but it’s worth the experience. A travel journey can only be complete if you expose yourself to what locals do. Tripe aside, a basic arroz congri and lightly seasoned coleslaw were delicious additions. One of the absolute must-haves anywhere you choose to dine is a tall glass of fresh fruit juice. What you’re more than likely to find and fall in love with is jugo de guayaba, fresh guava juice, which has a rich consistency or agua de coco. The latter serves best as a thirst quencher or palate cleanser.
After a savory lunch or dinner and especially on a hot summer day, a hand-whipped scoop of ice cream will do you just right. Go for bright flavors such as mamey (a salmon-colored fruit native to Mexico) and coconut. There’s a luscious spot right in the “centro” of Puerto Plata where the servers will scoop up a healthy amount into a waffle cone.
While all the food I had was great, the single thing I enjoyed becoming familiar with and highly suggested you sip after every single dinner date, is Mamajuana, an aperitif and sexy cocktail of cinnamon, rum, tree barks, honey and other spices. They say it’s an effective aphrodisiac with history nestled in the days of Christopher Columbus. Haiti also has its own recipe.
After a long day of touring the city, talking to strangers and tasting colorful foods on deteriorated street carts and sipping, a shot of Mamajuana is a great way to sealing off the night. It could very well explain the unforgettable love and attention everyone I met dished out. Their infectious smiles and tight hugs are reason enough to vacation there.
Photo credit: Bren Herrera