El Sabor de Puerto Rico en Dayton
By Tom Baker
When the Mayor, Gary Leitzell, announced Dayton’s “Welcome Plan,” a plan that would make Dayton a more immigrant-friendly city, I was really happy. Not only do I think it’s a good idea to embrace and encourage diversity in our communities, but I was also excited as I knew that along with this diversity of cultures and people comes their cuisines. As more small businesses pop up and more and more people get to experience these new cultures through food, the communities, as well as our bellies, benefit tremendously.
Antojitos Criollos, located on Linden Avenue across from the Eastown Shopping Center, opened in December of 2010 and is yet another restaurant thread that makes up the fabric of the diverse dining which the Dayton area has to offer. Interestingly, the space once held a Vietnamese restaurant (Viet), followed by a Mexican restaurant (La Tierra). While there are plenty of disappointing Mexican places around (along with a few hidden gems), I’d never tried Puerto Rican food. Walking in, the walls are covered with pictures, masks, flags and other items proudly representing the island. It’s not a large place, and the tables are simply covered with a tablecloth and perhaps an old school Puerto Rican placemat. It’s simple and comfortable and not at all too fancy.
With influences ranging from ingredients native to the island (yuca, a root vegetable) to the European/Spanish colonizers (olives) and their African slaves (coconut), Puerto Rican food truly represents the history of the island, with flavors and seasonings that create unique dining experiences. On my first visit I had to try what I consider the flagship dish of Puerto Rico – mofongo. It might sound strange, but if you’re looking to try something definitively Puerto Rican, this is it. Mofongo starts with fried plaintains, the banana’s savory cousin. They’re fried and then mashed in a traditional mortar and pestle called a pilón, usually with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and pork cracklings or bacon. Like a delicious Caribbean version of garlicky bacon mashed potatoes, the mofongo at Antojitos is served with your choice of chicken ($10), shrimp ($12), churrasco (grilled skirt steak – $12) or fried pork ($10). The slow cooked chicken in a spiced tomato sauce is very good, but I liked the shrimp with garlic sauce even better – just be sure to bring yourself a breath mint. Add an order of the arroz con glandules (rice with pigeon peas) or arroz blanco con habichuelas (white rice with pink beans) and you’ve got yourself one serious meal.
In addition to the mofongo and other traditional Puerto Rican/Caribbean dishes such as yembleque (coconut pudding – $4), tostones rellenos (stuffed plaintain cups – $12 per dozen), and pastelones de papa (stuffed potatoes with choice of meat – $7), they offer daily specials at lunch during the week. On a recent visit I tried the carne guisada, a Puerto Rican beef stew with potatoes, carrots and olives. At $7 and served with white rice and pink beans, it’s a perfect lunch as winter approaches and just reinforces the idea that we all share comfort foods. They offer several desserts that vary in availability from day to day, but if they have the tres leches cake you should go for it. Soaked in three different kinds of milk (condensed, evaporated and whole), the light, moist and whipped cream-topped cake is very good.
Each time I’ve arrived, the staff greeted me with friendliness and enthusiasm, going so far as to sit down with us and go over menu items, ingredients and recommendations for those new to the cuisine. I know that there have been occasions, based on feedback I’ve read over the past year or so, that some people have not seen this sort of hospitality. However, I do want to make clear what to expect when people come. First and foremost, this is a small, family-run business. When I say family-run, I mean to say that you will see kids and grandkids with regularity, and they may stop by your table and ask if everything is all right, or simply to say hello. The family might sit down at a table across the dining room and have lunch if it’s later in the afternoon. Now I don’t have any problem with this – in fact, I actually find it sort of endearing. On the other hand, some people might not. I’ve found that in my experiences with Asian, Latin and other cuisines, there are clearly some cultural differences that, for me, make experiencing different types of cuisine interesting and rewarding – that and the delicious food of course.
In closing, allow me to butcher an oft-used Mark Twain quote: “Exploring new cultures through cuisine is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and our bellies as well as our minds will benefit. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of people and their foods cannot be acquired by eating at bad chain restaurants all one’s lifetime.”
Antojitos Criollos is located at 3937 Linden Ave. and is closed on Mondays. Enjoy live music and a full buffet on Saturdays starting at 7 p.m. For more information call 937.259.2207 or visit www.antojitoscriollosrestaurant.net.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.