Uptown, south of the border: Dominican Paradise
Over Christmas vacation, my family and I took a trip to the Dominican Republic to visit my mother’s good friend, Victoria, a Dominican native from Santo Domingo. During our stay, Victoria introduced us to the most breathtaking hotspots, including Puerto Plata (where Christopher Columbus first landed in the New World), Caberete, Sosua, El Diamante, Dudu and many others. I fell in love with the country—beaches with water the color of larimar (a beautiful blue stone, indigenous to the Dominican Republic), locals singing in Spanish while dancing to the bachata and salsa music blaring from every shop and restaurant, excellent coffee to surpass anything offered at a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks and unforgettable food. I returned from my trip with a stubborn resistance to leave behind the rich culture that I felt was just beginning to open up to me.
Fortunately, I was returning to New York City, where one is never more than a few subway stops away from stepping into a brand new world. For me, it was a matter of a quick Google search and a hop on the Uptown A train before I was reunited with the sounds and tastes of the Carribean. The first stop on my trip was El Malecón, a Dominican restaurant in the Washington Heights area, on Broadway.
Before even entering the restaurant, I was greeted by a gorgeous display of succulent rotisserie chickens that spanned the length of three large windows, and a man who introduced himself as Diego, a proud Malecón employee, eager to have his picture taken at work.
The first thing I noticed walking into El Malecón was the modern décor: a mixture of petit tables, chic navy booths, granite tabletops and a mural of blue waves painted on the back wall to lend the feel of a beachy upscale diner. The strong scent of garlic, spicy peppers and sweet plantains, accompanied by a familiar bachata song by the contemporary Latin group, Aventura, circulated throughout the room. I was almost there.
The true test of authenticity would be determined by the food. I ordered a grilled sea bass filet, one of the daily specials, and one of the most memorable dishes of my Dominican trip.
Delivered within 10 minutes, my food was tender and succulent, with the perfect combination of garlic, lime and spices. I dug into the large filet, dressed with purple onions, green peppers, red tomatoes and cilantro and nestled beside a generous helping of black beans and rice.
Before I left, I introduced myself to the manager, Javier Gomez, congratulating him on running an excellent business and expressing my desire to try everything offered on the menu.
“You should talk to this guy,” he said, pointing to the man standing at the checkout counter, to my right. “He could probably tell you more than I could.”
The man, a local who introduced himself as “Nene,” was excited to help.
Nene told me that El Malecón opened 26 years ago. He knows everyone who works there, and he has tried everything on the menu. I was curious to discover what Nene’s favorite dish is.
“I get everything! I come here every day,” he said. A native Cuban, Nene assured me that, though the most popular dish to order at El Malecón is the rotisserie chicken, everything on the menu is excellent.
After such a successful experience at El Malecón, I was tempted to head back to Midtown and call it a day, but Kenny Bakery—a Dominican bakery that, along with El Malecón, earned a special mention in an article under the Times travel section back in 2007—was just a short trek further uptown. Plus, a café con leche didn’t sound too bad on this below-freezing New York afternoon.
The Inwood bakery proved to be a charming, hole-in-the-wall spot. As promised in the Times travel article, I found one-dollar café con leche. But its price wasn't its only virtue. Brewed with genuine Santo Domingo coffee beans and blended with fresh steamed milk, the phrase “pick-me-up” didn’t serve my cup justice—more like “pick me up and send me on a trans-Atlantic flight straight to the Dominican capital.”
In addition to a great cup of Joe, one will find a large assortment of cheaply priced Dominican baked goods. Aleexes, the man who helped me, explained each dessert: flaky pastries with pineapple and guava filling; sweet rolls, glazed and sprinkled with shaved almonds; and tropical coconut-pineapple loaf and Domincan cake. I was able to buy the coffee, along with pastries for my roommates and me—all for less than five dollars.
As I was paying for my goodies, explaining to Aleexes that I didn’t speak Spanish (he was slightly disappointed) but had just returned from the Dominican Republic, a man standing nearby asked me which part I had traveled to.
The man, Nelson Guerrero, explained that he is a first-generation Dominican-American, whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic and settled in New York. Nelson, who now lives in Westchester, grew up playing little league in that very neighborhood, and has been to the Dominican Republic many times with his family; he makes frequent trips to Kenny Bakery and to visit his parents, who still live in Inwood.
“The neighborhood has changed, but it's gotten a lot better,” he said. He was happy to hear that someone was writing an article about the Dominican-American culture he feels so closely connected to.
In one afternoon I had more than accomplished my goal of finding good Dominican food in the City; I had discovered an entire sub-culture just as rich and vibrant as the Caribbean one I had left behind. Anyone searching for a good meal and an authentic cross-cultural experience need look no further than the Uptown Dominican neighborhoods of Inwood and Washington Heights.
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