The Columbian Exchange—that epic transaction between the old world and new, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s 1492 landfall in the Caribbean—produced many global changes, good and bad, not the least of which was the transfer of staple foods. Of the dishes that have their origins in this exchange, the first to spring to mind come from the journey eastward: spaghetti with tomato sauce, potatoes au gratin, and kung pow chicken (to name but a few). But my focus today lies with one dish that resulted from the movement in the other direction—the westward journey of the banana and the pig.
The dish I am referring to is mofongo, a hearty concoction of fried plantains, garlic, and crispy pork mashed in a mortar and pestle. The preparation is similar to the West and Central African fufu, in that a starch-heavy vegetable is mashed to serve as a carbohydrate canvas for more piquant additions. We have African immigrants to the new world, specifically to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, to thank for introducing mofongo to this hemisphere. The three ingredients that I listed above (fried plantains, garlic, and crispy pork) are almost always sufficient constituents to call something mofongo, but they hardly tell the whole story—you can put almost anything you like in this dish and, as you long as you get the flavor balance right, it will turn out delicious.
There is a debate as to whether mofongo is originally Puerto Rican or Dominican (or even Cuban). I am sure there are evangelists on every side of the argument, though I will always associate it with one of my favorite restaurants of all time, a palace of all things Dominican and gustatory: Tipico. And the mofongo there is irresistible. A mashed mound of steaming hot fried plantains redolent with garlic and spiked with unctuous chunks of crispy pork belly, served alongside a bowl of highly concentrated brown broth. (I say brown because I don’t have any idea what meat is its base—all I know is that it’s delicious.) Spoon the broth over the whole mound of mofongo, or use it to soak each bite. Either way, the textures and flavors at play are likely to send you into a rapture: soft and yielding plantains, crisp and fatty pork, deep and silken broth, all washed down with a sip of ice-cold Presidente.
Mofongo is but one of the many reasons Tipico has drawn me back so many times. This Washington Heights restaurant is open 24 hours, serves buckets of Presidente on ice, and is a short two-block walk from the source of the best summer cocktail on the island of Manhattan, the frozen nutcracker. And besides the good food, served hot, garlicky, and fast, Tipico is one of those special restaurants where, after your initial visit, you know in your bones it’s only the first of many. The place is welcoming, comfortable, and suffused with a chill vibe, most definitely living up to its title (tipico, in this sense, means “authentic” in Spanish).
I’ve been to Tipico maybe 20 times and have always ordered the same thing. That might seem boring, but for me that’s the mark of a place that yearns for your return. You know what you like, and there’s no reason to deviate. Our staples are chicharron de pollo (small chunks of fried chicken, best eaten with a squeeze of lime and a dash of hot sauce), whole roast chicken, avocado salad, tostones liberally slathered with garlic sauce, rice and beans, and, for dessert, tres leches cake. Everything tastes great, nothing is expensive, and you can watch basketball and baseball on the TVs mounted on the walls. Now if only it was BYOB, it’d be the perfect restaurant.
4172 Broadway, New York, NY 10033 212-781-3900
Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time—he’s also the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s executive editorial director of food. Here’s what he has to say about the origins of Mensday Wednesday: “Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here, and in a huge city, built on the contributions of operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: Price is important—the final bill should never cause us to wince; “international” cuisine is preferred; and in the event of a debate, BYOB is the trump card.”
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