Okay, so there's no ocean.
But it puts me in a good state of mind to look at the blue sky and the palm trees, feel the sun warming my skin, and pretend that the distant white noise of the highway is actually the sound of waves cascading over sand. It also helps that there's a diversity of great island cooking in the Valley to keep me in a beachy mood.
Puerto Rican cuisine hasn't been on my radar much since I left New York City (where the Puerto Rican community is especially vibrant), but we do have it here, thanks to a pint-size, family-owned cafe in South Scottsdale called El Coquito.
Michele Laudig's Cafe
1617 North Granite Reef Road, Scottsdale
Hours: noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Pernil y arroz con gandules: $10.99
To look at the façade of this humdrum strip mall, planted behind a convenience store, you can't get a sense of the charm inside the restaurant — there are flags, scenic pictures of Puerto Rico, a few paintings, and a collection of Yankees souvenirs. (Yep, chef-owner Jaime Acevedo came from New York.) This is a place to linger over soulful food like roasted pork and rice and beans, chatting with friends over a bumpin' salsa soundtrack, and eating 'til you're ready to roll off your chair.
Bring your own booze, and it becomes a fiesta. A cold six-pack suits all the deep-fried "cuchifritos" on the appetizer list, while some rum is the appropriate traditional add-in for the "Coquito," a thick, sweet, silky coconut cream drink served on ice with a dash of cinnamon. While you're at it, you could conceivably doctor up a cup of cold parcha (passion fruit) or mango juice with a little somethin'-somethin' as well.
I was grateful for a choose-your-own appetizer assortment that let me pick four different snacks, but if I had to narrow it down to just one, I'd do the bacalaitos, round patties of batter-dipped salted cod that were served sizzling and golden, with lemon wedges on the side. A spritz of citrus was the perfect complement to the crunchy, salty, greasy fritters — so craveable.
Pastelillos were the Puerto Rican version of empanadas, flaky fried pastries breaking open to reveal a gooey cheese middle, while there was a core of seasoned ground beef and onion bits buried inside the relleno de papa (fried mashed potato ball). Both of these arrived fresh out of the fryer and lightly crispy.
And then there were plantains.
While Puerto Rico's cuisine evolved from a mélange of influences — Native American, South American, Spanish, and African — the last one is evident in the abundance of plantains in the cooking. At El Coquito, you can get them grated and deep-fried (arañitas), pounded into thin, salty fritters (tostones), or served as sweet, somewhat dessert-like snacks (maduros).
Perhaps the most alluring preparation of this versatile tropical fruit was one of the house specialty entrées, mofongo. It was a beautiful behemoth of mashed fried plantains that seduced me with smells of bacon and garlic even before I tasted it. And then . . . yum. This is the kind of thing I can inhale, pure comfort food that makes me fat and happy. I ordered it topped with roast pork, but beef, chicken, and shrimp are other options.
For a more serious pig fix, there's pernil y arroz con gandules, a big helping of roast pork on a fluffy bed of yellow rice dotted with tender pigeon peas, as well as the chuleta, a marinated, pan-fried pork chop. While the chop was pretty juicy, the pernil was easier to love because it was practically falling apart.
And I was delighted with the simple, classic Cuban sandwich, with pork, ham, pickles, and cheese on a flattened, grilled roll. As if it wasn't hefty enough, there was a pile of crispy tostones on the side.
Out of everything I tried here, bistec encebollado was the single disappointment, since the marinated steak strips were cooked to utter chewiness. That left some grilled onions and a pile of rice and beans to round out the plate (and fill my stomach).
Thankfully, the beef in the sancocho, a weekend-only special, was as tender as could be, steeped in an herb-flecked soup of starchy vegetables, including soft chunks of plantain, yuca, yautia (similar to yam), and chayote, green banana, and some corn on the cob, as well as beef bones. This was a very substantial dish, and I hardly needed the bowl of white rice that came with it, although rice turned out to be a good way to soak up some of that broth.
Similarly, rice gave extra mileage to Creole-style stewed chicken (pollo guisado). What I enjoyed most about this dish, besides the mouthwatering seasoning, was how chunks of potato absorbed the flavors and became fork-tender.
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There were just a couple of desserts available when I visited El Coquito — vanilla flan and tembleque (coconut pudding). The former was a lighter, not-too-sweet take on flan with deeply caramelized sauce, while the latter was sugary and rich and so dense I had to savor it in tiny bites. If you make it to dessert here, you could get away with having your own flan, but it might be wise to share a tembleque.
Honestly, I'd be happy just to finish up with a café con leche. It's like liquid velvet, with a serious sugar kick and scalded milk to counter the strong espresso flavor.
Whether you love Puerto Rican food, are curious to try something new, or just want to imagine that the shore is close by, add El Coquito to your list.
And don't forget that rum.