There was a time in metro Phoenix when the traditional cuisine of the Dominican Republic felt impossibly distant. Garlicky mofongo, or a big Sunday morning bowl of sancocho, the country’s traditional comfort food stew, are still rare finds around the Valley, although you no longer have to hop on a plane, or cook them at home yourself, to reap the pleasures of comida dominicana.
Mambo’s Dominican Kitchen, which opened this summer in a sleepy strip-mall plaza near Arizona Avenue and Warner Road in Chandler, offers a fair amount of consolation in a city still starved of Caribbean dining options. This is the second incarnation of Mambo’s in metro Phoenix — some diners might remember the restaurant from its previous location in Queen Creek — and let’s hope it sticks around this time, because this is the sort of hearty, honest food that has been known to cure everything from hangovers to heartaches.
The dining room at Mambo’s is pleasant and spacious, with some quirky design turns, including menus that come attached to wooden chopping boards, cooking woks fashioned into light fixtures, and a portrait gallery of Dominican pop stars and sports figures. Bachata, merengue, and other danceable Latin pop beats play softly over the house speakers, wrapping the room in a warm buzz of music and conversation. Service is friendly and charming, in the sense that if you stop by more than a couple of times a month, someone on staff is likely to remember your face and welcome you back.
The menu delivers home-style Dominican cooking with all the trimmings, but before you dig into that plate of mofongo, it’s worth checking out the menu of very good jugos naturales, which are essentially fruit-and-milk smoothies whipped up fresh to order. You’ll find frothy, fruity concoctions like a lechosa (papaya)and chinola (passion fruit), nearly as sweet and delicious as your favorite diner milkshake. If you’re partial to those drippy, creamy orange Creamsicle popsicles, you must try the classic orange-and-milk Dominican drink called Morir Soñando — it translates roughly to “die dreaming,” because the drink is so light and frothy, it’s essentially a blissful daydream in a glass.
To start with, there’s a small but very good assortment of finger foods, including quipes, golden-brown, deep-fried bulgur rolls that offer a Dominican spin on Lebanese kibbeh. The quipes are crispy on the outside, with a soft, spongy filling of herb-scented ground beef on the inside. It’s hard not to love their clean, deep-fried texture.
There are also empanadas, which are thick and a little doughy, and filled with your choice of ground beef, roasted chicken, or cheese. A cheese empanada here turns out to be the most irresistible option — it tantalizes with rich, buttery flavor, and the flaky dough melds nicely with the wedge of very soft, salty white cheese.
An order of yucca frita is nearly guaranteed to please everyone at the table. The deep-fried yucca — the ultra-starchy tuber that’s also known as cassava — is served up like French fries. The yucca fries are dense yet crispy, served with a very good garlic and herb dipping sauce on the side.
There’s mofongo, of course, the classic plantain dish with roots that stretch back to West African cooking — if you know West African fufu, then you’ll recognize its Caribbean cousin here. Whether you consider this a Puerto Rican or Dominican dish won’t detract from the basic fact that the one made at Mambo’s is pretty delicious. The thick, sticky snowball-shaped clump of plaintains is smashed to a chunky consistency with liberal amounts of garlic and onion, and punctuated with salty, chewy bits of bacon. This is the kind of nourishing, stick-to-your-ribs dish that fills you up in an instant, so you’ll want to pace yourself if you plan to eat again in the next several hours.
The mofongo at Mambo’s comes with your choice of protein, and one of the best options is the house chicharrones de pollo, described on the menu as Dominican-style fried chicken. The juicy nuggets are deep-fried to a brown crisp, faintly peppery, and delicious.
Another house specialty is mangú tres golpes, a classic Dominican breakfast plate that revolves around mangú, a sort of porridge of chunky, mashed green plantains topped with savory ringlets of sauteed red onions. The mangú at Mambo’s is lightly buttery, and it comes with the classic tres golpes — the “three hits” that include thick rounds of very juicy fried salami; crispy, salty squares of white cheese, lightly fried and therefore irresistible; and a couple of fried eggs that nicely balance out all the salt on the plate. A bit of everything on your spoon — the buttery mangú, the crispy-salty hunks of cheese, and juicy bits of salami and eggs — is one of the best bites on the whole menu.
But perhaps you’re craving pork? If so, try the masita de cerdo, cubes of fried pork that are lightly crisp at the edges, dense and chewy, and deeply flavorful in the way that only fried pork can aspire to be. It comes with a generous mound of white rice on the side — the white rice here is buttery and moist — or the option of moro de habichuelas, a classic rice and beans dish that isn’t quite as moist as the white rice, but fragrant and very hearty.
The kitchen does a very good job with seafood, especially shrimp. There’s a wonderful dish of camarones al ajillo, the shrimp plump and brightly orange in color, and dripping in a very savory, salty garlic sauce.
And if you love a blisteringly hot bowl of stew, come to Mambo’s on a Sunday, which is the day the kitchen keeps a pot of meaty sancocho on the stovetop. The dish is widely considered one of the national dishes of the Dominican Republic. The savory broth is scented with the flavors of slow-simmered pork, the hunks of meat falling apart in juicy tendrils. The broth is deepened with slices of carrots, yucca, and corn, all of it adding up to a lovely, chunky, and very filling stew.
If burgers and sandwiches are more your speed, consider the restaurant’s wonderful bistec sandwich. The pressed sandwich comes layered with thinly sliced steak, grilled peppers, and onions, then generously lubricated with melted Swiss cheese. It’s delicious, and it’s paired with a pile of irresistibly crispy, hot plantain chips on the side.
And if you’re obsessed with regional sandwiches, Mambo’s serves up a very good Chimi-Burger, a traditional Dominican street food featuring a juicy burger patty topped with a salad of shredded cabbage that’s been slathered in a tangy, orange “chimi sauce.” The loosely packed burger is drippy, delicious, and the sauce should please anyone who openly worships McDonald’s orangey “secret sauce.”
The best way to round out your meal at Mambo’s is with a cup of Dominican coffee — the restaurant serves only Café Santo Domingo, a full-bodied blend imported straight from la republica dominicana. It’s very strong, and best enjoyed with a slice of the restaurant’s creamy, milky tres leches cake, or perhaps with a scoop of creamy arroz con leche.
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You’ll be forgiven if you leave Mambo’s feeling overstuffed — thick stews, deliciously starchy mofongo and mangú, and thick, fruity milkshakes tend to have that effect on the typical digestive system. But you’ll probably also leave satisfied with the honest cooking, and endless appeal, of Mambo’s Dominican Kitchen.
Mambo’s Dominican Kitchen
1950 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed Monday
Bistec Sandwich $10.99
Mofongo de chicharrones de pollo $14.99
Mangú tres golpes $13.99