When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Sol Caribe Puerto Rican Cuisine Location: 1617 N. Granite Reef Rd., Scottsdale Open: About a month Eats: Puerto Rican Price: $15 and under
Not so long ago, in an off the beaten path south Scottsdale strip mall, diners looking for authentic Puerto Rican eats could get their fix at El Coquito. But, alas, it closed and thus left an island-sized hole in the neighborhood dining scene.
Now, in the very same spot, you'll find Sol Caribe Puerto Rican Cuisine. The new restaurant opened about a month ago and offers diners a well-executed and approachable menu of dishes from the Caribbean archipelago.
Owned by a husband and wife team, this small but bright restaurant oozes good energy from the moment you walk inside. Thanks to blue and yellow walls and a small amount of Island-themed art, the space feels fresh despite its location inside a tired-looking strip mall.
If you're lucky, owner Ivy (pronounced "Evie"), will be your server and guide to the menu. A native of Puerto Rico, she can provide suggestions and explain dishes that may be unfamiliar to new diners. That being said, the menu also provides helpful descriptions of the food should you not recognize the Spanish names.
In the antojitos, or appetizers, section of the menu you'll find both chicken and beef empanadas under their Puerto Rican name pastelillo. The biggest difference between these versions and other empanadas will be the dough; the pastelillo dough is slightly less thick and more flaky. Between the carne and pollo pastelillos we preferred the beef, which offered tender and flavorful meat inside the crisp outer shell.
On Ivy's suggestion we also tried the alcapurria, a fried fritter made with green plantains, banana, and taro root that's also stuffed with ground meat. That's a lot going on flavor-wise, though we could still pick up the distinctive flavor of unripe plantains.
The tamest way to start your meal would be with an order of tostones, or deep fried green plantains. These simple, salty snacks taste great when dipped in mayoketchup, a bottle of which sits on every table in the restaurant. This popular Puerto Rican condiment combines mayonnaise and ketchup (obviously) with garlic and other spices. The result is an addicting combo of fat, salt, and spice that tastes good on pretty much anything.
According to Ivy, the restaurant's specialty is mofongo, a well-loved Puerto Rican dish made with mashed green plantains. Though it doesn't look like much, it's bursting with garlicky flavor and achieves a nearly cream texture thanks to the inclusion of oil and butter.
You can order it alone or with a side of meat; we opted for the chicharrone de pollo, a Puerto Rican version of fried chicken. The meat comes in random hunks that will be packed with bone. Nevertheless the meat is moist and flavorful, a perfect salty counterpart to the starchy mofongo.
But if more plantains just doesn't suit you, go for the pernil de cerdo, a dish of roasted pork marinated in oil, garlic, oregano, and black pepper. The shredded pork might have been our favorite dish of the meal, particularly when enjoyed with a side of arroz con gandules, or yellow rice with pigeon peas.
For dessert, you'll have a choice from a small selection of housemade specialties. We tried them all including flan, budin (bread pudding with raisins), tres leches cake, and tembleque. Our favorite was the last, a Puerto Rican coconut pudding made topped with cinnamon. Less dense than a typical pudding but not as light as jello, this made for a light and lightly sweet end to the meal.
The tres leches cake is also a unique offering, mostly because Sol Caribe's version comes topped with a thick layer of shredded coconut.
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Unfortunately, there's no alcohol to be had at Sol Caribe -- a shame because a cold beer would pair great with this island fare. On the upside, you can order a selection of juices including guanabana (or soupsop), parcha (or passionfruit), and tamarindo.