Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Aldu Offers Homestyle Dominican in the East Valley

Mofongo with garlic shrimp from Delicious by Aldu.
Mofongo with garlic shrimp from Delicious by Aldu. Charles Barth
Sitting there in the narrow Gilbert eatery — bright lights, warmth of a cortadito flowing through you — you suspect the coming Dominican meal will be memorable. There is Presidente beer on display, a florid yellow back wall, a color-blocked wooden bar. There are bark-filled Mamajuana bottles, the musky-sweet Dominican tincture of rum, honey, and red wine. There are regulars who look more interested in enjoying a pause in the day than food, but who savor Cuban sandwiches and the toasted salami of mangu tres golpe anyway.

At Delicious by Aldu Dominican Cuisine, there is more. There is the memory of baseball players who have eaten here during training camp, like all-time-great hitter Albert Pujols, born in the Dominican Republic. There are the past and future visits of Romeo Santos, a pop star whom Chef Aldo Perez says is big back on the island.

And there is Perez himself. Together with his wife, Dulce Cardenas, Perez runs Delicious by Aldu. Born in Santo Domingo, Perez cooks Dominican food with a touch or two from nearby Caribbean countries. Prices are reasonable (especially during lunch), and the menu is wide. It includes starters like guava empanadas, burgers with plantain buns, and plate-style entrees like pepper steak. Many recipes come from Perez’s grandmother, including sancocho, a rustic soup quietly kicking with the essence of corn, sure to briefly vanquish whatever in the world ails you.

click to enlarge The fried yucca at Delicious by Aldu is a surprisingly light snack. - CHARLES BARTH
The fried yucca at Delicious by Aldu is a surprisingly light snack.
Charles Barth
Delicious by Aldu hums in a strip mall on East Warner Road, far from Gilbert’s Heritage District. Before opening Aldu in 2017, Perez cooked with his father at Mambo’s Dominican Kitchen in Chandler. Bottom line: Delicious by Aldu is great.

And yet, though it has been open for two years, there’s a good chance you knew none of this until now.

Perez doesn’t have a PR machine on his payroll. He isn’t doing anything wildly new. He doesn’t serve millennial toast or rainbow Frappuccinos. His restaurant won’t easily produce a teaser of a headline, won’t sponsor social media posts, and isn’t tailoring dishes to Instagram. For these reasons, Perez’s restaurant has slipped through the food media and influencer cracks. It’s amazing how little has been written or posted about Aldu. It’s outright depressing in light of how many pointless pixels have been spilled on the latest dessert restaurant gimmick, or the nth version of Hash Kitchen.

To start at Aldu, pocket your phone and soak in Aldu’s bright scene — then think drinks.

Sure, there are the ones mentioned above — a great one-two to recall island nights. There are also fruit juices, including lemon and passionfruit, as well as shakes. But the real drink to try is the Dominican staple morir soñando, a creamy, twanging marriage of orange juice, milk, and vanilla. Rafts of ice keep the drink cold and bracingly tropical. The dictum about sums and parts is true here, though you’ll want to be careful. This sweet orange dream dents your appetite hard, and you’ll need stomach real estate for food.

click to enlarge "You should try everything!" Chef Aldo Perez is proud of his creations. - CHARLES BARTH
"You should try everything!" Chef Aldo Perez is proud of his creations.
Charles Barth
To start, too, you’ll want to think sancocho.

In the 2018 novel The Poet X, the Dominican-American writer Elizabeth Acevedo’s teenage narrator invokes this soup in a charged moment: “but it’s like a sancocho of emotions / a stew of mixed up ingredients.” For his (and his grandmother’s) version, Perez mixes up plantain, pork, chicken, and yucca. He simmers large pots of the soup. In your bowl — too hot for lips at first — a stout corn cob bobs at the surface, kernels poofy and glistening. A thick broth woven with pork shreds hides bigger hunks. A gentle, toasted corn flavor pervades every grateful sip.

The dining room is bright, lean, and long, with no more than 50 seats. Cool air moves under high fan blades. Eyes casually take in a TV baseball game. Service is patient and helpful, and food emerges, like drinks, from behind a polished wooden bar of many colors, bottles bright under hanging decorated and naked metal lights.

Food comes out at a brisk pace.

click to enlarge The Delicious by Aldu interior is cozy, clean, and inviting. - CHARLES BARTH
The Delicious by Aldu interior is cozy, clean, and inviting.
Charles Barth
Fried yucca is a home run, especially at the price ($7). Wedges and shafts of the pale, starchy vegetable have a giant, shattering sheath that softens near the core. Good alone, the yucca gains vitality when dipped in the bright, vividly green wasakaka sauce that sidekicks the meaty fries. The sauce’s cilantro and garlic have an herbal freshness that wipes the heft of the yucca clean. Empanadas, too, are a winning starter. They are flaky and a touch dry outside, but larded with a rich, mellowly spiced ground beef within.

Perez prides himself on mofongo. Mofongo with fried pork. Mofongo with pepper steak. Mofongo with Dominican-style fried chicken. The one to get here, though, might be mofongo with shrimp.

Perez uses green plantains, mashes them with garlic and bacon. The bacon touches the plantain mound with smoke and porky echoes, a flavor bridge to the robust garlic sauce ladled into a well hollowed into the mofongo. The plantains have been mashed, but barely. They retain their texture and warming, earthy flavors, and the welcome impression of a whole fruit. Though leaning in a pool of sauce from the get-go, tender shrimp get better with an extra dunk in the garlic sauce. This dish has a deep fireplace comfort.

click to enlarge Sancocho stew at Delicious by Aldu. - DELICIOUS BY ALDU
Sancocho stew at Delicious by Aldu.
Delicious by Aldu
What Perez can do with green plantains, he can do with sweet. For a second or two, it might be hard to believe that his canoa comes from the same plant as his mofongo, not to mention his crisp-fried tostones. Canoa features a wide, canoe-shaped vessel shaped from richly sweet plantains. Juicy pork fills the canoe like watermelon fills its rind, with mozzarella lavishly blanketing the top. The interplay between intensely sweet and intensely porcine and salty is high-wire stuff, and it somehow manages not only to make perfect sense, but to reverse the laws of diminishing returns, making each bite better.

This, too, is the beauty of Delicious by Aldu, and of places like it. There is great pleasure to be found in humble restaurants run with integrity, places of kind people and food cooked with compassion. This won’t come as news to you. But in the race for article clicks, rush to the new, and grip of a strange digital age where people eat with their iPhones and eyeballs, it is worth remembering.

Delicious by Aldu Dominican Cuisine
235 East Warner Road, #107, Gilbert
480-558-4601

Fried yucca $6
Beef empanada $2.75
Sancocho $8 (for a medium)
Dominican canoa $10
Shrimp mofongo $17
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy