Carib Notes

Pulsating salsa tunes blare from a boom box as you walk into K-Rico Cafe & Bakery. The small eatery is plopped at the end of a funky strip mall at Glendale and 12th Street, two doors down from The Empire of Toys Collectibles and Comics. Filled with sweet and garlicky aromas that mingle with the musica tropical, it's an unlikely place for some of the tastiest Puerto Rican pastries and food this side of San Juan.

Catering to all five senses simultaneously, Elsie Lara, owner and hands-on operator of K-Rico, has spiffed up her tiny establishment with electric-yellow walls, ruby-red swinging kitchen doors and toucans-in-the-rain forest wallpaper trim. Born in New York City, the elegant, 40-something entrepreneur was raised in Puerto Nuevo Rio Piedra, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico. "I'm a New Yor-ee-can," Lara laughs, quickly switching to rapid-fire Spanish to ask one of her staff a question about the day's menu.

From her formative years in the Caribbean and 10 years in Miami, Lara has learned about the savory joys of Puerto Rican and Cuban food -- and she's learned her lessons well. After moving to Phoenix 10 years ago, she thought it was finally time to fill the gaping Puerto Rican-food void in the Valley.

Just before New Year's, she opened K-Rico, specializing in pastries and desserts. She's recently added lunch entrees, including Cuban sandwiches, to her ever-growing repertoire of offerings.

Starting with dessert here is inevitable. Unlike marginally sweet, yeast-based Mexican pan dulce, or sweet bread, the puertorriqueño pastries -- and the tropical island's desserts in general -- are extremely sugar-laden (no surprise, considering Puerto Rico's prodigious, centuries-old sugar cane industry). Those at K-Rico are guaranteed to set your fillings to tingling.

I begin my pastry quest with a flaky quesito, a long, cigar-shaped puff pastry loaded with a soft, blintz-like cream cheese mixture, then work my way through a paselito, a gooey pasta de guayaba (guava paste) version of a quesito (K-Rico also sells tins of Ecuadorian guava paste, should you develop an addiction for it, like I have). I am momentarily distracted by napoleon-appearing señoritas, layers of buttery pastry sandwiched with vanilla custard and topped with pineapple, guava, chocolate or cajeta, a rich caramel made from goat's milk.

Pandering to a variety of tastes, K-Rico even carries baklava and cream horns, though here they're called tornillos. And the bakery-cafe's exceptionally moist pastel de tres leches, made with sponge cake saturated with three different types of sweetened milk and topped with whipped cream, is the most memorable I've ever tasted. This particular recipe came via Nicaragua, says Lara. "In Miami and Puerto Rico, tres leches is usually topped with marshmallows," she adds.

K-Rico's refrigerated display case is also well-stocked with a variety of flan, a classic culinary reminder of Puerto Rico's Spanish colonial heritage. Lara has supplied the creamy milk-and-egg yolk custard to a number of Mexican restaurants in the Valley for the past two years through a small catering business she operated before opening K-Rico. The quivery flan comes in cheese, coconut and traditional vanilla flavors. Tembleque, a classic Puerto Rican coconut milk pudding redolent with cinnamon, rounds out the dessert selection.

Craving something salty after my sugar rush, I dig into a pastelillo de camarón, a large, deep-fried shrimp turnover specially made that day by chef Freddie Gonzalez, himself a native of Puerto Rico, and Abelardo, K-Rico's pastry chef, who hails from Mexico. On most days, pastelillos de carne, spicy ground-beef turnovers, revolve in a heated display case. They're one rack down from doughier empanadas Lara buys from an Argentinean baker. Stuffed with beef or chicken and eggs, with raisins added for a touch of fruitiness, the empanadas are a little too restrained seasoning-wise for my now perked-up palate.

Puerto Rican cuisine, a mélange of Spanish, African and now-extinct indigenous Taino cooking traditions, is heavy in the garlic department. The secret weapon in its flavor arsenal is sofrito, Lara informs me. It's a thick base sauce made by sautéing generous amounts of garlic, onions, bell peppers, oregano and other spices in olive oil. ("But no chile," notes Lara. "We don't use chile -- I hate it.") Used to season everything from soup to meat and rice dishes, sofrito is what gives Puerto Rican food its characteristic zing.

The sauce is prominent in the habithuelas coloradas on the menu, soupy red beans buffed up with sofrito, chunks of squash and olives. Sofrito also makes an appearance in arroz con gandules, a rice and pigeon-pea dish (in its split incarnation, the high-protein, drought-tolerant pigeon pea is known as dhal in East Indian cuisine). Rice imported from Puerto Rico and pigeon peas are mixed with bite-size pieces of chuleta (pork chop), beef, chicken and pernil (tender shreds of slow-roasted pork). Apparently, this rice and legume dish is "to Puerto Ricans what tacos are for Mexicans."

Modongo is the island's version of Mexican menudo (purportedly the world's finest hangover cure) -- a hearty broth made with tripe, corn, pumpkin and yuca (starchy cassava root, which is commonly known as taro root). Spanish influence appears in K-Rico's offering of bacalaitos, fritters made from dried, salted cod that's been soaked and resoaked in water, shredded, then mixed with batter and fried.

Plantains, both unripe and ripe, also figure notably in comida puertorriqueña. Tostones, salted slices of fried green plantains, and maduros, slices of sweeter, ripened plantains fried in vegetable oil, come with a number of entrees or can be ordered as sides. Mofongo, a sort of Caribbean take on chicken soup, features a generous ball of mashed, fried green plantain, bits of pork, garlic and olive oil. Crunchy, grainy and garlicky, a bite of mofongo is slurped up with a spoonful of caldo de pollo, the accompanying chicken broth.

On occasion, K-Rico serves Puerto Rican pasteles, a tamale-esque concoction using a green plantain and shredded yuca masa (dough) filled with a sofrito-laced pork filling. The pasteles, wrapped in banana leaves, are then boiled, rather than steamed.

Consider washing down your ultimate order with malta, a thick, foamy non-alcoholic brew ragingly popular in Puerto Rico and other places in the Caribbean. "I used to think malta tasted nasty," declares Lara's 15-year-old daughter, Carla, of its slightly bitter, caramel-con-malt flavor, "but now I love it."

By the time I leave, people spill out K-Rico's front door, filling a number of white plastic chairs and tables outside. Urania Hernandez, K-Rico's pleasant front counter lady from Sinaloa, is patiently explaining the unfamiliar menu in Spanish to the next person in line. Eavesdropping on her explanation, I depart, hands full of food for later, wondering how hard it would be to grow plantains in Phoenix.

But why bother when K-Rico is so close?

Contact Kathleen Vanesian at her online address: [email protected]

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Kathleen Vanesian