SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Strange as it may sound, finding good Dominican food isn’t so easy in Dominican restaurants.
The best Dominican food, I’m told, is served in Dominican homes. If you get that kind of invitation, well, lucky you; you’ll eat well. If not, and you want to eat like a local, you’ll have to dig into the restaurants a bit.
While there is no shortage of international cuisines represented — Italian, Japanese, Mexican, steakhouses and all sorts of fusion — across several days of visiting the Dominican capital, I wanted the purest close-to-home grub I could find. There were several successes. But maybe next time I’ll luck into someone’s family dining room.
• Meson D’Bari: I sat one evening at El Bohemio, a small outdoor bar in Plaza Bartolome de las Casas in the Zona Colonial, the safest, most historic and tourist-heavy patch of the city. Behind the bar was a friendly young Dominican named Valentin, who insisted I try his specialty: the diablito. Many Latin cultures have varying versions of said drink, but Valentin’s was simple: a shot of Brugal 151 rum (the midtier label from the nation’s most ubiquitous rum manufacturer), topped with grenadine and set ablaze. Valentin let the blue flame dance for a moment, then suffocated it beneath a plastic cup.
“If you want to get drunk, you drink one, two, three, five diablitos and a beer,” Valentin said.
What does this have to do with eating Dominican food? Not only are Valentin’s diablitos an ideal aperitif, he pointed me toward one of the better meals I had on the island. About four blocks up, he said, check out Meson D’Bari. Then he kissed the tips of his fingers, as a cartoon Italian chef might.
Indeed, the two-story blue building up the street, decorated in slightly mismatched artistic elegance, served what is best described as high-concept Caribbean food. My crab empanada appetizer was fresh, tender and flavorful and proved that empanadas can be more than the thick doughy globs we often know in the United States.
Valentin suggested the stewed chivo — goat — and it arrived lean and tender, on the bone, in an earthy brick-red sauce. The crab-stuffed eggplant was a lively accompaniment. From 8 p.m. on, the place only kept filling.
On the way out I noticed the long first-floor bar teemed with locals and a few tourists while a Dominican baseball game flashed on the television in the corner. It looked fun, but I had a better idea — back toward one of Valentin’s diablitos.
Details: Meson D’Bari, Calle Hostos 302; Plaza Bartolome de las Casas, at the corner of Calle Padre Billini and Calle Arzobispo Meino. 809-687-4091; entrees from $11.
• D’Comer Colonial: On sight, I suspected how good this no-frills, pie-shape lunch room at the edge of the Zona Colonial would be: Everyone hunched over their plates seemed to be local. When a couple of them noticed an obvious tourist peering in, a few broke into large grins and waved frantically.
Their smiles seemed to be saying, “You found it! The place where we eat!”
A day later, I was back, and I found my most memorable meal in the Dominican Republic.
The setup was simple: There was a lunch counter with trays of food — beef with potatoes, chicken in red sauce, chicken in yellow sauce, three kinds of rice — and the woman who made it all. She dished out the food as I pointed to things until my tray seemed ready to buckle.