Saturday, April 16, 2011

Plantains and other disappointments

The first time I was in Puerto Rico, my aunt Sandra made the most amazing fried plantains. She called them spiders, and they're made by grating green plantains and dropping little handfuls into hot oil to deep-fry, then salting the crap out of them. Only slightly less amazing were her tostones, which are made by something like frying them twice and flattening them in between. I think there might be a salt water soak in there somewhere too. Whatever the process is, though, they're salty and crunchy and delicious.

Last week I tried a Salvadoran restaurant on Columbia Pike in Arlington. When I saw fried plantains on the menu I immediately thought of my aunt's tostones, and had no choice but to order them. What came out of the kitchen? A ripe plantain that had been sliced in half lengthwise and fried until slightly crispy on the outside and mushy on the inside. Not terrible, but not what I was expecting at all, and a huge disappointment.

Fast forward to Thursday night at Cuba Libre. I saw tostones on the menu and thought they must be delicious, since they had the same name! Unfortunately, what arrived were huge, bland, mealy patties with a slightly crispy crust and some salt on the outside. The sauce they came with was ok, but they were not what I remembered tostones to be. We didn't even finish them.

I love Latin American food, but the pupusas at the first place were only ok, and Cuba Libre was downright disappointing (how do you end up with dry braised short ribs?). Have I become a huge food snob? It's definitely possible, considering the way I turn my nose up at tomato sauce out of a jar and Domino's pizza. But I've had amazing pupusas (at a panaderia in Annandale in the H Mart shopping center. They were out of this world, I swear. Side note: I learned there that a panaderia is not an empanada shop, so don't be surprised if you walk into one and they don't have any empanadas no matter how perfect a snack you think they would be at that moment.), and I remember the ropa vieja I made a few years ago as being delicious (in fairness, the ropa vieja in the arepas at Cuba Libre was decent, if nothing mindblowing).

Does anyone know where to get amazing Cuban food? Or should I just turn to Cuban friends and make my own?

As a side note, does anyone have an opinion about my adding the occasional ethnic restaurant review to this blog?


  1. It's your blog, Kate, I suggest doing whatever you want! :) (And there are plenty of cooking blogs I follow that have the occasional restaurant review.)

  2. Cosign enthusiastically on the occasional restaurant review. It's a good idea and in keeping with the theme. It sounds like you ordered fried plantains, which are made from ripe plantains. Tostones are made from green plantains. My wife hails from Costa Rica and makes great tostones. The method is a bit different than your aunt, but quite tasty. Take a green plantain, not a ripe one. Peel and slice into rounds, not quite an inch thick. Fry in vegetable oil on both sides and put on a paper towel to drain. The key is to soften them a bit, but not fully cook them. Then smash with the bottom of a small glass (or a meat pounder if you've got one). Fry them a second time until brown and crispy, drain and sprinkle with salt.

    Our favorite place for pupasas nearby is on Glebe Road, just north of Route 50. I hear that Irene's Pupsas is considered tops in the area, but they're not nearby. If you like empanadas, you should check out PIke Pizza on Columbia Pike near S. George Mason. Their salteñas are to die for. There's also a nice place on Backlick Road. The name is Village Chicken, but the new owners are Bolivian. I'll admit to not having been yet as I'd only read about it in the Post. I didn't know where it was until I went to my favorite Indian grocery to pick up paneer cheese and ginger paste and saw it next door. I'll be picking up takeout next time.


  3. Oh, I should note that when smashed, they're about half the thickness of the cooked round. It sounds like your aunt's method was to grate instead of cook and smash.


  4. BaRD: Thanks, I will!

    FB: My aunt's tostones are smashed too - I just happen to like the grated ones better. Now I know not to get fried plantains again! And thanks for the advice :)