The North American strip mall has become a thing of great burden and great mystery. Nine times out of ten, they are filled to the brim with nail salons and cell phone stores and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Other times they sit abandoned with one or two shops hanging on for dear life. Some do hold treasures though. Little places that become our favorites that maybe no one else knows about. Recently, I downloaded the Urbanspoon app for my iPhone which has opened up all new possibilities for dining out. It really is a great app. It has a shuffle button that works like a slot machine to pull up random restaurants based on location, type, and price. Was I surprised when I found out that Huntsville actually had a Caribbean / Puerto Rican place called My Old San Juan that actually serves Mofongo!
For those of you that don't know, according to Wikipedia, "Mofongo is generally made from fried green plantains (although fried yuca or breadfruit are possible) which is mashed together with broth, garlic, olive oil, and pork cracklings or bits of bacon. It is often filled with vegetables, chicken, crab, shrimp, or beef and is often served with fried meat and chicken broth soup." I saw it once on an episode of "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" and it always looked really good. I've had plantain chips before but never fresh. I knew that I had to stop in and being as how A) I have no one to go with me to restaurants when I can actually go and B) I work almost every weekend, I figured I would stop by after school today and check it out.
They say you can judge a restaurant by how busy it is, but that's junk. You can only judge a restaurant on how good their food is. But I can say it was daunting when I walked in a little after 1 PM and the place was completely empty. But hey, they could focus all their effort on me right?
It's a quaint little place with about six or seven tables and two hightops, very clean, and the server was very friendly. It didn't take long to figure out what I wanted because I had already seen the menu on Urbanspoon (which is another great feature) and came for one reason and one reason only. I started off with an Empanada De Yuca. The menu describes it as a Cassaba pie, so I asked the waitress what cassaba was. She said that it was a root vegetable, almost like a potato. Turns out it's actually cassava but you know.... potato / potato, tomato / tomato.... This thing was awesome! I can't stress how awesome it was. It could have been hotter, but other than that, man oh man. It was almost like an apple pie that you get from fast food places but it had almost a deep fried batter on the outside with this cassava mixture on the inside that almost tasted like pork and sweet potatoes. I imagined myself with a picnic basket full of these things, hiding where no one could see me eat every single one by myself, almost like Yogi Bear. Then the Mofongo came out...
I got the Mofongo con caldo y chicharrones, Mofongo with stew and pork rinds. So from my understanding it would come out stuffed with a stew and topped with pork rinds. Wrong. The waitress brings it out and of course I don't know how to eat it! Do you pour the broth (which was the stew) over the mofongo? Do you pull apart the pork (which was actual pork meat and not fried skin like I imagined)? I didn't get instructions so I just went to town. The first bite I was actually taken aback. The texture was kind of like polenta or maybe even grits, but stiffer. It was also kind of dry. Ahh, the stew! I got into a rhythm where I could take the mofongo on my spoon and actually regulate how much stew was mixed with it. And as I sat there eating in silence, it dawned on me: this is comfort food. Being from the south, we are used to fried chicken and cornbread and collards and okra and things like that for Sunday lunch, and I just imagined sitting in my grandmothers house eating mofongo. That's the effect it had. It had a great mild flavor though, a lot more mild than other fried plantains I had had before. And the broth was simple and effective in making it moist and delicious. It really was a great dish. The pork I ate on its on and it was killer. I don't know what part of the pig it came from (if someone knows help me out here) but it was these little pork nuggets, bones intact, deep fried to perfection. In the same sense that the mofongo made me feel at home, I looked down on myself and realized I was gnawing the bones of the pork in the middle of a restaurant! I had to laugh a little. I didn't think I would be able to finish but I did and felt like ordering another plate but of course, passed. All together, It was a great meal and the service was great.
It makes you feel good when you find these things in your own small corner of the world that people have decided to share with you. Coming from a small town (8,000+ people), I never thought that I would be sitting after class one day enjoying Puerto Rican cuisine and loving every minute of it. The point I'm trying to make is go outside of your comfort zone. Find something new and experience it! Now I can actually say that I am the only person I know that has tried mofongo (unless they just haven't told me about it) and it's something that I look forward to sharing with my family and maybe even trying on my own. But for now, I'll stick to My Old San Juan and look forward to trying some of the other great things they have on their menu soon.
If you're in the area you can pay these guys a visit:
My Old San Juan
8760 Madison Blvd
Madison, AL 35758