Meat 'n' Plantains

El Coqui's dry pork disappoints, but the sides and cocktails delight

I've briefly been to San Juan, Puerto Rico, a couple of times, but I can't say I know much about Puerto Rican cuisine.

And that makes me wonder whether I am missing something regarding the food at El Coqui Puerto Rican Restaurant, a cute new place on 22nd Street and Craycroft Road in the space that formerly housed Bob's Smokehouse. While the restaurant certainly has its charms, too many dishes had problems for me to heartily recommend El Coqui.

Still, there is much to like. The employees were friendly, and the service was generally good. The space is clean and comfortable; the breakfast menu, which we did not get a chance to try, looks interesting. Finally, the cocktails are delicious and inexpensive; in fact, I enthusiastically endorse the restaurant's eponymous beverage, containing coconut milk, two different rums, syrup and lime ($4.50 during happy hour from 3 to 7 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; $5.50 otherwise).

But then I think about the house special ($12.95), which I ordered on our first visit, a Saturday lunch. The dish looks intriguing, with rice, several slices of roasted pork, and pastel (like a pork tamale, but made with plantains instead of corn). The pork had decent flavor, but was overly dry. The rice was nicely done—but the pastel was a huge disappointment. The pork mixed with the tart plantains had almost no flavor; a couple of green olives were included, and they dominated, taste-wise.

Garrett's carne frita (fried pork chunks, $8.95) were even drier. The meat tasted OK, but eating the pieces was like chewing on rubber. Garrett's chosen side, the papas fritas (french fries), were thankfully nicely seasoned and enjoyable.

We asked our server whether there was any sauce that we could put on these dry pork dishes. She offered up pique, a tasty but very watery homemade hot sauce that added a bit of pep, but not much in the way of moisture.

Turns out she was, for whatever reason, holding back: We learned on our second visit that El Coqui offers two other sauces (that strangely don't come with either of these pork dishes). We discovered this on our dinner visit when we asked our server what mofongo was; he explained that it was a mound of plantains, garlic, onions, green olives and other ingredients. He also explained that some mofongo dishes come with either ajillo (garlic) sauce, or the tomato-infused Caribbean sauce; both are olive-oil-based concoctions. (Look for the little frog icon on the menu.) We decided to give the carne frita mofongo ($9.95) a shot; we asked if we could try both of the sauces along with it.

The same type of dry pork chunks that Garrett received on our lunch visit arrived, along with the pile of mofongo, which was also somewhat dry. However, dipping the pork in the sauces—especially the garlic sauce—made the meat much, much more pleasing to eat. Drizzling the sauce on the mofongo also helped loosen it up.

Pretty much the same thing can be said for Garrett's pechuga de pollo dinner ($8.95). The chicken breast, while flavorful, was somewhat dry, but the sauces helped. And not to sound like a broken record, but the chicken tostones rellenos appetizer ($8.95, or $6.95 during happy hour) was also dry. The dried plantain cups contained surprisingly bland chicken that was livened up a bit thanks to some of that sauce.

One thing the sauce couldn't save was my Cubano sandwich ($8.95). While it was tasty—how can you go wrong combining roasted pork, ham, pickles, Swiss cheese, mustard and mayo?—the white roll was quite dry, and it roughed up the roof of my mouth.

The best things we tried at El Coqui, aside from the cocktails and dessert (more on that later), were the side dishes, or "acompañantes." In addition to the tasty fries ($2.50 separately), you can choose rice and pigeon beans ($3.50), which came in a moist pile that contained some surprises, like green olives; the cooked ripe plantains ($2.95), which were just sweet enough due to the right amount of caramelization; and the rice and red beans ($3.50), which were actually two different things: a pile of rice, and a delicious bowl of a soup-like concoction containing beans, tomato, onion and just a hint of ham. We did not try the fried green plantains ($2.95) or the yucca mojo with onions ($3.50).

I also recommend the chicken fideo soup ($2.95 cup, $4.95 bowl), a savory treat containing carrots, green olives, potato and pasta, which I ordered during our lunch visit. My only complaint was that the cup of soup contained one piece of chicken—a big piece that occupied about half the volume of the cup. The soup would have been superb with the complimentary white bread, drizzled with garlic olive oil, that is normally served with every meal. I say "normally," because we were oddly never offered any, a fact we didn't realize until the meal's end. We did receive the bread on our dinner visit, and it was splendid.

Speaking of meal's end ... the absolute highlight of our visits was the tres leches cake ($4.25), one of a half-dozen or so desserts on the menu. The cake was moist, yet dense enough to handle the onslaught of milks; it was sweet without crossing over into cloying. It was one of the best tres leches I've had in this town—and that's saying something.

Even though the dry meats and the bland pastel were disappointments, don't be surprised if you see me at El Coqui one evening, sitting at the small, charming bar and enjoying an El Coqui cocktail along with a cup of soup, a side of the ripe plantains and that tres leches cake.

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