Caribbean Café has been open for nearly a year, but it's a modest little eatery in one of those countless nondescript three-tenant strip malls in North Raleigh, so it's easy to overlook.
Judging by the scene that greeted me the first time I dined there, however, the local Latino community has had no problem finding the place. It was early on a Wednesday evening, and the tropically colorful dining room was already half full. A couple of men sat at the bar watching a soccer match, and a happy jumble of Spanish and New York accents spilled from the back room, where a large party was celebrating a birthday. A little eavesdropping confirmed that they had once called Puerto Rico home.
I'm guessing they enjoyed their meal. The restaurant's specialty isn't Puerto Rican, precisely, but it's Dominican, which is about as close as you'll get in these parts. And while I couldn't say whether there's a subtle distinction between the two neighboring islands' versions of, say, arroz con pollo, I can say I've enjoyed most everything I've eaten at Caribbean Café.
One of my favorites is sopa de res, a soulfully satisfying beef soup that features large, tender cubes of beef in a cilantro-fragrant broth. Be advised that when the menu says a "cup" of soup, it means a generous bowl, even though the price is only $3.50. Order the "bowl," and you're in for a filling $6 meal. Sopa de pollo is also available, and sometimes a classic Puerto Rican -- er, Dominican tripe soup called mondongo.
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This is not to be confused with mofongo, a rib-sticking medley of green plantains mashed and fried in the fashion of tostones, pork cracklings, garlic and olive oil. Odd as the combination sounds, it quickly grows on you.
Otherwise, the appetizer offering consists of shrimp seviche, grilled chorizo with tostones, tasty if sometimes overcooked shrimp in garlic sauce, and a handful of variations on the chunks-of-fried-meat theme. One of these, called picadera mixta, serves up chunky nuggets of fried pork, slices of grilled chorizo, yuca simmered in an addictively tart and garlicky mojo sauce, and tostones. Inspired by the Columbian picado, it's one of a handful of dishes sprinkled throughout the menu that venture beyond the Dominican home turf. Regardless of its origins, picadera mixta is just what you want if you're out with your buddies for a couple of Coronas.
The menu describes pernil simply as "roast pork," which doesn't do justice to the juicy shreds of garlic-marinated, slow-cooked porky goodness that are piled on your plate alongside your choice of two sides (tostones are usually a good bet, though occasionally dry; I'm partial to the caramelized sweetness of platanos maduros, and to the soupy red beans).
Bistec encebollado, thinly sliced sirloin steak marinated in vinegar and adobo, then grilled and smothered in grilled onions, is another winning entree option. Chicharron de pollo features small pieces of bone-in chicken deep-fried to a crackling crunch. Chicken doesn't hold up as well to the treatment as pork, however, and tends to be chewy and dry. Bacalao Caribeño, on the other hand, shows just how toothsome dried salt cod can be when it's simmered in a savory sauce of tomatoes, onions and green olives. Arroz con cangrejo y camarones Caribeño nets a surprisingly generous catch of crab. You'll have to watch for bits of shell lurking in the yellow rice, however, as the crabs are chopped into sections.
The restaurant's owners are Cuban native Carlos Rivero and his wife, Yoselin Nuñez, who hails from the Dominican Republic. Rivero, whose career includes more than 20 years in the kitchens of Dominican restaurants in New York and New Jersey, insists on cooking many dishes to order. Food can take a while to get to your table, a problem that's compounded by an understaffed dining room. The servers are friendly, though, and besides, what's your hurry? When you walk through the door, just consider yourself on a mini Caribbean island vacation.