The apostrophe is a plantain. No, really, it is. Look closely at the sign over Mambo’s Dominican Kitchen in Chandler and you’ll see an unpeeled specimen of the fruit serving punctuation duty in “Mambo’s.”
This is clever, sure, but it didn’t bode well for me going into the place. Alas, the plantain has always been an obstacle to my full enjoyment of Caribbean cuisine. I’ve always felt that perhaps the nicest thing that can be said for this uninspiring poor relation of the banana is that it’s preferable to starvation. Indeed, it’s as a punctuation mark that the plantain might find its most flavorful use.
A few visits to the enticing dining room of Mambo’s, however, with its proud photo gallery of Dominican baseball and pop stars, may have cured me of my anti-plantain bias. There’s no shortage of them on the menu – I could have had maduros (sweet plantains) or tostones (fried green plantains). I passed on both, opting instead for the mofongo de camarones – a bounty of corpulent, juicy grilled crustaceans in a glorious garlic sauce, alongside a massive lump of mashed plantains loaded with ham like a Denver omelet. Truthfully, the plantain component is pretty tasteless even here, but anything this ham-packed is inevitably good eating anyway, and the shrimp are exquisite.
It’s also true that my bistec sandwich – beef pressed between bread in the manner of a Cuban sandwich – came with a side of plantain chips, and that they tasted like packing material. Fries are available as an alternative, but when the beef, bread, cheese and peppers are as generous and hearty as this, what’s on the side becomes academic.
There are, of course, plenty of non-plantain choices. Among the appetizers are lovely, flaky empanadas, and yuca frita, fingers of the starchy root cooked like French fries, but lighter and less ponderous. And the sopa de pollo is among the best bowls of chicken soup I can remember ever having – big chunks of bird with veggies and thin noodles in a perfectly balanced, lightly salted broth.
This is characteristic of the flavors at Mambo’s in general. Dominican cuisine seems, to judge from the treatment of it here, less about strong spices and more about a mature and sophisticated savor. (The spicy atmosphere is delivered instead by the seductive Latin pop music to which one dines at Mambo’s.) The adobo-kissed meat in both the pollo guisado and the carne de res guisado is braised to beautiful tenderness, but it’s the mildly seasoned, broth-like sauce that makes both dishes sublime. They’re served with a simple salad and rice, beans or a combination of both. Try the combo.
As with many uncommonly good restaurants, Mambo’s delivers so much satisfaction that dessert can seem superfluous. But if you’ve saved room, try the arroz con leche – delicately sweetened rice pudding drizzled with chocolate sauce. Mine came with the word “Mambo’s” spelled out in the drizzle – apostrophe and all.
Mambo’s Dominican Kitchen
Contact: 1950 N. Arizona Ave., Ste. 8, Chandler, 480-718-9210
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tu-Th; 11a.m.-10 p.m. F-S; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Su
Highlights: Mofongo de camarones ($16.99), sopa de pollo ($4.99), bistec sandwich ($10.99), carne de res guisado ($7.99, lunch special), pollo guisado ($7.99, lunch special), yuca frita ($6.99), empanada ($2.99)
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