"My dream come true." That's how Maria Parrilla describes El Taino, the Puerto Rican restaurant she opened four years ago to give local islanders a taste of the foods of their native home, and to introduce island cooking to the uninitiated. What is Puerto Rican cooking? It combines Caribbean, African, Indian, and European foods and seasonings, reflecting a melding of cultures.
That means plenty of fried and baked meats, especially chicken and pork, as well as seafoods like conch, red snapper, and king fish. It means lots of plantains: served mashed with garlic and oil, or fried into chips, or grated and wrapped around meat and beans. And it means delicious tropical juices and nectars.
It can be heavy, filling food -- starchy root vegetables, rice and beans, deep-fried pork belly thickly rimmed with fat -- or light and healthful, like boiled lobster, baked chicken, and sauteed shrimp in a tremendously flavorful sauce of red wine, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers. Parrilla, a Puerto Rico native, cooked these foods as a teenager with her mother and late grandmother. Those kitchen memories "are like Thanksgiving dinners -- unity," she said. "We'd cook these big meals, and that usually meant a lot of us were at home having a lot to do with the process. That's our culture."
It's also the culture she created at El Taino, named after Puerto Rico's indigenous Indians. She hires cooks with little or no experience so she can teach them to prepare her family specialties exactly as her family prepared them. That my-way-or-the-highway policy pays off in dishes like pernil asado ($8.95), a tender slow-roasted pork shoulder marinated in garlic, onion powder, and a blend of Caribbean seasonings known as sofrito, then served atop iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. The lean, aromatic meat is pork at its finest.
Bistec encebollado ($10.95) is also extremely good. It's a pan-fried steak, but not the thick slab of beef found in most American steak houses. Here, it's pounded thin, seasoned with the same herbs that infuse the pork, and heaped with big loops of sweet, soft, sauteed onions.
Then there's that fantastic red wine sauce. It was the backdrop for three dishes we tried: excellent camarones enchilados ($14.95), or crunchy sauteed shrimp; disappointing serrucho ($14.95), a swordfish filet that was malodorously fishy; and fantastic mofongo ($5.95 appetizer, $10.95-$14.95 entree), mashed green plantains mixed with monstrous amounts of garlic. Eaten alone, it's dense and dry, which is why Puerto Ricans pair it with meat and sauce. We chose goat in red wine sauce, a special, which was tender and gamey and gave the mofongo rich flavor and moisture.
From the outside, El Taino looks like a tavern, but inside it's a dark, intimate place with a gas fireplace, knickknacks on the window ledges and an 80-seat dining room that tapers into a tiny stage holding a sound system, which hints at the restaurant's other identity: At night the place transforms into a Latin nightclub. As the evening progresses, the music ratchets up, and tables are removed to create a dance floor, which fills with people of all ages dressed to party, clutching cellphones and downing drinks from the bar -- margaritas, sangria, pina coladas.
On Fridays after 10 p.m. there's Latin karaoke for a $5 cover, waived if you're having dinner. On Saturdays it's classical Latin, with salsa and merengue (a DJ, not live music) from the '70s and '80s. Sundays are "international Latin nights," which means bachata and more merengue.
But El Taino is truly a restaurant first, and its kitchen serves authentic Caribbean cuisine, including dishes too labor-intensive to be made regularly at home. "Your typical Puerto Rican working 9 to 5 can't take the time to make traditional Puerto Rican foods like pasteles and mofongo, because they take a long time," said Parrilla, who ran a Puerto Rican restaurant in Cambridge called Batey Taino in the late 1980s.
Pasteles ($2.95), for example, are made with grated green plantains, green bananas, yautia (a root vegetable), potatoes, and calabaza (a squash) mashed into a paste, wrapped tightly into a tamale of sorts that's filled with stewed pork and garbanzo beans, and boiled -- a laborious process. Other foods are simpler. Tostones ($2.50) are unripened plantains fried into chips to be dipped in garlic and oil or a ketchup-mayo-garlic salsa. Fried ripe plantains, or maduros ($2.50), are sweeter and softer than tostones. In rellenos de papa ($2.50), tasty mashed potatoes are shaped into balls and filled with ground beef. Chicharron ($6.95 chicken, $7.95 pork) is a belly buster: small pieces of deep-fried meat, including hunks of fat. "If you want to cheat on a diet, you get chicarron," Parrilla said.
Dessert is mainly mediocre flan ($3.95-$4.95) tackily topped with aerosol whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. The tropical shakes and juices ($3.50) are far better choices. They're a blend of frozen fruit concentrate and milk or water -- except for the coconut shakes, which are made with ice cream. Another great drink is morir sonando, a mixture of milk and orange juice that tastes like a liquid creamsicle. Its translation? "To die dreaming," which aptly captures its frothy sweetness.