Finding Fresh Flavor: Dominican Republic Food
What exactly is “Dominican Republic food?”
I asked myself this very question when scouring the pages of Lonely Planet, plotting my restaurant wish list for my trip to the DR. The answer lies somewhere between food with Spanish colonial, African, and indigenous Taino influences.
In short, the food is very similar to that of its island neighbors with parallel cultural heritage: Puerto Rico and Cuba. I had envisioned staples of rice and beans with plantains and corn alongside fresh fish or pork. My assumptions weren’t far from reality.
Here is a list of some of the eateries I enjoyed will touring the Dominican Republic.
The capital seemed to have quite a few establishments worth a visit. Lonely Planet’s “top choice” was Pat’e Palo, which made my restaurant short list.
Located in Plaza España, the restaurant claims to be the first tavern of the new world. This wouldn’t surprise me in the least, considering Zona Colonial’s reputation for having many of the “new world’s firsts,” which I wrote about in this post.
The “five-centuries-old walls and floors” were once the old port’s warehouses. Today, this European brasserie, overlooking Christopher Columbus’s house, delights locals and tourists alike.
When it came to selecting entrees, the Purple Passion caught my eye. The grilled salmon with piquillo pepper sauce dish was accompanied by shrimp and bonao cheese gratin croquettes, which sounded enticing. I love croquettes!
Tiramisu crunchy. The restaurant was known for their classic Italian tiramisu, which was dipped in amaretto and crispy chocolate pearls. It was a show-stopper.
Key lime pie is one of my all-time favorite desserts, and when we saw the description of Pat’e Palo’s version, we had to try it.
“Key lime como nunca lo imaginsaste.” Which translates as “key lime like you’ve never imagined.” Then the preparation description, which left us even further intrigued: “crumble, lime sculptures coated in cocoa and explosive rocks…” Explosive rocks…. OK.
When the desserts arrived, and we took our first bite, we erupted into a fit of giggles. The “explosive rocks” were pop-rock candy… You know, the kind that crackle and pop in your mouth? Hilarious.
A little delayed gratification came on the plane ride home. I was sitting next to a baseball manager and recruiter for the Milwaukee Brewers who said he lived part time in the Dominican Republic, part time in Miami.
“Where all did you go?” He asked. We had an in-depth conversation about all of the fantastic places around the DR, and he agreed that I saw some of the best parts.
“Where did you eat in the capital?” He inquired.
“Well, last night we went to Pat’e Palo….”
“Ah, Peg Leg Pirate… That’s the best place. You picked a good one.”
“So that’s what it means! And that’s why their symbol is a pirate with a peg leg! OK. I get it. Yes, it was really good, and really popular.” I felt myself internally gloating a bit that we had chosen so wisely. I also mentioned Meson D’Bari, which he concurred was also a great selection.
Another place Lonely Planet says is worth a dine, Meson D’Bari, is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. When I first approached this Zona Colonial establishment, I felt immediately intimidated by the congregation of “sophisticated capitaleños” standing around the bar and overflowing on to the sidewalk outside while puffing their cigars.
Would I be the sole female tourist amongst the slew of local men in this place? Curiosity got the better of me, and I gently pushed my way through the crowd and found what seemed to be the restaurant owner or manager.
“One for dinner,” I requested in my tepid Spanish. The friendly gentleman passed me over to a woman (maybe his wife?) who jokingly corrected me that there were actually two of us (referring to my baby bump). I laughed, grateful for their kindness. “Sí…yes.”
The coconut fish was delicious! Please pardon the blurry iPhone shot…
After “checking in” to the restaurant on Four Square and reading some of the reviews, it seemed that the empanadas were the locals’ favorites. I wanted fish for dinner, and was happy with my choice of coconut fish, but I decided to come back another day for lunch.
On a subsequent day, I ordered a few empanadas to take away for lunch: fish (bacalao), chicken and beef, if memory serves. While they were pretty tasty, I wasn’t floored by their savoriness. Quite honestly, I’ve had better empanadas. So, maybe Dominican style empanadas were different than the kind I’d tried and loved from other places (Mexico, Argentina, etc.)
Right next to Pat’e Palo (with that same amazing view of Christopher Columbus’s house in Plaza España), Rita’s serves some delicious Spanish-style tapas, which my body was craving after a very long and hot (self-guided) walking tour of Zona Colonial.
When you’re feet ache so much that they feel like they’re on the verge of falling off…. when you’re so parched you feel shriveled inside and so hungry that you get the shakes….
I think I found sustenance that was nearest the perfect antidote for these symptoms:
Water (obviously), a melon smoothie, fresh gazpacho and croquettas ,,,,
The Mercure Hotel (on Thursdays)
As I mentioned here, The Mercure Hotel on Calle El Conde has a unique staff-participatory dinner event, which they call Dominican Night.
The guests enjoy a Dominican buffet while the staff performs; singing, dancing and acting.
This expat beach oasis has it all: local, authentic hole in the wall eateries, award winning five-star establishments, cosmopolitan expat-owned brasseries, delectable French bakeries, and fresh fruit and veggie stands.
We knew nothing about this place. No research was done, no reviews were read, we just walked past it (it was close to our rental house in Las Terrenas), it looked cool, and the menu looked tasty, so we dove in.
The place (actual translation) did not disappoint. Besides the food being delicious (I ordered the Mahi burger with frites… The owner/chef was Belgian!), the staff and atmosphere were amazing. You can read more about my review here.
El Lugar was obviously beloved by many expats from different countries. One of the Americans we met at the restaurant enthusiastically asked us how we knew about this place (both the restaurant and Las Terrenas). It was as if we had stumbled upon their secret lair, not that they were hoarding it for themselves.
The positive energy and supportive attitude was infectious. The place just made you feel happy. Well, I guess that’s because of the people in the place. Regardless, you should go for a bite if you find yourself in Las Terrenas.
This French bakery served amazing fresh pastries and cappuccino. I craved it every day! I’m not even sure what I was eating when I ordered. I just pointed to so many things: “Quiero este … y este … y…” “I want this, and this, and….”
The Beach Restaurant
We met the award-winning chef at El Lugar the previous night. We went for coffee in the morning, but the lunch (not open for dinner) is supposed to be divine. The beach plantation-cottage feel makes for a perfect perch to take in the Caribbean or wait out an island storm (as we did).
Our American expat friend (from El Lugar) suggested Restaurant Luis to us. “It’s the best food…the most authentic… You’ll eat on plastic tables with your feet in the sand. It’s great.”
And it was great. There was no menu. You could either order fish (two types) or a burger. The fish was fresh and was accompanied by the all-too-Dominican rice and beans and plantains. Simple yet delicious.
Given that Punta Cana is the land of all-inclusives, most people stick to dining in their resorts. If you decide to strike out on your own, or if you are renting an apartment instead of staying in a hotel, there are a couple of places worth a visit.
Around the Playa Turquesa area, a delectable French bakery, Boulangerie Patisserie, serves up a variety of eclairs, meringue cookies, and fruit tarts.
Tronco Beach Restaurant
For a nice dinner, we accidentally stumbled upon this place, which was a little off the beaten track (and about a 20 minute walk from our apartment). In all honesty, we were looking for a couple of restaurants that were a stone’s throw from our rental, but because we got turned around a bit with our directions, we ended up here.
And we had the entire restaurant to ourselves…. literally. This could give one pause. Hmmm, no customers is usually a bad sign. Not in this case. A fairly new restaurant (opened around January 2014), the restaurant’s five star, open-air atmosphere is the perfect environment to enjoy fresh seafood and a notable wine list.
My sister ordered seafood paella and I opted for the fresh (whole) red snapper with potatoes.
My Overall Dominican Republic Food Takeaway
To relish Dominican Republic food, focus on the fresh seafood a restaurant offers. You can’t go wrong with a fresh fish, plantains, beans and rice. If you want to mix it up, try some ceviche or salmon or maybe some empanadas. If you’re not in to seafood, I can’t help you too much, since that’s essentially all I ate while I was there. There’s something about being in an island-nation…wouldn’t you just naturally gravitate towards what is fresh? To get a little expat flavor, stroll on over to the local French bakery, which each town seemed to have.