"Most of the places where I film," Cooking Channel host Baron Ambrosia explained, "you can't capture what makes them special, the smells and the flavors. You lose something. But here," he paused, "it's so bright. It's not just the light." He was speaking about 188 Cuchifritos, the Puerto Rican soul food neighborhood staple decorated in sugary, carnival-esque colors. "You take a photo of this place and you say, where the fuck is that? Cuba, 30 years ago? Puerto Rico? But it's here, in the Bronx."
The subject of an early Bronx Flavor episode ("Cuchifritos of Love"), the Baron been making the pilgrimage to 188th at least once month for the last 12 years: a gustatory marathon driven by unwavering devotion. Intrigued to finally find out more about his relationship with the place that he, in previous conversation, had deemed essential to his culinary passion, I joined him there for breakfast this past weekend. (Months ago, he explained to me that it was here that, while filming a scene, everything clicked.) Having just finished his first full season on telebision, he's working on another unrelated, secret project and looking forward to the possibility of a sophomore run.
"For me, this place is it. I look for the 188 Cuchifritos in every community," he said, bridging into a story about his search for a similarly unique Samoan restaurant in Long Beach. "The platonic ideal?" I interjected. "Yes."
The restaurant lacks even a whiff of pretension, and the no-frills food follows suit: it's straightforward, simply dressed starch-and-protein-centric fare without a revelatory jab. It's the kind of food you eat to remind yourself of your grandmother's kitchen back in Boricua or, in my case, to squash that nagging hangover that just won't quit. There are no gimmicks, no boasts of authenticity. But, as the Baron points out, it's hard to imagine a place more genuine, and this absence of self-consciousness is a key element of what draws him to the restaurant.
To think I could out-order the Baron would be, well, narcissistic. So when presented with the keys, I was quick to hand them over and let him do the talking. We took our seats, my companion armed with a black coffee and myself a small cup of avena (Puerto Rican horchata) and, shortly after, out came the plates. Two heaping piles of chicharones dressed with ribbons of lightly pickled onion; slices of blood sausage and thick chunks of pig's tongue, two wedges of queso frito, a plate of sliced avocado, a bowl of jalapenos in vinegar, and—for me—a plate of mangu (mashed plantains) with those same onions. For all of this and a cup of juice to go? $18.50.
I'm not often a fan of blood sausage—it usually bores me—but I found the one here, cooked with rice, to be a step above others I'd had. The tongue was good and chewy, but a little short on the salt. Still, there's something to be said for a place that lets a decidedly funky, spongy cut speak for itself. Why bother eating offal if the bold, sensual flavor is being masked? Here, nothing is hidden and so perhaps this cut—above all else—speaks to the essence of the restaurant.
But mornings like these calls for baptism by pork fat, and the chicharones were naturally what most spoke to me. I ate them as instructed by the Baron, dressed in a spoonful or two of the just so mildly spicy vinegar. The mangu wasn't the best I'd had, less buttery and chunky then at the Allerton Avenue Pioneer Supermarket. Alone, the queso frito would be too plain. But paired alongside all the pork, its simple flavor and deep-fried nourishment was an appropriate complement.
The food here is, admittedly, not my favorite in the Bronx. It's good and always nourishing, but I prefer different kinds of flavors. The Baron's taste buds speak for themselves, and need no other vouching. But to share a meal with him, at a restaurant that shook him in such a profound way, reveals things about our own culinary passions. And that is after all what the Baron, in his own estimations, is all about. Like 188 Cuchifritos, The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia is about so much more than food—most specifically, joy. In that way, it gets to the core of what good eating is all about.
188 Bakery Cuchifritos
158 East 188th Street # 1, The Bronx, NY 10468 (map)