Before I found myself haunting the tables of the Bronx's countless Puerto Rican restaurants more than anyone should, a Puerto Rican friend told me he refused to eat mofongo, a dish of plantains mashed with everything from cheese to beans to pork skin, in New York. Though he grew up in New York, he vacationed every winter at his mother's family house outside San Juan. These experiences, and the mythically transcendent mofongo he savored, were enough for my friend to categorically deny the value of New York's every last version of the dish. I later learned why. Even in the Bronx, known still as the Puerto Rican borough despite the dwindling population, a good plate of mofongo is as elusive as Stumptown coffee—almost.
Trying mofongo throughout the Bronx, I'd found the dishes to be uniformly stale and uninspired. No one could be bothered to mash the plantains properly in a mortar and pestle. I learned this way that you will never get a good thing out of letting fried plantains sit around, and that the search for a good plate of mofongo in the Bronx is a waltz through a minefield.
But at 188 Cuchifritos, a favorite of borough culinary ambassador Baron Ambrosia, you will find "mofongo al pilon" that, while it may not reach the poetic heights of that one mofongo you ate that one time in Puerto Rico, is more than a suitable facsimile when you just can't wait any longer. The words "al pilon" (from the mortar and pestle) were enough to draw me in, conjuring images of a sort of plantain-inspired bliss that I had only heard of.
You can have yours with any manner of the typical toppings, like cheese, pork chops, or chicharrones and cheese ($7.50). As the principled eaters that we are—that is, the types who see no sense in not going all in when committing to this kind of edible debauchery—we choose the chicharrones and cheese. Disregard the side salad, not because we're just throwing any notion of good health out the window, but because it does the dish no favors. Snag a few strips of onion marinated in oil if you need a dose of brightness.
The plantains themselves are mashed to a brilliantly uneven texture, with little crunchy bits of chiccarons and threads of warm cheese mixed in. There is the faint taste of a very mild and judiciously applied pique criollo, more vinegar than chile, that hums in the background like a back beat. The crunchy chicharrones adds a richly fatty and savory accent, the cheese a bit of creamy relief.
But as if that mound of starch, fat, and more fat weren't enough, you're treated to three pieces each of chicharrones, drier than the bits mixed into the plantains, and milky, surprisingly clean queso frito. It is a dish against which no hangover stands a chance, a trifecta of fried, fried, and fried. This is not a dish that will have you asking what food is capable of making people feel, but, instead, remembering what it most often already does for people.
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