When we visit Puerto Rico, at least one trip to Cafe Manolin is mandatory. On this last vacation, within 5 days, we ate there twice.
When you enter Cafe Manolin, you quickly realize that this is a place for locals, and that’s usually a great thing because the prices are reasonable, and the food is authentic.
On the first visit, I tried an espresso. Considering how great everything else there usually is, it was a bit of a disappointment, but I didn’t let that bring the experience down; I really couldn’t for a buck anyway. In Old San Juan, I can get espresso at about 6 places within 2 blocks of Cafe Manolin.
That day, I went for their Mofongo Relleno de Pollo (mashed green plantain stuffed with chicken).
For good measure, I also ordered some tostones on the side in addition to the rice and beans and side salad that also came with the dish.
They brought lots of squirt bottles to the table. They were fancy sauce (aka mayoketchup), cilantro chimichuri, Ranch and French dressings. I also asked for some hot sauce. Hey, what difference was another bottle at that point?
A typical way to serve Puerto Rican rice and beans is to have them completely separate. The rice is steamed, and the beans are cooked into a stew containing sofrito (a puree of onion, pepper, and spices), some tomato, and pumpkin. The intent is to control the amount of beans (and liquid) that go over the rice. I just went to town with mine.
For the side salad, I used mostly ranch dressing, even though I’m not a huge fan.
For the mofongo, the plantains are smashed and formed into a bowl that’s filled with a stew of chicken. At Cafe Manolin, they serve theirs upside down with a splash of the stew sauce on top.
This is a very heavy, carbohydrate laden meal, but it’s hearty, classic Puerto Rican food at its finest. The mofongo itself has a slightly crusty exterior with silky-smooth, mashed plantains inside. The chicken stew is really nothing more than chicken and tomato cooked down with achiote (ground annatto seed that adds a bright red color) and other very mild spices. The flavors are very clean. Of course, you start dumping hot sauce and fancy sauce and other things all of the place and the flavor profiles start to change, but, at the heart of it, Cafe Manolin serves quintessential Puerto Rican dishes. If you want to know what something is supposed to be, this is where you go to find it.
Given the size of the portion, under $10 seems unfair to the business, since there are tourist traps very close selling less authentic versions of these dishes for 3-4 times the price. Around lunchtime, the line goes out the door, so I’m not terribly worried that they’re not making enough money on their dishes, I guess.
For the second trip, I pretty much duplicated my order, except they had arroz con gandules as a daily special, so I had to get some.
The arroz con gandules (rice cooked with pigeon peas), again, was a perfect example of everything arroz con gandules is supposed to be. And I think the small order was something like a $1.50.
Service is very quick, and the staff is extremely friendly and talkative. On the second visit, one of the owners helped me find one of the best bakeries in Puerto Rico so that I could get my Brazo Gitano (Puerto Rican Swiss Roll) fix…