The sleepy barrio of Guavate, in the heart of Puerto Rico's Sierra de Cayey mountain range, has become a haven for palates with a penchant for pork, particularly of the roasted variety. The rotisseried piggies are as much of an attraction as the town's pastoral expanses, so it was a surprising to see just a handful of pork dishes on the expansive menu of this restaurant named after the mountain hamlet. There were no pigs impaled over open-air spits here, but we were excitedly informed that mondongo ($5.99) was available.
Not to be confused with Puerto Rico's national dish, mofongo, mondongo is, as our charming and informative waitress put it, 'drunk food.â?� The main ingredient of the hearty Latin American soup is typically beef tripe, but Boricuas use pig stomach to create the pungent, wonderfully seasoned meal in a bowl. The soup isn't for all tastes, but if you downed a few too many Medalla beers the night before, it will certainly help you regain your sobriety. Each comforting slurp is made all the more so with chunks of taro and potatoes.
If you sour at the sight of tripe, other soupy starters can be had. Less adventurous diners will find the broth of the asopao de pollo ($7.99) just as comforting. My dining partner remarked the chicken soup was reminiscent of her Puerto Rican sister-in-law's asopao, thanks to the inclusion of pigeon peas, olives, red peppers, taro and plenty of rice. For fried beginnings, the assorted meat appetizer platter ($9.99) offers a nice representation of the island's delicacies. Achiote-tinged potato balls stuffed with ground beef and mini meat turnovers begged for a splash of house-made hot sauce. Chicharrones (chicken cracklings) were nuggets of moistness, while alcapurrias, mahogany-hued cylinders of mashed plantains, starchy yautía and ground beef, failed to arouse our appetites.
Boricua kitchens are judged by the quality of their mofongo, and if you're a fan of the mashed-plantain-and-meat staple, you'll have a field day with the more than 20 varieties Guavate deftly churns out. The churrasco mofongo ($16.99) blended wonderfully tender chunks of chimichurri-basted skirt steak into an impressive heap of green plantains flavored with garlic and crispy pork skin. The mofongo didn't suffer from the desiccated texture often associated with the dish, but if you opt to enjoy it with a side of yautía (included), carb bloating is virtually assured. Chillo frito (red snapper, $15.99) was as flaky as it should've been, but it was the accompanying sauces ' a garlicky salsa ajillo and a zesty creole sauce thick with green peppers, onions and capers ' that really livened up the fish.
Such uncompromisingly traditional fare calls for traditional liquid refreshments, and fresh-squeezed juices like passion fruit ($2.99) and lemon ($2.99) are standout quaffs. Desserts, on the other hand, weren't as impressive ' a cinnamon blanket on jiggly tembleque ($3.50) negated any semblance of coconut essence, and creamy flan de queso ($2.99) could've used more caramel syrup.
Still, Guavate's dishes are a notch above other Puerto Rican restaurants in town, and the restaurant has left an indelible mark on regulars. A lease disagreement led to a relocation from East Colonial Drive to South Alafaya Trail, but the drive hasn't deterred patrons. Now if they'd just get that open-air spit â?¦.