Uncommon Caribbean dishes at Hilliard's Famosa
With a menu literally all over the Latino map -- Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic are alluringly represented - Famosa would likely be a fun place to catch some World Cup action. But kicking soccer aside, you should go to Famosa just because the food there is fantastic.
Famosa's a big and airy Hilliard-area place with a full bar and minimal, if nice enough, decorations. Yeah, it's on the bare-bones side, but at least it's neither a cliche nor a trying-too-hard, pseudo-Mexican joint. Belying this relaxed stance is Famosa's well-executed, multi-paged menu, which skillfully navigates around the Caribbean.
Oh sure, you can get your burrito and fajita fixes here too, but you can get those anywhere. That's why I focused on Famosa's less commonplace dishes, which were frequently terrific, even exciting.
Like the outstanding - if imposingly mammoth - appetizer combo called El Caribeno/Picadera Mix ($15). That titanic platter has officially shot to the top of my current list of new favorites.
It's an expertly deep-fried dream of Dominican cheese planks (stout, creamy and salty); tostones (thick and crispy plantain chips); bite-sized longaniza links (like chorizo with more oregano); clumps of pork belly (wow!); rockin' chicken and more. Also supplied but unfried were delicious slices of seared and smoky Dominican salami, plus a nice little salad with an olive-oil vinaigrette.
For a more restrained - but equally wonderful - starter, go with the beautiful Pupusas ($2 each). You'll get pouch-shaped, griddled corn cakes filled with meat and/or that great Dominican cheese (pupusas are like the cornier, thicker and denser Dominican answer to quesadillas).
If you've never had mofongo before (mofongo is like the heartier Puerto Rican answer to our holiday stuffing), this is definitely the place to get it.
Famosa's killer Mofongo de Carne ($10) was an addictive - and mountainous - serving of fried and rough-chopped plantains acting as the canvas for a panoply of bright, potent and harmonious flavors (garlic, oregano, tomatoes, onions and peppers plus diced, stewy and savory beef). For contrast, that entree was served with a fresh and effective slaw enlivened by its olive-oil-based dressing.
Sticking in the same general region of origin, the Tilapia Tropical ($10) was an unusual and winning fish preparation. Here, the humble tilapia was adorned with a glossy, garlicky, long-cooked fruity sauce made with peppers, coconut milk and mangoes and tasting more savory than sweet. Like many main courses at Famosa, it came with two picks from a long and interesting list of semi-exotic starchy side dishes.
Though it arrived with nice, lightly fried white rice and fresh avocado slices, I didn't need any sides with my marvelous, whole-meal-in-a-bowl order of Sancocho ($10). That rustic bucketload of silky, thick-brothed soup was a dynamite marriage of pork, chicken, beef, plantains and yucca.
The only downside with such entrees was that they were too massive to afford eating dessert. So when you go to Famosa - and you really should - expect to see me there too. I'll likely be plowing through a finishing sweet (maybe the Guatemalan Torta Imperial?), and screaming goooooaaalllll!