Eric and I went to a new restaurant in downtown Lancaster on Saturday night. It was showcased in the newspaper last week because it replaced a seedy dive bar where much criminal activity had taken place. It's also just a block away from the Water Street Rescue Mission, which is a homeless shelter. A nice, Puerto Rican restaurant that can only serve to elevate the neighborhood in which it resides. And this is why I cannot review this restaurant in my new food critic column.
The issue, you see, is that the food was not good. It was a great experience that allowed for a brief cultural immersion into a country with which I am not too familiar. You know it's authentic when Roxette's "Listen to Your Heart" is playing in the background in Spanish. The service was good and the owners are young members of a family who immigrated here and who dedicated this restaurant to their deceased mother. Pictures of the youngest members of the extended family adorn the walls, and the decorations are sparse, but sincere.
The entire proposition of the little place was sincere. So it is with that in mind that I am as honest, but as kind, as possible.
We ordered the recommended dishes. A small plate of assorted appetizers, Mofongo (mashed green plantains) with beef, and beef and onions with red beans and rice. Traditionally Puerto Rican, and we couldn't wait. The "bread basket" came with fried plantains on top of soft slices of white bread. It came with a condiment that was called "Madre" sauce, and it was a very close version of Thousand Island. The bread was awfully greasy, but the plantains were a great departure from American Fare. A great replacement for potato chips!
The appetizer dish was filled with fried items--corn rolls (a bit like fritters), empanadillos (filled beef patties), chicken wings, and potato cakes. I'm afraid to say, they were all a bit greasy, and they all needed the help of the condiment, except for the wings. The wings were pretty good.
The flavor of the entrees wasn't too bad. I felt there was definitely A-1 Sauce involved, not that it matters--I like A-1 Sauce. But the entrees were disappointingly dry. The beef was so incredibly dry, I thought it might have been jerky at one point. The mashed plantains were so dry they caked together, reminding me of a type of caulking that might be used in an ancient form of mud huts. Eric and I bemused that Puerto Rico, being a poor country, may not have the best and freshest ingredients available, and that this was probably really authentic. That this was the neighborhood's confort food.
In my only trip to Puerto Rico several years ago, I had asked the concierge of the hotel to send me to the most authentic Puerto Rican restaurant he could think of. I ended up at a little corner pad that reminded me a bit of a high school cafeteria, complete with the colored plastic trays. The food was equally reminiscent of a high school cafeteria. I can't say that there was anything I even finished, which is quite a rare thing with me. I remember feeling sad as I sat thinking, if the concierge of a hotel sent me here, is this really the best Puerto Rico can do?
Back to the present, and I imagine Eric is right, that there is a comfort in the food being served at Restaurant Madre's. If I visit it in the future, it's to honor their Madre, help lift up the community, but it won't be for the food.