Sit a spell in Sofrito, East Oakland's new Puerto Rican restaurant, and it's hard to imagine that the place has only been open since late November. The eavesdropping is better if you know Spanish, but what you can catch from side glances looks more like a community than a group of consumers: The couple in their mid-sixties, murmuring to each other as they whittle down their carne guisada. The pack of high school boys who spend fifteen minutes of their lunch hour chatting up the owners, fifteen minutes waiting for their food, and five minutes devouring it. The guy who talks his way into getting to sit at a table, munching on his fast-food sandwich, while he waits for a smoothie.
That's just what owners Raymond Pabon and his brother, Ali Luna, were hoping would happen. The two have run a catering business specializing in Puerto Rican food for a couple of years, working at Berkeley's Whole Foods in the meantime. B-town foodies may recognize Pabon and Luna from their stand at the Berkeley Farmers Market, where they sold stewed chicken, fried codfish, and rice and beans. As their stand attracted more and more island expats, the pair decided they needed to create a more permanent hangout. "We always felt like there were no Puerto Ricans in California," the stateside-born Pabon says. "Now I meet new Puerto Ricans every day."
They meet one another, too. Diners at neighboring tables sometimes even discover their families know each other -- some of Pabon and Luna's customers have even turned out to be their distant cousins.
It's surprising so many people have discovered Sofrito since it's so easy to pass by. Squeezed between a bank and a pawnshop, the pint-size storefront could be just another dim, grim, cheap takeout joint. Inside, though, the counter area, with its long steam table and wall-to-wall tile, has undergone the architectural equivalent of a facial peel. Past that, the room turns the color of a ripe mango, broadening enough to fit five or six tables. Grouped around the walls are childhood portraits, photo collages of family and friends, and a couple of colorful, icon-rich paintings.
The menu is equally modest, and just as homey -- a little old-country and a little new. Breakfast means cups of cafe con leche or fresh-frothed lattes, and for the really hungry, omelets filled with scrambled onions and peppers. From 10:30 a.m. until the restaurant closes at 7 -- later on weekends, so long as there's food -- the cooks prepare the day's lunch and dinner items. All three of them. Thursday, for example, you can get pork chops, stewed salt cod, or baked chicken. (Although the cooks will offer up a veggie plate the moment they're asked, vegetarians will have to make do with rice and beans, green salad, and plantains). Yet Pabon and Luna use free-range chicken, organic rice and beans, and even organic coffee.
Naming a Puerto Rican restaurant Sofrito is like naming a Midwestern one Cream of Mushroom Soup. Sofrito is the mix of onions, peppers, garlic, cilantro, and achiote seeds (the turmeric of the Caribbean, gilding everything it seasons) that make up the base of a good stew. And a good rice. And a good marinade. At the heart of Puerto Rican cuisine, sofrito always melts into the background, hard to pick out, impossible to omit.
You can taste it most clearly in the bacalao guisado, salt cod stewed with onions, red and green peppers, tomatoes, and the odd green olive. The gold-and-red stew, a big mash-up of flavors, matches the hue of the walls. You can't wash all of the salt out of the fish, nor its deep-sea flavor, but bacalao, like anchovies and sardines, always tastes more potent than fishy, and the sofrito, echoed in the vegetables, reverberates through the dish.
Like all the entrées, bacalao guisado costs $7.95 a plate. All three of the day's picks come with a choice of rice -- white rice with habichuelas (red beans) or "red rice" cooked with tomatoes, beans, and spices -- and salad, platanos maduros (ripe plantains), or tostones (savory plantain chips). The rices vary in texture and flavor -- sometimes gummy, sometimes perfectly cooked, sometimes bland, sometimes so compelling you'd trade your date for another scoop. The salad is a simple mix of greens and tomato slices, to be dressed with the olive oil and chile-infused vinegar on your table. But the plantains? They'll never let you down. The platanos maduros melt down as they sizzle in the oil, turning velvety and sweet. For the tostones, the chefs pick green, hard plantains and cut them into thick slices. They fry the fruit once, pound it flat, then fry it again until crisp and golden on the outside and starchy on the inside. For dipping, you get a small bowl of mojo sauce on the side -- garlic pounded together with more garlic, with a little vinegar, tomato, and spices thrown in for color.
That's the essence of a meal at Sofrito: nothing fancy, just the kind of food your grandmother might cook. In fact, Pabon and Luna learned how to cook by watching over their grandmother's shoulder. She's currently visiting from the East Coast and helping them out five days a week, along with their grandfather, a few younger brothers and cousins, Luna's wife, and some friends.
You can fill out a meal with one of the fritters -- small empanadas (mashed plantains stuffed with meat) or bacalaitos (crispy, saucer-sized jobs made by pounding salt cod into a puree and binding it together with eggs and flour). You can end the meal with a small bowl of flan, cooked a little too long so the custard curdles. At lunch, you can take away a "toasted sandwich," a soft French roll crisped up in a sandwich press and stuffed with greens, tomato, onions, a nondescript cheese, and your choice of ham or turkey. When you've earned the kind of good karma that repels parking tickets and places quarters in your path, the cooks will offer to stuff a sandwich with leftover pernil, pork shoulder rubbed thickly with garlic and parsley and slow roasted -- the fat melting off and basting the meat while it cooks -- until the hunk can easily be teased apart into soft shreds. (Try Tuesdays.)
No surprise, but apart from the pernil, Sofrito's baked and roasted meats tend to dry out as they sit on the steam table. I was actually more surprised that they hadn't calcified into tough lumps of meat. A strong adobo (a mix of spices, garlic, and lime juice) rubbed into the chuletas (pork chops) redeemed the well-done meat. It had the same effect on the baked chicken. Once I got past its somewhat chewy exterior, the thigh I ate one lunch even yielded up juicy, pink at the bone.
But it's a rare stew that doesn't taste better at six in the evening than when the cook pronounced it ready at ten in the morning. Sofrito's pollo guisado (chicken stew) braises and braises until the flesh of the chicken parts from the bone, and all the art behind the dish -- the blending of the sofrito, the measuring and sautéing and tasting -- melts away, leaving nothing but the chicken, its flavor distilled. My friend Kara, who finished off a plate of the stew, said she felt her February cold slink away immediately afterward.
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