When we Northerners think of eating in the tropics, we think of the lighter foods we eat here when it's hot: salads, seafood, and (of course) tall, cold drinks. It's fascinating that Puerto Rican cuisine is the opposite of light. It's the epitome of solid and stick-to-your-ribs, well suited to a Michigan winter. I defy anyone to eat a plate of mofongo and feel like going swimming afterward.
The heaviness is because of the ubiquity of plantains and yuca (cassava), the bland, starchy root. Both are mashed, fried, or baked to produce all sorts of different dishes. It's sort of like finding new uses for the potato, and the emphasis is on deep-frying. Combine several of these in a meal, and you've got a lot of heft.
But the daily specials at Rincon Tropical also offer chicken, pork, and beef cooked various ways, all hearty, too: roast chicken or fricassee, beef stews, pork, ribs on Saturdays. We enjoyed chicken encebollado, a simple stewed dish with onions and tomatoes, very moist. A large red pork chop looked dry but turned out to be tender enough to cut with a butter knife, lightly spiced, with a nice rim of fat. Chicken wings were crisper than I like them, but a steal at two for $1. The specials are served with either rice and pinto beans or the quintessentially Puerto Rican rice with gandules, pigeon peas.
Other possibilities are beef encebollado and pernil, the garlicked roast pork that's traditional for Christmas and other celebrations. On winter Sundays, sancocho is served: a soup with many vegetables, more tubers, and meat of the cook's choosing.
The home-style cooking draws mainly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and some Mexicans and blancos.
By some accounts, mofongo is the Puerto Rican national dish. Rincon Tropical's is made from plantains mashed with garlic and other goodies. The result is a big, yellow, garlicky mound, served with a tub of melted garlic butter. It's served with either well-fried pork cubes or shrimp, at $13 for a large portion. I struggled with my medium and had plenty left for the next day.
It's the side dishes where the art of deep-frying yuca and plantains most comes into play. Alcapurrias, for example, are mashed plantains filled with spiced ground beef, formed into the shape of a hand-warmer and quite delicious. The exterior is crisp, the plantain layer fluffy, the innards generous. A relleno is round, made of either yuca or potato, diner's choice, and also filled with ground beef. An empanadilla is more or less your usual empanada, in this case bright orange and filled with meat, salami, pizza or white cheese.
A good appetizer is sorullitos, deep-fried corn fritters, very slightly sweet; you can skip the ketchup-mayo dip.
Then there are the various ways of slicing plantains, instead of mashing them, and then frying the pieces: tostones, which are unripe disks, twice-fried, without much flavor, and maduros (mature, i.e. ripe) which are the sweet version that many of us have come to count on in Central American restaurants. At Rincon Tropical they're served plain; a bit of crema would help. Or I took some home and plopped on Nutella.
Besides a full bar, owner Riqueli Moreno offers soft drinks such as parcha (passion fruit), and the island's popular malta, which tastes like molasses. I highly recommend the coquito, which is like a thin eggnog with coconut milk and rum. It's traditional for Christmas but you might try asking for it later.
Rincon Tropical is difficult to spot. It's tucked behind an oil-change place, fronting more on Burton Street than on Michigan, west of Livernois. Its decor is basic, one big room with a long bar where many seem to like to eat.
Rincon has another life as a nightclub on weekend nights. DJs spin salsa, merengue, bachata and reggaeton, Sex on the Beaches are cheap, and guests are invited to "dress to impress." — mt