It’s not uncommon to encounter a Plexiglas shield between yourself and the cashier at bodegas in Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods around Boston and New York. But in downtown Portland, Maine?
“We didn’t know what kind of neighborhood this was when I opened it 10 years ago, so I put the Plexi in,” said Juan Gonzalez, owner of La Bodega Latina. “It’s like a tradition.”
Like any corner store, Gonzalez’s little Dominican market on Congress Street does a regular trade in beverages (adult and otherwise) and cigarettes. But unlike, say, Cumby’s, bodegas like Latina sell staples of the Caribbean diet — rice and beans, plantains, yuca, Goya products galore — and special items like Santería candles. (Those struggling in the economic downturn might consider the “steady work miracle candle,” especially if your vocation is one of those listed on the label: carpenter, mechanic, butcher, etc.) In short, one can sustain oneself affordably, nutritionally, and even spiritually with weekly visits.
Observing the young inheritors of large New England farms, Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?” Similarly, does anyone really need a 60,000-square-foot supermarket when an 800-square-foot bodega will more than suffice?
“We’re a small store, but we got stuff that Hannaford doesn’t have,” said Juan’s daughter, Jasmine. La Bodega Latina carries banana leaves, empanada skins, Jamaica flower drink concentrate, several varieties of chorizo, tamarind soda, and 21 varieties of beans (many of which you won’t find on the shelves at Hannaford or Shaw’s).
A few years ago, Gonzalez operated a tiny restaurant in an adjoining space that served popular Dominican and Puerto Rican dishes like cuchifritos (greasy balls stuffed with meat and cheese), fried chicken, and pernil (roast pork shoulder). A fire forced Gonzalez to close the eatery, but plans are apparently underway to offer hot foods inside the store, where a steam table has been set up for weeks.
“When will everything be ready?” I asked in late January. “Next week,” replied Junior, a bodega employee, with a less-than-convincing air.
A few blocks east on Congress Street, another — even smaller — grocery, Los Amigos, is also thriving.
“This is the home away from home,” said Luis Dubon, who runs the store with his wife, Marina, often with their three kids on hand. “Everybody comes here.”
The Dubons started the business in 2008, but have kept their day jobs at Bristol Seafood, where Marina is a cutter and Luis works in shipping and receiving. They open the store when they get off work, which is around noon on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends.
Although much of the food at Los Amigos is also available at La Bodega, the Dubons are Salvadoran, and several of their items reflect that cultural difference. On the weekends Marina Dubon sells her exceptional tamales and pupusas ($2). The tamales have a silken texture and are stuffed with either cheese or chicken (watch for bones) and wrapped in a flavorful banana leaf. The pupusas are filled with cheese or ground pork and served with tomato sauce and curtido (a slightly fermented sauerkraut/cabbage salad with carrots and a few hot peppers). Wash it down with a delicious Nicaraguan Coke which, like Mexican Coke, is sold in the traditional, refillable 12 oz. glass bottle.
A new off-peninsula purveyor of Latin groceries is Victory’s market on outer Washington Avenue. Like Los Amigos, this is a family-run business, operated by Viktor Blazevik and his wife. But unlike the Dubons, the Blazeviks are Croatians from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and their market also stocks a selection of Balkan products (including especially good cured meats and candy). Viktor plans to expand the business in the spring, possibly adding clothing or prepared foods, but in the meantime this is the place to go if you need the makings for goulash or ancho chicken.
For Latin-style meals at home, I offer the following recipes and suggestions. Happy shopping!
I use a 14-cup pot because it’s the perfect size for a one-pound bag of dry beans. (Cooking dried beans without pre-soaking them eliminates the legume’s notorious gastrointestinal effects.) Make sure to use yellow Spanish onions, as their stronger flavor makes them sweeter than red or Vidalia onions when caramelized. Bell peppers, hot peppers, celery, cabbage, garlic, capers and spices can also be cooked with the onion. Umani, referenced below, is known as “the fifth taste” (along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). Best described as zesty, it’s an attribute of such ingredients as ketchup, dried mushrooms, beef jerky, soy sauce, fish sauce, anchovies, MSG, and Parmesan cheese. If using dried chipotle peppers (or meat bones), add them while the beans are simmering.
1 lb. dry beans
8-10 cups of water
2-4 Tbsp. olive oil
2-3 yellow onions, chopped
2-6 dried chipotle peppers (optional)
Salt to taste
Boil beans in water, then reduce to a simmer until beans are soft enough to eat but not mushy. Heat oil on high (preferably in a large, cast-iron pan), brown the onions, then reduce heat to low until caramelized, stirring occasionally. When the beans are ready, remove from heat and add the onions, salt, and some umani flavor (I prefer fish sauce). Allow 10 minutes for the flavors to marry.
A big mound of fluffy white rice is as comforting as warm bread and provides a nice vehicle for spicy and soupy dishes. Basic white rice can be daunting even for experienced cooks. I prefer the no-measure method below, and generally rinse the rice a few times before cooking.
Add rice to a pot and then add enough water to cover the rice by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer, covered. Taste for doneness after about 15 minutes. Fluff immediately.
Locrio de arenque (rice with smoked herring)
Jambalaya, biriyani, paella, and pilaf are some of the names given to one-pot rice dishes. My rule of thumb is to have equal amounts of sauté ingredients and dry rice. In this Dominican recipe, the strong flavor of the herring imparts a smoky taste to the whole dish.
2 onions, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 celery stalks (including leaves), chopped
2 tsp. brined capers
1/2 lb. smoked herring filets
1 cup frozen peas (or other frozen vegetable)
1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes or 1 fresh
2 cups white rice
Sauté onions, adding celery, garlic, capers, and bell peppers till soft. Add frozen peas and herring and cook another minute. Mix in rice, allowing the mixture to coat it. Add entire can of tomatoes, with juice. Add water to a level one inch over the mixture and cook as you would white rice. Fluff immediately.
Ripe yellow plantains are sweet and taste like starchy bananas when cooked. These are traditionally fried, but I eat them in stews (they don’t crumble like potatoes) or peeled and microwaved. Note: when ripe, plantains are yellow with plenty of black on the peel.
For fried plantain, peel the fruit with a knife and cut diagonally into inch-thick slices. Fry at medium-high heat in a heavy skillet, using enough lard, peanut oil or olive oil to cover half the slice. Flip once when slices are translucent and caramelized. Drain grease and serve immediately.
Green plantain is very stodgy and not sweet. The traditional preparation is to make tostones, which involves frying slices over medium heat until cooked, then taking them out, smushing them, and returning them to the pan to cook on high heat until crisp. Many people consider tostones comfort food, but it seems that’s only the case if you grew up eating them, which I did not.
Brined Baby Pineapple Stem
These look and feel a lot like artichokes and taste just like them.
La Bodega Latina sells chipotle peppers in both dry and rehydrated form, although the latter appear somewhat faded. I use them in anything that could benefit from some smoky flavor: soups, cooked greens, stews, and sauces. They’re especially good as a vegetarian substitute for smoked pork in bean dishes and pea soup, or with collard greens
If you’ve never had boiled peanuts, you’re in for a treat. Prepared in a brine and available at La Bodega Latina, both the shell and the meat soften considerably, with the nut taking on a more subtle, mild and scrumptious flavor. For bayou-style boiled peanuts, put them in a sauce pan with half a cup of water and a heaping tablespoon of Old Bay seasoning, heat to a boil and then let sit, covered, for 20 minutes.
Callaloo is a general term for leafy greens used throughout the West Indies, especially in Trinidad and Jamaica. The canned variety at La Bodega Latina has a deep, earthy flavor and took well to the preparation recommended on the label (added to sautéed onion, garlic and tomato). For the slightly less adventurous, a 99-cent bag of frozen collard greens from Save-A-Lot is a more than adequate substitution for the same recipe.
May the Holy Trinity strike me down for saying this, but I never thought jerk chicken was all that good. However, the jerk sauce at La Bodega Latina is great mixed with mayonnaise for sandwiches, and is excellent when cooked into scrambled eggs.
Sugar Cane in Syrup
This is a fun food. Basically, you stick the section of fat, woody bamboo in your mouth and chew out all the juices until you’re left with the inedible strands of fiber. Then make an appointment with your dentist.
Panela is dehydrated sugarcane juice. Dominicans and South Americans dissolve it to replicate a fresh cane-juice drink, but it can be used in most sugar applications, and works especially well in flan. The presence of minerals and various chemical compounds makes panela’s flavor profile far more complex than that of white sugar. (The food-science author Harold McGee describes panela’s “vegetable-ocean” flavor, “buttery notes,” and “salty and bitter tastes.”)
I use panela like refined sugar (e.g., in coffee), and it’s good in cocktails, particularly drinks containing cane-distilled liquors like rum and cachaça. Try this one…
2 oz. rum, cachaça, gin or vodka
2 tsp. shaved panela (preferably pre-dissolved in the booze)
1/2 lime squeezed, with pulp (lemon may be substituted if you are using vodka)
1 Tbsp. cane syrup, from canned
sugar cane (optional)
1 section of a cane stalk, as garnish (optional)
1 dash of bitters or a fruit-flavored spirit like Grand Marnier or Kirsch (optional)
Shake all ingredients with ice, or serve over ice
Dominicans use this in Locrio de arenque (see above).
When soaked in milk, the filets lose some of their salt, swell up, and acquire a silken texture, making them a great substitute for smoked salmon on bagels with cream cheese. I would even argue that herring’s extreme smokiness and strong flavor make it a better complement to the sourness of cream cheese than the more delicate flavor of lox.
Harbor Fish Market on Portland’s Custom House Wharf sells the same herring (a Canadian product) to give a smoky flavor to chowders. It’s a good substitute for smoked pork bones or smoked turkey in dishes like braised collard greens.
Crème is a combination of heavy cream, cream cheese, and sour cream. What’s not to like? The several varieties available at La Bodega Latina — Dominican, Salvadoran, Mexican, and Guatemalan — differ only in name.
— Zachary Barowitz
656 Congress St., Portland
La Bodega Latina
863 Congress St., Portland
804 Washington Ave., Portland