The Find: Mama Fina in Bellflower
From the kitchen of this Bellflower restaurant comes home cooking, Dominican style: mangu, sancocho and chivo guisado.
Liez Soto Staley, second from right, greets diners at her family's restaurant, Mama Fina, in Bellflower. (Christina House, For The Times / May 5, 2010)
For the record: An earlier version of this review incorrectly spelled owner Josefina Soto's first name as Josephina.
Soto's a stickler for detail. Her cooking is full of home-kitchen deliciousness based on recipes she's been honing for years. Before opening her place, seemingly L.A.'s sole Dominican eatery, she used to make Sunday dinners for a Dominican baseball club, according to her daughter Liez Soto-Staley, who manages the restaurant. Now, her food is a potent lure for local Dominicans with a nostalgia for a taste of their Caribbean home — or maybe for El Alto, Manhattan's Dominican enclave on the Upper West Side that's the throbbing heart of the East Coast's Dominican communities.
While many people write off Dominican cuisine as "just like Cuban," regulars here know better. For the families that crowd into the leatherette booths of this redecorated former Taco Bell, Soto's specific Dominican-style seasoning is just one element that sets the cooking apart.
Sancocho, often deemed the country's national soul food, has a near equivalent in the Cuban soupy stew ajiaco. But the Dominican version adds great quantities of cilantro to the garlic-oregano seasoning blend. The baroque concoction, loaded with long-simmered beef chunks, pork chunks, green plantains and a market basket's worth of starchy tubers, thickens as the simmering vegetables turn the pale green broth into a light, smooth purée. Along the way, the liquid absorbs the meaty flavors. It's a dish that has people nearly licking the bottom of their bowls.
Yes, you can get familiar Caribbean-style fried plantains and pastelitos, crisp-shelled empanadas stuffed to bursting with savory minced beef. But there's not a black bean in the house. Instead, Soto serves up fork-tender saucy meats, garlicky shrimp or snapper filets smothered in sautéed onion and sweet pepper brightened with a splash of vinegar. Chuletas, savory grilled pork chops, come accompanied — as do most plates — with habichuelas, richly stewed red beans alongside white rice. As an alternative you can get moro — rice tossed with your choice of pigeon peas called gandules or with habichuelas.
The menu changes each day, and for newbies, the best time to come may be weekends. For one thing, the restaurant serves breakfast only on Saturday and Sunday mornings. And Saturday is usually the only day for sancocho and tender braised oxtail. Fridays through Sundays, there's roast pork leg.
And Sunday is the only day the restaurant serves chivo guisado, a tomatoey stew, fragrant with imported Dominican oregano and cubes of mild, lean goat meat that's almost marshmallow tender. The mondongo, another stew that's a sentimental favorite, is crowded with evenly cut honeycomb tripe squares, adding an aggressively offal flavor to its rich garlicky sauce.
One caveat: A side order of fried ripe or green plantains to garnish the dishes adds $2.95 to the bill. The order is plenty for three or four; solo diners will probably have leftovers unless they can negotiate a smaller serving.
On weekdays, the menu offers fewer choices. Still, homey dishes such as pechuga de pollo guisada, another savory stew of chicken breast chunks served with your choice of any bean and rice combination, makes the kind of satisfying $8.99 dinner that might persuade you to forgo cooking at home.
In Southern California, the Dominican Republic is probably best known for its slew of famous baseball players or its merengue dance hits. Dominicans are so scattered that the community's presence and its food has been invisible. Mamá Fina may finally put this easy-to-love cuisine on L.A.'s gustatory map.
Location: 17625 Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower. (562) 867-8128.
Price: Plates, $8.95 to $12.95; appetizers and sides, $1.50 to $3; desserts, $3.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Mondays. MasterCard and Visa. Beer and wine. Lot parking.