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Señor Big Ed in Cypress: Hearty helpings of Puerto Rican specialties

Surrounded as they are by

taquerías

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, the non-Mexican Latin American restaurants of Southern California too often feature menus of tangled-together cuisines, slighting many distinct dishes in search of pan-American tastes. And

, a homey Puerto Rican spot in Cypress, did begin as a Mexican restaurant, folding up tacos and burritos long before it mashed together its first order of

mofongo

, a dish of plantains, pork rinds and garlic. But the place is purely Puerto Rican these days, with flags, hats and shoes all proudly displayed (and for sale) just inside the door.

Past those patriotic goods are wispy white curtains and sun-bleached walls -- Señor Big Ed is a sparse place, light and bright enough to recall a breezy beach scene despite its landlocked location on Lincoln Avenue. With the slightest breeze, the restaurant seems even more coastal, cooled by fans spinning like pinwheels as they spread every occasional gust around the room.

Hefty platter

IN CONTRAST to its airy interior, Señor Big Ed sticks to the weighty roots of Puerto Rican cuisine and serves hefty helpings of foods that owe as much to the fried dishes of America's Gulf Coast as they do to the tropical cues of the Caribbean.

There's a lot to take in with Señor Big Ed's menu, and certain logic might steer you toward the sampler plate. With that, you get

tostones

(green plantains that are fried, pounded into patties, then fried again to resemble chips),

pastelillo

s (excellent empanada-like turnovers stuffed with either meat or cheese), an

alcapurria

(a green plantain fritter filled with ground beef), a

relleno de papa

(a fried potato ball filled with a scoop of ground beef) and a single

pastel

(a Puerto Rican take on the tamale made from either plantain or cassava root). If it sounds like a lot of food, that's because it is -- the sampler is an order best split between at least two people.

First-time diners at Señor Big Ed might do better with some of the restaurant's single-item entrees. The

carne guisada

is a good choice, a plate of beef stewed in a

sofrito

-based sauce (a staple of Caribbean cooking made mostly of onions, peppers and garlic) that ends up almost like chili.

Even better is the

canoa de plátano maduro

, a caramelized yellow plantain split open and loaded with ground beef and topped with a layer of cheddar cheese.

The huge

canoa

(which appropriately translates to "canoe") looks as close to some sort of banana boat as culinarily possible, one that steers the deep sweetness of the plantain right through the weight of the meat and cheese.

Alongside every entree comes

arroz con gandules

(Spanish rice flecked with pigeon peas and pork) and another helping of plantains, either sweet

maduros

or chip-like

tostones

.

On the side

THOSE with smaller appetites can do well by ordering two or three items from the restaurant's so-called sides. Mofongo

Mofongo

, a coarse mash not unlike a rough polenta, is a meal on its own. Green plantains are ground up with pork rinds, clove after clove of garlic and a drizzle or two of olive oil for a sharp taste like that of garlic mashed potatoes.

Or try the

relleno de papa

, a softball-sized sphere of potato with a core of ground beef. Despite its inclusion in the sampler plate, the

relleno de papa

is better on its own -- break open the crisp exterior and inside is a pleasingly creamy heap of potato.

Wash all that down with a coconut soda or a bottle of malta (a nonalcoholic malt brew that tastes like molasses), and Señor Big Ed really takes you on a Puerto Rican trip. For the most part, that means plates of thoroughly fried food. You can't beat it for comfort-food fulfillment.

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