La Palma dominates your taste buds with Dominican goodness
In the Dominican Republic, breakfast fills you up until nightfall and lunch holds you till the next breakfast. A staple of both is Los Tres Golpes (the three strikes); fried salami, fried egg, and fried cheese served with boiled plantains and pickled onions. Several families were feasting on that when I entered La Palma Caribbean Food and Catering at 4623 W. Gate City Blvd. around noon last Friday.
I’d come to the delightful family-run fonda (small informal restaurant) at Sedgefield Crossing Shopping Center for the $5.99 lasagna that several Yelp reviews called the best cheap meal in Greensboro. It may well be; the carry-out of this Caribbean variant on an Italian staple was wonderful when I ate it a day later, but my first meal was the bacalao.
I chose the Friday lunch special out of curiosity. The smiling woman who rang me up, Albiana Johnson, explained it was made with salt cod, something I’ve never been able to make taste as good as this proved to be.
Part of the secret is preparing the preserved fish, said Aaron Ali Mustafa, who sat down with me after I asked to speak to the chef. “You have to soak it and soak it, draining the water every 20 minutes.” Then comes the simmering. “In my country, you see a lot of bacalao, with a lot of different kinds of fish,” explained his mother Biana Guerrero, the restaurant’s owner. “We cook it with garlic, onions, vinegar, salsa and potatoes.” It was neither salty nor soggy, but so delicately delicious the salt cod tasted fresh.
La Palma is a family affair, with Johnson running the front of the house and Mustafa and their mother working the small kitchen directly behind the counter, where Guerrero’s husband Alberto Mustafa serving as a prep cook (in the Dominican Republic, as in much of Hispanic America, a married woman often retains her family name).
I asked Guerrero and her son the secret of the lasagna I’d read raves about. “It’s a family recipe,” he said. “My mom’s sister, she made lasagna one Christmas, and everybody just thought it was so good.” Guerrero laughed and nodded. “She make it with no cheese!”
Aaron Mustafa continued: “Mama said to her sister, how do you not put cheese in it, and my aunt showed her the recipe; it was with heavy cream, and our family seasonings, but achieved a cheese-like consistency.” The recipe uses no tomatoes or salsa, “just ground beef or shredded chicken and our seasonings and that cream sauce.” He explained that they do top it with cheese at the end of the cooking process, but it’s not mixed into the sauce. “My family loved it, and our friends and neighbors all said it was good enough to sell, so we did.”
I asked him what else newcomers to Dominican cuisine should try.
“Definitely the chimi,” he said. This is a sandwich of ground beef topped with cabbage and sautéed onions. “You can find it anywhere on every street corner in the Dominican Republic.” His mother nodded enthusiastically. “It’s like hamburgers there!”
Aaron Mustafa also recommended the side dish mangú, “boiled plantains which we smash with butter and garlic, with pickled onions on top.” And the mofongo, “which is plantains mashed up with whatever protein you want, and mofongo sauce over it.” His mother reminded him not to forget the La Palma sandwich, served between two fried plantains rather than bread. And the pastelitos, which are pastries like empanadas, filled with ground beef, chicken or cheese.
Guerrero was born in La Romana on the Dominican Republic’s Caribbean coast. In 1990, she and her husband moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where they lived for 13 years. But the family had gotten tired of Rhode Island winters, and eventually moved to Greensboro as part of what Aaron Mustafa called “the Spanish wave that blossomed after 2008.”
In 2014, he finished culinary school at Johnson & Wales University (his diploma is proudly displayed on the wall).
“I talking about a restaurant with my mom, just coming up with a bunch of ideas.” He said they were influenced by other Dominican restaurants in New York and Rhode Island. “We came up here wanting to do it that style. Come in, there’s always food cooking at the front counter that you can have right away, but a menu, too, if you have time to sit down.” He stressed the freshness of the ingredients. “We don’t have anything in the cooler that was bought last week.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.