Casa Domenicana, 260 Central Ave., Albany, 427-1290, CasaDomenicanaRestaurant.com. Serving noon-10 Mon-Fri, 1-10 Sat. MC, V.
Entreé price range: $8.25 (grilled chicken sandwich) to $16 (fried shrimp)
Ambiance: small and casual
Hector Marmol spent many years running restaurants in what is truly the culinary epicenter of this country: Queens. He had a place right off the 7 train in the shadow of Shea Stadium; he had a larger place not far from there. Profits were dimmed as rents soared higher; after his son was born, he wanted the comfort of more reliable expenses and decided to relocate to Buffalo. He stopped in Albany en route, and he’s been here ever since. “I heard about the Buffalo winters,” he explains, which instantly makes the snow on the street outside seem cheerful.
He and his wife, Maria, opened Casa Domenicana on Central Avenue nearly eight years ago. He now owns the building it’s in, on the corner of North Lake, and his business is a brisk mix of takeout and sit-down, with a handful of small tables at which you can park yourself and your tray. Along one wall are colorful murals he commissioned, showing the Caribbean setting of Hispaniola, the island his country shares with Haiti, and some lush views of the Puerto Plata beaches on the country’s north coast.
As Marmol points out, the cuisine of the Domenican Republic is very similar to that of nearby Cuba and Puerto Rico, adding, “My own cooking gets a lot of its flavor from garlic.” Which is an excellent starting place. I’m so partial to garlic myself that I have little sympathy with those who complain of its presence, and am unable to offer any counsel as to whether it’s used to excess.
Major culinary influences come from the Taino, who were the pre-Colombian residents of the island, from visiting Africans and the arriviste Spanish. From Africa by way of Puerto Rico comes mofongo, a mash of plantains and other ingredients served with fish or meat, cheese or pork rinds ($9-$16).
Chicken can be fried, grilled or roasted ($9-$12.50); meat dishes include stewed beef and broccoli ($10.50), pepper steak ($13), steak in Creole sauce ($12), fried pork chop ($13), pork rinds with cassava ($11.50) and oxtail ($12), all with sides; seafood selections include several preparations of shrimp (the version in garlic sauce for $16 tops my list for next-visit choice), tilapia fried or steamed ($12.25), ditto salmon ($13) and a Domenicana favorite, stewed codfish ($11).
Steam-table selections offer a quick meal; when we visited, there were meatballs, roasted chicken, stewed beef and a pile of roasted pork along with yellow or white rice and some vegetable sides. Orders are assembled in take-out containers or on plates for the dine-in customers and the line moves pretty quickly.
That roasted pork (lechón asado, $11.50) looked very tasty, with crisp rinds in evidence. Served with plantains, themselves a delicious treat, the pork was as tender as you could want it, with the complex flavors a slow roasting encourages, and the payoff for each bite was the crunch of skin that lurked nearby.
Two types of soup are available: beef tripe (mondongo, $4.25/$7) and chicken ($3.50/$7), and I consider chicken soup a handy item with which to judge a restaurant’s competence. Is it freshly made, and if so, is it made with good homemade stock? Yes to both, with the addition of potatoes to the chicken chunks and noodles.
My diet-wary daughter asked for a lettuce-and-tomato salad, and Hector easily talked her into adding avocados to the mix ($8.50), upon which cucumbers also appeared, and a side of sweet plantains ($3), which proves to be a very generous portion. The less-ripe green plantain also is available fried as a side dish ($4), rendered into the twice-fried form of tostones.
Other sides include stuffed potatoes or beef pies (three for $6), shrimp cocktail ($10.50), stuffed plantain ($2), French fries ($2.75) and the carb-rich cassava ($4).
Among the menu items I’ve earmarked for future-visit sampling are the Cuban sandwich ($9), which typically is a mixture of roasted pork, pickles and cheese; BBQ ribs with rice and beans ($12.25) and, of course, stewed codfish (bacalao guisado), which melds salt cod in a stew with a vegetable array.
In the seven years that he’s been operating Casa Domenicana, Marmol has been able to buy the building he’s in and develop a following that keeps the restaurant busy. Even as Albany bustles around it on the busy blocks outside, the restaurant has a cheerful, welcoming feel that instantly won us over and proves again that the combination of flavorful food in a casual setting presented with a sense of the family behind it will always be a success.