Sunday, January 31, 2010

El Coqui Restaurant

Finally! El Coqui restaurant is open in Tucson! We've been waiting and watching for the opening for well over 6 months now and just today we found out they opened on January 16th. We scrapped plans to find a Mexican all-you-can-eat Sunday lunch buffet in favor of testing out the tastes of Puerto Rico. The restaurant is located on the northwest corner of Craycroft and 22nd in a somewhat barren strip mall.

Driving past every few weeks, we were surprised at the location since there were very few cars at any of the other shops and most of the mall is closed up. However, today, there were at least twenty cars in the lot and lots of people inside the restaurant even though it was 2:30 in the afternoon.

We were seated right away and given pan ajo (garlic bread) as we pondered the menu. Quite frankly, there wasn't a tremendous amount of vegetarian food available, but there was more than one choice, so YIPEE, I can go back again! We ordered a Surullo de Maiz con queso (corn "fritter" with cheese) for me and an Alcapurria rellleno con carne (plaintain "fritter" filled with beef) for David. I use the word "fritter" loosely since the fritters of my childhood usually involve a looser batter. These were more rolled, but very delicious. Mine tasted like a lightly fried corn cake with melted cheese in the middle. You know me and cheese! YUM!

For our entrees, we both ordered mofongo, a savory mix of cooked plantains, garlic and olive oil that is shaped and either baked or fried. The plantains were roughly chopped which is different than the way David and I make them and the way I've had them in PR, but they were just as tasty. Mine came with lightly fried onions around the mofongo and David ordered his with chicharron de pollo (fried chicken pieces). His chicken pieces came al ajillo (with garlic sauce) which was sweet and tender.

While we were munching, one of the staff offered us a bottle of vinegar/pepper/ garlic sauce that he said his mother made every day. It was the perfect accompaniment for the mofongo. It had a pleasant taste of peppers, but not really any hotness that David or I could tell.

The atmosphere was quite nice, except that it's got that modern restaurant feel where everything is overwhelmingly loud because there's not one sound-absorbing thing in the place - no curtains, no rugs, nada. I suppose lots of noise makes a place chic. The staff were warm, welcoming and almost too attentive. Hector, our waiter, must have checked with us 8 times on how everything was, but I'd rather that than being ignored.

For dessert, we shared a Tembleque or coconut pudding. It was smooth, buttery and just a little bit sweet. And then David told me it's made almost completely of coconut fat. Doesn't matter... we finished it anyway :-)

In all, I give El Coqui a very high recommendation if you want good traditional PR food, attentive staff, and cute little coquis on your tableware.

And for those of you who aren't able to make it to Tucson, here's David's favorite bean recipe. Don't let the list of ingredients scare you off. Most of it is spices which can be adjusted to meet what you have in the pantry. Sofrito is a mix of chopped onions, sweet red peppers, garlic, and cilantro. You can substitute the ingredients chopped separately if you don't have sofrito handy.

1 lb beans, canned (pinto beans, pigeon peas, kidney beans, or even navy beans work well)
3 tbs sofrito
¼ cup annatto oil (can be replaced with olive oil)
½ roasted red pepper (not hot)
½ can tomato paste or crushed tomatoes
12-16 stuffed olives (green Spanish olives would be best, but kalamata are good, too)
½ cup chopped onion
3 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
1-½ cups vegetable broth (can be chicken if desired)
3 bay leaves
2Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

2 tsp crushed dried oregano
2 tsp crushed rosemary
2 tsp Spanish paprika (sometimes sold as smoked paprika)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground thyme

If using canned beans:
Clean and rinse the beans in a colander under running water until the water runs clear.

Put the oil in a 2 qt sauce pan and heat up on medium until a drop of sofrito sizzles in it, fry and stir in the sofrito, onions, red pepper, and olives; after 2 minutes add the tomato paste, the spices garlic and bay leaves, but NOT the fresh cilantro. Stir continuously for 1 minute. Add the drained beans and the vegetable broth to the pot. If the beans are not covered in liquid, you can put a little bit of water. bring everything to a boil, then turn down the heat and cook for 45 minutes to an hour. Stir and add a little water if it’s too dry (please be careful adding water as the beans are supposed to be a little dry, too much water will make them mushed). About 5  minutes before you serve them, add the additional cilantro. Take out the bay leaves and add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve over white rice and enjoy!

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