Upon entering La Marginal, the first words out of my mouth were, “This smells like home.” I half expected to see my dad scrutinizing the broth of the arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) before striking the rice pot’s metallic lid like a gavel. The salsa music and murals of Puerto Rican landscapes and architecture create a patio feel, and my boricua sensibilities were wooed straightaway as I eagerly headed to the buffet with my plate. A woman behind the counter briskly served my food in sad little scoops, rice first. Yet any visit to a real Puerto Rican household starts with your plate being generously buried in rice before additions are piled on.
There is a lot of pressure on the maker of the rice: it should be plentiful, clump together just right, and always excel on taste. The sofrito, or flavor base, must maintain the balanced equation of cilantro, red and green bell pepper, onion, garlic, oregano, olive oil, and salt; of course there are variations to this combination, but the mixture — key to most Puerto Rican dishes — needs to be fresh and flavorful. Despite skimpy portions, the rice with pinto beans here was savory and on point in terms of flavor thanks to a decent sofrito with olives and ham added. The pernil, or roast pork shoulder, was tender, juicy, and rather delicious, yet the cuerito, or skin, could have used a touch more flavor and crispness. In my house, you do not take the pig out of the oven until the skin crunches and crackles. When finished properly, the skin is something you spar over. The salty, sweet plantains were worthy of seconds, but chewy mussels and dry catfish made the seafood rice a fishy tasting fail.
For dessert, I scanned the barren platters of what looked like a flan versus tembleque (coconut custard) war zone. Though I enjoyed extricating the caramelized coating of the flan, it was an impoverished way to end a meal.
The next visit to La Marginal will see me ordering from the menu. While they perform on most of the staple dishes, this buffet is in desperate need of some TLC. The $8.99 offering is affordable and workable, as long as you know what to put on your plate.