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Food & Drink Pass the salt



At its best, La Marginal is deep-fried yuca and savory garlic, at its worst, well ...

I’m of two minds about ethnic restaurants that are located next to ethnic grocery stores. On the one hand, it’s reassuring to feel the synergy that results from such a pairing; on the other, that same synergy may cause tiny seeds of doubt to sprout up as one peruses the shelves of the grocery. Specializing in Latin American and Spanish products, the International Food Market shares a small strip center with La Marginal, a lively Puerto Rican restaurant serving many of the same foods that can be found in the frozen section of the market. We are not suggesting for un minuto that La Marginal serves frozen products, but a couple of appetizers might as well have been for all the flavor they offered.

A sampler of Pernil Asado, roast pork, and pastel Puertorriqueño, a Puerto Rican meat pie, served with yellow rice, plantain fritters, and salad. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

I’m speaking specifically of the alcapurrias, cigar-shaped packets fashioned of taro root and plantain and filled with ground beef, and the pastel puertoriqueño, a steamed lozenge of mashed plantain with bits of pork and the occasional olive. The deep-fried alcapurrias were crisp on the outside, but the casing was so bland it suffocated the small amount of relatively well-seasoned ground beef inside. Without salt and more than a little pasty in texture, the pastel was boring, the pork and olive counting for little. Both desperately needed a salsa, and the restaurant offers only bottled Goya Tabasco.

La Marginal must be doing something right, however; the place was buzzing on a recent Saturday afternoon, and even the new room, dominated by an ambitious three-dimensional mural of a colorful Puerto Rican street scene, was alive with sound of Spanish and smell of garlic. We had done our part to encourage the garlic aromas by ordering a side of fried yuca, which arrived before the appetizers — a symptom of distracted service. Yuca may be an acquired taste, but its bland and starchy character makes it perfect for deep-frying, and the golden batons were admirably served by a buttery mojo de ajo dip reeking of the stinking rose.

When the errant appetizers did arrive in the form of the Combinación Criolla, the platter batted .500. The mini-sized sorullitos aren’t bland, but exhibit a cultural disconnect. Like a corn-dog without the dog, these small yellow cylinders, made of corn meal and hard-to-detect grated cheese, are meant to be dipped in a mayo-ketchup mixture — which we dutifully did — and the result is a Caribbean county-fair-type experience I suspect you had to grow up with to fully appreciate.

A mural of a colorful Puerto Rican street scene adorns the walls of La Marginal restaurant, which serves Puerto Rican and Cuban food, including the El Jibarito Platter.

The empana-dillas de carne y guayaba, however, were perfect packets of light and flaky pastry encasing savory ground beef or sweet guava paste. The deep-fried rellenos de papa, walnut-sized balls of mashed potato — crisp on the exterior and meltingly soft within — surrounding ground beef and cheese, tasted even better, especially after the addition of salt.

La Marginal’s menu comes to life with the main courses that. Ropa vieja, literally “old clothes,” is a classic Caribbean dish with Spanish origins and, in its many forms, it is usually based on shredded flank steak cooked with onion, tomato, perhaps bell peppers, and sometimes green olives. Slices of garlic also perfumed this version, which was satisfying in the manner of a good stew and came served with a choice of yellow or white rice and plantain. The yellow rice, tinted with a typical seasoning mix dominated by achiote, is studded with lentil-like pigeon peas, which lend an almost-meaty flavor to the rice. The tostones, or twice-fried slices of green plantain, provide a chewy complement to the rice and ropa and have the added advantage of being served with another mojo de ajo — this time in more mayo-like form.

La Marginal

2447 Nacogdoches
11am-8pm Sun-Thu, 11am-9pm Fri & Sat
Price range: $9-14
Credit cards
Wheelchair accessible

Garlic and plantains form their most perfect union in the traditional mofongo, a creation of fried plátano pounded with garlic and ground chicharron and served with a topping of roast or fried pork. (La Marginal also serves a seafood version topped with shrimp.) As served in a wooden mortar, the plantain mixture is a little dry and doesn’t flaunt the pork rind as forcefully as many versions, but it’s still a terrific platform for the moist, almost sweet, roast pork. (Fried pork is also an option.) It’s hard to put a half-chicken up against this national treasure, but the Cuchilandia tries hard and comes up only a little short. Marinated in Puerto Rican spices, which likely means garlic powder, achiote, and maybe a little cumin and oregano, the baked chicken is succulent but not outstandingly flavorful. The fried sweet plantain we selected as a side actually had more sensual appeal, and even the red beans accompanying our white rice stood out with their deep and hearty flavor.

The flan de coco I had my heart set on for dessert had already been depleted by the time we ordered, confirming the old adage “eat dessert first,” but we weren’t disappointed with the dense and cheesy flan de queso, which was just sweet enough with its caramelized top. My advice: Skip the appetizers and focus on the flans — and maybe a tembleque. Just the name of this coconut pudding suggests trembling with delight.

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