Market to Market

Seafood Fest champs bring a taste of Puerto Rico to Ballard.

After spending two summers working on a rain forest ecology project in Puerto Rico, I'll always picture the archetypal Puerto Rican restaurant as one of those open-air bars along the side of the highway where my colleagues and I used to go for fried snacks and rum drinks served in plastic cups. Market Street's new Sofrito Rico is considerably more polished than that, but it has its own simple authenticity, like a campesino's Sunday clothes. At lunch soon after the restaurant opened in mid-January, I tried the rice with pigeon peas ($5.95), a meaty-tasting legume common in Caribbean cooking. The dish was flecked with sofrito, a blend of pureed onions, garlic, peppers, cilantro, and spices that is the base of many Puerto Rican dishes. Mixed and sautéed at the beginning of a recipe, sofrito is such a perfect balance of flavors that it allows even characteristically loud ingredients like cilantro to take on a subtler, more collaborative character. This magical condiment is not only the source of the restaurant's name but also the origin of the business: co-owner and cook Michael Figueroa got his start selling tubs of his homemade sofrito at the Fremont Market a couple of years ago. After partner Alfonso Gonzalez joined him, the two switched to offering a selection of ready-made street food from their favorite Puerto Rican recipes. They worked the street-fair circuit for a while, garnering a Best of the Fest award for their grilled salmon at the Ballard Seafood Fest last summer, before making the leap to a full-fledged restaurant. (A third partner, Jason Mikos, mostly handles the financial side of things, although his garlicky salad dressing also shows up on the menu.) WITH MY RICE and peas, I ordered the medley de tostones ($2.95). Unfortunately, the tostones—twice-fried slices of green plantain—were too thin, and therefore tasted too much like the deep fryer and not enough of plantain. They didn't stand up to my memories of the thick, comfortingly starchy tostones the ecologists and I used to make for a midnight snack in the field station's kitchen, but maybe you really can't go home again—or maybe the relatively new kitchen crew just hasn't perfected its method. The arañitas that were the other half of the medley, on the other hand, more than made up for my disappointment. The tender fritters made from shredded plantain (the name translates to "little spiders") had a slight sweetness that married surprisingly well with their dangerously potent oil-and-crushed-garlic sauce. When I returned with two companions one evening for dinner, we found that the short menu, roughly divided into fried morsels of appetizers and hearty mains, highlights the best of Puerto Rican cooking, a homey cuisine that doesn't pack the spicy heat that's often associated with Latin kitchens. A thin-cut pork chop ($11.95) was marinated with lemon and spices and grilled simply. A lentil stew ($5.95) with chunks of potato and carrot was satisfying and stand-your-spoon-up thick. The menu does make a couple of nods to its Seattle location, notably the presence of a number of meatless items—also a nod to Gonzalez's vegetarianism. An appetizer of alcapurrias($3.95), fritters made from plantain and taro dough, is available with either meat or veggie filling. We chose the latter, which was made of tofu given a Latin twist with tomato, spices, and sautéed peppers and onions. Dipped in an oil, vinegar, and hot pepper sauce, the fritters had a great sweet-and-sour punch. The salmon à la Michael ($13.95), another Northwest nod, was nicely cooked, but the assertive flavor of the salmon didn't quite seem to mesh with the slightly smoky black beans that smothered the fillet. However, I was happily distracted by the rice and beans that came alongside. The home-stewed pinto beans had complex layers of flavor reflecting a care not often taken with side dishes: a mellow base of sofrito, highlighted by piquant green olives and capers. For dessert, we fought over bites of the flan ($2.95), which went heavy on the vanilla and had just the right hint of bitterness to its caramel. Sofrito Rico is about a month old, and the owners are still tweaking the menu and beefing up their selection of liquor. Eventually, they hope to add a rum bar, and I won't be surprised if other improvements follow as Sofrito Rico learns how to adapt its tried-and-true street-fair fare to a restaurant setting. If the spontaneous, unself-conscious salsa-stepping of staff members as they mixed drinks and served food is any indication, they already seem to know they've got something to be proud of. info@seattleweekly.com Sofrito Rico, 2320 N.W. Market St., 206-789-0516, BALLARD. www.sofritorico.com. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Tues.–Thurs.; 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.; 1–11 p.m. Sat.; 1-8 p.m. Sun.

 
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