Some spots seem cursed for businesses. When Katherine McGee looked across the street from the Yangtze at the shack on the corner of Church and State, perhaps she was too new to the area to know she was looking at one. Well, so much the better for us.
McGee, or la Americana, as some customers call her, is a nurse at HighlandHospital who looks more like someone you'd meet at a church bingo night than the proprietress of a Hispanic restaurant. But she'd been kicking around the idea of starting a restaurant with a Puerto Rican friend, and was looking for a spot. The price was right, and so CocinaCriola --- literally "creole kitchen" but colloquially referring to Puerto Rican cuisine --- was born.
Her first partner was the original cook, but soon she found his cousin, NelidaAntonetti (of the local musical family). Antonetti knows the food of her people --- many of her recipes come from her grandfather --- but is also a trained chef, having attended Le Cordon Bleu in Florida. "She can take something, nothing," McGee says, "and make this wonderful meal out of it."
If you've been to other Puerto Rican restaurants, the menu will be familiar: stewed and roasted meats, prepared rice, bean dishes, and fried appetizers. This kind of food is always hearty, flavorful, and just real. But Antonetti's cooking rises above.
The pernil, or roast pork, is a dreamy thing. McGee points to the uncut pieces, asking, "Aren't they beautiful?" Rich and red, curvaceous, sweating flavorful juice... stop me, somebody. Your server will ask if you want skin, and you should. Like the Chinese, the Puerto Ricans have mastered the wonders of the pork cross-section. First the rind, crisp and succulent; then the meltaway layer of fat; finally, the lean, juicy and tender.
A small order of any main dish comes with rice and beans, a sizable lunch for $4.50. The full portion weighs several pounds, with plenty of food for a meal now and one later. It also includes a side salad, miraculously of fine field greens.
McGee is re-working the menu to offer different combinations, one of which is barbecue boneless pork ribs with sweet plantain ($4.50). The ribs are made with the same sauce as the roast pork, but the different cut and cooking technique turn it into a quite separate dish. You get a generous portion of the rib meat cut off the bone (with enough fat for a lipid-lover like me), and some alarmingly good plantains. These are cooked to order in chunks from well-ripened fruit, with the outside almost crisp and the inside painfully sweet and soft. The rib and plantain together are divine.
There are three kinds of empanadas. Spiced ground beef bursts with fragrance inside its flaky crust, and the shredded chicken version is also good ($2 each). For $2.25, step up to shrimp and crab. The star appetizer is relleno de papa (stuffed potatoes, $1.75). "Those are ornery little devils," McGee says, "hard to fry just right." When they work, you have a crisp shell over a thick layer of spiced potato, wrapping a core of that ground beef. Try dipping it into Antonetti's homemade mojitosauce, teeming with garlic and cilantro.
There are more choices than you might think. For main dishes, there is also roast chicken, chicken stewed in beer and spices, fried pork, and pepper steak. Or try a Cubano (Cuban sandwich, $4.99) or steak sandwich ($5.99 with fries), the latter one of Grandfather Antonetti's specialties.
The rice is cooked in a caldera, the large, round-bottomed skillet you apparently must have to cook such things. And you have a choice of bean dishes, either black or red (I liked black with the red meats and red with the chicken). A vegetarian can do fine with the rice, beans, and plantains or tostones, all cooked without any meat or animal fat.
McGee keeps bringing our conversation back to NelidaAntonetti, for whom she clearly has great respect. "To her, it's an art form. She'll say, 'I put the love in it.'" Mcgee laughs, and then adds emphatically, "But she does." I'm a sucker for meat, rice, and bean cuisine, but NelidaAntonetti's food is more than another pretty rice. Anybody can stew meat, but to make it subtle and deep is an art, and she is an artist. Yes, parking stinks downtown (you out there, Mayor Duffy?). But CocinaCriolla is just two short blocks from the big, free lot on Plymouth (across from Hochstein). And food this good --- that is such an outstanding value to boot --- is worth a little inconvenience. Worst case, have some delivered.
CocinaCriolla, 89-91 State Street, 232-1350. Hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.