The South End is one of Boston's great dining destinations, but its luster has been dimmed in recent years by a series of closings highlighted by splashy failures like Ginger Park and Rocca. A revival now appears to be in the offing, with new entrants Kitchen and Yakitori Zai already humming and Cinquecento, BoMa, and Estelle's on the way. Among the lesser-noted passings was humble South American and Mexican standby Don Ricardo's. Its successor, Puerto Rican newcomer Vejigantes, has attracted little fanfare, perhaps because it sits in Villa Victoria, an affordable-housing development. That obscurity, we predict, is about to end.
For starters, Vejigantes' décor is a significant upgrade over the homely ambiance of its predecessor, with walls painted in bright pastels, colorfully upholstered banquettes, an attractive patio, and various images of its namesake, a many-horned, fantastical Carnaval creature. Service now reflects the polish one expects from the owners of Roxbury's Merengue, the sleekest Dominican restaurant in town. The short wine list is a slight step up, still dominated by New World wines at under $35 a bottle and $8 a glass, but adds Italian sweet wines ($7/glass, $35/bottle) and swish Champagnes ($65–$90/bottle). There are 10 bottled beers ($5) and some sweet after-dinner cordials ($8). Cocktails include a creditable mojito ($9) and delicious frozen daiquiri variants ($8) in flavors like passion fruit, banana, guava, and mango, made by adding rum to the tall fruit smoothies that are batidos ($4).
But the main draw is the food, a sophisticated take on Puerto Rican cuisine. Starters include alcapurrias ($5), fritters of minced beef in a plantain/taro batter fried to Brazil-nut brown. Empanada-like pastelillos ($4) encase minced chicken, beef, or crabmeat in crisp, lard-shortened dough. Bacalaítos fritos ($5) deliver the briny snap of salt cod in the shape of dollar pancakes, with only a whisper of a fried-batter coating. Pinchos de pollo ($5) offer moist, grilled-breast kabobs in barbecue sauce, prettily topped with microgreens.
Entrees include grilled dishes like bistec a la jardinera ($12), marinated skirt steak grilled medium-well and topped with sautéed onions and peppers; colorful and delicious, it's even better with a hit of the oily, habanero-fired house hot sauce. Seafood dishes originating from Boquerón, Puerto Rico, include ferociously good camarones al ajillo ($18), seven fat shrimp cooked in about a head's worth of minced garlic in oil. Also particularly fine are the accompanying sides, like good white rice served with excellent soupy pinto beans, or the outstanding yellow rice seasoned beautifully with a complex sofrito and dotted with pigeon peas, ham, and pork.
Paellas are built on rice tinted a bright orange that betokens more annatto than saffron, which leaves the paella valenciana with chicken and sausage ($22) feeling a bit mild; the lobster, clams, shrimp, and squid in the paella marinera ($25) yield a richer flavor. Both versions make a bigger impact in the two-person "artesenal" presentation ($42 and $45), served in a whimsical, edible clamshell-shaped container made of fried plantains.