MOFONGO A mountain of mashed plantains, with shrimp, at El Tipico in Portland
“Tipico” means typical. But the Spanish word does not carry the twinge of resignation we associate with “typical” in English. Rather, the Spanish connotation suggests that if you get what you expect — say, the local cuisine in the local style — that’s just fine.
With that in mind, customers should not look to El Tipico, a new Dominican restaurant tucked away across from Big Sky Bread on Deering, for ambitious cuisine. In fact, no culture is better than the Dominicans at achieving greatness without attempting sublimation. Heck, the character Oscar Wao earned Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz a Pulitzer without caring about anything beyond getting laid. Alex Rodriguez, another American with Dominican roots, just really wants to be good at baseball, not fancy stuff like sportsmanship or ethics. And Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, became Latin America’s most memorable dictator by pursuing pure self-aggrandizement without even gesturing toward political legitimacy or the good of the nation.
So it is reassuring that this little wedge-shaped restaurant feels like a slice of real Dominican culture. The music is right and the décor modest, with Dominican flags hanging from the ceiling. Several generations of Spanish speakers mill about the back of this family-run place. The truth is there is some Puerto Rican in there too, on the menu and in the family, and that sort of intermingling is typical as well. It’s the type of place where you wonder if you should go order at the counter. You should, I think. Hard to say.
Dominican cuisine itself is influenced by Spanish, African, and Native American ingredients and techniques. El Tipico’s menu offers plenty on the African side, with dishes that rely heavily on mashed plantains. Our favorite dish was probably the mofongo — a pile of green plantains mashed up with garlic and broth, which we ordered with shrimp. In some versions of mofongo the meat is mixed up with the starch, but Tipico’s version presented the mash on a plate alongside shrimp sautéed in a tomato broth with peppers — the sweetness of each component offering a nice complement to the just-savory plantain. The same tender mash serves as the bottom layer of the yaroa, which you can get with chicken or pork. In place of a top layer of cheese, which is common in this Dominican dish, Tipico uses a simple sauce made with ketchup and mayo. It was too sweet for us and overwhelmed the savory ingredients.
The same sauce is used to better effect in Tipico’s appealing version of the classic chimi sandwich (just $5 and not small). The sandwich features a round bun of “water bread” — simple, light, and airy — along with seasoned meat, tomato, and cabbage. Tipico offers theirs with ground beef, pulled pork, or a chicken breast pounded thin. Each was terrific, with the sweet bread, tomato, and sauce complimenting the fat and spice of the amply seasoned meat. The cabbage adds some welcome texture.