Thinking about heading to the Dominican Republic, but concerned about finding good, local food? Rightfully so. There are a lot of all-inclusive resorts and a tourism market that seems more concerned with pleasing a wide audience rather than teaching you about local flavors. When there’s Maine lobster and clam chowder on the menu, you’re right to be suspicious.
I’m by no means an expert, but on a media trip earlier this year, I saw both sides. The buffet and the tourist restaurant, a local favorite and the farmers market. I watched, I observed, and when faced with it, I ate the strangest foods on the buffet. I hope that my virtual smorgasbord that follows will help guide you and your palate through the Dominican Republic and far, far away from the dreaded buffet.
One caveat, before we get started, I was only on the northern coast, so the food that follows may not be representative of the island as a whole. Like any country, the Dominican Republic has regional specialities and if you’re looking for ideas elsewhere, Dominican Cooking gives a good overview of what one might find throughout the island and is an invaluable resource for those wanting to become more familiar with Dominican cuisine.
The public market is your fastest primer on what’s fresh and in season. It’s worthy of a visit to look alone, even if you don’t plan on cooking while on your trip. Here you can see what locals eat and what you should be seeing on the menu when you sit down to eat. Even if you end up dining at a resort or a restaurant that caters to tourists, having knowledge of what’s fresh and local will allow you to make a better choice off the menu. Do this early in your trip, so not a single meal is wasted.
I visited the market in Samaná early on a Wednesday morning. (The Mercado Publico is on Avenida Francisco del Rosario Sánchez.) As I entered the market area, I made my way down the uneven, dirt road and past locals leaving on scooters and on foot carrying bags heavy with produce. Various small shops or stalls were set up on the outskirts of the central market room, selling anything from breakfast to fresh chicken. As I passed the chicken purveyor, he posed with his large knife and smiled and as soon as the cameras were put away he returned to his chat with a few other guys lingering by his stand. I then moved from the outskirts into the main market, where my eyes were filled with fruits and vegetables.
On this winter day, I spotted bananas, plantains, oranges, lettuce, ginger, peppers, tomatoes, pineapples, carrots, eggplant, melons, coconut, celery, cucumbers, eggs, potatoes and onions. Bottles of homemade mamajuana, a local concoction of rum infused with herbs and tree bark, perched above the vegetables. (Mamajuana, by the way, is potent, bitter, and is said to be an aphrodisiac.) As I wandered the market and took in its wares, from the rows of chickens awaiting their recipe to a moka pot brewing up a cup of coffee, I felt like I got a real sense of what nourished the people of the Dominican Republic. I couldn't wait to taste it myself.
Finding a local restaurant, one that serves foods that grandma might have made or where a local may take grandma for dinner, is key to tasting real flavors. Ideally, we’d all love to find grandma’s house to visit for a family dinner, but as a visitor sometimes we’ve got to take second best.
At El Manguito (Km. 4 ½, Autopista Puerto Plata, Playa Dorada, DR) in Puerto Plata, I found my substitute for grandma's kitchen. My dining companions and I had an array of local seafood, meats, and produce served family-style. A plate full of good food may not have made for a beautiful photo, but it's the only kind of buffet that's ok, in my book, and reminded me of Sunday suppers at my own grandmother's house. I started the meal off with a garlic soup, which was a pungent, thin broth filled with slices of garlic. Complimenting the meal was the beer of the Dominican Republic, an ice cold Presidente served in a frosty mug. For the main meal, we had a variety of meats and seafood, including garlic shrimp, garlic conch, stewed goat, creole conch, as well as, steamed red snapper and lobster. Many of the dishes were served either al ajillo (or garlic sauce) or salsa criolla, or a red, creole sauce made of tomatoes and vegetables. We also had beans and rice, a Dominican staple, as well as fried plantains or tostones. We finished the meal with a simple dessert of shredded coconut, milk, sugar and cinnamon.
European food in the Caribbean? That’s not what I expected to find. But a country visited and inhabited by foreigners brings along a taste for the motherland. You’ll see no shortage of Italian and French restaurants in many of the towns, especially in Las Terrenas. It was there where I dined at La Yuca Caliente (Calle Libertard #6, Las Terrenas,) a restaurant that not only serves Italian pizzas and pastas, but also dishes with a more local flavor, such as grilled fish and creole chicken.
While my dining companions ordered grilled fish, fried yuca and a mixed plate of fried calamari and fish, I decided on a pizza. I ordered the Pizza Calabrese, a thin, crisp dough topped with mozzarella, Calabrian salami, and potatoes. When I was given the warning that the Calabrian salami would be spicy, I knew that this pizza wasn’t pretending to be Italian-inspired, but was the real deal. I may not have been in Italy, but having a good pizza while overlooking the blue waters of the Caribbean was an unexpected treat and a cultural fusion that gave me a new perspective on local cuisine.
If you want to enjoy the real flavor of the Dominican Republic for yourself, make sure you keep these three tips in mind: head to the market and discover what's in season, find a local restaurant to sample a Sunday supper and don't discount what appears to be for the tourist. There are plenty of ways to savor the flavor of food in the Dominican Republic, but don't get hung up on what's authentic and instead seek out what's fresh, local, and in season.