Some of the appetizers on the menu at La Cocina del Camaguey. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
At La Cocina del Camaguey, Ilonka Garcia's Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban takeout window tucked in the back of El Camaguey Meat Market in the Palms area of Los Angeles, regulars line up for affordable, soulful Caribbean dishes such as arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), rabo encendido (braised oxtail) or mofongo (mashed plantains and cracklings).
The market has long been a treasure chest of products serving the local communities, especially Brazilians. But lately, its tiny 8-month-old kitchen has also been busy with customers grabbing food to go.
An old but robust cubano wearing a fedora leans into the portal of the kitchen and asks in booming, percussive Cuban Spanish: "Ilonka, what do you have today?"
La Cocina del Camaguey has been building a loyal customer base with its specials of the day: a savory beef picadillo (ground beef in a stew of tomatoes and peppers) or camarones al ajillo (garlic shrimp) accompanied by smoky herbal rice and beans served separately, or mixed together in the theologically integrated moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians). At $5.99, it's one of the best deals in town.
This traditional lunch trio — meat or seafood with beans and rice — is called la bandera dominicana, or the Dominican flag. It's the big meal consumed by most Dominicans at midday — practically a patriotic duty.
Garcia, 39, was raised in the Dominican Republic in a wealthy family that employed her first mentor, Quisqueya, the family cook. "I used to follow her around with a stool so I could see what she was doing in the kitchen," says Garcia. Her family wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer, and she did work for a time in the legal profession, but cooking was Garcia's dream. She furthered her culinary studies with a visit to Puerto Rico and cooking in Cuban restaurants here in Southern California.
The menu is divided by styles of cooking: encebolladas are meat dishes smothered in onions, frituras are fried stuff, but it's among the antojitos that you'll find Garcia's passion: empanadas. Her Dominican-style empanadas are warm and homespun, light and airy, stuffed with picadillo and a smidgen of raisins that add a dulcet appeal. Mildly pungent five-cheese empanadas are dreamy straight from the oven — it's not wrong to cradle these, just for a moment, before devouring them.
Dominican empanadas are the familiar hand-sized, half-moon shapes. She also makes Colombian-style cornmeal empanadas, which are compact, firm and school-bus yellow: "You gotta freeze them, then fry, otherwise they'll fall apart," Garcia says.
The tangy ropa vieja (old clothes) is tender strands of beef in a slurp-worthy broth. Garcia's puerco guisado, stewed pork, is scented with garlic, oregano, onions, peppers and culantro, a more boisterous relative of cilantro or coriander.
On weekends, you can get chivo guisado, a spicy Caribbean goat stew packed with mild piquito chiles. Tender chunks of meat are steeped in a smoky sauce that heightens the flavor of the goat. If goat isn't your thing, then try the bacalao con papas, salt cod with potatoes. This is a Caribbean adaptation of the Basque region's bacalao a la vizcaina. (Spanish cuisine has a strong presence in Dominican cooking.) Tinted a reddish-orange by tomatoes and sweet peppers, this casserole is given depth by olive oil and capers.
Although most would associate mofongo — the hearty mash of starchy unripe plantains, cracklings and garlicky stock — with Puerto Rican cooking, it's also a Dominican dish, but its true origin is probably African. In addition to a hand-molded ball of traditional mofongo deliciously reeking of garlic and olive oil, there is bola de verde (green ball), a mofongo with cheese instead of garlic.
On the other hand, maybe Garcia's best dish is the pescado en salsa de coco, fish in coconut sauce, an occasional special. It's a sautéed filet of white fish covered in creamy saffron and coconut sauce and sharpened by onions and red and green peppers. The sauce has been reduced to a fine viscosity that adheres to each forkful of delicate fish. Saffron's a luxury in the Dominican Republic, so consider this an executive lunch.
LA COCINA DEL CAMAGUEY
LOCATION: 10925 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 279-8688. In the back of El Camaguey Meat Market. Call in orders in advance.
PRICES: Appetizers, $1.50 to $2.55; entrees, $4.99 to $9; sides $1 to $3.
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. Takeout only. Cash only. Lot parking.