Any restaurant critic worth his weight in rendered duck fat keeps two lists in his head. One identifies people with reason to wish him harm. I dine anonymously, yes, but let me tell you: If, while strolling through the farmers' market, I spot a chef or restaurateur whom I've recently criticized, I scamper back to my car. I mean, those guys know how to wield a knife.
The restaurant critic's other list catalogs all the ethnic cuisines he has tried. This is a happier list, of course, but not without its frustrations. St. Louis has a higher number of different cuisines represented than you might realize, but my curiosity still outpaces the area's demographics. What's more, when there is only one example of a given culture's cooking — as often happens in this area — you lack a basis of comparison. Maybe you enjoyed that curry, but was it, to use the most frustrating word in the critic's lexicon, authentic?
(And don't even get me started on the regional differences within a specific cuisine.)
That said, I'm always excited when I can add another cuisine to my list, and as far as I know, Señor Pop's is currently the only Puerto Rican restaurant in St. Louis.
Señor Pop's opened late last year at the corner of South Grand Boulevard and Gasconade Street in Dutchtown. Those who visited the previous occupant of this space, the Persian restaurant Grand Mediterranean Kabob Café, will recall a small, spare operation. The ice machine sits in a corner of the dining room. You enter directly into the bar, which doubles as the smoking section and, when busy, offers the dim, smoky, noisy ambiance of a hundred other south-city bars. The new owners have added some color to the dining room, painting its walls in pastel shades of green and yellow and draping the tables with red cloths. (For those keeping score, the former owner of Grand Mediterranean now operates Hot & Sour, in Chesterfield.)
Along with location, Señor Pop's shares a second attribute with its predecessor: Both restaurants' menus featured a selection of straight-up American food. In Señor Pop's case, that includes a burger with fries, a Philly cheesesteak and mozzarella sticks. For the purposes of this review, I ignored that particular page.
Like many Caribbean nations, Puerto Rico draws its cuisine from Spanish, African and indigenous traditions. You'll encounter dishes you've seen in other cuisines across the Caribbean and Latin American spectrum, like empanadillas, triangular pastry shells stuffed with beef and then fried to a golden brown. Others you might encounter for the first time: Like alcapurrias, which look like giant plump cheese sticks but are in fact fritters made from mashed green banana and stuffed with the ground-beef mixture known as picadillo. Though the mildly spicy picadillo is the main flavor, you can taste the banana.
For the most part, Señor Pop's brief menu concentrates on basic meat dishes, all of them served with kidney beans and lightly seasoned rice. None is more straightforward than pernil, roasted pork (traditionally from the shoulder). Served unadorned in a pile on one side of the plate, this had the unfussy appeal of good barbecue, the meat sweet and tender. What it lacked — and this would be a common feature of much of what I ate at Señor Pop's — was distinctive seasoning that would fix it in your mind as singular.
Which isn't to say that nothing at Señor Pop's was distinctive. Quite the contrary: I've never eaten anything quite like the Puerto Rican culinary staple known as mofongo. This arrives at your table in a tall deep bowl. The bowl is so deep, in fact, that none of its contents peek out over its rim. Look inside and you'll find a generous serving of the meat of your choice sitting atop an even more generous serving of mashed plantain. On the side is a small dish of chopped garlic in oil meant to be poured over the meat and plantains.
I ordered the mofongo with steak. (Pork, chicken and ground beef are also available.) The steak was very thinly sliced and on the chewy side, though not unpleasantly so. (A few slices had been sliced so thin that they were more charred chips than edible meat, unfortunately.) Plantains have a mild flavor, so the mash provided more texture than taste, especially once I added the garlic. This dominated the dish — enough so that, as with the pernil, it lacked any depth or complexity. Worse still, I wasn't able to add the garlic sauce to the mofongo until I was more than halfway done with it. My server had forgotten to bring it, and because the menu doesn't mention it, I had no idea it was missing.
In general servers were friendly and willing to explain unfamiliar dishes. But because Señor Pop's is small, with a limited staff — Señor Pop himself is the chef — you might encounter problems. On two different occasions I tried to order pastele, a pork-and-plantain dish often likened to tamales, only to be told that Pop hadn't made any for that day. There are a few weekend-only specials, but when I ordered one of them, arroz con pollo, I was told it wasn't available, even though it was a Saturday night, and not overly busy.
Señor Pop's fried chicken is notable for its thin, crisp exterior. Don't think of it as a breading so much as chicken skin with more texture. This is a plus, as the skin is the chicken's most flavorful part but is too often buried by too much coating and grease. On the other hand, the thinner exterior provides less insulation, leading to meat a tad drier than I would have liked.
Carne guisada is a stew of beef and sweet potatoes served over rice. The beef provides much of the flavor, with sofrito — a blend of aromatics that includes tomatoes and several different peppers — to round it out. It's a simple, homey dish. Or, in the words of my wife, "It tastes like Thursdays."
I asked her to explain. She told me that her father used to make her family a stew of beef and sweet potatoes, often on Thursday. That stew, like the carne guisada, wasn't out-of-this-world, but the comparison pushed her comfort-food buttons. You might find yourself having a similar reaction, even if you have no idea what Thursday tastes like. In this and other respects, Señor Pop's is an intriguing introduction to Puerto Rican cuisine, but it will leave you hungry to learn more.