Burnt Meat Is El Pilón's Treat

Mofongo just like Grandma makes.

A friend and I are sitting in the tiny dining room at El Pilón on a Saturday afternoon, wondering exactly what we're going to eat because neither of us have had Puerto Rican food in longer than we can collectively remember. For me, it'd been 10 years, easy. For Vic, it might've been longer. There'd been a dude, years ago, who was really into Vic and wanted very badly to cook for her. Wanted some other things, too, but his opener—his foot in the door—was food. He promised her Puerto Rican food the way he'd known it growing up: recipes he'd learned from his grandmother, empanadas and plantains and seafood spiced with sofrito, etc., etc. The grandmother thing was nice, I thought. Smooth. It made him look harmless and kind. The menu at El Pilón, on Rainier Avenue, is short and sweet—two pages, including drinks and desserts. We read it while watching various men come out of the kitchen, walk out the front door, shout into their cell phones, smoke cigarettes, come back in, adjust the little rug just inside the front door, stalk back into the kitchen through the swinging batwings, and then do it all again five minutes later. "Mofongo," I say, rolling the word around on my tongue, really relishing it. "MoFONgo...I love that word." "What is it?" Vic asks. "Dunno," I reply. Another guy comes out of the back, goes out the front door, lights a cigarette. On the door between the kitchen and the dining room, I notice a sign. It says GRANDMA'S KITCHEN in cutesy, folk-art lettering. I point it out to Vic. "Just like your almost-boyfriend," I say. The grandmother in question at El Pilón is probably not the one who taught Vic's youthful swain how to pound the plantain (not a euphemism) and stuff the empanadas (also not a euphemism). It's Marta Vega, whom everyone but me seems to just call "Mama," and who commands the small kitchen at the not-quite-six-months-old El Pilón like a serious veteran. Though mostly a community activist (working for El Centro de la Raza and organizations that combat AIDS), Vega has a long history of working the pots and burners at charity events, suppers, picnics, and the like. She's cooked for big crowds and small ones, and even (way back in the day) had another restaurant, also on Rainier Avenue, serving her native Puerto Rican food just like El Pilón. It was called Marta's, opened in 1983, and closed shortly thereafter. Rainier Avenue was different back then—dangerous, some claim. If nothing else, it certainly wasn't the weird culinary map game it is today, like a 300-piece puzzle of all the nations of the world forced together into bizarre, wrong alignments by some overgrown child who's never seen a globe. It's where Mexico butts up against China, France is in the middle of North Africa, and a single block of one of Seattle's main veins offers everything from Ethiopian goat meat and delicate Italian pastries to tacos, chicken wings, and cute little New-American bistros too twee for their surroundings by half. And mofongo, the official comfort food of Puerto Rico. So when Vega comes out of the kitchen to take our order (because she doesn't just run the kitchen, but the floor as well), I have to ask her exactly what it is. It's plantain, she explains: fried, mashed with el Pilón—the mortar and pestle of the Caribbean—then made into a ball and fried again. It has pork in it—bits of skin and fat, fried up into chicharrónes—and comes with pork chops (fried) or chicken (fried) or carne fritta, which is non-specific meat, also fried. The giant plantain ball is served in a chicken broth, kind of like matzo-ball soup, and I'm sure that somewhere, in a secret lab in San Juan, Aguadilla, or Mayagüez (which is where Vega is from), brilliant Puerto Rican scientists are working on discovering a way to fry the broth, too. I get my mofongo with fried chicken, then tack on a plate of fried pork chops, salad, rice, and beans for Vic. The closest thing on the board to a beer is Malta, and that's not very close at all. Sure, it's made by Guinness and is wickedly, strangely popular in African and Caribbean countries. But it's a non-alcoholic health drink, and tastes like drinking an old boot. So we get a couple of Cokes instead. It has been my experience that every Caribbean restaurant overcooks its meat. Not just a little, but a lot. We're talking jerky-style—done until all moistness and softness and ease has been baked, seared, or fried from the flesh of whatever animal was unfortunate enough to end up in these particular kitchens. El Pilón is no exception. It should be said that I don't necessarily dislike this seemingly premeditated push past the traditional stop sign of merely well-done. I've become accustomed to it over the years, and have developed a small affinity for chicken breasts with the consistency of ginger root and pork that has been reduced to a dry and salty wisp of its former lusciousness. At this point in my career as a professional eater, it would strike me as somewhat suspect to sit down at some rattletrap shack of an island restaurant and be served a perfectly seared and moist and juicy bit of chicken or pig. I would immediately think something was wrong in the kitchen—that the owner had unwisely brought on some CIA-trained white jacket who might know everything about serving a perfectly broiled and rested piece of meat but nothing about the way this food has traditionally been done for longer than he or she has been alive. So to be completely honest, let me say that both the chicken and the pork at El Pilón were fried to within an inch of their (already extinguished) lives. Pan-fried, more specifically, in the dry heat of a blazing skillet until the expected jerky-like consistency was reached. In this way, the meat was exactly in keeping with that of every other restaurant of the type I've ever visited. Exactly like the meats I've had cooked for me in the middle of the night by Puerto Rican dishwashers and line cooks putting together late-night snacks and staff meals. Exactly as I would have it dropping by El Pilón on following afternoons for more mofongo, plus crispy empanadillas or tostones con camarones—shrimp in a sofrito-heavy tomato sauce held in the well of fried plantains cupped like the petals of small flowers. Thus I have to say that the meat was done correctly (as in purposefully), but might've benefited from, say, just 12 or 13 fewer hours under whatever kind of blowtorch had been used to cook it in the back. That aside, the mofongo itself was excellent—arriving at my table in the pilón (a wooden vessel looking kind of like a tiki idol) in which it was made, with a giant ball of soft, mashed, and fried plantain floating in a savory, heavily salted chicken broth. Eating it—digging into the soft ball with my spoon and mixing it with the broth—made me feel like some kind of Polynesian zombie eating the brain of a small wooden god. I ate my way into the fried plantain ball, scooping out crunchy bits of chicharrónes like prizes—like meat candy buried in the soft ball of spiced starch—and mixing it with the chicken broth and bits of hacked-up chicken breast until I was left with a congee-like slurry of mashed plantain and fried pork and broth that served to make the dry chicken so much more palatable by lubricating and rehydrating it as it sat. The pork chop was less dried-out than the chicken, but made a joke of the flimsy knife I was given to cut it and suffered from having no external lubrication. Vic and I made a few jokes about lubing the pork, ate lots of rice and pale, pinkish pinto beans with shreds of chop mixed in, then waited, sipping our Cokes amid the tin frogs and lizards and portraits of Frida Kahlo that adorn the walls. I would return later, on other afternoons, for additional hits of mofongo, addicted to the play of starchy plantain and nuggets of salty, fried pork fat; to the desiccated proteins laid down on funereal beds of lettuce at the foot of the tiki-god pilóns and Vega's plates of empanadillas—three to an order, each the size of an open hand, stuffed with a picadillo of ground meat and spices or just cheese, like a large, half-moon Puerto Rican mozzarella stick. El Pilón was, in the end, consistently good, presenting a menu short on variety but long on the tastes and comforts of home to those hungering for a touch of grandma's Puerto Rican food—cooked, maybe, not by their own blood family, but by Vega and her own, standing in as grandmother to all. jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

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