At first glance, the Dominican Republic's cuisine appears to be a hodgepodge of all sorts. Dominican food includes everything from Spanish-style seafood soups, African cassava bread, Italian spaghetti, Turkish bulgur rolls, to South American rice and beans, and Mexican tortillas. Dominican cooking or "comida criolla" (Creole cuisine), is flavorful yet uncomplicated. Home chefs use locally grown fruits and vegetables, farm raised cattle and pigs, and domestically harvested seafood as base ingredients. They cook with mild spices and readily available seasonings such as garlic, cilantro, oregano, and sweet cubanelle peppers.
Mamajuana, named after a famous Dominican Republic libation made with rum, red wine, honey, and infused with tree bark and herbs, is located in an inconspicuous strip mall in Lilburn, Ga. Tucked between a Dominican grocery store and a dentist, Mamajuana is an approachable, family-run restaurant.
Judged solely on looks, it's clear Mamajuana is more than just a restaurant. Tinted dark windows, DJ station, and a dangling disco ball, bring a clublike feeling to the space. In the middle of everything is a casual dining area that seats around 60 guests with white tablecloth settings and hotel banquet-style chairs. The dining room transforms from a casual restaurant at lunch, to a late-night dinner lounge (plus dancing on weekends). The kitchen serves till 3 a.m. every day, and it's common to see diners pour in after 11 p.m.
The affordable menu covers much of what you'd find cooking in a typical Dominican household: hearty soups, simple salads, Caribbean style seafood spaghetti, Cuban sandwiches, Mexican and Dominican specialties. Sancocho ($5.95-$8.95, Sundays only) is traditional Dominican comfort food, prepared at home on Sundays with the week's leftovers — pork, beef, chicken, plantains, potatoes, veggies — simmered together in a large pot and served with rice, beans, and sliced avocados.
Large, starchy plantains are an integral component of a Dominican menu. Unlike their bananas cousins, plantains are eaten cooked and usually ordered as a starter or side. The green and yellow varieties can be boiled, baked, fried, grilled, or steamed. Tostones ($3.50) are twice-deep-fried green plantains drizzled with salt, eaten like chips, and served with a garlic dipping sauce. Maduros ($3.50), on the other hand, are ripe yellow plantains fried only once till they are completely caramelized on the outside and creamy on the inside. Mofongo ($3.50) is yet another preparation similar to mashed potatoes, but made with green plantains, pork cracklins, and garlic. Camarofongo ($14.95) combines the heartiness of mashed green plantains and stuffed with fiery, garlicky shrimp.
House specialties at Mamajuana are rabo guisado ($10.95), a flavorful ox tail stew made with chickpeas, olives, carrots, celery, and cubanelle peppers, usually for special occasions; and chivo guisado ($10.95), braised bone-in goat stew in a thick gravy surrounding meat that falls apart at a touch of the fork. It's marinated with onions, cilantro, garlic and oregano, along with the rendered fat, which leaves the goat tender and luscious.
An entire page of the menu is dedicated to reasonably priced seafood such as shrimp, lobster, fish, mussels, octopus, and squid, a nod to the regional cuisine found along the Dominican coast. Adventurous eaters may try chillo entero ($15.95), a whole grilled red snapper drizzled with pungent garlic sauce and sprinkled with fried garlic cloves. Sweet coconut milk and tomato broth simmered with steamed shrimp make camarones con coco ($12.95), shrimp in coconut sauce, a personal fave.
The bar serves the iconic Dominican beer, Presidente; a Cuba Libre made with Bermúdez rum and coke; and, if you can stomach the potent source of the establishment's name, Mamajuana. Nonalcoholic options include tropical fruit juice of guava, pineapple, passion fruit, or papaya, blended with water or milk.
On weekends, when the restaurant turns into a club, there is live entertainment (band or DJ) playing salsa, merengue, and bachata. Loud blaring beats can often be heard in the parking lot, but no one seems to pay attention to the volume. Regulars from the Latin American community come here to see familiar faces, grab a drink, and have a good time. There is no entry fee to partake in this dance party, but knowing some Spanish will undoubtedly help you make friends and get faster service.
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