For Dominicans visiting family in Los Angeles during the winter holidays, mom or grandma’s cooking used to be some of the only options for food that was true to the flavors of home. In terms of Caribbean Latine cuisines, LA has consistently supported a healthy number of Cuban American spots and a few Puerto Rican restaurants at any given time, but Dominican cuisine has remained as rare as Larimar stone. That is, until 2023. The last year has seen the relaunch of Karibbean Cuisine food truck, as well as the opening of El Bacano, LA’s first Dominican restaurant, plus a pair of pop-ups: The Dominicans and El Coro Café. Together, they are making the Dominican Republic’s flavorful cuisine more accessible for Angelenos.
In the past decade, Dominicans have been the fastest-growing group of “Hispanics” in California, according to a recent study, with 103 percent growth from 2010 to 2020. Though the 2022 census estimates just under 7,000 county residents with origins from the Dominican Republic, Dominican culture in Los Angeles received a boost from a series of Capicúa events organized by chef Victor Ramos, Cardi B’s go-to caterer in Los Angeles.
Dominican cuisine shares many similarities and Caribbean influences with Cuban and Puerto Rican food, yet to the people from these cultures, the difference is clear. “The way in which an ingredient is prepared can completely change the flavor profile and texture of the dish making it distinguishable from one another,” wrote Vanessa Mota, author of The Dominican Kitchen, over email.
I first wrote about chef “Tia” Ilonka Garcia cooking inside the tiny kitchen at the El Camaguey Meat Market in 2011, a space currently occupied by Cantinho Brasileiro. Garcia is now celebrating the first anniversary of her Dominican food truck Karibbean Cuisine, which is parked just off La Cienega Boulevard a few blocks north of the 10 freeway. Garcia’s daughter Jasmín Martinez Garcia, who also works as a manager at Prime Pizza, helps her run the business.
Garcia’s regulars come from the growing Dominican community in Los Angeles. “I’m here almost every day,” says José Manuel Alcantara, a customer who came by to pick up his order of rabo guisado (stewed oxtail). The stewed chicken and beef are cooked in a savory blend of onions, sweet peppers, garlic, black pepper, and cilantro. The slow-cooked oxtails get those ingredients as well, plus the heady kick of bay leaf. The concise menu gets a refresh each day depending on the available sides, and everything is best paired with fruit juices like chinola (passion fruit) and guayaba (guava).
Garcia offers a rice of the day, which can be moros de habichuelas (beans and rice mixed together), moros de guandules (rice and pigeon peas mixed together), or separate sides of rice and beans dishes. Plates also come with a scoop of ensalada rusa, a Dominican-style potato salad reddened by beets, plus some sweet plantains. One by one, Dominicans from all over Los Angeles, as well as some in the community who hail from New York, stop by for coveted pica pollo, Dominican fried chicken with tostones (mashed fried plantains). To round out the menu, Garcia sells pastelitos (empanadas) filled with a blend of mozzarella and cheddar, quipes (fried kibbehs), and other fritura (fried snacks).
Garcia also serves the Dominican Republic’s most iconic breakfast, tres golpes, which consists of “three hits”: crispy-edged fried eggs, fried cheese, and sliced fried salami imported from the Dominican Republic. It’s served with mangú, a mash of boiled green plantains garnished with pickled red onions. For years, Garcia had been the lone LA representative of this rich cuisine, but in August, the city’s first Dominican restaurant opened in the San Fernando Valley.
Decorated with illustrations of Dominican cuisine and geography and a tropical wallpaper that complements a logo emblazoned with Barbie pink lettering, El Bacano compels both the eye and palate with distinctive Dominican plates. This San Fernando Valley newcomer is operated by brother-and-sister duo Jonathan Santana and chef Deany Santana, who rely on their grandmother’s original recipes from her Santo Domingo kitchen. The casual restaurant has quickly gained regulars. “Anyone coming from New York, or searching for Dominican food on Google, is coming here,” says Jonathan Santana.
The menu starts with street food items like the chimi burger, which features a well-seasoned beef patty dressed with slaw and mayo-ketchup in a sesame seed bun. It comes with crispy tostones on the side. Add a morir soñando (which means “to die dreaming”), a sweetened milk and orange juice drink that’s the Dominican Republic’s answer to Orange Julius. The Santanas had previous restaurant experience running Nina’s in a Box in Anchorage, Alaska from 2010 to 2014, and moved to Los Angeles last year with the idea of taking their menu to the next level.
They’ve mastered traditional meals of bistec encebollado (beef with onions), and bandera, a combination of carne guisada (stewed beef) rice and beans that are vibrant, flavorful, and beautifully plated. The bacalao guisado, or stewed salt cod with bright strips of multi-colored bell peppers, features a sharp tanginess balanced by a mound of moros con habichuelas negras. Beans and rice are key to the Dominican meal, but diners would be wise to ask the Santanas for other sides recommendations, like piquant habichuelas guisadas or hearty locrio, a seasoned rice with meat.
A few dishes are unique to LA, like the sancocho dominicano, a canary-yellow stew of pork, chicken, and beef filled with yautia (malanga), auyama (kabocha squash), plantain, and corn. There’s white rice and sliced avocado on the side to spoon into the sancocho to soak up the liquid. On the flat-screen up above, a karaoke salsa version of Taylor Dayne’s “I’ll Always Love You” adds to the island vibe.
For breakfast, go all the way and get El Bacano’s cuatro golpes, or four hits of deftly fried Dominican salami, cheese, longaniza, and eggs served on a base of mangú. The extravagant rendition comes full of striking contrasts and is a testament to Deany Santana’s dexterity in the kitchen.
Introducing Dominican cuisine to Angelenos, who may be more familiar with Mexican and Central American flavors, can come with a steep learning curve. For chef Jordy Cruze, though, the secret is in the sofrito (a flavor base of bell pepper, aji cachucha, garlic, onion, vinegar, culantro, pepper and salt, among other variations, used in Dominican cooking), and cooking techniques that differ from other Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries. The self-taught chef began The Dominicans pop-up in August 2022 to stay close to his culture and family, which includes generations of inspiring cooks. The Dominicans’ plates are available for phone orders in Downtown LA, and for pickup and delivery on DoorDash, with a daily menu of four to five plates that span the Dominican Republic’s greatest hits, plus a variety of pastelitos.
Cruze is most proud of his pollo guisado, or chicken stew, with rice and habichuelas rojas. Other menu items include his peppery carne guisada and creamy camarones con coco (shrimp cooked in thickened coconut milk, achiote, red pepper, and lime juice). “We eat like this every day, but when other people try it, their facial expressions change to joy,” says Cruze, who finds himself often introducing Dominican flavors to customers for the first time.
For chef Adderlin “Chicho” Rosario of El Coro Café, the challenge of making this food in LA has been finding staple ingredients like Dominican salami and longaniza. Rosario developed a passion for cooking at age 10, and was encouraged by his family to make it a profession. He worked catering jobs in New York City and worked as a line cook at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Times Square. Moving to LA in 2019, he worked for a little over a year in the catering and events department for West Hollywood Edition, including a three-month stint as a saute and grill cook at the hotel’s Ardor restaurant under chef John Fraser.
Rosario operates a takeout operation on Fridays in Glendale, with preorders beginning on Monday when the short menu is posted on social media. El Coro Café, which is named after the Dominican slang term for a hangout, usually offers around three menu items per week, including holiday favorites Dominican lasagna and espagueti dominicano (Dominican spaghetti). “Both of these dishes are popular on Dominican Thanksgiving,” says Rosario.
Rosario makes Dominican lasagna with ground beef, peppers, and tomato sauce with adobo, a spice blend popular in the Dominican Republic. His pastelón is a sweeter version of the dish that layers mashed plantains in place of flat pasta. Rosario’s espagueti gets a Dominican makeover with chopped peppers and green olives mixed into the tomato sauce, plus a little evaporated milk for richness. “Some like the spaghetti with salami and white rice, or with tostones,” he says.
To have four regularly operated Dominican dining destinations in Los Angeles, not to mention a celebrity chef catering to Cardi B and hosting parties, is unprecedented. Though Dominican pizza joints, coquitos served on street corners, or Dominican bodegas (or colmados in the D.R.) may not be common sights in Los Angeles yet, Garcia, Rosario, the Santanas, and Cruze say there is momentum here. “Most of the Dominicans are coming from New York because it’s getting crowded over there,” says Garcia, laughing.
Karibbean Cuisine is located at 8530 West 18th St, Los Angeles, (323) 282-6300, Wednesday to Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
El Bacano is located at 13009 1/2 Victory Blvd, Valley Glen, (818) 210-0026, Tuesday to Sunday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
El Coro Café serves in Glendale on Fridays only, with DM orders beginning on Mondays.