Mofongos Comida Caribena is easy to spot: a bright dab of orange on a drab strip of Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood full of car dealerships and auto body repair shops. It smells absolutely amazing; a blast of garlic and pork and sweet frying plantains hits you about 5 feet away from the door. It's small inside, and warm, and the waitress may wave wildly if she recognizes you. This is one of the sweetest-feeling spots in Los Angeles.
The key dish here is mofongo, traditionally a mash of fried plantains, garlic and pork cracklings. If you couldn't tell from the fact that they named the place for it, they've also helpfully put the mofongos right at the top of the menu. Also, if Erica Santiago is your waitress, possibly Los Angeles' spunkiest, and you fail to order mofongo, she will give you this sad, pitying look that says you are being a complete idiot but she loves you anyway.
Their mofongo is glorious: A bowl of mashed fried plantains with a ton of garlic and fried pork or chicken cracklings, filled with your choice of toppings. You can get it topped with carne guisada or pollo guisada — beef or chicken stew — and they're both excellent, but the truly magical configuration is a bowl of mofongo filled with ultra-garlicky sautéed shrimp, the whole thing soaking in deeply scented shrimp broth.
This particular setup is a little nontraditional. In Puerto Rico, it's traditionally a ball or disc of mofongo mash, eaten with a little broth to juice it up, explains Mofongos' chef and co-owner, Augusto Coen. But Coen had the idea of forming the mofongo mash into a bowl and filling it with stuff, like a bread bowl. It makes a better presentation, and it's more fun to eat, he says. "My father always told me, drama is cheap!" Coen says.
Traditionally, mofongos are made with pork cracklings, but Coen adds the option of chicken cracklings. It's Los Angeles, he explains, and he has plenty of diners who avoid pork. Strangely, everybody involved, including Coen and Santiago, seem to prefer the chicken cracklings. The salty savor of fried chicken skin, the warm mash of green plantains and the briny sweetness of shrimp together make up a bite so brutally soulful that you might find yourself involuntarily grunting into your plate.
Is it authentic? "I guess!" Coen says. "Every house has their own way of doing things, and this is how my house does it. It's authentic because I'm authentic."
Coen is from Puerto Rico and learned to cook from his mother. He didn't always want to be a chef. He was a commodities broker until the economy crashed. "I figured, if you're gonna sell something, you might as well sell something people need. And the only thing I know that people need is food."
And this is, first and foremost, food: It will feed you. Everything about every bite here, from the starchy mash of plantains to the pure porky intensity of chuletas (pork chops), says: "We will fill you and warm you and sustain you through your coming days."
Particularly worth getting is the appetizer platter, which seems to encompass every possible savory texture, from the puffy crisp delights of pastelillos (filled dumplings) to the relleno de papa — fluffy potato croquettes, with a chewy meat center.
The highlight of the platter is what might look like the Puerto Rican version of a tamale. But there's no corn masa involved — the exterior is made out of mashed green bananas, squash and a nutty tuber called yautia. Steamed in a banana leaf, it's called pasteles; fried, it's called an alcapurria. Both are dense, earthy, warming. A crab alcapurria is pure fun — with the triple joys of crisp skin, chewy plantain mash and sweet shreds of crab. But maybe the most profoundest bite here is of pork pasteles, the dense perfume of long-stewed pork soaking through every soft mouthful of banana mash.
"I just gotta cook as good as I would cook for myself at home," Coen says. "If I didn't cook it right at the restaurant, my mother would sass at me. If she didn't like the food here, I'd hear it, and I don't like hearing it from her."
Mofongos Comida Caribena
5757 ½ Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 754-1051.
Appetizers, $1 to $3; entrees, $7 to $13; sandwiches, $5 to 7; desserts, $3 to $4; weekday lunch specials, $8.
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Fruit juice, soft drinks, espresso. Credit cards accepted. Street parking.