When I first found Dominican chef Ilonka Garcia at Culver City’s Camaguey meat market almost a year ago, I was spun around by her tasty island seasonings, her soft, flaky empanadas, as well as her passion for her country’s food and all the cuisines of the Caribbean. She had been doing good business with the take-out there, but decided to move into a different restaurant down in Lennox. Sadly, it had closed sometime between the grand opening and the time I had a chance to drive down, only to find it had shuttered.
It seemed as if she might not make it back, but she just recently grabbed a nice sized kitchen with two wobbly tables at the Thriftown Market just north of Culver City’s Art District.
Garcia’s new space—called Food Festival—is a celebration of Caribbean home cooking and her childhood memories. Her food is delicious, and authentic. She’s even collecting naranjas agrias—the bitter oranges that grow rampant which no one knows what to do with—since it’s a very traditional ingredient in much of her cuisine.
There are the Dominican empanadas, deep-flavored stews, and the only serious mofongo in town. (Mofongo—a ball of fried plantains stuffed with chicharrón—is a shared traditional dish of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico).
Those empanadas (quite possibly the best in L.A.) can almost distract you from ordering anything else. Almost. But definitely try the chivo guisado—stewed goat spine on top of a bed of fried cassava with a generous douse of Garcia’s proprietary hot pepper sauce. And ask for some slices of avocado to finish. “How much avocado do you want, baby?” Garcia asks. “This is the Dominican way, with lots of sauce,” she says as she soaks the base of tubers. The sauce is loaded with strong Caribbean flavors: cilantro, orange, dried herbs, and mild peppers.
Mondongo—not to be confused with mofongo—is a Dominican tripe soup with a base of tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes. It’s a wonderfully tart, spicy expression of offal that is a serious rival to chef Ricardo Zarate’s Peruvian cau cau sometimes found at Picca and Mo-Chica.
An interesting mix of characters walks in and out of this market, triggering the electronic door chimes while you try and hold a conversation (unsuccessfully) but luckily, this is mostly a food-to-go operation. While the place lacks ambience, it delivers excellent Dominican cooking and Caribbean spice that’ll have you going back for more.
Food Festival (at Thriftown Market & Liquor), 2043 S La Cienega Blvd., West Los Angeles, 323-870-2640