Over the past few years, even as Yelp’s users have submitted thousands of reviews about thousands of Island restaurants, there is one that has garnered more five-star ratings than any other, one more beloved than all the rest. "The food here is to die for, I’m not even joking," reads a review from July. "This is the best secret on Long Island," reads another. Scroll through the site’s hundreds of reviews, or those on Google or TripAdvisor for that matter, and it won’t be long before you learn of a restaurant that is "off the chain!!!," a "hidden jewel!" and inevitably, "soooooooo DELICIOUS!" It is amazing and wonderful and fantastic and addicting and a rare find and WOW.
And it is also struggling to survive.
Part of the problem, it seems, is where the five-year-old restaurant sits, on a stretch of Fulton Avenue in Hempstead that somehow manages to be busy and forgotten at the same time. Bold white letters announce the name against a navy-blue awning, yet it is easy to miss, and many do. The space attached is tiny and curtained, still haunted by the barber shop it once was.
And then there’s the interior. The door opens on to a five-star restaurant’s opposite, at first glance, anyway. The place is long and narrow and dominated by an enormous steam table, which leaves barely enough room for a few two-tops lining the other wall.
But mercifully, the place has two things going for it that any five-star establishment would be fortunate to have. Their names are Hector Henriquez and Martha Caro, the husband-wife team behind El Mofongo.
"Martha grabs you and Hector keeps you," Alfred Gomez told me. Gomez was a resident of Mineola when he wandered into the Dominican spot with his fiancée on a vividly remembered Sunday a few years back. "It’s a one-two punch with those guys. Martha was so gracious and animated and authentic."
Just as she does with almost everyone who comes through the door, Caro insisted that Gomez sample everything at the steam table: Henriquez’s baked pork chops and half-chickens, steak swimming in broth loaded with bell pepper and onion, pork ribs, Dominican pasta, eggplant stewed in salsa. And of course—of course!—he had to try the pernil. There it sat majestically, a pork shoulder rubbed with sofrito and baked until shiny, mahogany in color, ambrosial. "Every single bite we had was absolutely scrumptious, and it got to the point where we literally couldn’t decide what we wanted to eat because it was all so good," said Gomez, who wrote a glowing Google review of El Mofongo that very day.
After being encouraged—or compelled, rather—to go through Caro’s magical sampling tour, I fully understood Gomez’s enthusiasm. El Mofongo produces richly seasoned meats, every shred as tender and flavorful as it gets. On my first visit, I didn’t get to try mofongo, the signature dish that Henriquez only makes to order, mashing fried green plantains with spices and your choice of protein before shaping the whole thing into a formidable mound. "It can take a little time," Maureen Colon of Freeport said by phone. "But let me tell you, it’s worth the wait." On my second visit, I learned she was right.
Colon’s megaphone of choice had been TripAdvisor. She took to the reviews site earlier this year, declaring El Mofongo to be "excellent" and "perfect" and "I promise you will not be disappointed!!" Like many a Mofongo maven, Colon has also fallen in love with Caro’s sweets. "You have to mention Martha’s desserts," she commanded. "The tres leches cake is slammin.’ " It slams indeed, as do Caro’s flavored versions—pistachio, strawberry, piña colada, etc. Most slammable of all: her quatro leches cake, in which a thin slick of house-made dulce de leche is worked in between the layers.
On one visit, I arrived to find Caro decorating a large bizcocho Dominicano, piping thick loops of suspiro (white meringue frosting) onto the iconic yellow chiffon rounds of her home country’s national cake. A novice baker just a few years ago, she has a growing side business in custom cakes, one she attends to when not working the counter full-time at El Mofongo, or as a caseworker in Nassau County’s Department of Social Services, where she also works full-time. ("If you apply for food stamps, I’m the person.")
Given that, how she is still able to greet every customer who comes through her restaurant’s door with joy and gusto is a mystery I was never able to solve. "We are very passionate," was all she said, nodding at Henriquez.
OK, what have we learned? 1) Great food served in a warm, loving atmosphere is what makes for a crowd-sourced cause célèbre, and 2) when it comes to five-star experiences, there’s no place like home. El Mofongo is "as good as going to a family party," it’s like "being served by my own mother or grandma," a place that’s "beyond nice," where there’s "love in everything they do," one worth visiting "for the hospitality alone," that "genuinely filled my heart with happiness!"
The familial feeling goes both ways. Recently, a large floral bouquet could be seen in the restaurant’s window, a gift Caro received from a customer who’d heard she was ill. After one of her regulars was injured in a backyard fall, Caro delivered soup to the woman. "I have people who come here who don’t have money for a plate," said Henriquez. "If all they have is five dollars, we give it to them."
"No one leaves my restaurant hungry," noted Caro.
That El Mofongo should still be fighting for its life despite its great heart, great food, great service, great proprietors and great reviews seems the cruelest of ironies. Years after opening, the couple still works morning ’til night, seven days a week, never taking vacations, never stopping. "What else can we do?" said Caro with a pleading look.
"Maybe your article is what we need," she added. I met her broad smile with one of my own. I don’t know which of us hoped more that Caro was right.
El Mofongo, 684 Fulton Ave., Hempstead, 516-280-7782, orderelmofongo.com