Taino's Cafe & Lounge
24 Middle Country Rd., Coram
SERVICE: Oozes warmth, but can be very slow
AMBIENCE: Depending on time of day, a sleek lounge, a sleepy bar, or a very loud disco
ESSENTIALS: Opens daily at noon, closing at 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and 2 a.m. Thursday to Sunday. If you don't like noisy rooms, try and eat early, as this one becomes clubby as the night wears on. Parking lot; wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted.
About two years before he opened Taino’s Cafe & Lounge in Coram, Luis Almonte traveled to the Caribbean on a mofongo-fueled tour.
Mofongo, a broth-drenched mound of fried-then-mashed plantains, is often threaded with crumbled pork rinds and molded under and over even more meat (or shrimp), to make it one of the creamiest fried dishes ever. Puerto Rico tends to claim mofongo as its own, but it's also common in the Dominican Republic. Almonte sampled versions across both islands, including a variation called trifongo that’s made with sweet plantains and yucca, in addition to mofongo’s traditional green plantains.
So naturally, mofongo —which has its roots in the west African mashed cassava dish called fufu — has a vaunted spot on the menu at Taino's, which opened earlier this winter. There’s buttery shrimp mofongo, beef mofongo and chicken mofongo, even “baby” mofongo as an appetizer. The goat mofongo is a particular standout: Hunks of goat marinated in rum, wine and beer, then stewed with tomatoes, garlic and onion and herbs until the meat falls easily from the bone. This rich, tomato-heavy slurry is then spooned over a fatty dome of mashed plantains, comfort food in the extreme. When served trifongo-style, though, the plantain-yucca base is earthier and more austere.
Taino’s is hardly a cafe in the traditional sense — but whether it's a bar, disco or restaurant depends on the time of day. On a weekend night, DJs spin in a clublike space behind the bar and the kitchen serves until 4 a.m. During lunchtime or an early dinner, though, the dining room — a cluster of white leather banquettes and sleek tables next to a giant bar — is calmer, although two enormous televisions can compete loudly with blasting merengue.
Taino’s vibe is such that you can kick back casually with appetizers, cerveza and excellent margarita frescas (there’s also sangria, mojitos and bottles of Moet) or settle in for a more traditional meal of robust entrees often smothered in a nonspicy, tomato-based sauce, with soupy beans and yellow rice alongside. Chef Jose Ortega and sous chef Pablo Manuel Diaz — who worked for decades in the resorts of the D.R.’s Puerto Plata — are generous with portioning, so expect leftovers.
Table service can run on island time, relaxed to the point of super-slowness, so try to land some apps early. A skillet of pollo yaroa is very shareable, an oozy casserole of (yep) mashed sweet plantains threaded with chicken, covered in melted mozzarella, and drizzled with a mayo-ketchup “pink sauce.” It’s unique to the Dominican Republic, and basically fat made solid, at least until its parts begin to separate. Giant beef empanadas are equally filling, but in a different way: Greaseless, thick and hand-crimped dough on the outside, garlic-scented ground meat on the inside.
Shrimp ceviche arrives in a medium somewhere between cocktail sauce and tomato broth, alive with pops of lime but not that memorable. Tomatoes also serve as the base of an enormous bowl of asopado soup, a from-scratch effort loaded with swollen rice, sofrito, and char-grilled chicken. It’s more akin to gumbo than soup, salty but indulgent.
Besides mofongo, Taino’s entrees reach in multiple Latin-Caribbean directions: An almost poached flounder fillet smothered in a red, mustard-laced Creole sauce; chewy, peppery churrasco steak (churrasco Taino) crowned with charred shrimp, for a Dominican version of surf-and-turf; or one of those off-the-wall Colombian-style hot dogs, here called perro Taino, a taut, snappy hot dog in a crackling fold of grilled bread, then smothered in crispy plantains, cole slaw and more of that “pink” sauce. It’s a messy texture party; Taino’s also serves sandwiches, where tostones (fried green plantains) take the place of bread.
As Almonte considered where on Long Island to open Taino’s, he chose to stay in his adopted hometown of Coram, whose vibrant, mostly casual food scene is rich with Caribbean and Latin food. And Taino’s could be the next natural step in this evolution: From-scratch Caribbean dishes served in a spot that’s part dining room, part club scene, and all soul.