La Famosa review: A chef’s love letter to his Puerto Rican home

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No matter how creative cooks are with mofongo — and at first glance the Puerto Rican staple can get downright architectural — the heart of the dish still rests on a native plant, the green plantain, which is fried and mashed by hand with a few choice enhancers until it becomes a full-fledged meal. The transformation approaches magic: a fruit that is eaten like a vegetable, its crushed garlic giving off aromas in the air as tantalizing as the smoke of wood from a barbecue.

What struck me about La Famosa’s mofongo at Navy Yard—this sophisticated space that feels equal parts urban and tropical—is how chef and co-owner Joancarlo Parkhurst has kept it fairly quiet. He resisted any temptation to dress up the dish, as if dismissing the idea that mofongo needed a makeover for his appearance on his particular DC stage. When you order mofongo at La Famosa, it doesn’t arrive in a drumstick, like you might find in Puerto Rico, but in a small caldero, topped with your choice of protein and served with a side of chicken broth.

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“Mofongo has definitely done its own thing in Puerto Rico, and people are playing with it,” Parkhurst tells me. “My mofongos are very, very traditional.”

Parkhurst is a child from Puerto Rico, originally from Bayamón. But as a boy, he moved back and forth between New York and the island, one foot planted squarely in each culture. He grew up on his maternal grandmother’s rice and beans, and he ran Ruth’s Chris steakhouses as an adult. This synthesis of home-style pleasures and white china indulgences seemingly guides every decision from Parkhurst to La Famosa. Except, it seems, for this mofongo.

Which may explain why I’m drawn to the dish: When you enjoy a bowl of prawn mofongo on the terrace of La Famosa, you’re spiritually as close to Puerto Rico as you can be to Washington, even with the towering glass facade of the Twelve12 building sitting across the street. The mound of mashed fried plantains, draped in clean curls of sautéed prawns in criollo sauce, is shameless – you might say gloriously — starch. The dish’s personality almost defies tampering: it’s starchy despite Parkhurst’s generous application of chicken broth and mojo de ajo tossed into the mash.

Your level of appreciation for mofongo may be heightened by your relationship to the accompanying caldo de pollo, or chicken broth. Personally, I’m a stock ladle. I like to take a large fork of mofongo and dunk it, the flavors deepened and the starch cut with that thin burst of broth. But Parkhurst? He treats the broth as spam: he ignores it. “I’m not caldo at all,” he says. “But there’s nothing wrong with caldo.”

La Famosa takes its name from a fruit and juice canning company founded in Puerto Rico by Parkhurst’s great-grandfather, a fact that helps explain the restaurant’s fruit-centric iconography. Unlike many establishments that have reduced their hours, a victim of the long tail of the pandemic, La Famosa remains true to its catering ambitions, offering food and drinks for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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The breakfast menu is a dormant hit, thanks in large part to bakers Ada Enamorado and Noemi Bonilla, a pair of Salvadoran natives responsible for the cookies, breads and pastries that give shape to many of these bites. Mallorcan bread, a soft roll dusted with powdered sugar, is a sweet treat with your morning breakfast, but is even better when wrapped around the savory fillings of a ham, egg and cheese sandwich. Mananero cheese. And believe me, you’ll regret any breakfast that doesn’t include an order of pastelillo de guayaba, a puffy square of pastry concealing a stash of homemade guava paste.

The kitchen does not produce its own pan de agua, a soft, pressed bread that frames the tripleta, a sandwich named for its trio of meats: rib eye, deli ham and the chef’s roasted pork shoulder with adobo spices, better known as pernil. Considered a worker’s sandwich on the island, La Famosa’s tripleta is slathered in mayo-ketchup, the classic Puerto Rican condiment, and topped (if that’s the right word) with julienne potatoes. Maybe too decadent for an office worker’s midday meal, but I’d gladly risk an afternoon punch for this sandwich.

Curved lengths of plantain are fried, flattened, and used as bread for the jibarito sandwich, which you can wrap with chicken or beef. Whichever way you go, the jibarito will not only be brimming with meat, but also pickled red onions and salsa verde, the latter two toppings having the Herculean task of countering the heavy starch of the plantains. They almost succeed. Mallorcan bread makes a return appearance for what has to be DC’s most unorthodox burger, the aptly named El Gordito: a beef patty buried under ham, pernil, Swiss cheese and sweet plantains. It’s a fake burger head, implying a standard American experience but offering so much more.

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I’ve developed a fondness for a number of dishes at La Famosa – the fluffy little bolitas de queso with guava sauce, the rich and rewarding carne guisada (a wintry stew that goes well in the summer) – but I really want give a nod to Parkhurst’s ensalada tamarindo. This entree salad really earns its status. Constructed with mixed greens, watermelon radishes, fried onions, tamarind-glazed prawns, and a tropical fruit salsa, the plate represents the pinnacle of salad engineering: a mess of greens that also turns out indulgent than any red meat dish. The salad is also a psychological breakthrough for the chef.

Due to the agricultural and political realities of the island, Parkhurst didn’t really grow up on salads. You could even say he was biased against them due to his personal history. He certainly didn’t give much thought to the salads at his old restaurant, Lina’s Diner and Bar in Silver Spring.

“I think it had a lot to do with my own childhood trauma of being a forced vegetarian for the first 11 years of my life,” Parkhurst says. “But who am I to tell people how they are going to eat? I think that’s a very proud way to approach a menu.

In that sense, La Famosa isn’t just Parkhurst’s embrace of Puerto Rican cuisine, the genre that defined his childhood. This is also his chance to help reshape it.

1300 Fourth St. SE, 202-921-9882; eatlafamosa.com.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Nearest metro: Navy Yard-Ballpark, a short walk from the restaurant.

Prices: $3 to $38 for all menu items.

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