Today I'm kind of, sort of wishing that this column appeared in TimeOut Chicago. I'm not jumping ship or anything, but as I sat in Punta Cana on Friday night, downing Leine's Reds on my way to a Centerstage-related buzz, I couldn't help but feel willing to trade my brews for a chance to pen a "Save This Restaurant" column.
Because I'm fairly convinced the Dominican restaurant could use a much deserved helping hand. Steamer and I walked there from the Chicago Blue Line, stopping at the only liquor shop along the way—Rothschild Liquors—for something to tipple. For as developed as that strip of Chicago Avenue is becoming, the booze offerings remain utterly basic. We turned our back on the wine selection, stocked on incredibly high shelves behind the counter, after Steamer noted that Yellow Tail won best-in-show bragging rights.
I feebly suggested Red Stripe (keep things in the vicinity of the Caribbean, right?), but we moved on to the best of the lot, Sierra Nevada and Leinenkugel's Red, going with the latter. We hung a right and started up the road. When we got to Punta Cana, I just kept on walking; at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, it was empty. Having moved the "do we try this potentially scary place" debate to just out of eyesight, we did a quick huddle and decided to give it a go.
The royal reception we got was pleasant. The staff opened our beer and poured it in glasses, putting the remainders on ice in a silver wine bucket next to the table. We noshed on chips, told the waitress we'd be taking our time, and went over the menu.
Having started the evening with a couple of Manhattans from the Matchbox, the beer went down easy, which made the chips go down even easier. We moved on to our second basket and put in an order for guacamole and tostones, fried plantains with garlic sauce.
By this point, our chip guzzling wasn't going unnoticed. Two groups had filed in, which upped the small storefront's liveliness factor. The dishes took a while to hit our table, which I took as a sign that everything came made-to-order. It certainly tasted that way. The guacamole was fresh and plentiful, and swiftly took us to the bottom of the second basket of chips. Already stuffed, I polished off my second beer and willed myself forward. The tostones seemed worth the potential stomachache.
The flattened plantains were huge, like oval silver-dollar pancakes of mashed goodness. The garlic sauce was little more than a thick, white, hardened drizzle atop each piece, but its potency surprised and delighted. Steamer divvied them up evenly, and I embraced my gluttonous side and nibbled down every last one.
By this time, the conversation was flowing, the trail of chips had finally ended, and we were ready to give the menu another once over. The lag time between appetizers and entrees made dinner seem doable, if not foolish, and I justified my ongoing feast with the knowledge that if I could test—and vouch for—the main course, I could rally my BYOB-loving friends to give Punta Cana a go.
My bargain-loving side went straight for the $12 camaroes al mojo de ajo. Steamer opted for the goat with spices, and he was quite happy with his platter of meat. I couldn't take my eyes off the half-dozen sauteed jumbo shrimp, big meaty beauties dripping in garlic oil, which sat before me. I shared one with Steamer then worked my way through the bountiful spread, which included plantains—sweet this time—beans and rice and a dollop of guacamole.
An offer of free flan—which we refused, only to be told it was the best flan ever—inched me up another half size. I was too full to do much of anything but wedge a smile between my chubby cheeks, and in perhaps Zinny's lamest BYOB outing ever, I was in bed, bellyful and mouth ringed with garlic, by 10:15pm. I'm not sure if my social life or Punta Cana needs saving, but I'll accept offers of help with either.
Zinny Fandel's tales of living the (mostly) BYOB life are intended to be attempted at home and in the community, preferably at BYOB restaurants. If you know of a BYOB spot she simply must tipple at, let her know.