Sports bars usually play it safe when it comes to the food. Patrons are there for the view and brew, after all. The grub? Just pop it in a deep-fryer, pile it into a wax paper-lined basket, and price it to move.
Apparently, the proprietors at Moncho's Bar and Grill didn't get the memo. This Brooklyn Centre spot trades in the omnipresent platters of cheese-stuffed potato skins and mile-high nachos for atypical items like arepas, tostones, ceviche, cubanos, and jibarito sandwiches. Then again, the games broadcast on those flat-screens lean more to Premier League football and Major League Soccer matches than the usual lineup of NFL and MLB games.
All of the above might sound a little odd, until you get to know the good folks running the show. Isabel Montoya and her father Moncho opened this cozy Colombian-themed spot last summer to showcase the foods they know and love. Like the cuisine, the space isn't flashy — more bar than grill — but the hospitality is warm, genuine and straight from the heart. Isabel tends the bar and serves as gracious host while Moncho sticks largely to the kitchen, where he makes all the food from scratch.
In place of chips and salsa, Moncho's pairs flattened-and-fried plantains ($6) with Colombian hogao, a warm and savory tomato sauce flavored with onions, garlic and cilantro. The plantains are starchy not sweet, and they fry up as thin, crisp and golden brown as latkes. They work equally well as a vehicle for creamy, cilantro-spiked guacamole ($7).
Those same thin, fried plantains also serve as little beds for a trio of tostada sliders ($9), topped with shredded chicken, shredded beef and shredded pork. Each is garnished with tomato salsa. Every single dish here is almost too big to finish, and that certainly goes for the churrasco ($20), grilled steak topped with housemade chimichurri and paired with roasted potatoes, deep fried sweet plantains, and salad.
On Sundays, Moncho prepares one special regional Colombian dish for the appreciative crowd. That might be sancocho, a hearty stew, or the bandeja paisa, a hunger-slaying platter piled with chorizo, pork, ground beef, rice, beans, arepa, egg, sweet plantain and avocado.
As one fan of the place told me, "It's the kind of thing that might bring a tear to the eye of a longtime Colombian expat."
I wasn't at all prepared for what awaited me at the Campus Grille in Berea, located just steps from Baldwin Wallace University. The generic moniker and the college-campus address conjure images of nondescript, coed-approved food like pizza, wings and burgers. Of course, I knew better — that's why I made the trip in the first place. Still, I was blown away by what I found.
Last St. Patrick's Day, genial owner Luis Roman opened this bright and cheery café in a former carry-out pizza shop. The man is a magician not for what he did with the space (although it's a remarkable transformation), but because he figured out how to package and sell Latino and Puerto Rican food to hoi polloi like you and me. All day long, folks line up for large platters of mofongo, Caribbean chicken, and roast pork and beans.
He does it by cooking everything from scratch in the open, offering it up in massive portions, doing so graciously and efficiently, and selling it practically at fast-food prices. What comes out the other end is fresh, creative and vibrantly flavored. The whole arrangement is the antithesis to the typical mom-and-pop ethnic restaurant, which often focuses more on food than setting and service.
Walk into Campus Grille and you'll see a small army of folks working in the open kitchen, peeling plantains, breaking down whole roasted pork shoulders, or pounding mofongo in the traditional pilón. Marinated and spit-roasted chickens are hacked in half and served with lime-and-cilantro scented rice and black beans. It's a good two pounds of delicious food for $8.99. That same juicy, well-seasoned bird gets an island twist in the Coco Tropical ($8.99), which includes fragrant coconut rice and a sweet and spicy fruit salsa. Every table has a bottle of Roman's homemade pique, or tangy hot sauce.
Crispy empanadillas ($2.49) come in both sweet and savory varieties, filled with ground beef, roasted pork, sweet potato, or guava and cheese. That same luscious hand-shredded roast pork is served as an entrée ($8.99) with yellow rice and beans, or layered in a Spanish bun with ham, swiss and mustard in a hefty, hearty Cubano sandwich ($7.99).
Mofongo, fried plantains smashed in a wooden mortar and pestle with olive oil, garlic and pork cracklings, is shaped into a bowl and stuffed with pork or chicken ($8.99). The starchy mound is triumphantly garnished with a tiny Puerto Rican flag