Sofrito Rico
2320 NW Market St, 789-0516
Sun 1-8 pm, Tues-Thurs 11:30 am-10 pm, Fri 11:30 am-11 pm, Sat 1-11 pm.

The jabbering FLutes start in and soon the cackling voices come into my head: I'll drive a Buick through San Juan… If there's a road you can drive on… I like to be in America…

Here I am at what, as far as I know, is Seattle's only Puerto Rican restaurant. There is perfectly good salsa music playing as my husband and I wait for our table, but my head is full of West Side Story. I don't even like musicals, and Leonard Bernstein's street-tough fantasy--with its flounced skirts, balletic dancing, and Natalie Wood for god's sake--has little or nothing to do with the Puerto Rican New Yorkers it presumes to impersonate, but I can't stop the music.

Oh dear. I need a drink.

Fortunately, there's a very impressive rum list at this little restaurant. I'll have to come back some other time to try some of the serious sipping rums like Barbancourt. Tonight--tonight, tonight!--I'm going for cocktails, like the icy mojito and rummed-up sangria.

I grew up in upstate New York, where most people with Spanish ancestry had families from Puerto Rico, but back then, we never ate out, so I'm kind of naive when it comes to the island's food. Sofrito Rico first entered my consciousness at the Fremont Market, where I was interviewing street vendors. Alfonso Gonzales, one of Sofrito's owners, handed me a bowl of his rice and beans, and I was thoroughly impressed with how flavorful they were. Rice and beans isn't a dish I usually get hyped up about, but Gonzales' were bursting with cilantro and garlic. It was so good I assumed there was something piggy in it, but Gonzales corrected me. "It's vegan," he assured me. It was the sofrito I was tasting, a mixture of green bell peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro, that's used in a number of Puerto Rican dishes.

There's a large party waiting when we arrive at Sofrito Rico: It seems that their reservation somehow got lost and they've been waiting awhile. Because we only need a small table we get seated right away, something that doesn't go over well with the crowd waiting for a table. But there are 10 of them and only two of us and they couldn't fit around our table anyway, so we try to ignore their grumpy stares and enjoy the atmosphere while we look at our menus. Sofrito Rico's décor is stage-y, but still appealing: red stucco, a corrugated roof extending over the open kitchen, wood and wrought iron "windows" on the far wall, a banana tree in the corner. We make our choices quickly, anxious to get our order in before the kitchen gets slammed with the 10-top.

Because we're greedy and want every one of the fried appetizers, we order a mixed appetizer platter ($9.95). It's a little bit of crispy-fried heaven, and each nugget has its own distinct texture: alcapurrias, or taro dumplings, start crisp, then dissolve into tender mush; the flaky empanada lets loose a tumble of seasoned beef with each mouthful; there are the more stolid tostones (pressed and fried plantains); and best of all is the feathery bacalaito, redolent with aromatic salt cod. Every one of these fritters is made infinitely happier by the ajilimojili, a garlic sauce that walks you right to the edge of overdoing it, but then mellows out with a bit of lemon and oil. Watching my satisfied husband eat, I decide he would love me more if I threw away our stove and purchased a commercial fryer.

I am not particularly hungry by the time our entrées arrive, so the fact that I didn't love the bistek encebollado ($12.95) isn't that much of a problem. It's made with cube steak, something I haven't had since I was a little kid--it's basically a tough cut of meat, beaten with a cleaver until it resembles the pockmarked cheeks of a teenager. Cube steaks are typically cooked until grayish and this one is no exception. But, hey, put the same vinegary onion topping on a rare flank steak and you'd be talking. My husband does well though with pollo guisado ($11.95), braised chicken that also relies on the kindness of sofrito. It is just right, especially accompanied by rice and beans and tostones. These stews and fried goodies make Sofrito Rico awfully, well, rico. They are nearly as habit-forming and infinitely more satisfying than the West Side Story tunes that have finally started to fade from my head.

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