Swept Up in Garlic 

How a tiny place like Papa Ningo can transform the taste of Richmond.

At lunch, a buffet — criminally cheap at $6.95 — features exotic Dominican cuisine that enables the diner to get in and out, full and satisfied, in a record 15 minutes. Of course you can linger longer and enjoy the colorful paintings and fabulous Latin music while savoring the tender pollo guisado (stewed chicken) or the sweet costillitas de cerdo (barbecued spare ribs), or even the surprisingly delicious chivo al caldero (stewed goat). The food at Papa Ningo isn't spicy like Mexican food; instead it's authentically redolent of garlic, oregano and green peppers. The stewed goat was earthy and rich, and having never tried goat before, I had a difficult time figuring out just what I was eating. Was it beef or was it lamb? Although I'm the adventurous type when it comes to food, sometimes it's better not to know what you might be eating until it's all gone. Goat, I can now say without reservation, is delicious and satisfying.

Not all of the dishes were superlative. The carne de res con cebolla pimentos verdes (a Spanish version of pepper steak) was bland and unexceptional, and the chulatas horniadas a la naranja (pork chops with an orange glaze) were tasty but tough. At a buffet, however, it's easy to negotiate around the less desirable dishes and concentrate on whatever seems most appetizing. I had some of the best fried plantains I've tasted in this town, and the rice, both white and yellow, was fragrant and perfectly cooked.

At night, the steam table is packed away and the full menu is out in force. Here the exotic is perfectly rendered in Papa Ningo's rendition of mofongo, a Dominican specialty of mashed plantains and garlic. Mine came with garlic and beef gravy in a tall earthenware serving dish, and my first bite was a savory explosion of roasted garlic juxtaposed against the subtle sweetness of the unfamiliar plantains. Shrimp, chicken and even pork chops can be chosen to accompany the mofongo, although with the traditional sauce, it's a meal in itself.

Garlic, as in most Spanish food, is clearly the dominant theme here, and the chef uses it simply and to great effect in most of the dishes. The pescado al ajillo was perfectly cooked whiting in a parsley garlic sauce, and even the nut-brown fried pork chops — still tender and flavorful despite their appearance — gave off a subtle whiff of garlicky steam.

Although this is the owner's first restaurant, he's operated a popular food cart near MCV for years, and both the quality and prices seamlessly translate into the new restaurant framework. Reminiscent of the little ethnic joints that used to populate Greenwich Village before the big boys of fine dining decided to move downtown, Papa Ningo has found its niche in the slow and steady reemergence of Shockoe Bottom. Instead of housing nightclubs and expensive bars, the area would do well to cast its eye on Papa Ningo's efforts. Quietly and inexpensively, this little Dominican restaurant has proven that just by grabbing a plate, you can help yourself to some of the fastest and cheapest deliciously different food around. S

Papa Ningo
1703 E. Franklin St.
Tuesday-Thursday 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
Buffet: Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.


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