CHEAP EATS: Slowcooking is a success for Mi Caldero in York
Carmen Rita Bones arrives at her little lunch café before 6 each weekday morning.
She roasts the pork, boils the beans, simmers the stews - and leaves by 9 a.m.
A couple of hours later, on the first floor of the York Hospital Community Health Center, the Mi Caldero staff serves her freshly prepared Puerto Rican favorites.
After finishing her day job as an interpreter for WellSpan Health, she returns to the restaurant at 6:30 p.m. She marinates the meat and soaks the beans for the next day.
Bones' dedication shows. I've eaten here three times, and it tastes just as good as the terrific meal I had during a layover in San Juan while on vacation this summer. Even more informed diners than myself agree.
"My Puerto Rican friends love it," Bones said. "It's very authentic. They feel like it takes them back to the island."
On my first trip, I ordered chicken stew, fried plantains and rice and beans. The meat - slow-cooked in a tomato-based broth with chunks of potatoes and carrots - fell off the bone. For the side dish, Mi Caldero uses sweet yellow plantains, a wonderful sweet taste next to Bones' savory beans.
In the beans - which I also enjoyed alongside a slow-roasted pork shoulder for my second visit - Bones' time-consuming preparations are so evident. The pinto beans stew in a tomato sauce seasoned with Bones' house-made sofrito - a sautéed blend of onion, red pepper, green pepper, sweet peppers, oregano, cilantro, garlic and olive oil. Cooked for more than an hour, they absorb every complex flavor.
But I knew I could not write about Mi Caldero without trying the mofongo, perhaps the most celebrated dish of Puerto Rico. Cook Julita Rivera Sanchez prepares each mofongo dish made-to-order, mashing and frying green plantains seasoned with cilantro and garlic (optional).
You can order it plain or with pork or shrimp. I was amazed how hearty a meal of mostly fruit - plantains are a close cousin of bananas - could be. And for costing only $8.95, Mi Caldero was quite generous with the amount of shrimp.
I've tried several Puerto Rican restaurants in this area - some good, some mediocre. Mi Caldero stands above the rest. Even if you don't often get downtown, make a trip and give it a try.
If Latin food is new to you, don't fear the unfamiliar menu. During each of my three visits, the staff did a great job explaining the flavors and ingredients of all the dishes. And while we city dwellers are used to street parking, I know many of you will appreciate the spacious parking lot next door.
In case you're wondering, "mi caldero" literally translates to "my caldron." Bones laughed at me when I told her that. She said "caldero" is a very specific kind of iron pot used in Caribbean cooking, so the word has no proper English equivalent. Anyway, I love the name. It sounds like Latin comfort food.
It makes me imagine Bones stirring a big metal pot of bubbling stew, which is pretty much what happens every morning.
Cheap Eats is a biweekly column on local restaurants' meals for less than $10. Suggestions are welcome. Reach Wade Malcolm at 771-2101 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @YDRCheapEats.
If you go
LOCATION: Mi Caldero, 605 S. George St. Suite 120 in York
CUISINE: Puerto Rican
WADE'S PICK: shrimp mofongo ($8.95)
HOURS: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday
PRICE RANGE: $1.50 to $8.95
ACCEPTS: Cash and major credit card
KID'S MENU: hot dog and chicken tenders