Cazabe is a new Dominican restaurant. Other restaurants have occupied this roadside building - recently, the Pit Stop and an Italian restaurant named Avanti - which sits on a lonely stretch of U.S. 1. What should have been a 20-minute ride from downtown Baltimore took us about 2 1/2 hours because of a major accident. Headed back, we were so thoroughly satisfied, that I can truly say it was worth the trip. Cazabe is charming.
For years, Eduardo Island, the owner of Cazabe, and his family operated a very popular Dominican restaurant in Hyattsville named Julito's, which they eventually handed over to others to run for them. Anyone who has turned over a business, or a child, to new caretakers, will understand what motivated the Islands to return to the daily grind of running a restaurant. Their next stop: Jessup. The dining room here is simple and warm, with red-checked tablecloths and a "ready-for-company" feel. Some diners might not enjoy loud music from the adjacent bar but it actually lifted our spirits.
When we visited, the elder Island daughter, Gissel, was waiting on tables, and this was our great fortune. Some lingering questions about the menu I might otherwise had left with were instead answered at my table, without my asking, and gracefully. About once a year, if you're lucky, you'll meet at your tableside someone like this, a person who takes so much pleasure in introducing new customers to an unfamiliar cuisine, and does so with such obvious pride in her restaurant's preparations, that you end up responding to the food with your heart as much as your stomach.
Dominican cuisine is a pileup of influences, and the menu complicates it by throwing in Tex-Mex and even Italian dishes, making it a little tricky to know what to order. On this night, not only were we asked outright if we wanted to try the authentic dishes (often, it's the last thing a server wants you to try), but we were told, tantalizingly, that here, even the beef burrito and seafood linguini betray the spicing and sensibilities of a Dominican chef.
And when you're being taken good care of, something like an unadorned dish of shrimp in garlic sauce with white rice, which you might find elsewhere to be bland, can be transformed into a marvel of culinary simplicity. I actually did slow down with this dish, taking more time to appreciate how really creamy and smooth the sauce was.
Without some hand-holding, we might not have ordered the mofongo, and we absolutely wouldn't have known what we were supposed to do with it when it got there. A borrowing from Puerto Rican cuisine, mofongo is a rounded pile of mashed green plantains, mixed with garlic and bits of pork crackling, served in a tall mortar (as in mortar and pestle). Pieces of the mash are forked away and then dipped into an oily broth. (There is a Dominican variation to this dish, which incorporates milk and involves boiling, that Cazabe will prepare for you if you call ahead.) I'm still not sure I get mofongo, which might be one of those things that tastes better if you grew up with it. But I'm glad I had it, and I loved the generous helping of fried pork and onions that came with it.
Appetizers are simple and savory things like thick slices of fried salami, fried yucca or chicken empanadas, moistened with mozzarella-like cheese, which here are called pastelitos. Dessert is decadent tres leches cake and gorgeous, cinnamon-y flan made by Eduardo's wife, who was the chef at Julito's and who now prepares the spices and seasonings for Cazabe.
There are other things I want to try here - the Spanish sausage, the shrimp served with rice, and beans served in a squash canoe, and the stewed beef. And I want to come back for karaoke.
On the menu
* Fried salami - $3.95
* Pastelitos - $1.50
* Mofongo (mashed plantains with pork) - $13.95
* Half rotisserie chicken with rice and beans - $8
* Shrimp in garlic sauce - $13.95
* Flan - $3.95
* Tres leches - $3.95
Where: : 8801 Washington Blvd., Jessup
Contact: : 240-456-0888
Hours: : Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Credit cards: : MC, Visa, Amex
Appetizers: : $1.50-$6.50
Entrees: : $6-$29.95
Food: : *** (3 stars)
Service: : *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 (2 1/ 2 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]