Behind The Mask
Rich flavors characterize this Puerto Rican restaurant’s best dishes.
57 W. Dedham St., Boston | 617-247-9249 | vejigantesrestaurant.com
You look like you know how to throw a party,” said a tanned South Ender, back from a Caribbean vacation, to Hector Piña. Behind the small bar, Piña, co-owner of Vejigantes with his wife, Nivia, was comfortably juggling multiple tasks: bruising mint for mojitos ($10), directing his servers and carrying on conversations with a growing line of diners eager for a table at the 50-seat eatery in the Villa Victoria Plaza. Named after the colorful, horned masks prevalent at Puerto Rican festivals (and that adorn the walls of the restaurant), Vejigantes cultivates the practiced charm of a longstanding local favorite, despite only having opened in July. Birthday gatherings, for instance, prompt the staff to throw impromptu carnivals by donning vejigantes and getting out the sparklers. While the atmosphere is consistently festive, the food is mixed. The best dishes, like the soups and stews, present flavors that overlap with each bite in impressionistic fashion, while the fried appetizers, like the codfish fritters ($5) and alcapurrias ($5), or ground-beef fritters, tend to be greasy, with the seafood inedibly tough.
As evidenced by the soup sizes, Vejigantes’ doesn’t do anything on a small scale. Doña Carmen’s plantain soup ($6), made from Nivia’s mom’s recipe, is a basin of shredded plantains simmered in water and minimal seasonings until they’re reduced to the fruit’s creamy essence. The simplicity of the ingredients belies the intricate flavors, with a pleasant note of grassiness emerging from a subtle, rounded sweetness. Listed under the house specials, the seafood casserole ($27) brings a tub of tomato-based broth brimming with octopus, lobster, shrimp, calamari and clams. Even without the tostones (fried plantain patties), which come as a side, it’d be difficult to finish half the serving. The casserole gets its delicious, intense flavor from a liberal use of sofrito, comprising garlic, oregano and other spices. Less balanced was the traditional lobster soup ($20), another barrel of broth and noodles, which suffered from an overdose of garlic and overcooked shellfish.
Tough, stringy meat also spoiled the grilled skirt steak ($14). Although cooked to medium-rare as requested, the beef was dry, and the lackluster chimichurri sauce hardly helped improve the blandness. The paella marinera artisanal ($45) for two was stunning in presentation but disappointing in taste. Stewed rice with calamari, lobster, shrimp and clams spilled from deep-fried plantains arranged like open clamshells. Substituting sofrito for saffron, the Puerto Rican version of paella would’ve been better had the shellfish not been desiccated, yielding rubber-band-like squid and shriveled clams and lobster. Instead of the paella, order the shrimp in Vejigante creole sauce ($18), an outstanding dish of perfectly cooked shrimp in a tangy, slightly spicy tomato-based sauce, which should be ordered with the malanga puree, a mash of tarot root and garlic.
The best item at Vejigantes, however, isn’t on the menu, but it’ll improve whatever shortcomings you may find: the house-made hot sauce. Consisting of two kinds of Puerto Rican chilies, olive oil, vinegar, garlic and various fruit peels, the mixture’s creeping heat makes every dish memorable. It’s definitely a must with the pork mofongo ($8), a pyramidal mix of shredded, slow-roasted pork and green plantains, served with a side of chicken broth. The slow burn of the hot sauce combined with the salty, chewy mofongo made for a budget-priced, hearty meal at the bar. On the side, stick with beer, like Presidente ($5), or a mojito. Only order the house specialty, the Coquitini ($10), if you like cloyingly sweet eggnog.
Unlike the tanned South Ender at the bar, not everyone can afford a trip to the islands this winter, but there are enough authentic gems on Vejigantes’ menu to make you feel closer to Puerto Rico. The restaurant has already gained a following, not least because it aims to bring a new cuisine to an area gentrified by gastropubs. There’s a vivifying energy to Vejigantes, and with its success, hopefully more Latin flavors will find a place in the South End’s dining scene. CCC
• Plantain soup
• Seafood casserole
• Shrimp in creole sauce
• Pork mofongo
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11 am-10 pm; Fri.-Sat., 11 am-1 am; Sun., 11 am-10 pm
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Parking: Valet after 5 pm on weekdays, 2 pm on weekends