Morena’s Kitchen is Dominican food for the soul | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Morena’s Kitchen is Dominican food for the soul

The pica pollo at this tiny Belmont Cragin storefront gives a reason to get up in the morning


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T wo years ago a taqueria in Santa Ana, California, filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against KFC seeking damages from the death-peddling corporate protein merchant for using "Para chuparse los dedos" ("to suck the fingers") as the Spanish-language analog to "finger-licking good."

Plaintiff Taqueria El Amigo, which had trademarked the Spanish phrase, settled its case with KFC in confidence, but I think it's probably safe to employ it to describe the proper way to finish an order of pica pollo at the Belmont Cragin storefront Morena's Kitchen. Also known as Dominican fried chicken, these hot, salty nuggets of brittle-battered, citrus-bathed bird flesh, served with crisp tostones and blazed with laser-guided splashes of house-made habanero hot sauce, present a compelling reason to lick your fingers. They present a compelling reason to get up in the morning.

The siren alerting me to this extraordinary poultry was sounded by taco scholar Titus Ruscitti, whose powers of inspection can always be counted on to detect extraordinary food. In this case he sniffed out Morena's Kitchen, the wee eight-seater where Mirian Montes de Oca cooks the food of her birthplace, the Dominican Republic. Open for almost three years, Morena's derives from the 38-year old chef's childhood nickname, Morena, meaning "dark-skinned." On Monday through Saturday, Montes de Oca wakes at 5 AM, walks a block to the restaurant, and starts cooking. She breaks at 6:45 to head back and send her three girls off to school before returning to start breakfast service at ten.

That meal features, among other things, the Dominican Desayuno of Champions: Los Tres Golpes-the Three Strikes-fried eggs, salami, and queso frito with a side of mangú, mashed green plantains garnished with pickled red onion. Saturday and usually Monday mornings-for those in need of recovery-she serves a silky menudo, bright with sour orange and the hot breath of Dominican oregano, both of which she orders from a New York distributor who imports them from the D.R. The two ingredients permeate the chicken, and also a number of the homey, life-affirming plates she put out.

Chef Montes de Oca, who's mostly a one-woman operation, fries pica pollo to order every day she's open, and marinates a batch for the next. But not everything on the menu hanging above the register is always available. She doesn't have the room in the tiny kitchen to make everything, which is why after you walk in the door and she greets you like you're the most delightful surprise of the day, it's best just to ask what she has on hand. If you're lucky she'll have sancocho, a meaty stew with beef, chicken, dumplings, squash, yuca, carrots, and plantains that, once ingested, turns your gut into an internal furnace that'll warm your bones long after you've returned to the cold outside.

A heated glass case displays empanadas and kipe, the Dominican adaptation of kibbeh, brought by Middle Eastern immigrants in the late 19th century, its bulgur jacket and ground-beef core scented with sweet basil and that characteristic oregano.

Mangú isn't just for breakfast. Morena's serves it all day, along with a few similarly restorative warm and stewy options like slowly braised goat, fall-off-the-bone chicken, and carne guisado, Dominican braised beef. The warmly spiced liquids these muscly meats tenderize in are sopped up by ample portions of rice: perhaps Moros y Cristianos ("Moors and Christians"), firm, fat grains tinted by black beans; or orange achiote-stained rice mined with plump pigeon peas; or plain white rice, simple and buttery tasting, and perhaps the best canvas for these stews. Each of these plates is preceded by a salad of shredded iceberg dressed in oil and vinegar to scour the insides in preparation for the feeding to come.

On Saturdays expect more labor-intensive dishes like oxtails, their flesh, fat, and collagen almost jiggling off the bone, and bacalao, mildly salty reconstituted dried codfish with potatoes and olives in tomato sauce. In the late afternoon Montes de Oca starts griddling chimichurri-not the herbal Argentine steak sauce but the Dominican hamburger, the beef marinated in lemon and mustard and topped with cabbage, tomato, ketchup, mayo, and mustard.

She usually has someone helping her expedite the plates, but she says she likes to do the cooking itself alone. That doesn't mean she doesn't seem to love the company anytime anyone drops in. She's one of the most radiantly cheerful people I've ever encountered in the restaurant industry. It's a confident spirit that transfers to her food in the way of all the best chefs.

Morena's is set up mostly for takeout, but Montes de Oca has plans to take over the defunct computer repair store next door, which will roughly double her size—and her ability to accommodate anyone who wants to stick around and absorb her energy while absorbing her energizing food.   v

Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect the correct spelling of the restaurant's chef-owner. It is Montes de Oca, not Monteszeoca.

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