Photo Credit: Whitley Carpenter
Punta Cana Latin Grill
WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD: The closing of Siri Thai’s original Bottleworks location (the Eastside remains open), followed by the rapid opening and closing of another Thai restaurant and then a long period of vacancy for the space, seems to be turning out a net positive. Punta Cana Latin Grill (367 Prince Ave., 706-850-8960) opened in September and, rather than some generic chips-and-guac joint, is a lovely Dominican restaurant with cheery staff, a sunny interior, good food and a full bar.
If Athens has had a Dominican restaurant, it either isn’t springing to my memory or predates my writing this column, although we have had Puerto Rican and Cuban. Like much Latin American cuisine, it is starchy, with strongly flavored meats and plenty of beans. So, yes, you can get tacos at Punta Cana, as well as empanadas, quesadillas and a Cuban sandwich, but there are other things to explore, as well. Mofongo, for example, is a mash of green plantains with plenty of garlic, some broth and olive oil. Thicker than mashed potatoes, at first it seems bland, but something keeps you going back to it, especially if you pair it with one of the meats or with shrimp. (Veggie is an option, too.)
The bandeja tropical, a sort of sampler platter, is a good way to try a little bit of a lot of things, with rice, beans, maduros (sweet plantains, nicely browned and caramelized), fried egg, avocado, slices of chicharron, some delicious sausage dark with cumin and other spices, thinly pounded steak or chicken and a side salad. The Dominican sliders, which are in the appetizer section, are only one of the items on the menu that make use of tostones (sliced, fried green plantains) in place of bread. Toothpicked together with thick-sliced Dominican sausage (sort of like fried bologna) and a slice of fried farmer’s cheese, they arrive too hot to eat, but you may try anyway, burning your fingers and your tongue in your eagerness to consume them.
Some things may remind you considerably of the menu at another Latin American restaurant, Cali N Tito’s, and in those cases, Cali N Tito’s likely does them slightly better. The fried yuca at Punta Cana, for example, is a little too thick and starchy. The sandwiches are good, including one that’s available as a lunch special called a Riki-Taki (a beef patty with sliced onion, raw cabbage, fried egg and avocado, plus “Punta Cana sauce”), but they’re not as good as the ones at Cali N Tito’s, either. They kind of need their sauce, in other words. The Caribbean Wrap, which includes your choice of meat, lettuce, rice, beans, mozzarella, peppers and onions, is a bit of a mess and could use some more aggressive seasoning, but it’s still a great way to get a whole meal in a flour tortilla.
There is considerably more to order: soups that change out daily, a Dominican pizza with tostones as its base topped with salami and red onions, guava and cream cheese empanadas and fried rice with ham, egg and maduros. There is a kids menu, and draft beers start at $3. Parking is still a little aggravating, but as long as you know your license plate number, you’re probably fine. The restaurant is open Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. and Sunday until 9:30 p.m.
SWEETS: If you’re driving home from Atlanta on Highway 78, you might want to stop in Grayson at Berens Frozen Custard (1132 Atlanta Hwy., 770-736-7762). Tucked in an unremarkable shopping center next to a fireworks store, it offers a product that is rare in the South. Frozen custard, as opposed to most ice cream, is made with egg yolks and involves a slower churning process that whips in less air, resulting in a creamier product that’s served at a lower temperature. Berens only has three flavors: chocolate, vanilla and a third one that changes daily, all made fresh throughout the day.
You might be familiar with the fast-food version at Freddy’s, but this one, no shocker, is considerably better. If you’re looking for a flavor that’s not available on a given day, you can check the case freezer that has packed pints, where you might find black raspberry chocolate chip, spiced apple, pumpkin pie, pistachio pineapple and so on. Or, you could order a concrete, essentially a Blizzard, with various mix-ins, like a Grasshopper, with Andes mints, Oreos and mint flavor, or a combination of vanilla custard, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries or, in the current season, one that swears it blends in an entire piece of pumpkin pie.
There are milkshakes and floats, if you prefer something simpler, as well as sundaes and banana splits. You can pick up a printed calendar of the month’s flavors or just check the website at berenscustard.com. The store is open every day (until 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday) and proudly displays its many “best of” trophies on the walls.