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Here, Island Roots Are Flourishing

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006

Ethnic food goes through various phases (or generations) in adjusting to another country. It often begins as strictly immigrant food, traditional recipes replicated as closely as possible from unfamiliar ingredients and served primarily to families and homesick friends in mom-and-pop carryouts. (Professional chefs are only a small percentage of any first-wave immigration.) So for newcomers, there comes a period of on-the-job training in the restaurant business, working in established kitchens.

Gradually their carryouts grow up into home-style eateries and over time, with better equipment, higher-quality ingredients and more assurance, into full-service restaurants. Along the way, the previously Americanized food, cautiously served to outsiders, recaptures its authenticity and becomes more sophisticated.

But diners are truly fortunate when a chef combines traditional recipes with professional technique, kitchen experience and a bit of well-considered fusion to lift his menu from ethnic fare to cuisine. Derwood's Blue Mountain Cafe is rapidly developing into the area's most ambitious Cuban restaurant, spiced with a hefty dose of Jamaican favorites and the European classics that linger in the islands. Not only that, but its desserts are unusually tempting, notably a remarkable, nostalgic turn on the old Cuban favorite of guava jelly and cheese on crackers, an eight-layer napoleon with homemade cookie dough, cream cheese, guava jelly, rum and caramelized leche.

More remarkably, all this, from yucca fries to flan, is created by chef-owner Edgardo Zuniga, who is half-Cuban, half-Panamanian, raised on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Jamaican by courtesy (via his wife, Carmita). A former sous-chef at the Old Ebbitt Grill, among other restaurants, Zuniga addresses food with as much patience as fearlessness. When he says the jerk-style chicken is slow-cooked, he's serious; it's juicy to the bone, a busty half-chicken rich with a thorough and addictive burn of vinegar, allspice, chilies and citrus. Even the black beans and rice have been tended to keep them from turning gluey.

Among appetizers, the pupusas, pancake-size cornmeal tortillas stuffed with chicken or white queso , are prime comfort food. Zuniga's pastry-dough empanadas, stuffed with chicken and potatoes, are as big as your hand. The ceviche is good if not great, with balanced acid and clean-smelling, tender fish. One night's special of chorizo sauteed with sweet peppers, onions and green pimiento-stuffed olives was a reminder that Spanish cuisine met Middle Eastern long before it traveled west.

The chicharrones with fried yucca are hard to pass up, though baby pork ribs are fried so hot that the fat turns to crust and yields up its grease. Which is a good portent for Zuniga's frying in general: A whole fried red snapper was superb, fresh, light and in a crust just salted enough for flavor but not so that it challenged the delicate flesh.

Picadillo can come out of the kitchen like Middle Eastern Manwich, but Blue Mountain's version, tangy-sweet with raisins, green olives, sweet peppers and brown spices, is more satisfying than most. Lechon asado , the Cuban Sunday family staple of pork roast, is tender and flavorful. Ropa vieja , the stringy "old clothes" of long-simmered beef in tomatoes, is a really generous portion and braised almost into individual strands. It makes a great leftover barbecue sandwich, but you can get it pressed like a Cubano for a crisper effect. The Cubano itself is only one step from fine, and that only a matter of too little pickle and mustard to give it its due tang; where some restaurants seem to set aside the leftovers or dried ends of their roast pork for this purpose, here the meat is clearly from the asado.

Though the menu is predominantly Cuban, there are a few Jamaican and a couple of European dishes that worked their way into the New World repertoire. If the jerk marinade is too pungent for you, the mild yellow Caribbean curry sauce, which came down more from the Chinese laborers than the Indian laborers of the islands, is available for chicken or shrimp. The oxtail stew is a treat for those who like that cartilaginous texture, a guilty pleasure as the only real way to enjoy it is to suck the bones. And good news for tripe lovers: The sopa de mondongo , unlike most watery tripe-posole soups, is a big vegetable soup almost like a mild stew.

The Old World dishes include a bistec a la Milanesa (immediately identifiable to Southerners as chicken-fried steak); two paellas, a seafood and a Valenciana of mixed seafood, chicken and sausage, prepared for one person rather than a minimum of two; and shrimp in an old-fashioned creole sauce. The paellas are a little lighter in flavor than the originals, closer to the saffron-tinted arroz con pollo , but good.

Desserts are obviously close to Zuniga's heart, judging by the way he describes them. (He has taken only a crash course in pastry-making but says his mother was a pastry cook.) He makes a variety of flans, from classic caramel to pineapple, mango and coconut, all differently presented; rum-soaked tres leches cake; and whatever strikes his fancy.

Blue Mountain Cafe 15855 Redland Rd., Rockville, Metro: Shady Grove 301-926-6666 Kitchen hours: Open Monday-Wednesday 7-9; Thursdays and Fridays 7-10; Saturdays 8-10; Sundays 10-9. Prices: Appetizers $3.99-$7.99; entrees $10.99-$16.99. Wheelchair access: Good.

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