The best thing about Los Hermanos isn’t obvious. It’s easy to think this Dominican restaurant tucked along Park Road NW in Columbia Heights is nothing more than a neighborhood haunt slinging ready-made Caribbean fare. But that assumption would be wrong.
Because a few steps away, in an unseen kitchen staffed entirely with Dominican cooks, smashed slivers of green plantains sizzle in a pan and transform into tostones, one of Latin America’s finest culinary feats.
But the tostones aren’t available from the steam trays lining the Los Hermanos counter, which means — to someone just walking into the place — they may as well not exist. So when I order the side dish, Aris Compres, who owns the place with his twin brother, Raymond, seems perplexed. “How’d you know about tostones?”
If I hadn’t seen the golden rounds on a neighbor’s table, I never would have known, even though I’m from the Dominican Republic. Those unfamiliar with the country’s cuisine might not even ask, which would unfortunately stop them from learning the truth about Los Hermanos. Though it looks and operates like a counter-service restaurant, many of its speciality dishes are made to order.
Ask any Dominican about the best pairing for those tostones, and the answer almost always will be another item on Los Hermanos’ inconspicuous menu: bistec encebollado, a thin, lime juice-marinated steak amped up with onions and Dominican oregano, which Compres’s uncle buys at a Langley Park grocery store. A salsa verde, bold with fresh jalapeño and vinegar, is the last touch, a welcome fiery hit for dipping the plantains.
Likewise from the menu, whole red snapper has none of the bistec’s vivid flavor. Instead, the flaky fish is simmered in a subtle sauce of saffron, tomato and coconut milk, the kind that’s best when sopped up with white rice. And about that rice: It’s served not by the spoonful, but by the mound.
Clutching a full plate from Los Hermanos means carrying several pounds of food, which will set you back about $10. Few have left the restaurant hungry — or said Dominicans have the best-looking food around. Steam trays hold dish after dish in varying shades of yellow and brown: roast chicken, stewed red beans, fried sweet plantains, a shredded slow-roasted pork shoulder known as pernil.
But while it lacks a variety of colors, Los Hermanos’ cooking achieves something remarkable, replicating the homespun flavors of the Dominican Republic. A pigeon pea rice packs a surprising amount of zest into each grain, thanks to a sofrito of cilantro, peppers and garlic. Teamed with stewed meat — falling-off-the-bone chicken in a deep-red tomato sauce whiffing of cilantro, hunks of goat livened up with rum — your plate becomes a comforting meal that could only be made more authentic with an icy Presidente beer. (Until Los Hermanos secures a beer and wine license, however, a supply of Dominican sodas will have to suffice.)
There’s a reason why the food here tastes like the stuff I grew up on. Los Hermanos, which means “the brothers” in Spanish, opened in 1995 as a family-owned grocery store. The Compres kids were 10 years old then, and their mother, Mercedes, would prepare Dominican dishes for them while she worked. Before long, customers were hankering for a plate.
Flash forward a decade or so, and the grocery store transformed into a restaurant. Stop by any Sunday afternoon and it’ll be the kind of locals-only spot where regulars gather for a casual game of dominoes while bachata hums from the speakers.
If any of the regulars look familiar, it’s because the unassuming restaurant has some high-powered friends. The family operates a booming catering business that supplies meals to Dominican baseball players visiting Nationals Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox and Carlos Ruiz of the Philadelphia Phillies are fans, and a picture immortalizing one of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s visits hangs in the restaurant. (“She really loves the empanadas,” Compres said, referring to yet another menu item.)
Customers travel from as far as Winchester for a taste of Los Hermanos, Compres said, whether to stock up on fried pork belly (chicharrón) or Dominican cake, an orange juice-spiked treat filled with egg white icing and dulce de leche, guava or pineapple jam. Los Hermanos even has habichuelas con dulce, a creamy dessert served around Easter, typically made with red beans, cinnamon and cloves.
Of course, not everything’s perfect. Sometimes the food from the counter isn’t as warm as it should be. If that’s the case, the staff is eager to right the wrong. When I ordered a chicken sancocho, a yellowish stew thickened with yucca and plantain, the server asked to warm it up in the back. After a quick perking up, the hot stew was a flawless, garlicky rendition of the traditional dish.
But what Dominican wouldn’t rave over a restaurant that transports them home, where they can sip on Jugo Rica orange juice while hearing the same consonant-cutting Spanish spoken on the streets of Santo Domingo? (Even better, knowing the juice might have come via a D.C. police officer who travels often to New York City and brings back cases of the stuff as a favor to Compres.)
Do these charming details make me overlook the fact that the place has a decorative fish tank and shares space with a tenant running some sort of Western Union? Probably. That’s why I dragged along an unknowing friend, a Dallas native whose closest knowledge of Dominican cooking is his self-proclaimed expertise of Tex-Mex.
After a hearty meal of pigeon pea rice, roast chicken and tostones, he summed it up nicely: “What’s not to love?”
Tim Carman is on assignment.
1426-8 Park Rd. NW. 202-483-8235. loshermanosdominicanrestaurant.com.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nearest Metro station: Columbia Heights, a 0.2-mile walk from the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $10-$11.