Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).
Leyenda — unlike more recent big name openings — is not a cocktail bar where a few cocktails will cost as much as a tasting menu. It’s a pan-Latin bar in Carroll Gardens where technically brilliant cocktails cost $12 or $13 and where tacos, pupusas, flautas, enchiladas, and skirt steaks run no more than $16.
The owners are two of New York’s most heralded cocktail mavens: The Clover Club’s Julie Reiner, and her nationally-acclaimed protégé, Ivy Mix. The consulting chef is Sue Torres, who for over a decade helmed the erstwhile Sueños, long one of New York’s most notable Mexican spots. That’s serious star power for a single bar — a bar that, while well-covered by the media since it opened nearly three years ago, launched without the type of nationally-focused opening coverage or longer reviews that have accompanied, say, The Aviary.
I dropped by Leyenda on a recent evening because I needed to remind myself how vibrant and creative New York’s cocktail scene is on a more accessible level. And I also swung by because Leyenda serves something that’s quite rare outside of Puerto Rican restaurants: mofongo.
The dish, at its most basic level, is a ball of fried and mortar-crushed green plantains. Cooks will often stuff it with pork or lace it with chicharones. Mofongo is a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine, though likely evolved from the starchy fufu brought over by West African slaves in the 1500s.
Torres’ father was raised outside of San Juan; she tells me the recipe is adapted from a version her great grandmother used to serve. The mash of plantains, whose shape recalls a German potato dumpling, sits in a shallow pool of tan broth, heady with the aroma of cilantro and more garlic. On the side she heaps pernil — succulent, slow-roasted pork, rubbed with even more sweet garlic. Use the tines of your fork to rake the plantain into broth, letting it soak up the savory juices.
The key to the dish is a healthy dose of white vinegar, an atypical touch for the traditional preparation. It infuses the plantains with a puckery tang, and that tang is what cuts the starchiness of the fruit and the fat of the pork. After eating mofongo, “your belly feels pretty big,” Torres says, but her version here, while nourishing, feels balanced and even somewhat light.
It is a rustic preparation, no doubt, but its clarity of flavor and zinging acid evoke the strongly seasoned small plates of the critically-acclaimed Wildair or Estela. To cleanse the porky salts from you palate, I recommend pairing it with a Ghost Coast, Leyenda’s tart, tropical blend of high proof tequilas, eucalyptus, creme de banane, maple, honey, and lime. That drink costs $13.
The mofongo costs $15; I’m rating it as a BUY.