Quick, tell me where you would take someone to sample "American" food. The Prime Rib? A roadside barbecue stand? McDonald's?
You see my point: Any country's cuisine comprises a wide spectrum of flavors and classes. Le Cinq is no more nor less French than the lowliest sandwich stand serving croque monsieur and Orangina.
This thought occurred to me while I was dining at Dominicano Internacional Restaurant, which opened last year in Highlandtown and is, as far as I have discovered, the only Dominican restaurant in town. That's a heavy responsibility to bear, especially for a place that is really its cuisine's equivalent of a good truckstop diner.
The restaurant is cheerily painted in tones of mango and citrus; televisions tuned to Spanish-language stations hang in every corner. Food comes in massive, filling portions, with plenty of rice and deliciously soupy beans to keep you fueled for the long haul.
The menu is written in both English and Spanish, but having some skills in the latter will probably come in handy when communicating with your server. (I often wonder if my college professors would have been so diligent in teaching me the language if they had known that I would wind up using it mostly to ask for lime wedges for our beer—speaking of which, Dominicano is BYOB.)
Dominicano offers two versions of fried plantains ($2 each): either as tostones, when the starchy green fruit is served in crispy smashed rounds, or as maduros, when ripe ones are cut up and fried until soft and sweet. They were out of maduros on our visit (expect them to be out of a few menu items at any given time), but the tostones were addictively crunchy, especially once sprinkled with salt. Of our entrées, I would most highly recommend the stewed goat ($10), which came in a rich, hearty stew flavored with cumin and marrow. A fried whole fish with onions ($15) was also tasty.
But my friends all wound up asking me the same question in disappointment: "Is Dominican food always this bland?" To which the answer is no, not at all—Dominican food at its finest is a delightful marriage of sweet and spicy, with a variety of wonderfully rich and mellow stews. But this was basic fare. Was the breakfast dish of fried longaniza sausage ($9) any more boring than a plate of scrapple? No—the thin, crisply fried sausage had plenty of garlic to give it flavor.
The fried chicken ($12) was a little overcooked, and its mashed potatoes were instant, but that might well be true in any American diner, as well. And your average American diner wouldn't serve you delicious mango or passionfruit juice ($3). Sipping on one of those exotic drinks and nibbling at a crispy toston is as pure a Dominican experience as any Baltimorean could hope for—and it only sets you back a five spot. Not bad.
Dominicano Internacional Restaurant, 601 S. Conkling Street, 410-276-1117. Hours: 8-10 p.m. daily.