After having lunch at Penalvert’s the other day, everyone told me I had gone to the wrong place – that if I wanted *really* good Puerto Rican food, I’d have to head to center city Vineland and go to the Downtown Deli.
In the mood for more Puerto Rican food, and eager to finally get about comparing the two, I headed there for lunch yesterday. And I’ve got to come clean – I wasn’t impressed.
Forewarned that the English of the proprietors was limited, I had written down my order in Spanish beforehand, since my understanding of the written language trumps my ability to speak it without butchering it. I toddled in, and handed my paper to the woman behind the counter. I had wanted to have enough for the weekend (assuming it would be really good), so I ordered a “grande pernil asado w/ arroz amarillo”, “dos empanadillo de carne asada”, un “pequeno carne guisada w/ arroz con gandules”, and on an impulse “dos chuletas”. The good news? This massive amount of food only cost $14. I can’t really give you a breakdown of the cost because there are no menus, no prices listed on the wall; you pretty much just point to what you want, and they give you a paper with a total on it that you take to the register. The bad news? It wasn’t really that good.
The roast pork (pernil) and rice, while a substantial amount of food, was off for a couple of reasons – the pork was much tougher and drier than it should be, and lacked flavor. The rice and beans had a weird smoky vibe going on, which I really didn’t like too much. The potatoes brought nothing to the table, and I had no idea why they were even there.
The empanadillos were underfilled (more discos than filling), and the filling inside wasn’t what I usually get when I get this dish – typically, the ground beef is flavored with a combination of adobo, sazon, recaito and sofrito – these tasted overwhelmingly of adobo and nothing else. Since adobo is salt based, this made these very salty and almost inedible.
The flavor of the carne guisada wasn’t bad, the beef cubes were a bit tough, but the rice at the bottom was very hard. While I did eat the beef stew part of it, if I ever got this dish again, I’d skip the rice at the bottom.
The chuletas were completely inedible. While by their nature, they are naturally tough, a few hours under a heat lamp did them no favors whatsoever. Also, they were mostly fat and gristle, and had the consistency of jerky. I joked with my husband on the phone last night that instead of calling them “chuleta” they should call them “chuleather”.
This place is very popular with locals, so maybe I just got there on an off day. The problem is, when they misfire on so many levels, I’m just not willing to spend my hard earned money to give them a second chance. So it’s back to Penalvert’s for me, I suppose.
If you’d like to go: Downtown Deli, 705 Wood St, Vineland, NJ, 856.690.9315