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Caribbean eatery shines on South Boulevard 

Fruits and roots

Kibbeh, those appetizer-sized footballs consisting of a bulgur wheat shell and a spicy ground lamb meat interior, is a national dish of Lebanon. Typically served with tahina, kibbeh is the quintessential dish of Lebanese mezza, the world's original small plate meal. Not surprisingly this likable appetizer has taken on a new life halfway around the globe. Quipe, as it is known in Spanish and Portuguese, is now popular in the Dominican Republic as well as Brazil. New World Quipe, though the same concept, is made with beef, not lamb, with a spritz of lime, not tahina.

Our server at the 95-seat Punta Cana Caribbean Restaurant & Grill says Quipe was not a native food since "Columbus killed all the original people on our island." (That's true: Approximately 300,000 Arawak/Taino peoples of Hispaniola, the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, were enslaved and then destroyed by the conquering Spanish.) Thus the population today consists of immigrants from various countries, including a large community of ethnic Lebanese.

Our server also notes that many of their patrons are from South and Central American countries, but says, "We get some Americans in here who look at the menu and want to know why tacos and burritos are not on it. We explain that we serve Caribbean food. It's on the sign, you know." She sighs and leaves us to peruse the menu.

The creole, or criollo, food found in the Dominican Republic is a creative mix of Spanish, French, African, and now recent Lebanese cooking techniques utilizing indigenous produce and seafood. At the center of the culinary plate are fruits, such as plantains, and roots, such as yucca. Owner Cristobal Morel, a native of the Dominican Republic, opened Punta Cana in an old Wendy's location in December 2007 as a way to celebrate the simple foods of his home. He named the restaurant for the resort area where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Once past the line of Latino newspapers in the front, the restaurant's interior reveals itself as dramatic and devoid of any of the space's former fast-food artifacts. The sun porch seems festive while the newly tiled floor of the dining room and vivid yellow walls punctuated with memorabilia and faux galvanized roof scream island. A lime-hued bar transforms what had been the order station. You won't hear the notes of the güiro or tambora playing the distinctive rhythm of the meringue. The entertainment is provided by dual televisions tuned to Spanish-speaking channels. On one evening, the bar staff and some patrons were transfixed by a bull fight.

Not all servers at Punta Cana are bilingual, but all are unfailingly friendly; plus the menu features English descriptions. Drinks include a national favorite, the Morir Sonañdo, which translated means "to die dreaming," and is an orange juice smoothie.

In addition to the surprising Quipe starter is a first rate, impeccably dressed octopus salad (Ensalada de Pulpo) laced with cilantro and onions which will knock your socks off. Or choose the Pastelitos, a beef turnover with a deliciously flaky crust wrapped delicately around a not-too-spicy minced beef patty ripe for a dash of imported Dominican hot sauce. Dominican food, in general, is not the fire eating dishes of, say, Southern India, nor even the moderately hot dishes of Mexico.

You wouldn't think a food dish with a name like Mofongo would be good, but it is. While some Dominican restaurants offer an entire roster of Mofongo dishes, Punta Cana offers two: chicharrones or shrimp. Mofongo, for the uninitiated, is a mound of garlic-flavored mashed plantains (with the consistency of day-old mashed potatoes). The pork dish is seasoned with cuerito, or crackled skin, then doused with flavorful chicken gravy. The unctuous chicharrones are deep fried chunks of pork ribs, not too meaty, more crispy fat. Even better are the seafood offerings. Leave it to islanders to present a reinvigorated seafood paella with a devotion to high-quality ingredients. Tender shrimp, crab, and other sea creatures are nestled in the more predictable bed of rice.

Chicken dishes, sandwiches, steak, and pasta dishes round out the menu. Entrées range from $6.95 for criolla spaghetti to $16.95 for some of the seafood dishes. If you love the more intimate bits of pig, check out the daily special of Guisado de Cerdo -- a pork stew with sausage, tails, and ears. Other criolla specials (and this part is listed exclusively in Spanish) include Bacalo; stewed oxtail; and a well-known chicken stew. Desserts are not an afterthought. A creamy European-styled flan proves a perfect end to the meal.

We forget that other countries in the "New World" are also culinary melting pots. Why not have well-crafted, traditional Lebanese or Spanish dishes in a Caribbean restaurant? Besides with the current money squeeze, Punta Cana may be the cheapest way to bask in the warmth of the Caribbean sun while eating healthy Mediterranean dishes.

Eaters' Digest is back. Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).

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