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Hits and Misses at Quick-Serve Mofongo Latin Grill 

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Photo by Emanuel Wallace

The fast-casual craze has co-opted nearly every other cuisine, so it might as well have claimed Puerto Rican food too. That's the scene over at the new Cleveland Mofongo Latin Grill, which opened in May on the Cleveland/Lakewood border. An old Pizza Pan shop was reworked to accommodate a large open kitchen fronted by a small, basic dining room that seats about a dozen.

Adhering to the fast-casual playbook, this operation offers a stripped-down menu populated with Latin favorites and dishes them up in a fashion that is the antithesis of fine dining. In place of warm greetings and guidance is a gruff directive to order at the counter. Instead of plates and silverware, there are plastic to-go containers and flimsy plastic cutlery, regardless of where or when a diner intends to eat. In place of tabletop condiments, or even a side table offering the same, diners who request it are presented with tiny packets of commercial hot sauce.

Puerto Rican food is characteristically tame (some might say bland) in terms of spice, and the food served here is no exception. That's not to say that dishes like the roasted pork shoulder ($8.50) are not satisfying, filling and delicious. A reasonable portion of tender shredded meat is paired with fragrant yellow rice studded with pigeon peas and runny beans. The namesake mofungo — fried, mashed and seasoned plantains — is mounded high and round and topped with a choice of meats, seafood or veggies. Ours suffered from shrimp ($11) that had an overpowering chemical taste that permeated the entire dish.

In typical fast-casual manner, a handful of key components are utilized in multiple modes and forms. Roasted chicken, roasted pork, mofungo and chicharron appear as entrees, salads, wraps and sides. Unlike crispy-fried Mexican or American-style pork rinds, the chicharron served here as an entree with rice and beans ($9.50), atop mofungo ($10.50), or as a side dish ($5) is more meat (and fat) than skin. One of the tastiest things we ate at this casual Latin grill was the beef empanadilla ($2.50), a hot and flaky shell filled with nicely seasoned ground meat. Other varieties are stuffed with chicken, pork, guava and "pizza."

I get that the shop is quick-serve and server-free, but it would have been nice for a staffer to check to see how we were enjoying our meal, even if it was just a shout from the nearby open kitchen. We did get such an inquiry as we were walking out the door, but by that point it's largely a perfunctory gesture.

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