Island vibes: South o' border on 29 north

As October's autumnal air provides a preview of the colder months ahead, I feel the urge to plan an island getaway. One of the intense powers of food– well known to Proust– is its ability to evoke distant memories, bring faraway places near, and reproduce states of mind dulled by habit. On a typical Saturday last weekend­ and on Route 29 of all places– a forkful of spicy fried pork and a bite of fried plaintains transported me back to the tranquil, palm-shaded beaches of the Samana Peninsula in the Dominican Republic, where I spent 10 blissful holi-days a few years ago.

The restaurant I have to thank for this momentary getaway is Caribbean Malecon­ a name which is the best euphemism I can imagine for this landlocked commercial highway, since it refers to the beautiful seaside boulevards that are the heart of island life.

For Tony Polanco, a Dominican who co-owns and operates this new island eatery with partner Daysi Thobald (and out-of-town owner José Aragon), it's possible to recreate island emotions with big plates of Caribbean food. The partners purchased the Pupusa Crazy last Spring after discovering the business opportunity in the Hispanic newspaper, and opened it under its new name in early September.

Polanco's family owns restaurants in Santo Domingo and New York City, where he lived before moving to Charlottesville after 9/11. While preserving much of the original Latin/El-Salvadorian menu (pupusas, ceviches), Polanco has added his own Caribbean specialties. These include a whole fried red snapper (pargo entero frito a lo tropical), stewed sirloin or chicken with lots of spices and vegetables, and his carne de cerdo frita (fried pork) Caribbean style, served on a huge bed of salad with a bowl of beans, a mound of rice, and fried plaintains.

Polanco's "most emotional dish" (so enormous that it produces a strong emotional reaction!) is his aire, mar y tierra (air, sea, and land), which includes sirloin steak, chicken breast, and shrimp! More Caribbean dishes are being introduced each week, and there are several daily chef's specials.

Caribbean Malecon, across from Wal-Mart, serves lunch and dinner Monday-Friday (11am-10pm) and three meals on Saturday and Sunday (8am-10pm).


Brunch at Mas

 Belmont's happening nightspot­ Mas Tapas­ is preparing to do Sunday brunch, Spanish-style. What does that mean, exactly? How about a house-made bizcocho (biscuit) sliced and filled with an "easy over" organic egg, serrano ham, manchego cheese, and aioli? Or a plate of scrambled organic eggs, sliced heirloom tomatoes, nutty mahon cheese, and brick-oven-baked flatbread?

Love French toast? Then get ready to try Mas's pan cocido­ a slice of brioche pan-fried in organic egg, brandy, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and topped with peach compote, crème fraiche, and vanilla sugar. In typical Mas style, chef Tomas Rahal combines organic ingredients (lately from local Mennonite farmers) with traditional Spanish flavors.

The new Sunday brunch menu includes dishes like carne asada con huevos (grilled rare spicy hanging beef tender with easy over eggs, roasted potatoes, and tomato aioli), empanadas de higado de pato (fois gras, applewood ham, fig preserves in a flaky pastry with crème fraiche), and buckwheat crèpes with (beluga-ban friendly!) American paddlefish caviar and crème fraiche are sure to bring sleepy Belmont to life on Sunday afternoons. (Neighboring La Taza can take on the early morning shift).

Brunch will debut on October 16, and will be served from noon-6pm. Why the late hours? "Many restaurant people work late Saturday night and get up late on Sunday," Rahal explains. "Ours is a player's brunch."

Caribbean Malecon brings island vibes to Route 29.

The patio scene at Mas