If you take all your meals at an all-inclusive hotel, you’ll get little sense of how Dominicans eat and drink; the bland “international” buffet fare and watered-down daiquiris on offer at these resorts just can’t compete with the delicious, no-nonsense, high-quality cooking at the many mom-and-pop restaurants, or the rum drinks on offer just outside the compound walls.
Dominicans call their cuisine comida criolla and it’s a delicious – if often rather greasy – blend of Spanish, African and Taino elements, with interesting regional variants across the island. Dishes usually include rice and beans – referred to locally as la bandera dominicana (the Dominican flag) – using either habichuelas (red beans) or the tiny black peas known as morros. Most often the rice is supplemented with chicken either fried, grilled or served asopao (in a rich, soupy sauce). Invariably main courses come with plátanos (deep-fried green plantains), which locals often inundate with ketchup and a small coleslaw salad.
Local breakfasts are traditionally starchy and huge, designed for people who are about to go work the calories off and typically include huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), sometimes con jamón (with bits of ham mixed in); mangú, mashed plantains mixed with oil and bits of fried onion; queso frito, a deep-fried cheese; jugo de naranja (orange juice; also called jugo de china in the southwest); and a strong cup of coffee, either sólo or con leche, but always with a healthy dose of sugar.
Dominican lunches are quite hearty and are generally consumed between noon and 2pm, but dinner is still the day’s main meal and is almost always a family affair. Aside from the omnipresent chicken, popular main courses include mondongo, a tripe stew strictly for the strong of stomach; mofongo, a tasty blend of plantains, pork rinds and garlic; and bistec encebollado, grilled steak topped with onions and peppers. Special occasions, particularly in rural areas, call for either chivo (roast goat) with cassava, a crispy, flat bread inherited from the Tainos, made with ground yucca roots; or sancocho, considered the national delicacy, a hearty stew with five different kinds of meat, four types of tuber and a bewildering array of vegetables and spices.
For the best Dominican offerings, go for the seafood, which is traditionally prepared one of the five ways: criolla, in a tasty, slightly spicy tomato sauce; al ajillo, doused in a rich garlic sauce; al horno, roasted with lemon; al orégano, in a tangy sauce with fresh oregano and heavy cream; and con coco, in a tomato, garlic and coconut milk blend especially prevalent on the Samaná Peninsula. You’ll find that the tastiest local fish are the mero (sea bass), chillo (red snapper) and carite (kingfish). Other popular seafoods include langosta (clawless lobster), lambí (conch), camarones (shrimp), pulpo (octopus) and cangrejo (crab).
Dominican desserts are good but extremely sweet; the best of the many types are the dulces con coco, made with molasses and coconut shavings. Also popular are dulces de leche, usually a bit bland, and dulces de naranja, composed of a molasses-orange marmalade that can send you into instant sugar shock. You’ll also find a wide variety of cakes, custards and flans on offer, including a distinctive corn custard, flan de maíz. A healthier and usually tastier option is to explore the tremendous variety of tropical fruits. Guineos (bananas), lechoza (papaya) and piña (pineapple) are the most popular, but you won’t regret trying the local limoncillos, tiny, delicious lime-like fruits sold in bunches and chinola, Dominican passion fruit. The DR is especially known, though, for its out-of-this-world mangos; less famous, but simply delicious, are the fresas (strawberries) that are widely cultivated in the Constanza region and grow wild in the Sierra Bahoruco.
Eating out can be extremely cheap in the Dominican Republic, provided you stick to the modest-looking local establishments, many of which serve outstanding food. In the more formal dining rooms, prices are higher but are usually still a bargain by European and North American standards. Either way, with the exception of the cafeterías, you’ll be charged a sixteen percent sales tax on your meal and a ten percent “service” charge, though these often find their way into the hands of neither the government nor the waiting staff and instead are kept by the proprietors; it’s standard practice to tip an additional ten percent. Outside of the major cities vegetarians will often have to make do with rice and beans.
The cheapest places to dine are the cafeterías, humble establishments with a few tables and a glass case displaying a variety of typical foods like fried fish, chicken stew, rice and beans, mangú and plátanos. You can generally get a meal here for under RD$100, but you’re best off frequenting them only at lunch, when the food is fresh; by dinnertime the dishes may have been standing for hours under the heat lamps. Also under glass cases are the fried chicken dishes served at the many Dominican pica pollos, popular chain outlets with neon, fast-food decor; but far tastier and less aggressively lit are the pollo al carbón shacks that serve heaped portions of grilled chicken, rice and beans, and salad; always a good bet for a cheap meal.
Only slightly more expensive, the many Dominican comedores are a great resource: unpretentious, family-run restaurants, generally little more than a hole in the wall but often dishing up incredible comida criolla, which will set you back around RD$150 for a full meal. For a quick snack, check out the greasy goods of the various street vendors hawking empanadas, flat fried pastries with a ground-beef filling; chicharrones, crunchy bits of deep-fried chicken or pork; shredded barbecue pork sandwiches, boiled corn and split coconuts all for around RD$10; and peeled oranges for RD$3. From time to time you’ll also see small children selling trays of home-made dulces for RD$2.
You’ll find plenty of high-end dining in the major cities and the resort towns, generally featuring an array of authentic international cuisine including French, Italian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Basque. Count on spending around RD$300–600 at these and don’t expect to be seated if you’re wearing shorts, a bikini top or a short skirt. Dress codes are far less formal in the all-inclusive buffet halls, but the food is a lot more bland. Even at the best of them, don’t expect anything special.
Most Dominicans do their shopping at the many small colmados that dot the country, little more than shacks packed with various basic food supplies, an ample selection of liquors and some fresh produce. The colmados generally extend a line of credit to their local customers, allowing them to purchase a single spoon of tomato paste, for example, for RD$5, which is added to the running tab. These small portions are necessary because most campesinos don’t have refrigerators and so only purchase what they need for the day. In the cities and resort centres, you’ll find more traditional grocery stores, laid out much as they are at home.
Dominican coffee is among the best in the world. Grown in the heights of the Cordillera Central mountain range, it’s a major export earner for the country, sold in the coffee bars and grocery stores of North America and Europe, often misleadingly labelled Costa Rican or Colombian because these nations are more closely associated in the public mind with high-quality coffee production. Most Dominicans take it sólo, with a great deal of sugar added, which is the way it’s sold for RD$2 by omnipresent morning street vendors and handed out for free in the petrol stations. Dominican café con leche is made with steamed milk and is extremely good; the best place to get it is a comedor, where you’ll pay RD$10–20.
Jugo de naranja, fresh orange juice squeezed as and when you order it, is another omnipresent Dominican morning drink and makes for a good reason to get up; keep in mind they tend to add piles of sugar to it unless you ask them not to. Later in the day you should sample the fresh coconut milk sold by street vendors. Dominican batidas are popular fruit shakes made with ice, milk and either papaya, mango, pineapple or banana – freshly made in a comedor, they bear no relation to the cartoned stuff bearing the same name. A similar drink that’s traditionally served in Dominican homes is the morir soñando, a heavenly concoction of orange juice, condensed milk, sugar and crushed ice. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have long been popular throughout the country. Once they were drunk as a matter of national pride, because the beverage companies used Dominican sugar to sweeten them. Today, the drinks are laced with American-made corn syrup, but you’ll still find them almost everywhere.
There are several Dominican beer brands, but by far the best and most popular is Presidente, which is served in both normal-sized (RD$50) and surreally large (RD$100) bottles and compares favourably with beers from across the world. Dominicans are obsessed with getting it as ice-cold as possible – if you don’t want it to be a block of ice when you open it, do as they do and rub your hand under the bottom of the bottle before popping the cap. Also popular are the very good, inexpensive local rums, Brugal, Barceló and Bermúdez. Of these Bermúdez is the very best, but the dark, aged versions made by all three are quite good. A popular way to drink it is with Coke as a Cuba libre. In the discos and bars, ask for a Cuba libre servicio: a bottle of rum, two Cokes and a bucket of ice.
Watch out also for a potent local drink called Mama Juana, a hard-to-stomach concoction of local wines, rum, honey, and leaves and bark from various trees, which locals claim prolongs both sexual potency and life span. After hearing them go on (and on) about its miraculous properties, you may want to try it at least once. Traditionally, it’s supposed to be buried underground for at least three months, then laid out in the sun for another three before consumption. You’ll find Mama Juana bottles in the souvenir shops that circumvent this extended process, with the appropriate leaves and bark already added and a recipe for finishing the brew on the label.