Nuevo Frutilandia has been a puzzle for me for a few years now. Why does a Cuban/Puerto Rican restaurant have a name that makes it sound like a fruity amusement park? The restaurant has been in the same spot on 24th Street for over 40 years. It turns out that, long ago, it began as more of an ice cream and fruit batido (shake) shop. They still make batidos, but there’s a lot more to this small, Caribbean restaurant.

Husband and wife team Rafael and Tyrisha Frias, owners for the past three-and-a-half years, were regular customers here. Rafael is a true local Missionite. He, Tyrisha (the manager of Frutilandia), and their young son live in the same apartment he grew up in, just a few blocks from the restaurant. In talking to the then-owners, who wanted to sell the place and retire, Rafael decided to buy it and run it himself. The only caveat the original owners had was that he’d have to keep the menu the same. And so he did. They repainted and updated the place, while still keeping its rustic, bright and playful ambiance. Remnants of the past décor remain (one of the old tabletop juke boxes, now mounted on the wall, pictures of the restaurant counter area in its 50s pink), and the walls are flanked with both the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags. The dishes still reflect the cuisines of both countries. Rafael spends time in the kitchen, and there is also a chef that grew up in Puerto Rico.

I grew up eating Cuban food, in Los Angeles. My parents (being Bolivian) took us to dozens of Latino restaurants and we were lucky enough to have a lot of Cuban places near us. I love moros y cristianos (black beans mixed with white rice), platános maduros (fried ripe plantains), lechon (roasted pork), sopa de albondigas (meatball soup), to name a few. But my absolute favorite Cuban dish as a kid was the bistec de palomilla. More on that later.

On my first visit to Nuevo Frutilandia, I went with two friends, one of whom doesn’t eat pork (gasp!). We started with the ceviche mixto of shrimp and fish, marinated in lime juice, as is typical, with a mango salsa on top, which is not so typical (in my experience). It was served with taro chips on the side, a nice change from the tortilla chips or saltine crackers you’d see in Mexico.

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

The ceviche itself was super fresh and delicious, although I didn’t love the mango in the salsa – I just don’t like the sweetness with the spicy, tangy fish. It was also a bit awkward to eat out of the tall glass it was served in, especially with the delicate taro chips, but no matter, we ploughed through it. Fruit or no, I would recommend their ceviche.

We also shared the papa rellena.

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Now,  papa rellena (stuffed potato) is one of my all-time favorite Bolivian dishes. I had no idea Puerto Ricans made them too! Papa rellena is made with mashed potatoes, which have been pre-made, chilled and formed into a big ball. A stew-like concoction is made (ground or diced beef, onions, garlic, sometimes raisins – basically, a picadillo), and a hole is made into the middle of the potato ball. The meat mixture is stuffed into the hole, and sometimes there’s a slice of hard-boiled egg added in there too, or an olive. The hole is covered, the ball reformed and is first rolled in flour, dipped in an egg bath, rolled in bread crumbs and then fried until golden and crispy. It’s a wonder of textures – crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, with a molten, savory center. It’s really quite ingenious. Frutilandia’s was every bit as good as any I’ve had, with a nice, spicy dipping sauce. I could easily make a meal of one of those.

We also tried the vegetarian mofongo (the regular mofongo has pork in it). Mofongo is an Afro-Caribbean dish, usually made with fried green plantains (which aren’t as sweet as the ripe ones) that have been mashed together and mixed with an olive oil, garlic and veggie sofrito, a sauce used as the base of many Latin American dishes. Sofritos are typically made with varying aromatic ingredients, such as garlic, onion, peppers, paprika, and sometimes tomatoes, carrots, celery, cilantro, etc.

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Frutilandia’s mofongo was a huge portion, and looked beautiful, but was a bit underseasoned. This may have been our least favorite dish of the evening.

For entrees, two of us split the lechon horneado (roast pork) and a sandwich of ropa vieja – which literally means “old clothes,” as the dish is a stew of braised shredded flank steak with garlic, tomatoes and peppers. It can look like a pile of old, wet clothes (don’t let that description scare you away!).  Here, you can get it as an entrée or on a hot pressed (toasted) French roll.

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

The lechon came with the typical Cuban sides – white rice and black beans, which I love. The pork itself was very tender, juicy and succulent; but, it too needed a little salt, or more garlic in the mojo (a sauce typically made with sour orange, garlic and olive oil). We added some Tapatio hot sauce that was sitting on the table and it was all good. I mean, just look at it – it’s beautiful, with its curls of pickled onion!

The sandwich, surprisingly, may have been the best dish of the evening. The ropa vieja was super flavorful, warm and beefy, tender, stew-y, with nice but not overwhelming notes of bell pepper. It was very comforting, on that warm, crusty bread.

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Don’t judge by my photography skills – trust me, this is a sandwich made in your abuelita’s cocina.

Our non-pork-eating friend ordered a Creole-inspired shrimp dish.

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Looks beautiful, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I could not discern any Creole seasoning, although my friend said she could. But she agreed that, although the shrimp was nicely cooked, the dish was just a bit bland.

We split a bottle of a good Malbec and left, sated. There had definitely been some high notes. And, undeterred by some of the lower notes, I went back, a week or so later; this time, with the BF. Happily, things took a turn for the better on this visit.

We wanted to order the Pasteles Puertorriqueños, Puerto Rico’s version of “tamales.” They’re made of plantains rather than masa, and stuffed with pork, garbanzos, roasted red peppers, and olives, then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Sadly, we were told the dish would take about 20-30 minutes to make, and we were hungry, so we passed. We might have ordered the alcapurrias – a yucca fritter stuffed with picadillo – but the BF had decided he wanted picadillo for his main, so we passed on that as well. Next time.

We settled on the spinach and cheese empanadas, and were really glad we did. Fried crispy, they were tender inside and very flavorful, and came with a very nice sriracha aioli (certainly not typical, but good!) I only like empanadas when they’re fried, and these were excellent – light and not at all greasy.

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

We also ordered a salad….

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

.… a truly lovely salad of greens, guava, jicama, cucumber and queso fresco in a pretty, perfume-y guava/cilantro vinaigrette. The salad was nice and light, with bright flavors. Great crunchy, fresh textures too.

The BF’s picadillo was also really good…

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Homey food shouldn’t mean bland or heavy. As I described earlier, picadillo is a stew, usually made with ground or diced sirloin, peppers, tomatoes, olives and raisins. You could taste all those flavors in Frutilandia’s version. This was comfort food, certainly, but light and tasty. The beans were a bit more flavorful this evening too.

BUT, my dinner was the best:

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Again, Bistec de Palomilla is something I’ve been eating since I was a kid. It’s usually a top sirloin steak, very thin, or sometimes a little thicker but then pounded with a jacquard meat mallet – that’s the tenderizer with the little nubs on one side that leaves little divets in the meat, and ensures that the steak is tender and easy to chew. But the remarkable thing about this steak is the flavoring. It marinates in sour orange (also known as Seville orange) juice, or a combination of lime and orange juices if sour orange isn’t available. Then it is cooked with garlic and butter, and topped with grilled onions.

Somehow, this combination just turns out to be magic! It’s not like carne asada; it really is its very own thing. I thought for a moment, “Maybe I’m just romanticizing a flavor from my childhood,” as it had been ages since I’d had this dish. But no, Frutilandia’s version took me straight back to a table at Versailles, or El Colmao, or Casa España, in Los Angeles in the early 70s, sitting with my parents and sister in red velvet-flocked dining rooms with gold-flecked mirrors, noisy, boisterous people chattering loudly in Spanish all around us… my sister and I just waiting to be told it was our turn to go up and get the check from our server: “La cuenta por favor!” I’m not going to go as far as to say this was a Proustian moment, but damn…. It sure took me back. So yeah, I adored this dish.

I also loved my deliciously refreshing white sangria made with flowery guava nectar.   Frutilandia has a happy hour that features both their white and red sangrias, beers, and some of the snackier appetizers: the platános maduros, tostones (smashed and fried green plantains with mojo de ajo – a garlicky lemon sauce), and empanadas (beef and spinach/cheese).

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

Photo by Maria C. Ascarrunz

 There are many other dishes I want to try still – the fried yucca (cassava root – a dense, floury potato-like tuber that fries up beautifully), the plantain-crusted tilapia, the sautéed shrimp in mojo, the Cubano! I only discovered Cubano sandwiches about four years ago, in Miami, and I’m dying to try Frutilandia’s now.

The service was warm and friendly both times we went. There was a little snafu with my credit card (if you have a Groupon, remember the company does not honor them on Friday nights!), but it was taken care of by the manager on a subsequent visit.

I’m really glad that Rafael and Tyrisha decided to save this place and make it their own.

El Nuevo Fruitilandia
3077 24th St,
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 648-2958
www.frutilandiasf.com