The Adobos enterprise is a family affair, owned by Hermes “Tito” Vargas and staffed mostly by relatives: father, niece, son and others. The warmth you experience walking into the restaurant—festooned with palm fronds and vibrant island colors—is the same warmth you’ll experience from the staff. The service, frankly, can be mind-numbingly slow (the crew has been shorthanded recently), but it’s always friendly. And, while you wait for your meal, you can usually watch pop concerts featuring Hispanic entertainers on the big flat-screen TV near the kitchen. One thing is certain—the instant you enter the restaurant you’ll forget that you are dining in a Sandy strip mall.
Chef Vargas is a native Puerto Rican and so the food, not surprisingly, has a Puerto Rican slant. However, much of it is more refined that I’d expected—attributable, I imagine, to his training in food preparation at Utah Valley University and Le Cordon Bleu. Not bad for a cook who, as a kid, nearly burned down his parents’ kitchen trying to cook. Before opening Adobos, Vargas was also a chef at Energy Solutions Arena.
As I said, service here can drag, so it’s wise to get an appetizer order in ASAP. I like the Cuban-style beef empanadas ($3.95), spiced ground beef and cheese encased in a flaky crust. The tostones rellenos ($5.95) are also very good. Tostones (from the Spanish tostar, “to toast”) is a common Latin American side dish made from green plantains that are either mashed or sliced and, usually, pan-fried in oil. These tostones are mashed, formed into cups and filled with tender shredded beef. That same beef is the basis for one of my favorite entrees, ropa vieja ($9.95), which translates from the Spanish as “old clothes.” At Adobos, ropa vieja is a big plate of beef, shredded and stewed in its own juices along with green peppers and onions, and served with white rice and a choice of black or red beans and either tostones or amarillos, crispy plantain chips sometimes also called maduros. For me, ropa vieja is the epitome of Caribbean comfort food.
Mofongos are a specialty of the house and are similar to tostones, but cranked up a notch: fried green plantains pulverized with salt (a little too much salt, for my taste), olive oil, garlic and chicharrones (fried pork rinds), served with choices such as grilled chicken breast and island mojo ($9.95), fried boneless pork sirloin with onions and cilantro mojo ($10.95), shrimp Creole ($13.95), or grouper filet with Caribbean adobo seasoning ($10.95). Mojo, by the way, simply refers to the various sauces used to complement Caribbean cuisine; I think the term probably comes from the Portuguese molho (sauce).
In addition to a wide-ranging menu that includes sandwiches, appetizers, chicken wings, salads and entrees, Adobos also features daily specials, such as the terrific bacalao con viandas on Fridays. It’s salt cod molded into a cylindrical shape and garnished with avocado, tomato, red onions and tropical root vegetables—one of the more refined dishes on the menu. Diners should be advised, however, that Puerto Rican cuisine, like Cuban, is not heavily spiced or seasoned. The ingredients sort of stand on their own, aided frequently by no more than salt and garlic. So, with the exception of shrimp Creole, there’s not a lot on the menu that will please heat seekers. However, you’ll love the mildly flavored arroz con pollo, which is a classic Latin American dish of stewed chicken with rice, onions, garlic, tomatoes and, I think, sofrito and annatto. My only complaint is that arroz con pollo is only available as a special, on Mondays, so plan accordingly.
Actually, one other complaint is that there’s no beer or wine available. A dish like the grilled jerk-chicken sandwich ($7.95), with cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomato and Caribbean jerk sauce on a kaiser roll just cries out for cold beer. I was told, however, that they’re working on getting a wine and beer license, so stay tuned.
In addition to the Monday-through-Saturday specials, the kitchen also frequently cooks up special specials—one-offs such as the recent pescado frito entero (fried whole fish) or the whole, spit-roasted pig. The best way to get in on these unique offerings and keep in touch with Adobos in general is to follow them on Facebook and/or Twitter.
Save room for dessert, because you’ll certainly want to share (or hog all to yourself) something called guavabestia ($6.95). It’s a warm, calzone-shaped pastry topped with ice cream and infused with the bright flavors of guava paste intermingling with drizzled chocolate, powdered sugar and whipped cream. Described as a “guava empanada,” I wasn’t quite sure initially what to make of it. But trust me, you want this delectable dessert.
There’s a part of me that wishes Adobos Caribbean Grill would be more Caribbean, offering dishes like chicken or pork Colombo from St. Martin, callalloo from Jamaica, Dominican pigeon peas with coconut rice, or maybe Bahaman conch stew or fritters. But, perhaps that’s like expecting a French restaurant to also include German and Spanish dishes. For now, I’m just thrilled that Puerto Rican cooking has come to Sandy.
ADOBOS CARIBBEAN GRILL
9460 S. Union Square Plaza (650 East)