I visit—and fall in love with—many restaurants looking for the best international food for Edible’s Ethnic Eats. Sometimes I share a place I know and sometimes it is a new discovery.
This time, however, it’s more personal. Introducing you to Dominican Restaurant #4 in Farmingdale is kind of like inviting you into my living room. This is where my family eats together on a Sunday, where I meet up with colleagues for a convivial meal away from the classroom, where I catch up with girlfriends, where I take my godson and my son to eat big and practice Spanish, where I go on dates, where I celebrate my birthday.
I am not alone in this. Although my affection for Dominican 4 started because—nostalgia-wise—Dominican food is close to my own native Puerto Rican cuisine, the clientele is clearly drawn from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures with no connection at all to the Spanish Caribbean.
People fall in love because there’s a universal pleasure to eating at a good Dominican joint like Dominican 4.
There is big-flavored food—garlic, onion, oregano, oil, slathered fearlessly onto huge portions of beef, pork and chicken, blended lavishly into soups and beans, simmered generously into stews. There is comfort food—piles of slightly sticky white or savory yellow rice, mashed plantain, sweet plantains warm and sugary, creamy pillows of potato salad, a chicken soup that could raise the dead. There are fried, crispy bites of fluffy yuca, of salty cheese, of tender chicken strips in crunchy batter that shame any so-called chicken finger you’ve ever had before.
And unless you have a super-human storage capacity, you’ll likely go home with a stack of leftover containers. If there is one thing Dominican restaurants have in common, it’s gargantuan portions.
But that’s not the only reason people come back again and again. It’s because it’s virtually impossible to be sad or stressed once you’ve sat down.
The folks at Dominican 4 are almost invariably cheery and smiling. The service is not the most efficient, but you will always be addressed as “mi amor” (my love) by someone who seems to really mean it. It’s friendly, really friendly, and sometimes friendly, and a big plate of fresh rice and beans is what your world needs.
At the helm of this friendly place is Aurora “Norca” Pichardo. Aurora means “dawn” and she brings a lot of sunshine, despite the fact that it has taken a lifetime of hard work to get her to this point.
“We were originally from way out in the countryside,” she says. “My father was here and brought me here when I was 17. He gave me my papers, but that was it. I had to make my own way.
“My first year I worked in a factory, and two Puerto Rican women who knew a lot more than me, thank God they took me to clean offices with them at night, because I was just making $167 a week! Then I became a waitress. At first I didn’t know anything! I didn’t understand even sugar.
“People asked me for ‘sweedanloh, sweedanloh,’ and I didn’t know what it was. Then someone told me ‘Sweet’n Low, it’s a kind of sugar in the pink packets.’”
Pichardo waitressed for 23 years at different Dominican restaurants in Dominican enclaves like Freeport and Uniondale. She married, had a son and divorced. As a single parent, she had to work a lot.
“I worked from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., then I had another job. I feel like I didn’t see my son,” Pichado says. “His aunt looked after him. I would arrive at dawn to sleep a little and then get up and start all over again. I was tired.”
Like so many of the estimated 41,000 Dominican immigrants on Long Island (and the 960,000 throughout the United States), Pichado focused on the long game. Family togetherness is priceless in the Dominican community. She wanted to support her mom and siblings back home and bring them here. That’s a lot of hours waiting tables. But she managed to get her son through school—he is a gym teacher in Freeport—and put something aside for the future she dreamed about.
“I came here when I was 17,” she says. “I didn’t get a chance to go to school; how could I? I had to work. But in the restaurants I learned everything about everything. I wanted a future here.”
Her boss, René Ramírez, owned a number of the restaurants where she’d worked. “He and his wife, they were my family.” But when he asked her to come work at a new restaurant he was opening in Farmingdale, she said, “No thanks; I want to open my own place now.”
Ramírez was adamant.
“He was like my father,” says Pichardo. “More than a father. And he said he would make me a partner and we would open this restaurant together.”
That was seven years ago. Ramírez fell ill with liver disease and passed on; she still speaks of him with reverence and love.
Farmingdale wasn’t easy; it had a big Latin community, but not Dominican. And the locals were skeptical. “I went to all the businesses and offices around here and in Melville door-to-door with my menus,” she recalls. “Sometimes they threw them back at me. But I kept going.”
Four years ago she decided to modernize the restaurant and—perhaps most importantly—change the windows to open out to Main Street. Passersby could see the atmosphere and take a chance on Dominican food.
“We looked around and said, ‘All the restaurants on this street are nice and ours is not. We have to change,’” she says. “And immediately we started filling up; I had to hire more people because I wasn’t ready for that!”
Today close to 90 percent of the clientele is non-Hispanic and much of the business is take out. The steam tables showcase why. Fan favorites perníl (slow-roasted pork shoulder), pollo al horno (roast chicken) are mouthwatering. And with a $6.99 lunch special that includes a meat, rice and beans, and two sides in those generous Dominican portions, it’s irresistible.
In fact, I walked out with two lunch specials—and hugs, kisses and “mi amors.” I’ll reheat some rice and beans and maduros (fried sweet plantains) as soon as I am done here (the perníl and the rice with pigeon peas are already gone).
And I also walked out with a smile, feeling like I had just had a long chat with one of my cousins. I’ll let Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Dominican-born, New Jersey–raised Junot Díaz have the final word. This is what he told The Splendid Table in 2012 about sitting down to Dominican food.
“For a shining evening, or for a shining day, you are able to achieve communion. It’s kind of a peace with each other. It’s kind of sharing. It’s kind of communication. It’s kind of, just, being in each other’s presence. And I think what helps us to achieve that is the dishes that we grew up with, the dishes that are familiar, the dishes that have always meant solidarity and family.”