ATLANTIC CITY - When it comes to restaurants, is it possible a "little hole in the wall" can be a good thing? In a town where casino restaurants often go over the top in decor and menu, the one forgotten piece of the puzzle is hospitality.
A greeting of the guest on arrival is important. But the way you are treated throughout the meal is important, too.
The Latin House Restaurant in Chelsea Heights made it a point to welcome us to the restaurant throughout the entire meal.
It was quickly obvious that we were the only native English speakers. No problem. Our server went out of his way to explain things, resorting to his cell phone when needed to call a friend to double check his translation or a few short questions leveled at the chef who spoke little more English than he did.
The table next to us wished us a good meal in another language as they exited a table piled high with empty plates. We took that as a good sign.
We are not late diners, but our server immediately told us that they didn't have everything on the menu because it was close to closing time. We took it to mean shopping was done frequently and limited amounts of each dish were made daily. Another good sign.
The menu at The Latin House listed only one appetizer, empanadillas. Of the several types offered, including beef or chicken, only the cheese filled were available.
When we asked for an order, they asked how many we would like. We ordered two, one for each of us, never expecting them to be such large, crispy, crunchy, half-moons straight from the deep fryer, filled with a melted farmer's cheese.
And we thought empanadillas were somehow a smaller version of an empanada. A warning about how hot they were did not go unheeded.
Since we couldn't read the list of specials, we asked if any other appetizers were available from the blackboard. Our server checked with the kitchen and brought us two quipe. Quipe are torpedo-shaped croquettas made with ground beef and bulghur wheat that are then deep fried. They are surprisingly good. We questioned why there was no type of sauce served with them before we realized they didn't need a sauce.
Knowing little about the cuisine of the Dominican Republic, we imposed on our server again. He suggested two typical entrees, and they did not disappoint. Pollo Guisado ($9.50) was described on the menu simply as Creole chicken with peppers and onions. We saw it as a saute of chicken parts in a slightly spicy, tomato-based sauce that was so good we threw caution to the wind and ate it with our fingers. We added some rice to the plate, bathing it in the savory sauce.
Filete de Pescado ($10) was a large portion of floured and pan-fried whiting with the skin on, served with a chunky sauce of onions, green peppers and tomatoes. The plate was home-style, comforting and prepared with care. We also appreciated the use of local whiting, a fish that appears as a good choice on many sustainable-seafood lists. We wished we had tried it sooner; it was a great-tasting fish.
Both dishes came with a salad composed of crisp iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced beets and grated carrots in a brightly acidic dressing that enhanced all of the other flavors. We also chose a side order of platanos tostones ($2) (or fried green plantains) since none came with our choices. One whole section on the menu included dishes with plantains mashed (mangu), fried (tostones) or with garlic (mofongo), a typical ingredient but an acquired taste.
Those of us who are bread eaters can appreciate the importance of good rice on the table. We each received a bowlful molded onto a plate. Our server suggested that we mix the beans with the rice. He was right. It tasted even better. He also laughed when he said Dominicans like to eat a whole lot of food, as he looked at our table, filled with much more than two people could possibly handle.
Don't go to the Latin House if you are expecting anything fancy. Our guess is that the room itself had the decorative touches of a previous incarnation. Four stools were lined up at a wall counter and only three round tables filled out the room, with the rest composed of the takeout counter and the tiny kitchen area. A Coke machine was the most colorful object in the room. We sampled refreshing limonadas and a tamarindo made from natural fruit juices.
Traditional music blasted from an unseen place in the ceiling, and got us in the island mood.
What a change of pace to dine somewhere and be made to feel welcomed and appreciated rather than being looked upon as one more customer. At The Latin House Restaurant the hospitality was so genuine, it was like dining in a close friend's home. It was no surprise when our server explained that his wife was the chef. A family operation, after all.
While paying the check the chef handed us a dessert to go, a custard loaded with coconut, at no charge and told us we were welcome to return again. We told her we would tell our friends. We just returned the favor.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
The Latin House Restaurant
4227 Ventnor Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Closed Sundays.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $1.50, entrees, $8.50 to $10
Our bill for two: $30 plus tip