This Saturday, November 16, at 7 p.m., Antojitos Criollos will host a “Puerto Rican Christmas” buffet. Pedro “El Jibaro” Rodriguez will step in as musical entertainment. The buffet will include Lechon Asado (roasted pork), Pavo en Fricase (turkey fricasseed in wine sauce), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), yuca al Mojo (yuca in mojo sauce), guinetitos con mollejas (chicken gizzards with green bananas), ensalada de papa (potato salad), ensalada verde (green salad), and pan con ajo (garlic bread)–many staples that can be found in American holiday meals. Yet another reminder that our brothers and sisters across the pond are not so different…
If you’re not Hispanic, you probably haven’t yet heard about one of the unsung gems of the Dayton dining scene…but your time, and your passport, have arrived. Tucked away in the corner of a tiny, unassuming strip mall in East Dayton lies a Caribbean culinary oasis: Antojitos Criollos. Spanish for “little country cravings,” this down-home island eatery at 3937 Linden Avenue, directly across from Eastown, slings Puerto Rican food so authentic that even citizens who’ve emigrated from the island say it’s the kind of food you can’t find anywhere else on U.S. soil. And this Saturday, August 24, Antojitos will host its monthly, reservation-only all-you-can-eat buffet, complete with live salsa music.
“We opened here four years ago,” said owner Francisco Matias in his native Spanish. “The week before Thanksgiving, 2009. Before that, we were in Cleveland. When my family was there, we went to festivals all the time to cook and serve food, but we did not have a restaurant. Different people from different towns said, ‘Why don’t you come and set up here? Your food is very authentic and we’d like to have you here.’
“We went to many banks for small business loans, “Matias said. “We were always denied. And then we met a man named Miguel Ten [President/CEO of Springfield’s First Diversity Management Group]. He’s Puerto Rican, and he had tried our food before. He helps civic groups and helps people find jobs. We came to him with a business plan, and he immediately said, “How much money do you need?” He’s the only person who ever offered us money. He did not charge us interest; when we made back the money we’d borrowed, we returned it. But he knew Puerto Rican food and had eaten ours – that’s the catch – so he believed in us.”
That was 2009. Matias did studies in each of Ohio’s major cities, starting with Cleveland – but Cleveland bore tremendous competition in the same style of food. Other cities, like Columbus and Cincinnati, proved too costly. But the family’s food had been a hit at Dayton’s Hispanic Heritage Festival, and Dayton boasted a widespread and passionate food culture, but while Italian and Mexican and Asian and Indian restaurants seemed to flourish at every turn, Dayton still had plenty of market room when it came to island cuisine.
And so Matias learned of the small Linden Ave. storefront. It had not housed an operating business for several months; previously serving Vietnamese cuisine, it was to become a Mexican restaurant, but an immigration issue cut through and sent the staff packing, never to be heard from again. The Mexican restaurant never opened, and Matias found an opportunity.
“We met with the owner of the building,” Matias said, “and we got a good rapport going. We said, ‘We’ve only done sales at festivals, so we don’t know how this is going to work out, and also we would have to do a lot of work on the interior, so can you give us a break?’ And he did. We got two months rent free, and by then, we were on our feet.”
In its short time in the Gem City, Antojitos Criollos has won awards from all over the state of Ohio, and it’s easy to see why: Matias and his crew serve up recipes his wife, Iris Gonzalez, brought with her from the island. The restaurant features the kind of savory meals that feel like someone’s grandmother is in the kitchen cooking just for her family, and you somehow got lucky enough to receive an invite.
A quick glance over the menu will calm the unadventurous while thrilling with its casual twists on the unknown: beans and white rice, flank steak and onions, fried pork chops, sautéed chicken in tomato sauce… While eating at Antojitos, a mind-blowing truth emerges in the most unexpected of moments. You’re eating pure comfort food that seems to warm you to your very soul, and it seems in so many ways like things you’ve eaten a million times going all the way back to your childhood. You look down at your plate in wonder and think, ‘Huh. Somewhere in San Juan, a family is sitting down right now to this same dish’ – but you’re also thinking about when you sat down to a decidedly similar dish with your own family, so many years ago. Everything around you slips away, and you realize that while colors and cultures and languages may vary from one region to the next, when you get right down to it, we really aren’t all that different.
The third Saturday of every month (do yourself a favor and be mindful of that – August is the third month in 2013 to span five Saturdays, and it is always the fourth, as opposed to the last), Antojitos hosts a special buffet dinner. For a flat rate of $20 ($10 for children 12 and under), an all-you-can-eat spread is set up with a massive, multi-option spread of the best the establishment has to offer. The offerings change each month — and when one dish empties, it is not refilled, but replaced with something new. Mainstays, however, are the stellar rice and beans and their herb-rubbed, roasted pork, which also carries a hint of citrus and is simply one of the greatest dining delights in the Miami Valley region. This weekend’s buffet will also include, among many other things, Greek rice, made in beef broth with bacon and cabbage. Vegetarians, fear not; there is plenty to be had for those who don’t eat meat.
The meal is not the only thing, however, that makes buffet nights at Antojitos Crillojos special. The regular menu is not available, and eating on these nights is available only by reservation, for dishes are made to feed the amount of people expected. This makes it a private party, which means alcohol cannot be served … but it can be carried in, so this would be the occasion to bring that special bottle of wine you’ve been saving or that craft beer you waited for all season, or even your favorite bottle of rum.
The most important thing to remember on buffet nights is that you are no longer on the mainland. The buffet opens at approximately 7 p.m., and the band starts at approximately 8 p.m. That can wiggle in one direction or the other as far as an hour or more. Relax, buddy: you’re on island time now. It’s Saturday night. You’ve got amazing, endless food in front of you. If you planned right, you’ve got a good drink in your hand. And at some point, you’ve got a night of free entertainment ahead. What’s your hurry? You’ve dropped twenty bucks, plus tip, for one of the best values and cultural experiences in the entire region. No one’s rushing the night – and neither should you.
“It’s so easy to get lost in the music, food and the joy of the multi-generational crowd,” said Laura Scandura Rea, a program manager at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s air force research laboratory. “I’ve been all over the world, and when I travel, I love to stumble onto small restaurants with amazing music and food – I want to experience the local lifestyle. Every time I’ve gone to the Saturday night buffet at Antojitos, at some point I’ve looked up and thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m in a strip mall in my own backyard.’”
Joni Arnold agrees. A native of Puerto Rico, she learned about Antojitos from coworker Rea, who brought her to a buffet night last spring.
“As a native Puerto Rican,” Arnold said, “I’d say their food is deliciously authentic, our version of ‘soul food.’ Puerto Ricans are very friendly, festive people who like good food, good music, and good company. That’s exactly the experience I’ve had going there for Saturday buffet. It feels like I’m back on the island – “en la isla,” as we say – enjoying a Sunday afternoon with a friend whose mom is a fantastic cook. My husband, Fred, is American, and has been traveling to Puerto Rico for over 20 years, and he feels the same. It’s been a real treat!”
Gina Stough, lead singer of Son del Caribe, cherishes the monthly ritual.
“I brought the band there before or after a gig and made introductions,” she said,” and we all fell in love with the place. It’s just like a Mom-and-Pop in Puerto Rico. We jam for fun there because we love it. They feel just like home; their food is home for our musicians. And the same can be same for how welcome we feel. It’s home and family for us. They say in Spanish, ‘Donde no hay familia, se hace una.’ ‘Where there is not family, we make one.’ We fill each other’s need for extended family.”
Lovingly patting the counter, Francisco Matias said, “It’s been okay. We are very happy here.”
Antojitos Criollos is located at 3937 Linden Ave. in Dayton. Hours are 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Monday – Friday, and 1 – 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Buffets with live music from Son del Caribe are held the fourth Saturday of each month at 7 p.m., by reservation only; adults $20, children 12 and under $10. Music begins at approximately 8 p.m. For more information, call (937) 259-2207, or visit http://facebook.com/antojitos.criollosrest, and to view the full regular menu, visit http://antojitoscriollosrestaurant.net.
For his translation assistance, Dayton Most Metro thanks Enrigue Romaguera.