Sunday, September 21, 2008

From An Amazing Batida to Zany Zebras: The Franklin Park Zoo and El Oriental de Cuba

The weather was perfect for an outing this weekend, so we headed off to the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. And because any trip must be accompanied by great food, we were barely down the driveway before my husband asked, "So, where are we going for lunch?" And, I confess, I spent a good deal of time at the zoo pondering that question.

But first, the Zoo. Like many toddlers, my son loves animals. He has animal figures, animal pajamas, animal stories and he sings endless versions of "Do the Monkey" by the Wiggles. So when he recently asked to go to the zoo, we were more than happy to take him.

Although the Franklin Park Zoo is hardly an undiscovered paradise, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn't go until I was in my early 30s. However, it is fast becoming a favorite. First, it is amazing to actually get face to face with ostriches, kangaroos, wildebeest, giraffes, prairie dogs, tamarins, snakes, gorillas, lions, tigers, jaguars and ponies all in one day. As zoos go, this is also a particularly clean one and while not perfect, it certainly has the semblance that the animals are well taken care for. As my toddler is at that amazing place where he is curious about everything, it was a joy to watch him stare at and ask about each animal. But what I also love is the space for him to run and to just be a kid. They have a small area for young children to get closer to the animals, a farm with a petting area, a carousel and a park with climbing structures. The volunteers are knowledgeable and you can easily spend the day just learning from the people and information that is there. Finally, I appreciate, deeply, the diversity of the people who come there to enjoy the open space and fun experience. As an added bonus, it is also half price on the first weekend of each month!

You could easily spend a day there, especially if you brought a picnic. There is also the adjacent Franklin Park or nearby Arnold Arboretum to explore. And the Zoo itself does have food options but they range the gamut of hot dogs to reheated Uno's pizza.

So, by 1:00, I was still torn between Poppa B's in Dorchester (amazing fried chicken and cornbread), Piccos (pizza and ice cream in the South End) and, one of our favorites-El Oriental de Cuba. Realizing that Oriental was only about 10 minutes away, we headed there.
El Oriental is a pretty perfect restaurant-incredibly friendly servers, good prices and big portions of absolutely delicious food. Each time I have also been struck by how welcoming the atmosphere is to children, as well. The last time we were there, after asking about 2 dishes, the server actually brought us a taste to make sure that we and our son would enjoy it!

We always start with a batida, which is essentially a milk shake. They come in great flavors-from mango to guava to my favorite, passion fruit. This time we tried blackberry. It was tangy and delicious. No matter how caffeinated I am, I can never resist the cafe con leche-deep espresso with sweet, rich milk. As for the dishes-although they are known for their cuban sandwiches, I can return again and again for the chicken fricassee. Essentially cuban chicken stew, it is comfort food at its best. The chicken is falling off the bone tender. It comes with wonderful potatoes that absorb the delicious sauce. You get two choices with most main dishes. First, you will be asked if you want white rice or yellow. Do not, do not pass on the yellow. It is fantastic-full of tender pigeon peas (like, mild black beans), tomatoes and carrots. You will also need to choose between sweet maduros or fried tostones. My recommendation: get two main dishes and get one portion of each so you don't have to make such a hard choice in the first place.

This time we also decided to try the "fried chicken." Take any image of batter dipped chicken out of your head. Instead, as FoodieDaddy put it, the dish was more similar to boneless Chinese chicken wings...Cuban style! Pictured at the top of this post, these little bits were salty but also tender and addictive.

We have tried a few other dishes. I can't say I am quite as fond of the ropa vieja (shredded steak in a tomato based sauce) but it is definitely popular among friends. My son ordered a burger, but then promptly spent the meal inhaling the fried plantain chips, the maduros and all the pigeon peas to my complete delight. El Oriental de Cuba on Urbanspoon

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