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Cheap Eats: Sofrito Mama's

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Sofrito Mama's bacalaito / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Sofrito Mama's bacalaito / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Most restaurant menus start with "appetizers," "light bites," "snacks," what have you. Sofrito Mama's kicks off its menu with something much more exciting: fritters ($2.50 or $7 for three). The restaurant, which opened in the Sarasota Commons shopping center back in 2012, serves up an enticing array of fried goods guaranteed to get your lunch started right. Fried green plantains, fried sweet plantains, empanadas, stuffed empanadas and codfish fritters all make an appearance.

Sofrito Mama's pernil sandwich / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Sofrito Mama's pernil sandwich / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

My colleague, Rachel, and I devour the spinach and cheese empanada in no time. The filling is rich and creamy and expertly seasoned. How many times have you bitten into something fried only to find out the cook neglected to put salt inside the crust? No such problem at Sofrito Mama's, which has also fried the empanada to the exact right moment. The golden package tastes like deep-fried spanakopita. There's nary a crumb left in the envelope-sized paper bag the dish comes in.

The bacalaito is a must for any salted fish fans. I fell in love with salt-cured cod during a sojourn in Venice, where cooks soak the baccalà (as they call it) for days on end, then whip it with cream to make unctuous spreads that find their perfect mate with wedges of grilled polenta. To make bacalaito, the cod is also stripped of its excess salt, then mixed with a batter and seasonings, flattened into a small pancake and chucked in the deep fryer. The result isn't flaky fried fish like you might be used to. It's much denser, with a chewy center. The fish flavor treads lightly beneath the crackling crust of the exterior. I'll take five, please.

Sofrito Mama's bistec encebolla / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Sofrito Mama's bistec encebolla / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Although the fritters are a highlight, Sofrito Mama's doesn't stop there. Its list of sandwiches includes roast pork ($7), ham and cheese ($6) and something called a "CubaRican" ($8). The roast pork—"pernil"—is excellent. The meat has been braised till it separates easily between your teeth. Get it with sautéed peppers and onions ($1) for an extra bit of flavor. In truth, the sandwich could use a little something—perhaps a dab of some type of sauce, or just a hit of Tabasco. When am I going to learn that I should travel with hot s

auce? I should keep some in my glove compartment for just such situations.

In its entrée section, Sofrito offers a platter-ized version of that pernil ($10), along with a couple steak dishes ($10), fried pork chops ($10) and more. The bistec encebolla comes recommended by the man in the "Can't Knock the Hustle" T-shirt behind the counter, and I'll second him. The beef is super-thin and grainy. It's cooked well past where I usually order it, but the texture remains fantastic. The onions piled on top have been sautéed, but not for too long. They're solid enough to offer a nice crunchy counterpoint to the soft chunks of meat.

Got to offer words of praise for the yellow rice with peas, too, which comes with the meat platters or on the side for $4. The addictively seasoned rice is sticky but not gelatinous and the grains remain fully felt. I could eat a pint all by my lonesome.

One word of warning: Sofrito Mama's isn't a full-on restaurant, but more of a counter with a handful of outdoor tables arranged on the sidewalk adjacent to the Commons' not-so-glamorous parking lot. As Rachel and I eat and gossip, sedans roll up and passengers bolt to grab takeout orders. We're lucky to have found a table in the sun, but you might not be able to count on one. The restaurant's takeout-heavy style presents the only serious criticism Rachel and I are able to drum up: We need metal silverware, not that generic plastic junk that bends and contorts when I'm trying to slice a steak. I guess knives and forks are one more thing I should add to my glove compartment eating kit.

Sofrito Mama's
935 N. Beneva Road #613, Sarasota
554-8786 or sofritomamas.com
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature in Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at cheapeatssrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter:@LeveyBaker.

Last modified: February 18, 2014
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