Clockwise from top left: sancocho; kipe and yuca bollitos; beef stew with Moros y Cristianos; Los Tres Golpes (the Three Strikes) with mangú; pollo guisado with white rice and maduros Credit: Jamie Ramsay

wo years ago a taqueria in Santa Ana, California, filed a trademark
infringement lawsuit against KFC seeking damages from the death-peddling
corporate protein merchant for using “Para chuparse los dedos” (“to suck
the fingers”) as the Spanish-language analog to “finger-licking good.”

Plaintiff Taqueria El Amigo, which had trademarked the Spanish phrase,
settled its case with KFC in confidence, but I think it’s probably safe to
employ it to describe the proper way to finish an order of pica pollo at
the Belmont Cragin storefront Morena’s Kitchen. Also known as Dominican
fried chicken, these hot, salty nuggets of brittle-battered, citrus-bathed
bird flesh, served with crisp tostones and blazed with laser-guided
splashes of house-made habanero hot sauce, present a compelling reason to
lick your fingers. They present a compelling reason to get up in the

The siren alerting me to this extraordinary poultry was sounded by taco
scholar Titus Ruscitti
, whose powers of inspection can always be counted on
to detect extraordinary food. In this case he sniffed out Morena’s Kitchen,
the wee eight-seater where Mirian Montes de Oca cooks the food of her
birthplace, the Dominican Republic. Open for almost three years, Morena’s
derives from the 38-year old chef’s childhood nickname, Morena, meaning
“dark-skinned.” On Monday through Saturday, Montes de Oca wakes at 5 AM,
walks a block to the restaurant, and starts cooking. She breaks at 6:45 to
head back and send her three girls off to school before returning to start
breakfast service at ten.

That meal features, among other things, the Dominican Desayuno of
Champions: Los Tres Golpes-the Three Strikes-fried eggs, salami, and queso
frito with a side of mangú, mashed green plantains garnished with
pickled red onion. Saturday and usually Monday mornings-for those in need
of recovery-she serves a silky menudo, bright with sour orange and the hot
breath of Dominican oregano, both of which she orders from a New York
distributor who imports them from the D.R. The two ingredients permeate the
chicken, and also a number of the homey, life-affirming plates she put out.

Chef Montes de Oca, who’s mostly a one-woman operation, fries pica pollo to
order every day she’s open, and marinates a batch for the next. But not
everything on the menu hanging above the register is always available. She
doesn’t have the room in the tiny kitchen to make everything, which is why
after you walk in the door and she greets you like you’re the most
delightful surprise of the day, it’s best just to ask what she has on hand.
If you’re lucky she’ll have sancocho, a meaty stew with beef,
chicken, dumplings, squash, yuca, carrots, and plantains that, once
ingested, turns your gut into an internal furnace that’ll warm your bones
long after you’ve returned to the cold outside.

A heated glass case displays empanadas and kipe, the Dominican
adaptation of kibbeh, brought by Middle Eastern immigrants in the late 19th
century, its bulgur jacket and ground-beef core scented with sweet basil
and that characteristic oregano.

Mangú isn’t just for breakfast. Morena’s serves it all day, along with a
few similarly restorative warm and stewy options like slowly braised goat,
fall-off-the-bone chicken, and carne guisado, Dominican braised
beef. The warmly spiced liquids these muscly meats tenderize in are sopped
up by ample portions of rice: perhaps Moros y Cristianos (“Moors and
Christians”), firm, fat grains tinted by black beans; or orange
achiote-stained rice mined with plump pigeon peas; or plain white rice,
simple and buttery tasting, and perhaps the best canvas for these stews.
Each of these plates is preceded by a salad of shredded iceberg dressed in
oil and vinegar to scour the insides in preparation for the feeding to

On Saturdays expect more labor-intensive dishes like oxtails, their flesh,
fat, and collagen almost jiggling off the bone, and bacalao, mildly salty
reconstituted dried codfish with potatoes and olives in tomato sauce. In
the late afternoon Montes de Oca starts griddling chimichurri-not the herbal
Argentine steak sauce but the Dominican hamburger, the beef marinated in
lemon and mustard and topped with cabbage, tomato, ketchup, mayo, and

She usually has someone helping her expedite the plates, but she
says she likes to do the cooking itself alone. That doesn’t mean she
doesn’t seem to love the company anytime anyone drops in. She’s one of the
most radiantly cheerful people I’ve ever encountered in the restaurant
industry. It’s a confident spirit that transfers to her food in the way of
all the best chefs.

Morena’s is set up mostly for takeout, but Montes de Oca has plans to take
over the defunct computer repair store next door, which will roughly double
her size—and her ability to accommodate anyone who wants to stick around
and absorb her energy while absorbing her energizing food.   v

Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect the correct spelling of the restaurant’s chef-owner. It is Montes de Oca, not Monteszeoca.