GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic isn’t ideal, but Gilma and Edward DeLaCruz did it and are sharing the culture of the Dominican Republic through flavorful food at Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine.
The couple is hoping their restaurant, which opened last summer, continues to be a welcoming, colorful fixture in downtown for those unfamiliar with their Dominican roots.
Chef and co-owner Gilma DeLaCruz said the plan was to expand from their popular food truck, El Caribe, into a restaurant in March 2020 but closures to slow the spread of COVID-19 delayed the opening at 55 Monroe Center St. NW until July.
She said her goal has been to expose Grand Rapids to the cooking she grew up with in the Dominican Republic, which she described as homestyle, warm and embracing. That means being very intentional about everything from her recipes to the restaurant’s décor.
“People are not very familiar with the Dominican concept, but we’re trying to make (Grand Rapids) diverse and share culture,” DeLaCruz said.
“Our restaurant not only shares the food aspect, but we also share the art that we have here on our walls. We want to make sure people come in here and feel that warmth from the Dominican Republic when they’re in here – the music, the food, the art, the cheer for our culture.”
As guests walk in, they’re greeted with a wave of bright colors ranging from massive painted walls from local Caribbean-inspired artist Erick Picardo to carnival masks and hand-painted mugs straight from the Dominican Republic.
While the art showcases elements of Dominican culture, DeLaCruz said she wanted to appreciate Grand Rapid’s creative culture in her own way.
“We definitely wanted to have that connection with the city in the restaurant,” she said.
The creativity extends to the menu. DeLaCruz is highlighting traditional items like the oxtail stew. She said the slow-cooked, tender cut of beef is paired with rice and beans that are made with love – ditching the cans and opting for freshly-sourced beans that are boiled in-house.
Guests can try oxtail, rice, and beans on Mi Bandera — the name for a Dominican plate that pairs rice, beans and meat.
DeLaCruz said that plantains are a true Dominican staple food, and they are present in a range of ways at Art Caribbean. She said the idea of plátano power, which is a regional nod to plantains being given baseball players for strength, and the widespread use of the banana-esque fruit makes it essential eating.
The restaurant uses the versatile ingredient both in plantain chips and as a bread substitute in some of their savory sandwiches.
But what shines the most, DeLaCruz said, are Art Caribbean’s empanadas, which are doughy vessels that hold mixed fillings like cheese, meat, or vegetables. She compared them to a Hot Pocket or turnover, but with their warm, filling interiors that can be shared or eaten on the go.
“When I think about what we’re going to make in the empanadas, I want to make sure that everybody gets a bite of everything in there,” DeLaCruz said. “So, if we put cheese, onions, meat (in it), when you grab a bite, that’s what we want you to grab. All of that warmth, all of that food – grab it all together in an empanada.”
The empanadas, which are served in groups of three for a total of $9, range in the types of fillings from Salchiqueso, which has sauteed cabbage, Dominican smoked sausage, and cheese, to Coconut Chicken with spicy curry chicken and coconut cream. Each comes in different shapes and colors of dough to bring an artistic creativity that makes each serving unique.
“We make them savory; we make them sweet,” DeLaCruz said. “Anything that you can think of we can put in our empanadas. That’s why they’re so fun.”
Art Caribbean also serves up $5 a plate yuca fries, a sharable dish made from the root of the cassava plant. The fries are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside and pairs well with a garlic cilantro aioli sauce.
“We go through about four boxes of cassava a week because they’re so popular,” DeLaCruz said. “They’re a great sharable plate and people are falling in love with yuca fries here in Grand Rapids.”
Opening in the pandemic, Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine has limited dine-in space and the socially distanced tables are sanitized regularly. They also boast outdoor dining, which is located in a designated social zone, allowing guests to get drinks from nearby restaurants until DeLaCruz can get its liquor license.
While summer is a ways away, DeLaCruz said guests don’t have to wait until the weather warms up to try a taste of tropical cooking.
“Even if they don’t know who we are, come in and ask us,” DeLaCruz said. “We’re very friendly, we’re a local family that’s trying to succeed and make a difference in our community. So, we hope people come in and feel that warmth and that homestyle here.”
Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine is open Tuesday through Friday from 3 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 9 p.m. To reserve a table or view their menu, visit their website or call them at (616) 724-4370.
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