Day Pass: Dominican Republic

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

Sadia Sosa Walker moved to Atlanta from Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, in the year 2000. It was her first time in the United States and she felt instantly nostalgic for the aroma of slow roasting pork, the chit-chat of aunts and uncles gathered for Sunday meals, the lush green valleys and the tropical Caribbean breezes.

In February, the month of traditional Carnival celebrations, that feeling of nostalgia grows even stronger for Caribbean immigrants like Walker. It is the season for colorful costumes, vibrant parades, bands playing fast paced soca music and dancing all night long. Luckily, there are several places around the city where that Dominican spirit remains strong, and last month Walker agreed to show me around to a few of her favorites.

We meet for lunch with Walker’s sister, Ade, at Sabor Dominicano (4186 Buford Highway N.E., 404-963-1799), a small restaurant with orange walls and inexpensive Dominican eats. Bachata music plays in the background while three television sets in one room show different Latin channels. A Spanish-speaking server brings us plates of quipes (deep fried bulgur rolls), maduros (sweet fried plantains) and mofongo (fried and mashed green plantains with chicken broth soup). Walker is excited to see tostones longaniza — pork sausage with fried green plantain chips — on the menu. “I haven’t had it in a long time,” she tells the server with a smile. “Bring me that too!” There are only a couple of authentic Dominican restaurants in metro Atlanta, so when Walker goes out to eat, she must order all her favorites. The three of us are having a feast.

“The first thing I did when I moved to Atlanta was look for Dominican ingredients,” Walker tells me, recalling her search for yucca, cassava and plantains. She soon found Buford Highway Farmer’s Market (5600 Buford Highway N.E., 770-455-0770, www.aofwc.com), which has extensive Caribbean offerings, and the simply named Dominican Grocery Store (950 Indian Trail Lilburn Road N.W., Lilburn, 770-279-7755) which carries an array of imported staples. Once you are used to the flavor of Presidente beer, Dominican coffee, whole Dominican oregano and Induveca brand salami from home, says Walker, you can’t substitute for anything else. “Even the avocados here are watery and flavorless,” her sister chimes in.

Food is one of the primary ways Walker maintains ties to her native culture. She cooks for her family every day and tells her four elementary school-aged daughters about her childhood in the Dominican Republic. Growing up, she worked at her grandparents’ cafeteria-style restaurant, where she helped slaughter pigs, season the meat and complete other kitchen tasks with her grandmother before running off to school smelling of garlic and oregano. She says it feels like a full circle when her kids come home from school and ask for a snack of salami and tostones.

After cooking, the second most important thing in a Dominican woman’s life is her hair, says Walker. Back in Santiago, she and her friends would visit a local lady’s living room turned into a salon for day-long hair services including cutting, drying, straightening and braiding. Since Walker doesn’t know of any home salons here, she has found a hairdresser — Elsy’s Dominican Hair Salon (726 Windy Hill Road S.E., Smyrna, 770-875-3983) — who doesn’t use grease and knows how to tame Afro-Caribbean hair. All the women in the Walker household make a trip to the salon every month and for special occasions.

Atlanta’s Dominican community is small and, according to Walker, not very well organized. “There used to be an association — they even put up events for the Carnival — but it dissipated due to lack of leadership,” she tells me. Now, most Dominicans get together informally at each other’s homes to drink beer, cook together and play dominoes. Of course, there is always music and dancing; all age groups can be found expertly moving their bodies to blaring salsa and Reggaeton. At one of Walker’s birthday parties, I couldn’t keep up with a 90-year-old grandma who held down the floor all night.

On special occasions, Walker and her family go to Mamajuana Restaurant and Lounge (950 Indian Trail Lilburn Road N.W., Suite 2A, Lilburn, 678-924-9369). When darkness falls, the casual dining room, with its tinted windows and white tablecloth settings, transforms into a nightclub with a DJ station and dangling disco ball. Many Latin and Caribbean families have dinner and stay for live music and dancing. Sometimes, the restaurant invites celebrity performers and hosts concerts.

Walker takes her kids home to the Dominican Republic every summer so they can visit relatives and stay connected to their heritage. In the meantime, they’ll be reflecting on the past month’s carnival celebrations and preparing for Easter, known to Dominicans as Semana Santa, by making moro de guandules (rice with Moorish pigeon beans) and habichuelas con dulce (sweet cream of beans). “It would be great to have more opportunities to educate my kids about our culture,” says Walker, “but in the meantime, I am doing the best I can.”

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

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