I like the look of El Nuevo Frutilandia. It feels like the Puerto Rican Tourism Bureau of the 1960s got drunk on Skittles — or Gobstoppers, to be really passe — and smeared its overzealous, retro advertising scheme on the inside. The product is lively, patriotic and a little bit cartoonish. But then again, so is the food.
The place draws from Cuban and Puerto Rican traditions, which apparently, in this case, means stuffing lots of deep-fried starches with different meats. Not that that's ever a bad thing.
It sits on a stretch of 24th Street that's rife with Central American food options, making it veritable plantain country. Happily, the ones at Frutilandia hold up nicely. Well, the ripe ones — called maduros — do, dosed with rum and fried until a caramelized glaze slicks the outside. Hot, tart and sweet. I love them.
Equally good are the snacklike tostones con mojo de ajo, unripe plantains sliced up and twice fried, paired with pressed garlic and a biting vinegar sauce that I would have tossed down the gullet, shotlike, if decency hadn't (for once) held me back.
Sadly, other dishes fared worse. Frutilandia's rendition of mofongo was a bland one. Unripe plantains, deep fried and smashed with garlic and olive oil, are molded into a cake and packed with pork (or vegetables) under a tomato-based sauce. It's a trademark of Puerto Rico's food repertoire, but this one tasted lifeless.
Of the appetizers, the papa rellena and alcapurria were pleasers, being (naturally) deep fried and meaty. The papa rellena is a fried ball of mashed potatoes, and the alcapurria is an ovular yucca and plantain fritter. Ground beef fills them both. They have as much novelty as flavor, topped with pink pickled onions and whimsical curls of sliced plantain. The kind of food that gets animated in a weird short film.
Despite the presentation, both dishes were inviting and delicious in a primal, meatloafy way. Consider them the savory answer to a jelly-filled doughnut. Though given the choice, I can't say I wouldn't go for doughnuts.
On the bright side, Frutilandia does a mean slow-cooked pork. Some crazy, enzymatic magic happens in the pierna de puerco horneada marinade, a concoction of pineapple, vinegar and garlic. The pork is bright and juicy, an interesting centerpiece to rice and beans.
The picadillo a la Habana vieja, Cuban-style ground beef enlivened with olives and raisins, turned up less exciting, but is probably exactly what you're looking for if you're one to order a pile of ground beef.
The price point is often too high. One cheese-stuffed poblano pepper costs almost $12, and the small pork serving upward of $14. For that price, you're better off with a beer and three papas rellenas. And really, that's not bad off at all.
Service can be slow and sometimes forgetful. Appetizers took 40 minutes on a first visit, and beers were forgotten on another. But Frutilandia doesn't have to worry about proving itself; it's been around for almost 40 years.
Hallmarks of past ownership still linger, manifesting as things like chiles rellenos, pointing to the previous owners' Mexican heritage. A bit of sloppy eavesdropping will tell you that Cuban and Puerto Rican families do indeed dine here, which should tell you some things, one being that there ought to be more options in this genre.
El Nuevo Frutilandia
Location: 3077 24th St. (at Fremont Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 648-2958
Hours: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, closed Mondays
Price range: $4 to $15
Recommended dishes: Platanos maduros ($3.75), pierna de puerco horneada ($14.25), alcapurria ($2.95)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted, but not necessary