$20 & Under Review: Karamba Tropical Restaurant

Set your watch to island time at this Dominican-American diner and savor food—just like at Abuela’s house.

In the midst of White Plains’ bustling business district, between heavy hitters Sofrito and BLT Steak, is family-owned and -operated Karamba Tropical Restaurant. Inside, the senses are awakened with the aromas of home—if you grew up in a Latino home, that is: the simmering of sopas, salsas, and mojos. If you’re in a hurry, let the staff know, because, here, you are definitely not rushed. The visit is long, like a Sunday dinner, and the food is family-style, so bring your appetite or your familia along. 

Merengue and bachata are playing loud enough to put you in a festive mood, but not so loud as to disrupt conversation. Carved wooden signs welcome patrons, and inside the simple design follows suit—brown walls throughout, the Dominican flag hanging proudly, and flat-screen TVs on every wall tuned to fútbol and béisbol. The wide railroad-car dining room has a hot to-go buffet that’s popular with the city’s 9-to-5ers, and a long, partially open galley kitchen displays bubbling hot trays of beef and chicken stew, roast pork, and side staples rice and beans. Don’t expect to get an omelet or pancakes at lunch or dinnertime; unlike most American diners, Karamba, which is open daily from 8 am to 11 pm, serves breakfast items only during breakfast hours. 

The waitstaff is pleasant, but slow, as customers wait to be asked for their order. The servers can’t tell you much regarding menu items, but they are more than ready to tell you what items are off the menu due to the time of day or lack of availability. 

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On a busy Saturday night, there was only one server for the dinner crowd, which made the service even more frustrating. But once you have that first sip of the batida de zapote ($3.50), a thick, refreshing shake of mamey (a salmon-colored tropical fruit); the first slurp of an oversized bowl of sopa de pollo ($6) that feels like a soulful meal capable of curing the worst cold; or the initial bite of any item on the ample picadera platter (i.e., both green and sweet yellow fried plantains, fried queso, chicken, beef, and salami), you’ll want to stay and keep ordering. 

The aguacate salad ($3.25), served with sushi-grade avocado on a bed of iceberg lettuce, is simple but very satisfying once you add olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper (located on every table, along with a tall bottle of hot sauce). The sopa de pollo, or chicken soup, with its thick, golden, velvety broth, is a wonderful amalgamation of chicken, root vegetables, and sofrito. It’s so hearty and full of fork-tender chicken, quartered corn on the cob, thick round noodles, and boiled green plantains, that you could stop your meal here and be completely satisfied.

The mofongo with pork ($8) is my favorite. Served with a cup of tomato-garlic broth to pour on top of a small mountain of mashed fried green plantains (mangu) with pieces of tender pork laced throughout, every bite is as moist as the first. Almost as good is the roasted pork dinner, or pernil  ($10.95)  stacked high with a side of maduro—glistening fried sweet ripe plantains. It only fell short of the mofongo because of a dearth of salt. 

The fried calamari, served with classic diner french fries and a bracing garlic dipping sauce ($8.95), as well as the breaded steak ($11.95), were both somewhat flavorful, but also, to different levels, overdone. Ditto the bistec palomilla con cebollas (fried steak with onions). Especially when ordering steak, be sure to tell the waiter how you want it cooked; since they don’t usually ask, the result is often overdone. 

Of all the desserts on the menu, the two made in-house are the flan and tres leches. Saturated (in a good way) with whole, condensed, and evaporated milk and topped with a dollop of guava paste and dulce de leche, the tres leches was heaven on a plate the first time, but pedestrian the second time. The flan, my all-time favorite Latin dessert, was hard and inedible. When you get the check, look to see if a tip is included; they may automatically charge a 15-percent gratuity without notification.

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Most Caribbean food is labor-intensive and time-consuming, involving lots of stewing, roasting, and long simmers; the kitchen at Karamba understands that. If you can get past the lackluster service, you will enjoy this unapologetic Dominican castaway food joint. 

Food: 3/4 | Service: 1/4 | Atmosphere: 2/4 | Cost: $

Karamba Tropical Restaurant
185 Main St, White Plains
(914) 946-5550; www.karambatropical.com

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