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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Santiago Family Restaurant

Santiago Family Restaurant
July 6, 2012 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
WE’VE ALL LEARNED by now how to parse the review attached to online restaurant-finders. Yelp in particular attracts the literacy-challenged, the axe-grinders, the angry. So to find a restaurant listed there with an overwhelming number of positives is to feel suspicious.

We were a foursome heading to Albany after a few days at the Cape. We’d easily made it off the island on a Friday afternoon, but the Mass Pike threw us a bunch of slowdowns. The GPS gave a cruel accounting of the many minutes lost to stopped traffic. We’d planned to dine in the West Stockbridge area. By the time we reached Springfield, all were hungry. With the attendant grumpiness being stuck in a car can bring.

The next exit put us in Westfield, a small city I knew only as the birthplace of a favorite composer, Frederic Rzewski (who long since has lived elsewhere). We consulted our smartphones. Although I refuse to patronize chain restaurants, even their presence was limited. But many kudos had been bestowed on the Santiago Family Restaurant.

Nothing like an air-conditioned car to build you up to an surprising fist-smack of wet heat. It was hot on the sidewalk and hotter still in the little restaurant’s dining room, where a few floor-standing fans struggled to move the moist air mass.

And there wasn’t a table to be had. Which daunted the hostess not at all. “Four?” she asked, then scooted to a four-top where a deuce was seated. She moved them to a tiny two-top. “It’s okay,” she explained. “They’re like family.” These words would prove prophetic.

“Dinner’s going to take a while,” she told us as we took our seats. “We had to give Mama a break. It’s been busy all day, and she does all the cooking. So we have to give her a break once in a while, don’t you think? You have two, three tables behind you, so it shouldn’t be too long.”

If only all servers were gifted with this level of candor. Knowing the deal going into the meal makes all the difference. I sipped a Modelo and studied the menu and got used to the heat.

Rice and beans are the meal foundation, and can be ordered alone for $5.50. But for another four bucks you can add roasted chicken or chicken and vegetables, a breaded pork chop or fried pork, or stewed cube steak and onions. The roasted chicken we tried was a good-sized portion, all of it gently but characteristically seasoned.

It being Friday, roasted pork was available ($10, also served Saturdays), which was as tasty a preparation of the meat as I’ve ever enjoyed, full-flavored and tender. We also sampled two orders of fried plantain ($2 per order of five pieces) and a quartet of fried, seafood-filled plantain baskets ($2 apiece), which contain an array of mild fish pieces, including the ubiquitous surimi.

“Our recipes are all traditional Puerto Rican dishes,” our server, Alexa Santiago, told me. “This is the food my siblings and I grew up with.”

Her parents, Carmen and Ismael, opened the restaurant – and realized a family dream – in 2001, and put much of the family to work.

And not just in restaurant roles. While we waited for our food – and, as Alexa warned us, we waited – a fellow plugged in an electric upright bass and fiddled with the amplifier controls. Another settled in with bongos. Then a guitarist plugged in an acoustic instrument, gave a cue, and they were off with a lively song to which the guitarist sang Spanish lyrics.

He turned out to be Ismael. “Yes, I’m also an owner,” he said later. “That means I also sweep the floor and wash dishes.”

Ismael Jr. and Dino
He was a terrific guitarist and singer. When his son, Ismael Jr., joined the group on maracas, he proved that the musicianship runs in the family. Along with singing lead in more Spanish-language songs, he gave us a syncopated “I’m in the Mood for Love” and even dipped into the Beatles’ songbag. The bass player is brother Dino, and the excellent bongos work was by Domingo Roche. The ensemble is called Grupo Canela, and plays at the restaurant, often with other family members sitting in, on Fridays and Saturdays. They made any dinner delay negligible. I only wish I’d known some of the songs and could have joined the many customers who sang along with the choruses.

“We haven’t seen you in here before,” said Alexa after the band took a break and we’d finished our meal. I explained the circumstances of our discovery of the place and how much we’d enjoyed ourselves. “Then you’ll have to come back!” she declared. “You’re family now!”


Santiago Family Restaurant
, 34 Franklin Street, Westfield, MA. 413-562-0210. Serving Tue-Thu noon-7, Fri-Sat noon-10. MC, V.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a wonderful review. The Santiagos are a great family, and the food is 100% authentic. Add the music and it's an overall great experience!