At Alphateria, Plantain Girl Mandy Estrella Triumphs with Caribbean Cuisine

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[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Cheryl Baehr (Riverfront Times) writes about the Caribbean delights prepared by Mandy Estrella at Alphateria (located at 4312 Fyler Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri).

As a whitebread Midwesterner cooking Caribbean food, Mandy Estrella understands that she will raise some eyebrows. [. . .] Estrella, the self-styled “Plantain Girl,” is indeed the culinary force behind her Dominican-inflected food counter, the Alphateria. And from the taste of that ropa vieja, you would think that she had been cooking Caribbean food her entire life.

In fact, Estrella’s foray into the cuisine began about fifteen years ago in Orlando. Though she had attended culinary school at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park with a plan to be a banquet manager, her time in Orlando made her realize she would not be successful at that job in a resort community. Instead, she switched gears to the front of the house, where she found that serving and bartending provided a more lucrative living.

While working in Orlando, Estrella met a Dominican man, now her ex-husband, who introduced her to his native country’s cuisine. Though she had tried Caribbean food before, she was blown away once she got a taste of truly authentic cooking. She wanted to explore every aspect of it.

Estrella returned to St. Louis with eyes wide open to the city’s lack of proper Caribbean food, even with a tight-knit Latin community to support such a scene. At first, she cooked out of necessity to sate her and her family’s cravings for the flavors they’d enjoyed in Florida. As she became increasingly confident in her abilities, however, she sensed a business opportunity. She began catering to the local Latin community and exploring the idea of opening an eatery.

Estrella didn’t have the funding for a full-scale restaurant, but the rise of food trucks, counters and pop-ups made it possible to get her food in front of diners. After forging a connection with the owner of the Crafty Chameleon in west county, Estrella began doing regular pop-ups at his restaurant and then at Six Mile Bridge Beer and ANEW test kitchen.

Pleased with the response she was getting, Estrella built the Plantain Girl brand as she worked on figuring out the next steps. Her path would become clear when she was approached by Alpha Brewing’s owner, Derrick Langeneckert, about running the food service at his brewery’s new Tower Grove South digs. Feeling as if she was being gifted the perfect opportunity, Estrella took him up on his offer, and this past March, opened the Caribbean-inflected Alphateria inside the spacious new brewery.

Much like a food truck, Alphateria is a walk-up operation where guests order at the window, grab a table flag, then wait for their food to be delivered as they sit either inside the brewery or on its large outdoor patio. The kitchen is tiny, no larger than a concession stand, but what Estrella and her team do within the small space is nothing short of magical.

Consider the empanadas: two golden, flaky pillows that on my visit were filled with succulent ground beef. Somehow, the deep-fried pocket manages to contain both a heaping quantity of meat as well as its seasoned cooking liquid; when pierced, the latter drips out like savory gravy, waiting to be soaked up by the empanada’s crispy, pie-like edges.

Just as the empanadas change regularly, so do the tacos; on one occasion, juicy shreds of roasted chicken thigh filled soft flour tortillas. Ripe tomatoes and crisp lettuce served as a garnish, and a smoky spiced cream mingled with the chicken jus to form a mouthwatering sauce that could not be contained by the tortilla. I was so enraptured by the taste that I didn’t mind the mess.

Hush puppies, flecked with herbs and fried, are dense but not tough; dunking them in the accompanying Cajun remoulade sauce evokes the quintessential side dish you’d get at a dockside restaurant in south Florida. [. . .]

For more on Alphateria, see https://www.facebook.com/Alphateriastl

For full article, see https://www.riverfronttimes.com/stlouis/at-alphateria-plantain-girl-mandy-estrella-triumphs-with-caribbean-cuisine/Content?oid=23884656

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