By Allan Walters

If you want to savor the food of the farming villages that dot the mountains in the middle of the Dominican Republic, look no farther than Carbon y Leña, (in Spanish, coal and wood), where a family cooks from recipes that are not written down, but have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.

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Leidy Ramírez runs Carbon y Leña with her mother, Angela Lopez.
Photo credit: Allan Walters

Owner Leidy Ramírez moved to New York from Costanza, Dominican Republic, when she was 14.  Her hometown, located in the Cordillera Central mountain range, is the town at the highest altitude in the Caribbean; temperatures can drop below freezing. Ramírez said she has always loved to cook, and from a young age, she started helping to prepare family meals — food to fuel hard, physical work. 

Ramírez began to dream of owning a restaurant when she was 12.  It took moving to Hyattsville to finally begin to realize that dream.  

Read on to learn about Carbon y Leña house specialties for each daily meal, along with the story of the restaurant’s founding, pandemic survival and current expansion.

Beginnings, and Breakfast — Los Tres Golpes

Plantains, a Dominican staple, show up in many different ways, from thickening stews to being pounded and fried into chips. The traditional breakfast starts with boiled plantains that are mashed, topped with sauteed onions and accompanied by the tres golpes (three hits) of fried salami, over-easy eggs and fried cheese. Cutting into the eggs releases the yolk to mix with the mangu (mashed plantains) and, when eaten together with the onion and a piece of the salty cheese or salami, forms the perfect bite.

When Ramírez first moved to Hyattsville, in 2011, owning a restaurant was still her dream. She would drive down Route 1, looking for empty storefronts with for rent signs and write down the phone numbers. One place, a building on the east side of Route 1, a few blocks south of East-West Highway, stuck in her memory, even as she moved away from Hyattsville. When she returned three years later, it was still empty, but with the sign removed. Ramírez found the number she had written down years before and called the owner.  

A Subway sandwich shop and a pizza joint had made a go of it in the building, but each closed in less than a year. The landlord, recognizing Ramírez’s drive to open her own business, initially refused to rent to her because he did not want to see her fail as the other businesses had. But her persistence paid off, and Ramírez opened Carbon y Leña in 2018, finally realizing her dream the year she turned 35.

Working together and lunch — La Bandera Dominicana

No meal more typifies what most Dominicans eat daily, often at lunch, than la bandera (the flag). The meal of red kidney beans, white rice and stewed meat is like the red, white and blue of the Dominican flag. Ramírez’s version, with stewed chicken (pollo guisado), offers succulent bites of meat still clinging to the bone in a sauce that has been cooked down for hours.

Ramírez runs Carbon y Leña with her mother, Angela Lopez; they cook there together almost every day, preparing most meals fresh and to order. They start beans and specialty stews early to allow flavors to meld. Ramírez is proud to offer guests so many different tastes from her homeland. She recounted how a family of 10 recently visited and wanted to personally thank the chef. “When I told them that I had done most of the cooking, they did not believe me,” she said. “They told me I made them feel like they were back in Santo Domingo in their abuela’s house.”

Celebrating pandemic survival over dinner — Mofongo con Camarones

Another traditional dish is mofongo: fried green plantains mashed with salt, garlic, broth and olive oil in a wooden mortar and pestle called a pilón. Mofongo can be mixed with fried pork or topped with sauteed shrimp, which elevates mofongo to a dish worthy of a celebration and is Ramírez’s favorite style. 

When the restaurant first opened, there were lines of eager Dominican expats (and a few others) snaking out the door. But when the pandemic shut down most businesses, Ramírez was forced to make changes to stay afloat. She reopened the restaurant after two months with safety measures in place, indoors, and expanded the outdoor seating.   

While business has not yet rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, it is on the upswing. Ramírez is adding seating on the restaurant’s second floor, along with a small bar that will serve wine, liquor, and Presidente, the national beer of the Dominican Republic.  

Ramírez estimates that about 50% of her current clientele is Dominican, coming to the restaurant from across the DMV. She hopes to continue to attract more locals. “I love when people come to the restaurant who have not tried Dominican food before,” she said. “They always leave saying they love our food and that they will be back with their friends and family.”

El Carbon y La Lena is located at 6033 Baltimore Avenue and open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Holiday meals for large groups, including the traditional pernil — a slow roasted pork shoulder that has been marinated in olive oil, garlic and oregano — can be ordered for carryout.