Winter is the season when we most long for “comfort food,” a phrase that means different things to different people, depending a lot on the ethnicity of the hearer’s upbringing. For many, it evokes some kind of meat cooked very slowly with moist heat, to the point where it’s fork-tender and falling off the bone. Seasoning can be applied with a light hand when the meat has been stewing a long time in its own juices.
It may come as a surprise to some Anglo folks who are used to thinking of Latin American food as “too spicy” that this slow-simmering style is the essence of Dominican cuisine. And you can get the real thing in New Paltz these days: at New Nelly’s II, which last year took over the little shop at 235 Main Street that formerly housed Amazin’ Melts, directly across from Ulster Savings Bank.
Spicewise, Dominican cooking relies on a savory (but not hot) vegetable-and-herb paste called sofrito. “The main thing we use is oregano,” says Pete Malena, proprietor of both New Nelly’s II and its progenitor: New Nelly’s on Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie. He explains that his chefs make their own tomato paste from scratch to concoct the sofrito, and that they use the fat rendered out from the meats in place of olive oil. “It’s a long time to cook. We have to be here at five or six in the morning to be ready at ten, every day. Just to do the pork is five hours.”
Ahh, that roast pork. It’s the restaurant’s best-selling entrée, according to Malena, who ranks the stewed chicken second in popularity. The menu also typically features baked chicken, oxtails, steak and onions, catfish, eggplant and even goat. All the savory meat dishes are served over your choice of three different rices: white, yellow or mixed with beans or peas. Sweet fried plantains are a crowd-pleasing side. Green salad is also available, but vegans aren’t really the target audience here.
The various stewed dishes are arrayed in shining stainless-steel trays behind the long counter. “Every day we have something different on the menu,” says Malena. You really can’t go wrong if you just point to an unfamiliar dish and say, “Let me try that.” Back in the kitchen lurk other specialties for those already initiated to Dominican delights. Most days you can get seven different kinds of mofongo, for example, but you have to ask. For a lighter lunch, try an empanada.
To wash down your repast, New Nelly’s II offers a long list of tropical-fruit juices, including such exotic choices as tamarind and soursop, as well as banana, mango, strawberry, pineapple, soursop, papaya and mamey milkshakes. Pasteles and other regional desserts can also be ordered. Most of the business is takeout, since the seating area is tiny, and you can order delivery via Uber Eats, DoorDash, GrubHub or Carry Out Kings. “We do catering, too,” notes the owner.
Most days, Pete Malena is holding down the fort at the Poughkeepsie restaurant, while his wife Ramona runs the New Paltz operation. Chefs get trained under the couple’s watchful eyes. “When they bring something from the kitchen, everyone tastes it, to make sure it’s good,” says Pete. “Every time.”
Raised in Santo Domingo, Pete came to live with his parents in the Bronx at the age of 17. He learned to cook mostly by watching his mother, he says. He opened and still owns a supermarket in Manhattan, but was persuaded to get into the restaurant business upstate by his cousin Julio Mendoza, who bought the original Nelly on Main Street in Poughkeepsie from its founders. Mendoza later sold it, but helped Malena to get New Nelly’s established.
Now Paltzonians don’t have to go far from home to enjoy authentic Dominican-style cooking. The portions are generous, and the prices surprisingly affordable. “I can tell you, of this whole town, we offer some of the best food that is really good and really cheap,” says Malena.
New Nelly’s II hours are from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. To place an order, call 419-2808. To find out more, visit www.facebook.com/new.nellysii.