Bienvenido a Washington Heights

It is easy to forget that you are in New York City as you step off the one train at 181st street. The bright lights of numerous food establishments ensnare your attention. The aroma of zesty Dominican spices make your mouth water. Featuring clothing appropriate for the Dominican tropical climate and food made from fruit indigenous to the island, the Dominican ethnic enclave surrounds you. Bienvenido a Washington Heights.

Washington Heights is known for its predominantly Hispanic population, the majority of which is Dominican, as depicted by the table displaying information from Social Explorer:

 Year                – Hispanic (or Latino) Percentage of the Population Dominican Percentage of the Population                 
1990 67% NA
2000 75% 38%
2010 72% 44%
2015 67% 43%

After 1990, the category changed from just “Hispanic” to “Hispanic and Latino.”

La Casa Es Su Casa

Located at the bustling center of Washington Heights, the restaurant La Casa Del Mofongo, home of the traditional Dominican dish featuring plantains, serves the population in the area. Mofongo is an Afro-Puerto Rican dish consisting primarily of fried green plantains and pork. Even though it originated in Puerto Rico, it is a popular dish among Puerto Ricans and Dominicans alike.


If you walk in around lunchtime, people in all different work attires ranging from business men in suits to construction workers in jeans and boots line the left side of the restaurant that has a large countertop for people to eat their fresh Mofongo. The middle and right side of the restaurant has tables and a stage for entertainment.

La Casa del Mofongo is only one of numerous establishments to eat ethnic food in Washington Heights. Within three blocks of La Casa, there is another large restaurant called South Beach. This restaurant also caters to the area’s Hispanic population, serving Latin American food, in a modern setting.

With so many different options from which to choose, we were intrigued as to what draws people to La Casa del Mofongo in liu of other local restaurants like South Beach? To find out how this restaurant has retained its popularity over the years, we sat down with the man in charge, Eddie. He graciously gave us more than 20 minutes of his time to discuss the restaurant’s dynamics.  

El Hombre Con El Plan

Eddie has lived in Long Island for the past 10 years, but he was born in Israel. His longtime business partner, however, was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Therefore, he is familiar with traditional Dominican food. The relationship between these two business partners is well balanced because Eddie handles business while his partner focuses on food. Together they have been able to successfully run the restaurant for over 10 years.

As aforementioned, it is not easy running a restaurant that serves Hispanic food in a neighborhood with dozens of others options for consumers to choose from. According to Eddie, competition with other nearby restaurants is the most difficult obstacle he faces while running the business. He attributes much of La Casa del Mofongo’s success to advertisements.

Eddie mentioned that he and his partner Anthony run commercials on local television channels daily, place ads in local newspapers, and have a loyal customer base: “I would say 50% of the customers we get are from word of mouth, and the other 50% are from all of our ads.”

However, if you ask Eddie, he will affirm that the food is not enough. He is referring to all the other significant aspects of La Casa that draws new clientele in and retains the old customer base.

The restaurant’s atmosphere is one of a kind. Besides delicious food, people come back for the entertainment. Eddie and his partner run weekly and monthly events. Regarding entertainment, Eddie shares, “We even had a famous singer from Santo Domingo come and play.”

Each week there are new events held on the main level of the restaurant for customers to enjoy and often the bar gives specials on drinks on Saturday evenings. In addition, people do not have to worry about finding time to visit because it is open 24/7 and provides free delivery from 11-3PM.

Although all these positive attributes help to make the restaurant successful, do not be mistaken; owning and running a business is no easy task. Eddie stresses the importance of fresh food and cleanliness. He believes the Department of Health is important in regulating the safety of the food. Every day, his 40 employees and himself gather in the location to commence food preparation, cook fresh food, and provide great customer service.

Eddie has advertised the business on Channel 47 (the Telemundo American Spanish-language television network), in flyers, and in newspapers. Nevertheless, he knows that to keep a steady flow of customers, the strongest aspect of marketing for his business is word-of-mouth.

Both loyal and new customers come in and expect the great customer service La Casa Del Mofongo is known for:

“Just one person tells their friends [in the community] that they had a bad experience here and it spreads. This is why it’s important to focus on even the smallest things.” Eddie

Eddie told us that in Washington Heights, a majority of his customer base are good friends, and these connections make it so important to provide consistently great customer service. He deals with the challenges of retaining loyal customers and attracting new ones by changing the menu twice a year, and adding new foods as he and the cooks see fit.

Trust is one of the key aspects of running such a successful business. The overlap of business and food creation forges strong links amongst the owners and workers.

“If the cooks think something is good and should be added to the menu, I trust them and add it. We [the owners] run the business upstairs and the cooks run the kitchen.” Eddie
Los Nuevos Chicos en el Bloque

After interviewing 3 different business owners in Washington Heights, we got the same answers each time we inquired about the demographics of their customer-base: mostly Dominican. Census data confirms that a majority of Washington Heights has Hispanic and Latino origin. Our study focused on the census track that encapsulated what two different business owners described as the “heart of Washington Heights.” We found that La Casa Del Mofongo was located within Census Track 271 based off of its ZIP code 10033.

Our first search inquiry was race and here are the maps depicting the Hispanic or Latino population in Census Track 271.

Below, the maps from Social Explorer depict the percentage of Hispanics and Latinos in the heart of Washington Heights from 1990 to 2000 to 2010 to 2015:

The maps reveal that Census Track 271 was not much different from the surrounding areas in Washington Heights, and in both 1990 and 2015, the Hispanic (and Latino) population was approximately 67% or about ⅔ of the population of the Heart of Washington Heights was 67% Hispanic and Latino.

We also looked at specifically the Dominican population in the area. In 2015, approximately 43% of the population was Dominican, with the rest of the Hispanic and Latino population evenly distributed with very low percentages among other nationalities.

Although Eddie, the owner of La Casa Del Mofongo, did not note a great change in the area, two other business owners in Washington Heights told us that they noticed more money was flowing into the area.

As for Washington Heights, Eddie doesn’t notice a magnanimous change in the area: “Businesses on the block come and go,” but he did note that people have more money, and that slowly more expensive stores are popping up.

From our own observations, we noticed a gentrified coffee shop two blocks down from La Casa Del Mofongo. Its cursive writing printed on the new glass window stood out amongst the bright awnings and photos of food plastered to the other storefronts surrounding it.

Our next inquiry was about money. We looked at the median household income in 1990. Here are the results of our searches on Social Explorer:

*It is noteworthy that the dollar values are based on whichever year the Census was taken, not current US dollars; therefore I used the information for the purpose of comparison between races. *

 Year         – Anyone               Hispanic or Latino    White                  
1990 $21,039 NA NA
2000 $32,168 $31,394 $32,359
2010 $38,125 $32,646 $41,000
2015 $49,750 $40,729 $70,017

In 2000, the census improved to include median household income by race. In 2000, the income in the area was $32,168 for all races and $31,394 for people of Hispanic or Latino origin. This difference is minute. However, when we continued our search into 2010 and 2015, the wage gap between Hispanics and the general population in the area burgeoned.

In 2010 the general population made $38,125, while Hispanics only made $32,646. Then in 2015 the gap increased further from the general population making $49,750 and Hispanics making $40,729. I became curious as to what population was creating this large income gap and found that the white population made just a bit above the average population in 2010 and then way above the average population in 2015 with a median household income of $41,000 in 2010 and then a jump to $70,017 in 2015.

The income disparities are visually depicted in the Social Explorer maps below:

After looking at the income disparities, we wanted to see how much of the population had become white during those same time periods. From Social Explorer, displayed below are the percentage of non-Hispanic white people and then the white alone (including Hispanic white people and non-Hispanic white people). We had predicted that there might have been more intermarriage in Hispanic and white households, but the number of Hispanic-white people in the area only varied from 22% to 24% from 1990 to 2015, which means intermarriage does not account for the large gap in income. Therefore, there is a different factor (besides inflation) accounting for the $20,000 increase in median household income in 5 years.

 Year                – Percentage of Non-Hispanic White People                     Percentage of White Alone
1990 28% 50%
2000 21% 39%
2010 21% 48%
2015 27% 51%

La Casa Del Mofongo serves the locals, but also serves many people from all over. When asking my Hispanic friends from all different parts of Queens if they had heard of, or been to, La Casa Del Mofongo, a majority of them replied with: “Of course!” The restaurant serves the population of Dominicans and other Hispanics in the area and all over NYC who want a taste of home.

Culture plays a big part in many aspects of a person including personality and even physical appearance. When people emigrate from their homeland to America, they do not just assimilate to the point that they become a cookie-cutter version of an American. And as we have explored aspects of culture during our class discussions, we have come to realize that there is no “cookie-cutter” version of an American, and that all our different nationalities and cultures with some modification are what constitutes American culture.

Dominicans and other people of Hispanic and Latino origin wanted a place in their new country for their culture to thrive. Anthony saw this desire in his own people and Eddie joined the business venture. With the authentic entertainment and recipes, Hispanic people from all over love to come to La Casa Del Mofongo to appreciate their native cultural backgrounds.

Una Mesa Para Dos

After our interview with Eddie, we found ourselves hungry and wanted to know what all the hype was about, so we ordered chicken Mofongo. The fried chicken, made of quality white meat, surrounded the main delicacy Mofongo. Mofongo is fried plantains packed into a small cake filled with other bits and pieces to help flavor it. It comes with a savory yellow sauce on the side to pour over the Mofongo.

This gave us a good representation of the food, but we also needed to experience the atmosphere of the restaurant by visiting on its busiest night of the week, Saturday. When we arrived at about 9 P.M. the restaurant was crowded, but we were still seated within 10 minutes. At the surrounding tables were couples on dates and families with small children, all enjoying plates of tacos, quesadillas, burritos and of course, Mofongo.

Since we already had chicken Mofongo, we wanted to try a different type. An entire page of the menu was dedicated to the numerous variations of the dish. We chose to keep it basic and get the Cheese Mofongo, which is just regular Mofongo with a side of fried cheese. Yes, the Mofongo came with two savory blocks of fried cheese on the side. Yum! We also ordered chicken burritos, which were plated on a bed of vegetables and were flavorful, but not too spicy.

The waiter was very amicable and polite even though we were one of the few people who did not order in Spanish. He could tell we were coming from a different area based on our questions about the dishes and pronunciation of the word “quesadilla”, but answered all of them to the best of his ability and even joked with us a bit.

The restaurant was divided into a family friendly section and an adult section featuring more ambience, upbeat music, and a crowded bar. The bar area was very popular and many young people in trendy clothing stood by the bar sipping cocktails. Young couples ate at small tables alongside the bar. In the center of the restaurant, there were lots of children eating with their parents. Lastly, the countertop area featured people dressed informally who sat for a quick, yet delicious, bite.

La Casa Del Mofongo caters to all on Saturday night. Whether you fall into the category of people who are dressed casually after work, youngsters looking for a hip spot, and parents with children, you will feel right at home at La Casa.

El Futuro

Besides providing the locals with a taste of home, La Casa Del Mofongo supports the local police and schools by providing food for events. This is how Eddie and his partner contribute to the community that serves them.

With the burgeoning income from white residents in the area, Washington Heights is bound to experience some changes in the near future. Right now, rents are slowly climbing. However, based on the census data indicating stagnant racial demographics in the area, we predict that Washington Heights will remain Dominican for years to come.

We enjoyed our visit to La Casa Del Mofongo and recommend that you visit this restaurant to see the people and food that make up the heart of Washington Heights. While you’re there, try the chicken Mofongo; you won’t be disappointed!

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