Merengue

Cuisine: Dominican

Representative Dish: Mofongo con chicharro

Address: 5847 Dorchester Road, North Charleston

Phone: 718-2543

Web: None

Bar: None

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday.

Food: 3

Service: 2

Atmosphere: 1 1/2

Price: $

Costs: $6-$13

Vegetarian Options: Not many

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes

Parking: Lot

In certain corners of the Caribbean, mofongo is a fighting word. Every eater has an opinion about how to properly prepare the mashed-up dish of fried green plantains, garlic and oil, and about whether Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic deserves birthplace honors.

Tropical Kitchen Express

Cuisine: Puerto Rican

Representative Dish: Pernil

Address: 104 St. James Ave., Goose Creek

Phone: 553-7557

Web: facebook.com/TropicalKitchenExpress

Bar: None

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Food: 3 1/2

Service: 3

Atmosphere: 3

Price: $

Costs: $5.99-$9.49

Vegetarian Options: Not many

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes

Parking: Lot

The second debate is easy to settle: Mofongo got its start 5,000 miles to the east, where fufu - starchy balls of boiled yams, cassava or plantains - is a dietary staple. Enslaved Africans in the West Indies centuries ago adapted the recipe, incorporating a mortar-and-pestle tool developed by indigenous islanders and ingredients favored by their Spanish captors, such as onion and garlic.

Unfortunately, there are no right answers to questions of fluffiness and pepper content: A mofongo's texture and taste is determined largely by the cook's palate quirks and grandmother's habits. Yet the arguments are likely to enthrall indefinitely, which is why it's such good news that the Charleston area now has two stellar mofongo halls in which to wage them.

Tropical Kitchen Express, which opened in 2012, and the year-old Merengue Restaurant don't merely serve mofongo: Respectively, their menus offer comprehensive tours of Puerto Rican and Dominican cuisine. But the mofongos, stuffed with meat, serve as a useful checkpoint for Charlestonians ready to cross over from bemoaning the local scarcity of global restaurants to appreciating the strengths of the region's international dining scene.

Sophisticated eaters in Charleston like to say there isn't any ethnic food here. Putting aside the appropriateness of the term "ethnic" - as comic W. Kamau Bell recently pointed out during his set at Theatre 99, "ethnic" means "people," which means all food is ethnic food - the claim is shaky. It's true that the city's regrettably short on Asian options. But the world is much wider than 60 longitudinal degrees. Proportional to its size, Charleston is home to a wealth of vibrant Caribbean cooking, befitting the city's position in history and on the map.

To put that achievement in perspective, it's worth flipping through food writer Jonathan Gold's definitive compendium to Los Angeles restaurants, subtitled "The Indispensable Eats Guide to America's Most Diverse Food City." There isn't a single Puerto Rican or Dominican restaurant in the book. Yet within a 20-square-mile area north of town, Charlestonians can fully explore the nuances of food from both sides of the Mona Passage.

Merengue

The first time I tried to bring friends to Merengue, we were turned away by the proprietor, who sadly informed us she had nothing to serve but beans: Lunch customers and an early dinner crowd had gobbled down the pork chops, chicken stews and fried whole fish.

Whatever disappointment we felt was tempered by admiration: A restaurant ruled by a can opener and a microwave rarely runs out of food. Merengue's mini-crisis spoke volumes about its honest approach to cooking.

The carpeted dining room at Merengue, located in a shabby-looking strip mall, isn't the least bit polished: One wall is painted with palm trees and the restaurant's name in bubble letters. Otherwise, a few choice pieces of baseball memorabilia and a drinks cooler suffice for decoration. But the food's served on patterned plastic ware in primary colors so bright and beachy that the roar of Dorchester Road may start to sound like breaking ocean waves.

Every lunch and dinner plate is ornamented with a limp iceberg lettuce salad, sometimes sporting pale tomato slices, and a scoop of white or yellow rice. The rice and beans (red, black or white) tasted rushed on both of my visits, but the plates' centerpieces were satisfying: I especially liked a slow-cooked stew of staunchly gamy goat meat, still clinging to its bones.

Still, the highlight is the mofongo with chicharrons. Served in a tall pilon that resembles a wooden chalice, the garlicky plantains draw crunch and fat from the chopped-up pork rinds. The tender mofongo tastes something like Thanksgiving dressing might if a bacon-crazed home cook was in charge of the holiday meal; I like it best with the housemade hot sauce.

Tropical Kitchen Express

Quite possibly the Lowcountry's most misnamed restaurant, Tropical Kitchen Express is not speedy. "Might want to check it out if you have a minute or 60," emailed a reader, one of the restaurant's passionate fans.

But the pace is the only shortcoming at Tropical Kitchen Express, a supremely accomplished exposition of Puerto Rican cuisine. The food at Merengue is endearing because it's reminiscent of what a decent home cook might come up with; the food at Tropical Kitchen Express is memorable because it nuzzles the platonic ideal of home cooking.

Like Merengue, Tropical Kitchen Express' dining room is modest, yet it's tidy and upbeat: I can't fathom why every person at a table near mine was wearing the same plain orange T-shirt, but the restaurant feels like the kind of place you might convene with your juggling club or marching band section.

The room's attractively furnished with a framed map of Puerto Rico and a flat-screen TV, flashing images of the island.

Authenticity is the catchword here: Tradition always trumps fancy, a strategy that results in a phenomenal set of side dishes. The crackly arepas, gently inflated and bronzed at the edges, have a delicately nutty cast that's likely to re-up your appreciation of fried dough.

And the platanos maduros (more plantains), caramelized and sticky from frying, are compellingly starchy-sweet. Equally simple, the black beans have a fantastic round, smoky flavor.

Tropical Kitchen Express' mofongo is a dense cylinder of tightly packed mashed plantains. The handiwork's impressive, but I prefer the offered meat fillings as stand-alone entrees. It seems a shame to surrender the roasted pork's magnificent juices to the plantain tower.

Even the rice is perfectly cooked at Tropical Kitchen Express, so it's very hard to botch an order. But if you miss the Tropical sandwich on Wednesday, the only day sandwiches are served, you've gone seriously awry. The sandwich math is headache-inducing: Chicken breast, pork, sliced deli ham and turkey shouldn't add up to splendor, even if you factor in the sheer coats of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. But seated on a slightly dry baguette (all the better for soaking up surplus flavors) the salty, pressed-together meats somehow realize handheld greatness. Good thing Charlestonians don't have to travel far to find it.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.