The noisiest, meatiest, booziest brunch in Inwood

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Mamajuana Café. ()
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Cutting across the rapidly gentrifying slice of the northern tip of Manhattan between Broadway and the Hudson River is the northwestern tier of Inwood's Dyckman Street, which is nestled cozily in a small vale between Inwood Hill Park to the northeast and Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters to the southwest.

Its five blocks are now lined with recently opened restaurants, boutiques and bars (plus a bicycle shop), one after another. 

In the warmer months, the rather large outdoor cafés extend far out into the extra-wide sidewalk to give the once solidly blue-collar, Irish-American Dyckman area an almost Parisian feel, set (somewhat controversially) to a boisterous Latin soundtrack.

At the old-growth-forest-abutted Hudson end of the strip, at the conclusion of Dyckman's continuously redeveloping northwestward stretch, is a soon-to-be reopened boat basin, which used to include a ferry landing for a fleet that chartered residents back and forth from the Palisades of New Jersey.

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While not yet a tourist destination, the area has become something of a magnet for New Yorkers from outside the neighborhood, especially as a way to round out a day of visiting the nearby museums and parks.

One of the early successes of this budding experiment is the Mamajuana Café.

Named after a fermented herb liquor common in the Dominican Republic, Mamajuana's, as it is commonly known, was among the instigators of Upper Dyckman's boomlet, spawning several spinoff restaurants nearby.

It is a new sort of Dominican-American establishment: upscale by neighborhood standards, built to attract curious visitors from elsewhere in the city and non-Dominican newcomers to the neighborhood, in addition to longtime locals.

Billing itself as based on Taíno Indian, Mexican and Dominican influences, its décor has a Castilian emphasis, evoking explorers, pirates and conquistadors, rather than the modern Dominican Republic or the surrounding neighborhood. In other words, the restaurant—which has sister locations in Santo Domingo as well as Corral Gables, Fla.—doesn’t take the idea of itself too seriously. And it works.

One of Mamajuana's biggest hits is its weekend all-you-can-eat buffet brunch, at $18.95. It’s a scene of barely controlled chaos, between the diners jockeying to get from their tables to the buffet and back again (and again) and the restaurant employees rushing to keep up with them.

People can’t seem to get enough of it.

The wait is often about 20 minutes, leading some customers to get an early start at the full-service bar. It’s a buffet, with food in chafers, but the turnover is quick enough—aided by an efficient, seriously hard-working staff—to ensure that the contents are fresh and tasty.

Mamajuana's brunch offerings were not conceived of with vegetarians in mind. Chicken, steak and large, crispy pieces of bacon are the visceral centerpieces of this menu. In fairness, there is a station that offers fresh, mixed leafy greens and fresh fruits and vegetables. But on a weekend afternoon, that's not what you come here for.

The chopped chicken is the highlight, crispy and spiced to perfection.

The cubes and filets of steak are excellent, too. They're a bit tough (the restaurant really needs to make steak knives available on the floor), but juicy and flavorful.

The black beans are cooked well, without being too pasty, and the white rice is fluffy and moist.

There are also cubed hash browns cooked the way breakfast potatoes should be cooked: spicy, crispy and salty, with peppers, onions and an assorted mix of accompanying vegetables.

One gets the impression that some of Mamajuana’s more standard American brunch fare was included among the Latin-inflected selections as a sort of concession, and that the effort put into it is accordingly minimal. So the Eggs Benedict, while edible, leave much to be desired. They just don't keep very well in the chafer. The English muffins are not nearly toasted enough, and they seem to cradle some type of thin salami in place of the always Canadian bacon.

The omelets, made to order, are better.

In any case, you may stop noticing the little things at some point. That’s because the brunch deal includes an all-you-can-drink supply of mimosas and jack punches, the latter being a concoction of different fruit juices and Jack Daniels. In some instances it’s served by the pitcher.

Other dining options include pancakes and French toast, warm plantains and mangu, a Dominican dish made of boiled green plantains mashed together with salt, pepper, water, milk and butter. There are also brownies and muffins for afterward, if there’s any room left.

Altogether, It’s a great time. The only question is how to handle it all.

Best just to go for it, spend the rest of the day recovering, drink a lot of water, and the next day maybe spend an hour or two at the gym.

Or at the very least, plan on having a light dinner.