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Las Palmas: Not My Dominican Kitchen

By Ericka S. Familia, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ericka S. Familia ’25, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Greenough Hall.

As a child of Dominican immigrants living in the Bronx, N.Y., it is rare to walk to the supermarket without hearing bachata or merengue playing from a car stereo or neighbors gossiping in Spanish with their distinct Dominican accents. Cambridge, Mass. has offered a stark contrast. At Harvard, I am pleasantly surprised whenever I encounter a fellow Dominican student, as these encounters are few and far between. So, when I came across a new restaurant on the first floor of the Smith Campus Center, a self-proclaimed “Dominican Kitchen” called “Las Palmas,” I was naturally elated. It would serve as a welcomed break from the subtly-spiced Annenberg recipes, and more importantly, a tangible representation of my ethnicity on a campus where I feel increasingly detached from my roots every day. Las Palmas seemed to have the potential to provide at least a semblance of the vibrant Dominican culture that characterizes my hometown.

Las Palmas distributed free empanadas as part of a promotion. While mine lacked the crisp that is essential to a well-cooked empanada, it was decent nevertheless. I was willing to give Las Palmas the benefit of the doubt, that is, until I read the rest of the menu. Its singular entree offering is a Chipotle-style “Build Your Own Bowl,” with white rice or spring mix as a base; chicken, pork, and tofu as protein options, and a variety of “toppings” including cranberries, plantain chips, and shredded carrots. Quite frankly, without the words “Dominican Kitchen” written in bold green letters on their sign, I would not have recognized Las Palmas as a Dominican restaurant even after reading its entire menu. And that is coming from someone who was raised by two Dominican parents in a neighborhood very close to Washington Heights — which houses the largest concentration of Dominicans outside of the DR — and who visits family in the Caribbean peninsula nearly every year.

Lacking sancocho (meat stew), mangú (mashed green plantains) accompanied with eggs, salami, and fried cheese, and white rice with stewed beans and braised chicken — some of the most prominent Dominican dishes — as well as other typical foods such as tostones and yaniqueques, Las Palmas can hardly be described as a “Dominican Kitchen.” Because of the owners’ failure to include these on their menu, I initially assumed that they lacked proximity to Dominican culture. However, co-owner of Las Palmas Seila J. Green implied otherwise, stating that the restaurant’s aim was to help people “know our culture, where we come from, and taste different flavors.

Green’s presumed familiarity with typical Dominican cuisine invites the question: Why aren’t the dishes that are most commonly featured on the dinner tables of Dominican households included on Las Palmas’s menu? To me, the most obvious explanation is an impulse to cater to the mostly white customers who frequent the Smith Center. Options like coffee with oreo crumble rim, tres leches with nutella, and tropical mango tofu are clear efforts to make menu selections more palatable to those unfamiliar with authentic Dominican food. Green claims that she and her husband are passionate about offering authentic Dominican food, but with a menu that includes only one uniquely Dominican item — morir soñando, which is a drink made with milk and orange juice — this passion seems to be less of a priority and more of an afterthought.

Deciding to open a restaurant marketed as “Dominican” comes with the responsibility of accurately representing our cuisine, particularly considering the crucial role that food plays within Dominican communities. By misrepresenting our food, Las Palmas also misrepresents our culture, traditions, and values, which is particularly problematic at a place like Harvard because it spreads a false image among people who lack the knowledge to recognize its flaws. While I am certainly a proponent of diversifying food options in the Square, they should be adequately advertised, and Las Palmas can only be described as a “Latin Kitchen” at best. The restaurant’s website states that they aim to provide “a taste of the Dominican Republic,” but in my view, Las Palmas only offers visibility of the Dominican Republic — it acknowledges its existence but does not authentically portray its culture.

As a Dominican student at Harvard, I am disappointed that Las Palmas does not seem willing to run the risk of offering authentic food that would perhaps be rejected by many on Harvard’s campus on account of being too foreign, although I am not particularly surprised. While I was thrilled upon encountering Las Palmas for the first time, three weeks later, I still cannot bring myself to spend $10 on a “rice bowl.” Every time I consider ordering from this Smith Center restaurant, I ultimately opt for Annenberg instead. It is almost as though accepting Las Palmas’ claim of authenticity would taint the classic aromas of the true Dominican kitchen in which I have grown up.

Ericka S. Familia ’25, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Greenough Hall.

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