Tucked back in a quiet street in the Berry Hill neighborhood of Nashville sits Merengue Cafe. We sat down with the owner, chef, and restaurateur, Dee Castillo, to talk about her Dominican and Puerto Rican roots.
Dee was born in the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic. She spent the first part of her childhood learning the ways of cooking from her mother, grandmother, and neighbors. There she mastered the ways of using garlic, oregano, and plantains in her cooking. She then moved to the neighboring island of Puerto Rico, ran a business, and now resides in Nashville and loves to share her culture with the people of Nashville.
What brought you to Nashville?
I came to visit a friend in Nashville by coincidence and I fell in love with it. I love it! I’m a country girl. I love nature. I would say Nashville, nature, and the weather was what most impressed me and I decided to stay.
When did you open your first business in Nashville?
I opened my first restaurant 4 years after I moved to Nashville. It was very, very hard. It was a restaurant and sports bar. It didn’t work out and I learned so much. So I started to help out other Spanish speakers be able to open their restaurants after the things I learned. I’ve helped 12-14 businesses open. The most popular business I’ve helped open is Fonda El Cubileta. Flores Super Deli is another restaurant I helped. It’s Honduran.
What inspired you to open Merengue?
I missed my food. I missed my culture. And I always had the vision of having a business in Nashville. Every single business I’ve helped open is a gem.
Tell me about the food
It’s Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban. We serve a lot of congri which is black beans and rice which is very Cuban. The funny thing is all 3 countries eat the same thing, we just call it a different name. Mofongo is Puerto Rican, 100%. Mangú which is boiled plantain with onions on top with mashed potatoes is Dominican 100% which is also our breakfast, believe it or not.
What is Merengue’s speciality?
Mofongo which is a Puerto Rican dish. 100%. Traditionally Mofongo is green plantain, deep fried, smashed with pork, garlic, and seasoning..then you add the meat. Here we decided to think outside of the box. We started to make Mofongo with shrimp in a coconut garlic sauce.
Garlic, oregano...but not just any oregano. Authentic oregano from the Dominican Republic. It’s different. To get the authenticity, you can’t use stuff from here. You have to use it from your own country. Onions, plantains, pork, rice, beans, all types of meat. The most popular meat that we have is the oxtail.
What do you recommend at Merengue Cafe?
At first, we always recommend the buffet. In the buffet, you can get an idea of what we eat for lunch and you can have different things..the rice, beans, and meat.
What would you like people to know about the DR and it’s culture?
We eat a lot! Good food, fresh food, and we are actually a little bit different than other cultures by the way we treat others. Like, if you come to visit, we will treat you like family. People know each other and it doesn’t matter what part of the country you go, people will treat you like family. Most people will call you cousin. “Primo!”. We have beautiful beaches. White sand and completely blue water.
Thank you, Dee, for taking the time to speak with us and for sharing your beautiful culture and incredible food with Nashville!
654 West Iris Drive
Nashville, TN 37204