Elvis is in the building.
And you can feel it.
More accurately, Elvis has returned from a delivery trip. He bursts through the door, smile 10-feet wide and announces his arrival. Elvis is home. Instantly he has reclaimed his role as Executive Chef (though he would never call himself that, and may not know what that even means), host, and fountain of effervescent joy.
D’Canela Cafeteria serves Dominican food. Or maybe it’s Dominican-influenced. Or Elvis-influenced. Or maybe, just American. In a land of three hundred million immigrants and a thousand cuisines, it’s nearly impossible to find one dish, let alone one cuisine that truly represents America. There is too much variety – of available produce, spices, palettes – to find something representative. Even the hamburger wasn’t invented here. One could argue it’s abundance – of produce and livestock and the sheer amount of food on your plate – that defines American food, but quantity isn’t about palette and it seems wrong when fifty million Americans live without reliable access to sufficient food. D’Canela is probably not what most of the world (or the good-folk of Providence) would identify as ‘American,’ but it is made in America, by Americans, for Americans, and that’s what makes food American.
You come to D’Canela for a juice or a shake, a sandwich, and a taste of home or what you wish was home. The menu, riveted against the wall above the counter, is somehow both effortlessly simple and deliria-inducing. Elvis offers seventeen jugos. And another ten shakes. If you look for long enough the Spanish and English blur.
Elvis will steer you. There aren’t really twenty-seven drink options—well at least not now, at seven o’clock on a sleeting February Providence day. But come back in the summer, Elvis implores, for the Guanabana—a hand-sized, apple-esque, prickly fruit which combines the flavors of strawberries and apples with the creamy, mushy textures of coconuts and bananas. Elvis ships it from his hometown (though where exactly that is remains unclear). Elvis only serves what’s fresh, what he likes. The sandwiches are classics—Cuban, Ham & Cheese, Club, Pernil, etc. None disappoint. The differences are mainly in the meats. Each sandwich has the same essential ingredients: a 12-inch white-bread Dominican loaf (with a daub of lard providing the distinct taste and post-grill airiness), cheese of some variety, lettuce, tomato, mustard or mayo, and meat (chicken, ham, roast pork, or all of the above). There’s also no shortage of butter—Elvis slathers the loaves before, during, and after grilling—giving a glistening sheen to the whole affair. Whatever you choose, it’s hard to go wrong. Like with everything else, though, it’s better to just ask Elvis: You are in his house and he won’t lead you astray.
In a delightfully rote American tradition, D’Canela is a mom and pop joint. Elvis mans the counter, does the deliveries, serves the food, and moonlights as chef and creative director. A family member or two whips up the dishes backstage, peeking out occasionally to bask in a guest’s ecstasy.
What I mean to say is service can be, ahem, slow. If you overwhelm the crew with a lengthy order, as we did much to their delight, you might have to wait a moment. It’s not slow, or at least you wouldn’t call it slow if it was a white-linen kind of place, but given the sparse surroundings, it can feel like a while. Have patience.
Elvis bounds out of the kitchen, hands stacked with still crisping sandwiches, nestled in wax paper. Elvis is happy – beyond happy, like an unsupervised child with an unlimited budget in a candy store happy – to be here. To be serving you his food. In his place. In his home.
Upscale restaurants often feel like churches on a Tuesday: all the seriousness without any of the fun. Hole in the wall cafeterias and eateries can feel like they are eating your soul. D’Canela couldn’t be further from either: it is a home. It exudes comfort, love, and delight. There is a joy, an enthusiasm, that permeates the overly-lit dining room. It bounces off the sloppily lacquered walls, off the mismatched laminate floor. It is infectious.
The juices are lively—lollipop sweet with a soothing tartness close behind. You can taste the fruit. That may sound unremarkable but in February in New England, that’s high praise. The passionfruit is sweet, but never excessive. It prickles your tongue—washes away what came before and prepares it for the deluge of textures and flavors to follow. The banana shake is decadent, banana cream pie masquerading as a refreshment. The shakes vary in thickness—coconut cream to Dairy Queen Blizzard. Some may make you question the juice-shake distinction. They are universally luxurious.
The juices and shakes are delicious, but they are mere back-up singers in Elvis’ show. You come to D’Canela for the sandwiches. Melted cheese oozes, but never too much. The mayonnaise is light and expressive. The meats are moist and rich but not too fatty and the cheeses of a high enough quality. The bread is grilled perfectly—a crisp crunchy outside barely hiding the dough’s pillowy softness. Elvis’ sandwiches are symphonies of flavor that would make Mozart jealous.
The Cubano is riveting. The pork butt, roasted for half a day, emerges from deliria-inducing Swiss cheese atop a mountain of lettuce, blushing tomatoes, and crisping ham—the flavors all sealed under a grill weight waiting to detonate the taste buds. The Pernil is rambunctious. The roast pork can barely hold onto itself, so tender and rich you’ll find yourself scraping every last chunk off the wax paper. You might even find yourself longingly running your tongue around your mouth a few days later, lapping up the last vestiges of salt, fat, and oregano. The star of the show, however, is the Completo, an amalgamation of the best of what D’Canela has to offer. The Completo is a sandwich on steroids—every layer of meaty excess, cheesy richness, and soft airy bread that you find in Elvis’ other offerings packed into a singular explosion of culinary delight. Treat yourself, the extra dollar is well worth the splurge.
D’Canela is an ode to American abundance and exuberance. It’s the kind of place where you look down at your Styrofoam sandwich box after what feels like the largest sandwich you’ve had in your life and realize, almost alarmingly, that you’re only halfway there. The heaping piles of meat and cheese scream America. Portion size may be the only universal characteristic of ‘American food’ outside of being made in America.
Elvis is an immigrant, and like those he’s followed and those who will follow in his footsteps, the only constant slice of the ‘American dream’ is the quantity and cheapness of produce and meat. Elvis and D’Canela call to mind Hasia Diner’s work on Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. The portion sizes at D’Canela – and Elvis’ clear delight at their size – echo that of Italian migrants basking in their new home of cheap abundance. The D’Canela menu, with its Cuban (Cubano), American (Ham & Cheese), Puerto Rican (Pernil), and Dominican (Completo) pan-Latin classics is a living modern embodiment of the regional mixing that Diner describes as the origins of what Americans call ‘Italian food.’
The food at D’Canela isn’t for the faint of heart (or the weak of heart). The mountains of richness would make a nutritionist blush. The Completo won’t be making the next Federal Dietary Guidelines. The food at D’Canela, if it wasn’t already clear, is delicious. The flavors are magnificent. But you “shouldn’t” eat at D’Canela: it is, by nutritional standards, unhealthy. Yet I sit here salivating, nutrients be damned. I am not one to question the basic utility of focusing on the chemical components of food, as Jessica Mudry does in Measured Meals: Nutrition in America. Nor do I share Ms. Mudry’s opposition to quantification. But I do agree with Ms. Mudry on one thing. I’ll be going back to see Elvis because, “Health, after all, can mean much more than being free from illness.”
D’Canela has its issues. The interior is drab. The food can take a bit. Elvis likes his ground beef close to burnt. There’s more than enough to make up for it.
Elvis has pulled up a chair now. He’s showing us his newest creation – you can see it on his Instagram too, he tells us. It’s a ‘Miami-style Cubano’ he claims: half the size, same amount of meat, lettuce and tomato on the side. The mouth-watering is audible. Elvis beams.
Another audience pleased.
954 Chalkstone Avenue, (401) 286-7996.
ATMOSPHERE Unadorned but comfortable cafeteria of about 12 seats. Basic and unpretentious, with a divey, homely feeling
SOUND LEVEL Low generally, with occasional bursts.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Completo Sandwich; Pernil Sandwich; Cubano; Elvis’ Miami-style Cubano (Off-menu); Banana shake.
DELIVERY UberEats, by Elvis with minimum order.
PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $1.00; Sandwiches, $5.00 to $8.00; Plates, $1o.00; Juices and shakes, $2.00 to $7.00.
HOURS From 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Sunday.
RESERVATIONS None needed or accepted.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards for purchases over $10.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Dining room and restrooms at street level.
. Hasia Diner, “’The Bread is Soft’: Italian Foodways, American Abundance,” in Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 48-83.
. Jessica Mudry, Measured Meals: Nutrition in America, (Albany: State University of New York Press), 2009, 19.
Image Credit: Severin Roesen, “Abundance of Fruit,” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAbundance_of_Fruit_by_Severin_Roesen%2C_1860%2C_oil_on_canvas_-_New_Britain_Museum_of_American_Art_-_DSC09427.JPG