D’Road Café is a kind of crossroads of international flavor in downtown Montgomery. It’s billed as a Latin (and mainly Venezuelan) restaurant, but owner Janett Malpartida pays no mind to borders. South American cuisine is just the beginning of what she can do.
I went to D’Road with Brittany Faush for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see that version (and Brittany’s cool video) here.
“I believe that food is happiness, and I want to share that with my family and friends,” says the self-taught chef and Venezuelan native. And family here takes on a larger meaning.
“We don’t have a conventional restaurant,” Malpartida says. “I really want you to feel at home. Like, when you go home, and you say ‘Mom, what do you have?’ And she says, ‘Come to the kitchen and see.’ You say, ‘OK, I want this, this and this.’ You take your plate, and you go and sit down. … My clients, for me, are my priority. So, I will say this is like home.”
As far as making people happy, there are many tasty opportunities for that at D’Road Café.
For brunch, Malpartida serves Venezuelan specialties such as arepas and empanadas, criollo and cachapa alongside French toast, a French toast sandwich and omelets.
The meat-and-three-sides lunch special will feel familiar but taste exotically different with items like coconut chicken served alongside her ever-popular black beans, rice and plantains. Look for the parrilla (grill) with your choice of meat served with peppers and onions, yuca and pico de gallo. You’ll find pork, chicken, beef, a beef-and-chicken combo and vegetarian options. Specials include pabellón criollo (brisket with black beans, rice and plantains); bistec encebollado (steak with onions, rice and plantains); and grilled fish of the day topped with capers.
Then on Fridays she offers an international menu with a tasty trip to wherever she wants to go. (Malpartida used to work as an international tour guide and has been to 64 countries; she expresses her large love of the wider world through these Friday dinners.)
“So, one day I said, ‘Okay, I want to do International Friday.’ So, then I say, ‘Let’s go to Israel.’ … So, I do tabbouleh, I do shakshuka. I do lamb. I just sort of start researching about the … food and then I put my touch. Like my lamb. I marinate my lamb in buttermilk for about a day and a half or two, and that is so beautiful. It’s so tender. It loses the game kind of taste, you know.”
She’s also served foods from Ethiopia, Turkey, Egypt, Hungary, Italy, Czechoslovakia and Germany. “I’ve done France, many times; Luxembourg; Belgium; Spain; Portugal. I love Portugal. The food is so amazing. I’ve done the Caribbean several times—Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Beautiful. I’ve done South America … Colombia, Peru, Brazil. From Brazil, there’s a beautiful dish called moqueca. It’s fish cooked in coconut milk. Oh my God. … Then I put my touch, as I said, I put peppers and onions and this and that and the other and then you have to have palm oil because that’s a signature thing. So, in that goes with rice and plantains on the side, and that is amazing. I’ve done Argentina, of course, beef. I’ve done Uruguay, which is also beef but they have a different kind of empanadas. … I think once I did Russia a long time ago.”
Her customers can keep up with the International Friday offerings on her Facebook page.
International Fridays aside, flavorful Venezuelan cuisine is influenced by a lot of culinary backgrounds including the Spanish, Italians, Portuguese and French as well as Africans and indigenous Americans.
“It’s a lot of different foods,” Malpartida says. “It’s a collage; this is how I call it. Venezuelan food is a collage of (American) Indian and … the Spaniards that came in 1492, the British that came with Sir Walter Raleigh. Then right after that, we had Dutch people, we have French people … Portuguese.” … The Africans who came to South America as slaves, she says, “brought their own customs. And what they did was they make our food richer because then we have different spices. … We are very close to Trinidad, and Trinidad has a lot of Indian influence. Okay? So, that comes to the eastern part of our country as well. So, it’s a collage of cultures. It’s very beautiful.”
You’ll want to try the arepas—the signature dish of Venezuela. This tradition, she says, is thousands of years old and dates to the indigenous people. You’ll find several versions here. She counts these as a signature dish at D’Road along with cachapa and pabellón criollo.
Cachapas, Malpartida says, are corn pancakes and are mainly from the flatlands of Venezuela. Traditionally, she says, they take the corn cake, add cheese and fold it. “So that’s when I become different from any other restaurant, and I say that sounds boring, you know? So, I took my cachapa … I cut it in half and then I put white cheese, I put brisket, another cachapa and other brisket, another cheese, another cachapa and two eggs on top. This is unique. You can only find it in myrestaurant, because that’s my idea.”
All the dishes at D’Road are homemade and healthy; many of the ingredients are organic. Malpartida feeds her customers the kinds of foods she wants to eat. “I always say to people, ‘Listen, I’m 68 years old. I need to be 130, so that’s why I’m eating healthy.’”
D’Road Café started in 2011 on the east side of the city with a mere six tables. In 2016, Malpartida moved D’Road to a larger, historic building, which used to house the legendary restaurant The Elite (pronounced E-lite) in the heart of downtown Montgomery. It’s just blocks away from The Legacy Museum, which attracts customers from all over the country. She has a loyal local following, too, of people in nearby law offices and elsewhere around the capitol city.
“When they come here, I want to give them a little bit of welcomeness … from our country. … I can only be grateful to all the people that come over here and eat,” she says.
Montgomery might be a conservative market, but Malpartida’s customers are open to the new experiences she offers.
“I must say, my clientele are very selective. … I love them. They’re very exquisite. They like to eat healthy. I mean, they can eat at any other restaurants; there are very good restaurants over here as well. But they are more open-minded to try different things, you know. But this is more home cooking than a restaurant, if you know what I mean. But that’s what they like. And then with international, then I jump to another level.”
Malpartida originally wanted to call her business Down the Street Café, but when she went to register the name with the state, they told her it was already taken. Same for The Street Café. Her background on her grandfather’s side is Italian, she says. “I wanted something … to give you the idea that you are in an Italian café or a Venezuelan café, which has very much Italian influence because of the Second World War and so on.” The entire time, she was envisioning the street outside her café, but then she also was pressed for time. “It was four o’clock, and they want to close,” she said. “So, I put ‘D,’ which is very common for the Italian last name. I put ‘D apostrophe.’ Then ‘Road’ … for the street and then ‘Café.’”
Malpartida says her favorite part about owning a restaurant is the people—those who work alongside her and those who are there to eat.
“The most important thing, definitely for me, is the people. Definitely,” she says. And she loves meeting new ones because the interactions are usually meaningful. “I don’t know if it’s me giving you another side of the world because I’m very positive. I don’t know if it’s that I have learned from other people, because I do. You’re talking to me. I’m talking to you, and I’m learning from you because life is an open book.”
The hospitality here is gracious and genuine—from Malpartida and her small staff.
“I’m very proud of the people that have worked with me,” she adds. “Because even though I cannot pay fortunes … we work as a family. Yes. It’s family. I’m proud of them.”
121 Montgomery Street
Montgomery, AL 36104
Tuesday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Friday International Dinner 6 to 9 p.m. by reservation only.