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Mi Barrio Dominican cuisine sets up year-round location inside Fargo's Big Top Bingo

Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine serves up a menu loaded with favorite dishes from owner Yessica Hernandez's childhood in the Dominican Republic. “I’ll serve you a nice plate of food and I’m 100% sure you’ll be happy,” she said.

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Yessica Hernandez, left, and her mother, Altagracia Javier, in the kitchen of Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine, a new restaurant operating inside Big Top Bingo in south Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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FARGO — Yessica Hernandez is living her dream inside, of all places, a bingo hall thousands of miles away from home.

Hernandez is the founder of Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine , which debuted inside Big Top Bingo’s kitchen Saturday, Nov. 19. The restaurant operation has evolved from pop-up to food trailer to, currently, a permanent brick-and-mortar presence.

It has all made for a quick rise for Hernandez’s business since she first started in 2020, but she doesn’t plan on stopping her growth trajectory anytime soon.

From disaster, a dream emerges

Born in the Dominican Republic, Hernandez was living in New Jersey in 2011, considering her family’s next move. In August of that year, Hurricane Irene battered the state. As a result, the Hernandez residence was “completely underwater,” forcing the family to live inside a gym for two months.

While there, a South Dakotan working for the Red Cross introduced himself. When he heard about the family’s relocation plans, he suggested they consider his home state. That drew a not-so-unexpected response from Hernandez. Where?

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Hernandez wanted a quiet place to live in solitude with her family. She got just that when her family settled down in South Dakota’s northern counterpart. She lived in Williston for several years before moving to Fargo, where she has lived for two-plus years.

Hernandez boasts an extensive culinary background, having attended culinary school and worked in restaurants in both New Jersey and Williston. All told, she had 12 years of professional kitchen experience but was looking to strike out on her own.

“It was just that time where I kind of wanted to work for myself, accomplish my own dream,” she told The Forum. “My dream was to own a restaurant, but with the Dominican background.”

She started off slowly, beginning with a pop-up presence in front of Hornbacher’s along University Drive South. Space was limited, however, and the harsh winter weather limited her to operating during the summer months.

The following year, Mi Barrio rolled out a food trailer, which alternated between outdoor locations at Big Top Bingo and Great Northern Bicycle Company along Broadway in downtown Fargo.

Even with the trailer, weather was still an issue. Having operated outside Big Top Bingo, Hernandez knew the business’s kitchen was unoccupied. She approached management about renting the space, giving her businesses a permanent, year-round space which she expects will allow Mi Barrio to reach its full potential.

Plantains, pork belly and a drink to die for

Dominican cuisine offers its own distinct flavor and presentations compared to other Latin American dishes, Hernandez explained. So while the language may be the same across countries, Mi Barrio’s menu features “completely different” tastes than what most are accustomed to.

Leading off, Hernandez points to the barrio bowl, which consists of white rice, red beans, a side salad and a choice of either chicken, fish or chicharrones (pork belly).

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For the uninitiated and picky eaters, Hernandez recommends tres golpes. The dish includes deep fried and smashed plantains, fried eggs and Dominican salami, topped with pickled onions. “Those are things that almost everybody can recognize,” Hernandez said.

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Yessica Hernandez, left, and her mother Altagracia Javier prep food in the kitchen of Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine, their restaurant located at Big Top Bingo in south Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

For those who want to dive into Dominican culture, Hernandez advised ordering the mofongo. Like the tres golpes, mofongo starts with a deep fried and smashed plantain, adding in garlic lime and salt. The plantain is then stuffed with pork belly and topped with mozzarella cheese, shrimp or more pork belly.

No matter what customers order to eat from Mi Barrio’s extensive menu, Hernandez suggested ordering a glass of morir soñando, which translates to “to die dreaming.” It’s an iced mix of orange juice and evaporated milk, which Hernandez said many customers have likened to an Orange Julius.

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The lengthy list of Dominican favorites, including homemade empanadas, flan and rice pudding, draws from Hernandez’s youth. “All the dishes are dishes from my childhood, dishes that I know,” Hernandez summarized. “It’s just bringing a little bit of what made me happy when I was little to your table.”

For visiting bingo players, Mi Barrio also has an American menu with items like BLT sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chicken baskets and egg salad. Anyone who wants some authentic Dominican cuisine is welcome to it, though. “If they want to try rice and beans, then they can come my way,” she said.

‘The country of dreams’

Living in North Dakota simply “doesn’t compare,” to life in the Dominican Republic. “It’s the Caribbean,” Hernandez said. “Everything about it is awesome, but there are a lot of limitations,” particularly in terms of education, safety and finding recreational activities that haven’t been overrun by tourists, she explained.

Hernandez said she and her family have been able to bring some of the islands to North Dakota, but her mind always goes back home around Christmas, when she particularly misses her remaining family there.

Still, Hernandez is happy with her life in the United States. “The United States has its qualities. The United States is the country of dreams,” she commented. “You have to work, but you can achieve your dreams. Education is much easier to obtain.”

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Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine, a new restaurant located inside Big Top Bingo in south Fargo. Owner and operator Yessica Hernandez said it is the first Dominican cuisine in the area.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Hernandez doesn’t plan to stop dreaming anytime soon, either. Her ultimate goal is to move into a restaurant space of her own. She envisions a buffet-style establishment, colorfully decorated with all the fixings. “We don’t only have white rice,” she said. “We have rice with beans, rice with pigeon peas, rice with corn, yellow rice. I want to give you all those options.”

She is pleased with her current set-up though, ready to serve up the flavors from her childhood in a year-round home. “I’ll serve you a nice plate of food and I’m 100% sure you’ll be happy,” she said.

Business profile

WHAT: Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
WHERE: Inside Big Top Bingo (16+), 901 25th St. S.
DINING OPTIONS: Limited dine-in seating, call-in carryout ordering, delivery through GrubHub, DoorDash and Uber Eats
CALL: 701-660-0785
ONLINE: facebook.com/MiBarrioDominican

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Thomas Evanella is a reporter for The Forum. He's worked for The Forum for over three years, primarily reporting on business news. He's also the host of the InForum Business Beat podcast, which can be streamed at InForum.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Reach him at tevanella@forumcomm.com or by calling 701-241-5518. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella.
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