I moved to New York City a few weeks ago. I had been a food journalist in Puerto Rico and shortly after I arrived, I started asking some Puerto-Nuyo-Ame/Ricans where they go to saborear good Puerto Rican food. To my surprise, some of them didn’t like any restaurants in the city and others couldn’t help but mention a couple. Then, the question became a self-imposed exploration of the city’s Boricua restaurants, in search of the food that would remind me of home.
My generation in Puerto Rico grew up on processed and fast food. It was extremely uncommon to see our parents make pasteles or mofongo at home. There, typical tastes and flavors have been stacked in abuela’s food, town cafeterías or some restaurants. The story in New York seems similar, but the question keeps coming up: where could I find a plate with real sazón criolla?
In the city that has been home to a substantial Puerto Rican community for decades, it seems surprisingly difficult to find Boricua food. However, I found some places that vary from cuchifritos, street food, and casual dining to places serving more fancy and creative cuisines like Sofrito and others that mix food with entertainment, like Camaradas.
I ventured to some of the places that people recommended to me and here is a compilation of some of my favorites that I found.
Everyone mentioned it, so I decided to start the sazón scavenging with Casa Adela, joined by a Puerto Rican friend who lives in Philadelphia and was dying for some Boricua cuisine.
Being new to the city, I took what I knew as “the orange line” to the Second Avenue station, and my friend and I walked to 66 Avenue C, where two windows with pilones announced that we had arrived.
A strong garlic and frituras aroma welcomed us to the small, ten-table place in which guitars, flags and folkloric paintings hang on the walls and refrigerators resemble a common grandmother’s home.
A map of Puerto Rico with coquíes and amapolas served as a placemat to my crunchy mofongo- stuffed with crispy pork cuerito with moist pernil asado on the side. The extra generous portion did not stop me from trying my friend’s granny white rice and soupy/dense beans along with crunchy reddish wings.
Visitors should not leave without relishing the soft potato salad with eggs and mayonnaise and finishing with the homemade creamy cheese flan. Adela and her staff also prepare carne guisada, slow-cooked beef stew and pasteles – they sell up to five thousand during Christmas.
Adela, a dark skinned and cotton-white haired woman, was sitting with a scratch card below the TV tuned to Caso Cerrado. She told us how, 35 years ago, she brought her mother’s cooking traditions from the town of Carolina and started selling $2 mondongo in a little spot. Then she moved the restaurant to its current location in the Lower East Side.
“I’ve been here all my life, happy as an earthworm”, said Adela, who never eats in restaurant other than hers.
“¡Fríeme una alcapurria al nene!”, Adela repeatedly shouted to the women in charge of the kitchen’s bubbling fryers, as a way to welcome a child whose family are among those regular customers she makes feel warmly at home.
Adela’s secret? “I cook in a typical Boricua way, with a lot of recaíto, a lot of garlic, and sofrito,” she explained.
La Taza de Oro
Its owner, Marlyn Vargas, considers it as the “Embassy of Puerto Rico” and a “blast from the past.” It has been serving arroz y habichuelas in Chelsea for almost half a century.
For me, it is the New York Bombonera. The wood print lunch counter, the cheerful servers and the old men reading newspapers resemble the famed, now-closed cafetería that used to be the meeting center in Old San Juan.
Sitting at the counter allows you to see the whole steamy and aromatic display of guisos, three kinds of rice, patitas de cerdo, rabo, ropa vieja, salcocho and bacalao guisado.
I ordered rice and red beans served with carne guisada and potato chunks, which reminded me of the dishes I loved while visiting cafeterías de pueblo during my food journalism work on the island.
For this trip, I met with the food writer Chris Crowley, who includes this place in his top three Puerto Rican restaurants in New York. He didn’t wait to sit before he ordered thin tostones and a cup of coffee.
La Taza goes back to 1947 when Vargas’ uncles opened it on 104th Street and Columbus Avenue. Later it was moved to the 20th Street and, in 1965, Marilyn’s parents Alfredo and Elizabeth brought it to its current address on 8th Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets. She considers the key to La Taza’s success to be the consistency of the food’s flavor. The two main cooks are originally from Cabo Rojo—one of them has been working in the kitchen for 35 years.
“The sofrito is the base. All Latinos, we have our unique way to cook but I think the sofrito makes us different”, she explained. “We make it fresh and with natural ingredients,” Vargas added.
“This is a place where Puerto Ricans like to come, hear their music, enjoy the typical food of our country… we treat our customers well. There are usually conversations about daily life in Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican community in New York.”
She appreciates instances like when a Puerto Rican family told her “you don’t know how great we feel now after finding a place where we can finally sit and eat Puerto Rican food.”
“Food is pretty important in people’s lives,” she told me. “Every culture seeks their roots, their food, everything that resembles their country and that’s what we are pleased to do here.”
This is a small piece of Piñones. Among a huge crowd of people, one waits on a 15-person line to order traditional fritters like alcapurrias, rellenos de papa y plátano and guineitos, morcilla, cuajito and tongue for as low as $1.50.
The alcapurria has the authentic feel of outside crunchiness and a soft orange yuca (tarot-root) blend stuffed with carne molida.
The menu is extensive and reflects the diversity of the its Bronx neighborhood, featuring fried chicken, chuletas and pernil as well as Cuban moro and arroz congrí, Dominican mangú, and Venezuelan arepas. The variety of juices is insane from guanábana, passion fruit and tamarindo to agua de jamaica.
The mofongo al pilón is another traditional dish, which is encrusted with greasy pork and pork skin cracklings served with two ribs and a reddish sauce.
Click on the photo for additional images
Behind this restaurant is José Coto, a 67-year-old Cuban, who established it in 1983 at 158 East 188th Street in the Bronx, steps away from the Fordham station and a commercial strip similar to the golden era of el paseo de la de Diego en Río Piedras.
As the name suggests, this is the furthest thing from fanciness but it doesn’t stop dozens of people from stopping by to grab a little cuchifrito in a family-sized order
The “green line” takes you to this fonda located at 169 East 106th Street in the heart of El Barrio.
One of my coworkers, de pura cepa and sabor, enjoys this place, thus she was deemed my next victim in my gastronomic hunt. Its name could suggest this is a traditional fonda, but it is actually a casual dining restaurant with colorful imagery that includes taíno hieroglyphs.
We ordered two different plates to share. My choice was the seafood mofongo and my colleague opted for the rice, beans and carne guisada with carrot and avocado. Their specialty is the mofongo stuffed with pernil but we were warned the portion was very generous.
The mofongo was one of best I have ever had. It is not greasy and was a tender blend en su punto that matched perfectly with the shrimp, fish and garlic sauce.
The menu also makes you decide between bistec encebollado, chicken and beef stew, codfish salad and traditional stewed rice with chicken.
Owner Jorge Ayala stopped work on his doctoral degree in psychology to buy the restaurant in 1996, and he continues to cook there today.
“I worked in the community. It was an historic moment, this place became available with a long history of Puerto Rican food and I didn’t want that to become lost. It was even a cultural interest, symbolic, but it became successful automatically,” Ayala said.
These, so far, have been my favorites in the city, but share yours for Puerto Rican food in New York and other cities on the mainland on Facebook or Twitter using #centrovoices. I’ll continue with my search...
All photographs by the author.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published on 19 November 2014.