It was a hot and humid August morning. Adela sat in the back of her restaurant, peeling potatoes, with only a small fan to appease the heat. The TV was tuned to Telemundo, with Elvis Crespo singing for Monica Puig, the Puerto Rican tennis player who days before had just won the first gold medal for the island at the Olympics in Rio. Pepe, a mutual friend and local community leader, introduced us. She smiled, turning back to her potatoes and television show. By the time we arrived, she had already been working for a couple of hours, making the necessary prepping for the day’s service. The smell of garlic, mixed with oregano and onion, forming the sofrito base, filled the air announcing to regulars and passersby that something delicious is being prepared. We sat at her table, and Pepe got the conversation started by asking Adela about her early days in the city.
Adela first came to New York City in 1971 for a visit. Back then, she worked as a seamstress in Puerto Rico, later transitioning to working with her mother, selling fiambreras (lunch boxes) to factory workers. She moved to New York City around 1975. When I asked why she moved, she replied with a smile, “Ese salto lo da todo el mundo que quiere progresar” [That leap is made by everyone who wants to progress in life]. Upon arrival, she worked as a cook, but quickly transitioned to establishing her own place. She rented her first restaurant, El Caribe, in the West Side, which she later bought from the Cuban owner. When the building was condemned, she moved her business to the Lower East Side, where she later established Casa Adela in 1976. While an exact timeline of life events and places was not specified, the one thing that was clear while talking with her was the entrepreneurial success. At one time, she recalled owning three establishments, with the goal of passing two of them to her children. However, she ended up selling two of them, with her children being actively involved in the running Casa Adela today.
Casa Adela is one of the few truly authentic Puerto Rican restaurants in the city, and an important community landmark in the Lower East Side. As she recounted, “he estado por 40 años aquí. He corrido las cuatro esquinas y acabe aquí”. In those early years, there were more Puerto Rican establishments in the area. The local restaurants, such as hers, served as places for late night meals after nights of drinking among the local artistic community. Some of them were starving artists, which Adela fed at little or no cost. Nuyorican AmeRícan poet Tato Laviera was among her faithful clients. His love for Adela’s mondongo (tripe soup) is recorded in his poem, “criollo story”:
i was drunk, sunday morning/ sitting at tompkins square park/ i was drummed-all-night […] i was so drunk i could not even laugh/ and then salvation time/ “for you, mira, mondongo”/ i thought tyrone was goofing on me/ “you look like a mondongo yourself”/ “no, no, not you, mira, i mean, HUMERA/ for HUMERA, mondongo, bro, adela,/ she opens at five o’clock, let’s / eat some of that tripe”
we walked into adela’s five-/ thirty morning mountain smell/ of madrugada simmering concrete/ puerto rican new york radio JIT/ cuatro-music, recordado a borinquen/ songs made famous by don santiago/ grevi, and the crushed plantains/ bollitos rounded boricua matzo all/ around cleaned vinaigrette tripe/ and patitas de cerdo pig feet, softened to a melted overblown/ delicacy, brother, and i tell you that/ down went the russian vodka/ the alcohol disappear with/ bites of calabaza-pumpkin pieces/ and the one hundred proof bacardi/ was choked by un canto de yautia/ tubers that were rooting the european/ dry red wine into total decolonization/ and the broth, brother, EL CALDO/ condimented garlic onions/ peppered with whole tomatoes/ that were melted by the low/ heat, ese caldo was woefully/ seducing the jamaican liquors/ into compatibility, and down/ went the BORRACHERA bro and/ […]
– excerpt from “criollo story”, in Tato Laviera’s AmeRícan
Today, the establishment still serves as a must-stop for Puerto Rican and other Latino celebrities who live or visit the city – a testimony of her continued role in the community and the iconic status of her restaurant. Visits are documented and displayed in the restaurant wall as well as on the Facebook page. Days before our meeting, she had the visit of Iris Chacón – the Puerto Rican dancer, singer and entertainer nicknamed “La Vedette de América”. “No comió mucho,” Adela recalled, “porque tiene que cuidar su figura…¡El esposo se dio una jartera!” [She did note at much because she has to care for her figure. The husband stuffed himself!]
As our conversation progressed, she moved effortlessly from peeling potatoes to carrots, and then plantains. I offered to help, to which she declined, cleverly saying, “Tú no los vas a pelar como yo” [You will not peel them like I do]. And she was right! We spoke about the food served in the restaurant, which she described as “lo que se come en Puerto Rico” [what people in Puerto Rico eat], including rice, habichuelas, meat, bistec, and chicken. Speaking about the rotisserie chicken the New York Times called “magical”, she recounted that in the early days, “no tenia la maquina (de rotisserie), lo hacía al horno” [I did not have the rotisserie machine, I made it in the oven]. Other staples in the menu include pernil and carne frita. She never served cuchifrito, in the true definition of the food (that is, fried pig parts), but she does serve fried foods, such as relleno de papa. She used to make pasteles for Christmas, but now she buys them from someone, “que es boricua”, that is Puerto Rican, as she specified. She used to offer tasajo (“pero ahora está caro”) and the gandinga. On rare occasions, she would make the celebrated mondongo, but not so often any more, as “la toalla no se consigue” [the tripe is not easy to find]. Her son procures the ingredients for her restaurant from a vendor in New Jersey or at the nearby Essex Market, where one can still buy pig or cow’s feet. She recalled occasions when she would bring food from Puerto Rico, such as the sought-after pana, (breadfruit). “Antes,cuando no cobraban por las maletas, yo traía. ¡Una vez traje una maleta llena de pana! Ya no.” [Before, when airlines could not change for bags, I would bring breadfruit. One time I brought a full suitcase! Not anymore]. As such, the tostones de pana are a rare occurrence, only available to those in the inner circle lucky enough to stumble in the restaurant that day.
Adela – at 80-years-young – worked every day, from around 6am, at times, until 9 or 10pm, taking a month-long vacation to Puerto Rico or Florida just once a year. While talking about her daily work, she reflected about her legacy, and the hope that her family would carry it on. Her cooks have been carefully trained on her sazón and ways in the kitchen. Her son and daughter are actively involved in the restaurant. Additionally, she mentioned her grandson is studying in culinary school, but playfully remarked, “Es vago. Siempre quiere que le cocine yo”. To which I replied, “Who would not want you to cook for them?” Our conversation carried on for more than two hours, amidst her continually monitoring the kitchen and the TV. There was a brief pause when the horoscope came on. Adela directed her attention to the TV, grabbing the pen from my hand to write down some notes as the astrologer, Walter Mercado, spoke – going sign by sign, using what seemed to be Tarot cards to predict the good fortune, in one way or another, for all of us, irrespective of the sign.
As lunchtime approached, I feared I was overstaying my welcome. I thanked her for her generosity and time, promising to return soon, to which she responded with a smile, “¡Puerto Rico invita!” I will forever be grateful for the morning I spent with Adela, and for her hard work maintaining a little piece of Puerto Rico in the Lower East Side for new generations to enjoy.
Adela passed away last week. Her wake was held a few blocks from her restaurant, filled by probably hundreds of community members who stood in line in a wintery night, waiting to pay their respects to this amazing woman. She was beautifully dressed, surrounded by flowers, family, friends, and many like myself, who simply came along to thank her for the meals and memories build in what felt like a home – Casa Adela.
My gratitude to Iyawó Pepe Flores for making my conversation with Adela possible.