Adela

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!]

Image source: Facebook (Casa Adela)

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.

Image source: Instagram (Casa Adela)

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.

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Starting 2018 in Puerto Rico

After months agonizing over news coverage of the 2017 Hurricane Maria passing through the Caribbean, I was finally on my way to Puerto Rico. After landing, as I walked towards the airport exit, I was hit by a sudden trepidation of not knowing what to expect on the other side of the airport doors. I imagined a landscape devoid of greenery, a deep darkness in the streets, and overly aggressive drivers. Happily, I was mostly wrong. Nature was revamping. Trees were blooming and palm trees rocked in the warm Caribbean breeze. Darkness remained, but restoring power is slowly lighting up the island. The few homes with Christmas lights illuminated their neighbors a few blocks away that remained in the dark in a way sharing some of the season’s spirit that people long for now more than ever.

Weeks before my trip, I was interviewed by the New York Times about the food situation on the island, with a particular concern over the availability of pasteles in a year post-Maria. The hurricane had devastated the local production of the main ingredients for the traditional pastel de masa – the plantain. Granted, pasteles were the least of my concerns when I thought about the situation in the island and what I would encounter during my holiday visit. When the reported asked me about whether I would eat pasteles this Christmas in Puerto Rico, my response, as quoted, was simple:

“in difficult times, one thing that defines us is that we keep positive,” Ms. Fuster said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people found a way to make pasteles.”

And I was right, evidenced by the pasteles feast we enjoyed in the New Year, seen here at the peak of boiling:

pasteles boiling

Three months after Maria, Puerto Rico is slowly returning to normalcy – even if at a new kind of normal. Agriculture is slowly coming back, as (hopefully) you can see from these quick snapshots taken from the road.

ag snapshots

Farmer’s markets are also carrying on. I visited the Mercado Orgánico at La Placita de Roosevelt, pictured below in its late hours. The market had some organic produce, including a variety of greens and a variety of hot sauces, including pique de acerola (hot sauce made from West Indian Cherry, one of my favorite things in the world). The Placita at Plaza las Americas was also running, selling limited amounts of produce, such as root crops and peppers, as well as pasteles, coffee, maví, and orange juice – all from local production.

roosevels snapshot

While the restaurant industry was negatively impacted by the hurricane season, this industry has played an important role of feeding many in the aftermath of María. This role was beyond the publicized collaborations with Chef José Andrés and Chefs for Puerto Rico. Many eateries, for example, quickly opened their kitchens serving low cost breakfast and lunch. Sadly, the delay in restoring the electrical grid, combined with issues of food access, the worsening economic crisis, and the exodus of many in the industry has caused many to close their doors or reinvent themselves. For example, Chef Xavier Pacheco, who was featured in a recent episode of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in Puerto Rico, reinvented his popular restaurant, Jaquita Baya, into Comedería, Fonda Urbana. Chef Pacheco explained this shift in an interview for El Nuevo Día,

In essence, it is the transformation of a restaurant that was a culinary platform inspired in reviving Puerto Rican recipes, motivated by the development of local products sponsoring gastronomic artisans and nourishing the pride in our cuisine. Our goal is to create a space where we can offer quality food, delicious, and real for the Puerto Rican pocket after this hurricane aftermath. (My translation)

Based in my visit to Comedería, I can testify that the food offered meets this goal. Just as Chef Pacheco did in Jaquita Baya, he continues to offer local produce, but at much more accessible prices at Comedería. Some of the delicious food we enjoyed were the hummus de gandules (pigeon peas), vianda gnocci, pastelón de verduras, and breaded chicken over coconut rice and topped with a fried egg.

Comederia

My favorite restaurant, Orujo Taller de Gastronomía in Caguas, opened its doors right after the hurricane, serving low cost meals for the surrounding community. Alas, as time went by, Chef Carlos Portela temporarily closed its doors taking the time to try a new concept at Lote 23 – Lolo’s Mac & Grilled Cheese. Chef Portela explained the new concept in an interview for Sabrosía,

Orujo’s essence will always be present no matter what we serve or the food we cook.  All of our company’s new concepts, will be based in Orujo.

Below, a “taste” of the offerings at Lolo’s. During our visit we had a lobster open-faced sandwich and a mac and cheese topped with salmon. Click here for a quick view of Lote 23 and the amazing food served by Chef Portela at Lolo’s.

lolos

Thankfully, Orujo is set to open early in February, with reservations strongly encouraged. Opting for a different direction as that taken by Chef Pacheco, Chef Portela will carry on with his high-end cuisine, continuing to elevate Puerto Rican culinary traditions and offerings to new delicious and beautiful levels.

orujo queso

Texturas de Queso (source: Orujo, Facebook page)

Orujo and Comederia are two of the hundreds of restaurants in the recovering culinary landscape of Puerto Rico. Other popular places remain, such as La Cueva del Mar, which even expanded to a new location. Eating at some of these establishments one can easily forget the ongoing crisis. Yet, at others there are sudden reminders of the underlying scarcities – particularly of plantains. Anecdotes of the long lines or things lost are common are part of the daily conversations with friends and strangers alike.

This post sought to highlight the recovery of the island. This is not to minimize the ongoing needs and chronic crisis exacerbated by the 2017 hurricane season. There are many still living in darkness, with limited physical and economic access to food. Yet, not all is lost, as US news media tend to portray (if it bleeds it leads). The island is open for business, and this business is highly needed. One of the best ways to help Puerto Rico in its recovery and strengthening is by visiting and enjoying what the island offers.  In these visits, you will get to experience the delicious culinary offerings, excellent hospitality and breathtaking beaches and landscapes, as well as witness the hard work of many seeking to bring the island afloat and reinvent its future, in spite of the politics that continues to cloud these efforts.

And to end this post, I’ll leave you with this image from a T-shirt found in the southern town of Guayama, illustrating the ways we keep positive in times of strain:

camisa

Thank you for reading and Happy 2018!

A First Taste of Santo Domingo

Dominican cuisine is often summed up in a few main iconic dishes, including La Bandera (rice, beans and meat), sancocho, and mangú. As the case of neighboring Puerto Rico and Cuba, the cuisine is influenced by the historic amalgamation of culinary traditions from the indigenous Tainos, the Spanish colonizers, and the African slaves. Additionally, Dominican cuisine  has been and continues to be greatly influenced by incoming migration. For example, the Arab migration of the 19th century is seen in the Dominican version of the quipe (pictured below). Exchanges with neighboring Puerto Ricans has resulted in the incorporation of the mofongo, and the recent influx of Venezuelans is perceptible in new restaurants and menu additions, such as the cachapas.

Quipe de chivo (Source: Instagram)

Last week, I visited Santo Domingo for the very first time. Part of the purpose of the visit was to learn and sample how local restaurants are constructing Dominican cuisine in the island. Granted, eating out is still not widespread in the general population. The restaurants I visited seemed to cater mostly to tourists and to the middle/upper class segments of society. The prices were far from the cost of the platos del día (dishes of the day) found in smaller food establishments, where for a few hundred pesos (about $3) one could get a nice helping of rice, beans and meat.

One of the restaurants at the forefront of the continued development of Dominican Cuisine is Higüero. As described in the restaurant’s website (roughly translated),

Higüero, the restaurant, assumes the responsibility of becoming one of the pioneers in the purpose of making our food a product to be enjoyed by exigent gourmands, local and internationals.

In accord with this mission, the restaurant location is also the site of the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos, a local nonprofit with the mission of motivating the advancement of Dominican gastronomy. The foundation gets this work done through the documentation and dissemination of regional gastronomic trends (which has been a great resource!), as well as the annual gathering of culinary experts as part of the Foro Gastronómico. During my visit, I had the pleasure of meeting the key drivers behind the Fundación and receiving a copy of the proceedings of the First Foro Gastronómico.

sabores
With Bolívar Troncoso Morales, President of the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (far right) and Juan Febles, the president of A&B Masters, Escuela Dominicana de Alimentos y Bebidas (far left).

Higüero is not the only restaurant with the mission of developing or promoting Dominican cuisine. Take, for example, Jalao, a relatively new restaurant in the Zona Colonial, located right across the Catedral Primada de America, the oldest in the New World. The menu featured interesting dishes such as the LP, or the “long plei” – a wheat-based Johnnycake- and the “Juego de pelota linero” – goat-stuffed croquettes.

Jalao food

Buche Perico, a popular tourist spot a few steps away in the Zona Colonial, had similar traditional (re)inventions, including the mini chimis de longaniza,

chimis

I also encountered the Puerto Rican trifongo – a combination of fried and mashed plantain, yucca and, in this version, breadfruit,

The trifongo can be the topic of its own post. In short, is a new iteration of the mofongo, where the plantain is accompanied by yucca and ripe plantains (or breadfruit). Like the mofongo, the trifongo comes from Puerto Rico.  While remaining close to the Puerto Rican original, the Dominican mofongo (as experienced in the Dominican Republic) may be prepared with boiled – not fried – plantains, and served alongside sancocho broth – a nice touch not found in Puerto Rico. The version below was eaten at the popular chain, Adrian Tropical, which was recommended as serving one of the best mofongos in the island. This one, the mini mofongo combi, was served with meats on the side, instead of inside (as one would encounter in Puerto Rico),

mofongo

El Conuco, the sister restaurant of Buche Perico, is located near the Hotel Jaragua, close to El Malecón. As the last restaurant visited in this trip, we opted to share a Dominican classic: the sancocho, as our last meal before returning back home.

sancocho

This was just a short, descriptive appetizer. At the risk of transforming this blog post into an extended restaurant review, I have obviated details on how these dishes tasted, and interactions with restaurant servers. Some experiences were better than others, but they all provided insight into how contemporary Dominican cuisine is being framed today, back in the Caribbean.

In the next weeks, I will be sorting through field notes and pictures from initial take on the Dominican Republic. The trip was part of a larger effort to expand research networks and explore the current culinary and public health nutrition situation, linked with transnational connections with the Dominican community in the US.

Stay tuned for more!

Eating History in New Orleans

I started this post almost a month ago, in an airplane, on my way to New Orleans. The trip was one last vacation before the start of the spring semester. However, as a food scholar, a trip to a city like New Orleans will inevitably become work related.

New Orleans is famous for its restaurants. Restaurants and chefs play an important role in the city’s cultural production and reproduction.  As noted by Anthropologist (and New Orleans resident), David Berris, the place of restaurants in the city’s foodscape is different from other cities. The city has

a long standing food culture, a cuisine, built from local products, that is regularly produced in homes and restaurants and frequently discussed around local tables and in the local media. (Berris 2007: 153).

New Orleans cuisine is often described as Creole and Cajun. Just like my cocina criolla, Creole cuisine results from the blending of different influences, including  those of early Native inhabitants, the colonizers (Spanish and French) and the people that came after, including the African slaves. Cajun, on the other hand,  is one from the French speaking Acadian people, who arrived in Louisiana after being deported by the British from Canada. Like Creole cuisine, it results from the use of local ingredients and simple food preparations. For more on these distinctions, see this Chicago Tribune article.

A long weekend in New Orleans is not enough to digest the foodscape of the city, but I tried. As a tourist, taking a first bite at the city, I stayed at the French Quarter. Mostly skipping Bourbon St. at night, the Quarter offered walking access to historic culinary sites, such as Napoleon House. The landmark has been open for almost two centuries, named after the legend that the building was built as the home of Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile. History was consumed through their signature (Italian) muffuletta, a round sandwich built with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, Swiss cheese, provolone and an olive salad. This view of the kitchen shows the muffuletta in progress,

nola_napoleon

The Kitchen at Napoleon House

I also tried the boudin sausage, which turned out to be a be a bloodless morcilla, the blood sausage consumed in Spain and many of its old colonies, like Puerto Rico.  Continuing to make culinary comparisons, I also tried the  “New Orleans Favorites”, red beans and rice and the Jambalaya, reminding me of the closeness between my cocina criolla and New Orleans Creole cuisine.

nola-pimmsThese foods were downed with a Pimm’s Cup, a drink that

made its mark at the Napoleon House bar in the late 1940s amongst the bon viveur set. Unique to its maker, it is a gin based aperitif mixed with fresh lemonade, 7 up, and a sliver of cucumber that would be a refreshing cocktail that cools you off during heated summer days in New Orleans. –  Napoleon House.

While eating is a big part of a New Orleans visit, so is drinking. The city is home to many classic cocktails, like the sazerac, first concocted by a local apothecary in 1838 and is said to be the first cocktail in the United States. Another New Orleans creation is the Vieux Carré, a drink named after the earlier name of the French Quarter, the “old square”. This drink was first mixed in the 1930s at the Hotel Monteleone, where I enjoyed by first, at the Carousel Bar,

nola_carrousel

And yes, I also had other classics in the New Orleans tourist menu: Beignets and several gumbos,

nola-beig-and-gumbo

Gumbo and Beignets from Cafe Beignet

as well as the local Gulf fish, my favorite of all I ate, pictured below:

capture

Louisiana Gulf Fish Amandine (This photo of Meauxbar Bistro is courtesy of TripAdvisor)

As a caribeña, my cultural upbringing and food is the result of creolization, just like that in New Orleans. Because of this historical link, the city felt familar, a welcomed home-like respite from New York City. A weekend was certainly not enough to eat many of the city classics, including the po’boys and alligator meat. At the same time, this short experience allowed me to see a different way to experience, celebrate and sell the result of mixing different cultures in a pot, providing a new, comparative lens to approach my ongoing work with cocinas criollas in the Caribbean.

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Acknowledgement: This culinary adventure was shared with some amazing travel companions. A special thanks to fellow traveler, B. Betancourt, for helping us navigate and taste the Old Quarter.

Reference and further reading: Berris, D. and D. Sutton (2007). “Authentic Creole: Tourism, Style and Calamity in New Orleans Restaurants”. The Restaurants Book: Ethnographies of where we eat. D. Berris and D. Sutton. New York, Berg: 151-166.

 

Selling Cuisines: Cuban and Puerto Rican Tables

Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are born out of movement, merging Spanish, African and Taino influences. Part of my recent fieldwork has looked into how these communities distinguish each other’s foods. When asked directly, New York City Cuban and Puerto Rican interviewees often have a hard time differentiating. Mostly, they talk about the beans –  in name and color. Simply, while Cubans eat frijoles negros (black beans), Puerto Ricans eat habichuelas rojas (red beans). Since first established in the Caribbean, Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines have continued to move. These movements have created differences, despite these similarities, in how these cuisines have been perceived and consumed in new homes.

A Yelp search for Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City yielded a total of 64 restaurants: forty-eight Cuban and only sixteen Puerto Rican. This disparity contrasts to the proportion of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the city, as shown below:

Restaurant and population comparison

These differences are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Federal Writers Project New York Panorama of 1939 described the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities as follows,

On Saturday nights, the Puerto Rican section of Harlem is alive with music and merry-making. There are only about 8,000 Cubans in New York, but it is Cuban music that accompanies the dancing everywhere among the Spanish-speaking people- and indeed has invaded New York’s nightlife in general. A number of cafés and cabarets with Cuban atmosphere have appeared during the last few years.

Cubans are mentioned for their cultural influence. Their music  (and not Puerto Rican music) is listened to in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem (today’s Barrio). In contrast, the Puerto Rican community (and its food) was described in a less flattering manner,

…except for the addition of a few vegetables, [the diet] remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

The excerpts from the 1940s guide shows differences in status perceptions between these communities. These differences can be linked to the contrasting situations of these communities back in the Caribbean. While the 1940s found Puerto Rico as one of the poorest islands in the region, Cuba was striving and marketed as an exotic travel destination.

cuba travel

More than half a century later, the situation is not the same. Puerto Rico’s economic situation improved, while Cuba’s deteriorated. Puerto Rican cuisine strove in the island, while Cuba’s continues to be affected by food supply instabilities. Yet, Cuba’s mysticism and allure remains. Cuban restaurants offer much more than rice, beans and meat. They offer a ticket to the “Cuban experience”: the Copacabana, Hemingway’s mojitos, as well as the excitement of Che’s and Fidel’s revolution. In short, the difference in cuisine popularity go beyond just the food – it can serve as a lens to view the different relationships these islands have with the United States as well as each other, and the resulting contrasting symbolic values attached to these cuisines.

*******
Based on the conference presentation, “Food in Movement: Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations through cuisine representation” part of the panel “Piruetas Transnacionales: Preserving Identity through Eating, Learning and Music Making” at the Latin American Studies Association 2016 Annual Meeting. 

 

Local chefs and Puerto Rican Cuisine

Arroz con gandules, pernil, pasteles, cuchifritos… These foods come to mind when describing Puerto Rican cuisine. Home cooked, simple dishes. Nothing fancy. These are foods that fill our stomachs and our souls. For many Puerto Ricans, these are to be eaten at home, lovingly made and served by mami or, even better, abuela. Therefore, Puerto Rican food is not to enjoy at a restaurant, and even less pay too much money for it– or is it?

Our cuisine is evolving. Rice, plantains, gandules, pork, and other classic food staples and ingredients are being recombined in creative ways, reinventing or reinterpreting traditional dishes that persist in our culinary memory…

Take for example these dishes from La Jaquita Baya (Miramar, PR). The traditional gandules and habichuelas colora’s are served alongside bite-size arepas. And the pastel? A smaller version, topped with salmorejo de jueyes and fresh greens.

Go south, to the center of the island, and you find Orujo Taller de Gastronomia in Caguas, PR. With this meal, my first time eating cuajitos, where the fattiness of the fried pig ears was balanced by pickled, fresh vegetables.  Also on the menu, slow, smoked pernil on top of the traditional fufu (mashed, sweet plantains).

And the list could go on…

These meals are just a sample of the new, emerging restaurants in Puerto Rico. The “heavy” elements of our cuisine (root crops, fried foods, pork) become “light(er)”, by being served in smaller, more flavorful portions. There are also greens, beyond the usual iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes. These meals value quality over quantity. The chefs behind these dishes are driven by a desire to elevate our cuisine. With these, they also demonstrate the many possibilities of traditional ingredients, while also seeking to revive almost forgotten ones from a not so distant past.

This ongoing “evolution” or “reinvention” comes hand in hand with an emerging movement back to the island agricultural roots, and a re-valuation of traditional island cuisine. Granted, this is by no means mainstream, and at times, it can be arrogant and pretentious, served with a side of bad service, as in the unfortunate case of this salad:

Green salad, unnamed restaurant (San Juan, PR)

Yet, these new restaurants challenge the ever expanding and conveniently located franchises, offering homogeneous, pre-packaged flavor, for a perceived (but not always) lower price. This role is key in the case of Puerto Rico, where palates are increasingly accustomed to artificial flavors and economic woes are part of everyday conversations. These new restaurants represent the growing entrepreneurship spirit on the island, inspired by a love of food, culture and el buen comer.

Buen provecho and support your local chef!