Updated 4 yearss ago
Puerto Rican cuisine is about to have its moment in Florida, so if you like plantains, seafood, fried snacks or fruit juices, you’re in for a treat.
Rice, beans, garlic, onions and peppers are mainstays in many Latin cuisines, but Puerto Rican chefs use them in delicious and unique ways, creating perhaps the most creative cooking in the Caribbean.
Consider Miami chef José Mendin and the Pubbelly crew who have given Florida wild Latin takes on sushi, bao buns and more in 20 years. Mendin, who says he “didn’t have a place to go” for Puerto Rican food, now needs to go no farther than La Placita, his own splendid Puerto Rican restaurant in Miami. The whole building is painted with the island’s flag and named for the market and social hive in Santurce. As a true boricua (born on the island), Mendin has composed a menu of all the island specialties, starting with a sofrito base he and his mother use for so many dishes.
As Florida’s Puerto Rican population has grown post-Hurricane Maria, the supply and demand for Puerto Rican food has expanded outside ethnic enclaves in Orlando, Kissimmee and Tampa, via a host of new restaurants and a gleaming parade of food trucks.
Mofongo is the treasure of Puerto Rico and a prime example of island creativity. Most of us are familiar with plantains, those odd cousins of bananas in the produce aisle, and have tasted the sweet maduros platanos or snacked on cracker-hard fried tostones.
In the hands and traditions of Puerto Rican cooks, plantains can be mashed into dough for stuffed alcapurria fritters, substituted for bread in sandwiches called jibaritos, swapped out for lasagna noodles in pastelóns, rolled into pinwheels or served with chicken, beef or shrimp.
La Casona in Tampa calls itself “La Pabellon de Mofongo.” Its pavilion stars seven varieties stuffed with meat or seafood. Wepa, just opened in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District by San Juan-born Jean Totti, adds to the mofongos with old favorites like chicken chicharrones and pernil asado.
At La Placita, diners choose a traditional plantain base or trifongo with yuca and two kinds of plantains and sauced with everything from old-school caldo to truffle butter.
“I tried to make them not too huge,” Mendin says, “so people could try more Puerto Rican dishes.”
What else to try? Tart vinegary escabeche, tripleta sandwiches (Mendin’s trio is beefsteak, pork and pastrami), asopao soups, guisada stews and rice with pigeon peas are on most menus — with a lots of seafood, especially conch and lobster tail.
Then there’s cuchifritos, a wide world of fried fritters and croquetas made from plantains, corn meal or bacalao.
Cuchifritos are a staple of food trucks, which were ubiquitous in Puerto Rico, parked on beaches, roads and next to schools decades before they became a mainland fad.
The new World Food Truck in Kissimmee is a permanent food park close to the Disney tourist zone, with more than two dozen food trucks, open seating, music and dancing. Not all the trucks serve Puerto Rican dishes, but at least six dish out mofongos and cuchifritos and more until 2, 3 and 4 a.m. on weekends.
Three now have additional locations stretching west along I-4 to Tampa, where there is a another brightly colored food truck park on North Lois Avenue, which is all Puerto Rican, complete with tented seating and live music on weekends.
Spanking clean La Fiebre del Sabor Criolla has a wide range of mofongos and sides. Chinchorrear Es La Que Hay takes cuchifritos to new dimensions; alcapurrias can be two feet long, and bacailitos spread out like elephant ears.
The perfect accompaniment is juice, jugo or frappe in a rainbow of tropical tastes and ice creamstyled flavors like chocolate and Nutella made with coconut water or cream.
We are sure to have more chances to explore the taste of the island, always with a touch of annatto in the seasoning and Puerto Rican salsa and reggaeton in the background.
Read more in Florida Trend's June issue.
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