“When I arrived at the D.C. metro area 11 years ago, I barely had any Puerto Rican clients,” says Cindy Vargas, a hairstylist from Ponce, Puerto Rico, who owns Salon Laurel in Alexandria. “As a Puerto Rican, I was seen as exotic. Now, most of my clients are Puerto Rican, and they all ask me where I should eat Puerto Rican food.”
According to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, the Puerto Rican population in the D.C. metropolitan area has increased by 42 percent since 2010. Most notably, there has been a 121 percent increase in D.C. proper over the past decade. With a more robust Puerto Rican population comes a heightened demand for a taste of home.
Puerto Rican cuisine reflects the mix of cultures on the Caribbean island: European (mostly Spanish), African, and Taino Indian. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898, which has also influenced the food. The most familiar dishes include lechon asado (roasted pork), arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), mofongo (fried green plantain mashed with chicarrón and garlic, and frituras (fried treats made with a variety of batters and fillings).
Word-of-mouth communication has always been an integral part of spreading the word about Latin food. Angelique Sina, the president of the D.C.-based nonprofit Friends of Puerto Rico, says donors and partners always ask where they can find Puerto Rican food.
Chef Joancarlo Parkhurst opened La Famosa in September. The Puerto Rican restaurant in Navy Yard has been well received. Parkhurst, raised in both Puerto Rico and New York City, grew up around food—his grandparents owned a Puerto Rican pineapple juice company with the same name as his new restaurant.
“Naming the restaurant La Famosa was a homage to them,” Parkhurst says. “I am completely blown away by the response that we’ve received from the Puerto Rican community, not only in the D.C. area, but we’ve had customers come from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”
La Famosa, a vibrant space with pink and blue decorations with tropical details, is a slice of Puerto Rico in the District. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The breakfast highlights pastries such as quesitos, a puffed pastry filled with cream cheese, and pastelillos de guayaba, a puffed pastry filled with guava paste. Lunch spotlights sandwiches such as the tripleta, while dinner showcases the “platos fuertes,” or heavier dishes, like mofongo or a whole fried red snapper.
“I wanted to model La Famosa after some of my favorite bakeries in the San Juan metro area, such as Kasalta, Cidrines Bakery, and Casa España,” Parkhurst says. “They serve more than just pastries, but also fully composed lunch and dinners, and of course wine and spirits.”
The opening of La Famosa has been a welcome treat to many Puerto Ricans living in D.C. They mourned the loss of Mio, a Puerto Rican restaurant near Thomas Circle that closed at the end of 2015.
“When I moved to the D.C. area, one of the things on my to-do list was to find a Puerto Rican restaurant,” says Solmarie Febus, a Puerto Rican engineer working in D.C. who authors the blog “Cooking en Español.” “A friend told me about Mio Restaurant, which quickly became the place to go whenever I missed home. The food, the music, and the ambiance made me forget I was away from la Isla.”
Manuel Iguina opened Mio, a Latin restaurant with special emphasis on Puerto Rican food, in 2006. Puerto Rican lawyers, lobbyists, and policymakers made it their regular spot. Iguina occasionally hosted Puerto Rican celebrity chefs such as Giovanna Huyke and Wilo Benet as guest executive chefs. After a 10-year run, Iguina was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and close after he says his landlord doubled his rent.
“When we started Mio, we created a pan-Latino menu, but people kept gravitating towards the Puerto Rican dishes, so we decided to focus on that,” Iguina says. “We started roasting whole pigs on lechón Friday and tableside mofongo carts. We’re extremely proud of Mio. We were able to introduce so many people to Puerto Rican food.”
Iguina subsequently opened High Street Cafe in Georgetown, which he says he closed permanently due to the pandemic. Although the brasserie served everything from pizza to clams casino, guests returned for Puerto Rican staples such as mofongo, roasted pork, and asopao (a rich stew with rice, root vegetables, and meat or seafood). He welcomes the increase in Puerto Rican dining options locally. “I enjoy seeing this young generation of Puerto Rican chefs creating something modern and unique,” he says.
Due to the pandemic, rising rent costs, and difficulty acquiring the right permitting, young Puerto Rican chefs in the DMV have had to find innovative ways to bring Puerto Rican food to their communities. From pop-ups to food trucks to catering, Puerto Rican food goes beyond brick and mortar.
Mario Corona and Richard Torres work for a large restaurant group in D.C. On the side they run a pop-up honoring their Puerto Rican roots. Both were born and raised in the center of Puerto Rico, a region known for its lechón asado. When they launched Lechonera DMV, they did not expect to sell out so quickly. The pop-up takes place once a month in Woodbridge, Virginia, and features classic Puerto Rican dishes such as the roasted pork, arroz con gandules, and pasteles.
Both Corona and Torres believe the pandemic catalyzed their success. “This year, people are craving a taste of home,” says Torres. “Before, it was easy to hop on a plane and go back to Puerto Rico to satisfy the cravings for home-cooked meals. We bring those flavors of the homeland to the D.C. area.”
They also noticed that it is not only Puerto Ricans craving the roasted lechón and other Puerto Rican delicacies such as Coquito, the creamy coconut- and rum-based holiday cocktail. “We have clients from all backgrounds—Filipinos, African Americans, Central Americans—and others who order from us. Fifty percent of our Coquito sales come from non-Puerto Ricans.”
Most chefs point out how the interest in Puerto Rican food goes beyond people in the diaspora. “The American consumer, the one with the more ‘anglo palate’ is also seeking those authentic food experiences here in Washington, D.C.,” says Parkhurst. He’s watched the demand for it grow at his restaurant.
“In my experience, more and more people are moving away from European cuisine and becoming more curious about other foods,” says Ismael Mendez, owner of QuiQui Catering. The former IT technician decided to become a chef and worked at several D.C. restaurants before launching his catering company. He has also hosted a series of successful pop-ups at Mercy Me, Valor Brewpub, and Tiki on 18th. “People are looking for comfort food, the food that is cooked by their mothers and grandmothers. That is the flavor that we’re trying to bring at QuiQui.”
Another caterer, Borinquen Lunch Box, has found success parking its food truck at Port City Brewing Company on weekends. The owners could not be reached for comment for this story.
Some chefs deftly weave elements of Puerto Rican cooking into their menus, even if they’re not leading the kitchen in a dedicated Puerto Rican restaurant. Chef Andres Zuluaga serves tamarind-glazed pork ribs and a salad dressing made of mojo isleño (a Puerto Rican condiment) at Blend 111 in Vienna.
“Growing up on Florida’s east coast, I had a large Boricua community around me,” Zuluaga says. “I loved the many sofritos and how we incorporate tropical fruits into not only desserts, but savory food as well. Between family gatherings and parrandas during the holidays, Puerto Rican cuisine was always a huge part of my life. Today, those experiences play a role in the flavors I want to portray when creating new dishes.”
Puerto Rican small business owners have also found ways to sell food and drink from the island. Pedro Juan Rodríguez, who grew up in Puerto Rico, co-owns Grand Cata, a Latin-focused wine and market with locations in Shaw and inside La Cosecha near Union Market. The shop carries artisanal spices like sazón and adobo, coffee, chocolates, and rums, among other products.
He says that he’s seen an increased interest in Puerto Rican products since they opened five years ago. “The interest has not only grown with the diaspora, but with our East Coast clientele who is familiar with or has traveled to Puerto Rico,” Rodríguez says.
The D.C. metro area also has a distillery specializing in Pitorro, a high-proof cousin to rum sometimes referred to as “Puerto Rican moonshine.” Puerto Rico Distillery, located in Frederick, Maryland, opened in March just as COVID-19 hit the region. Father-and daughter team Angel and Crystal E. Rivera own and operate the business.
“Both my dad and I had a passion for Pitorro and many other things that focus on Puerto Rican culture,” Crystal says. “Pitorro has only been available on the Island, and we wanted to bring that to the diaspora.”