An island not to be forgotten – The Boston Globe

Nearby on Aguadilla Street is the sweet and homey cafe Man Escondido, serving a menu that takes you from breakfast through snacks, soups, mofongos, and jibaritos, fried plantain sandwiches of roast pork, steak and cheese, and more. Farther afield are places like Izzys Restaurant, serving Cambridge since the 80s; stylish La Fbrica Central, where Giovanna Huyke, a longtime cooking-show host in Puerto Rico, is chef; and La Lechonera, a Roslindale cafeteria that might be out of its weekend specialty, lechn asado, if you dont get there early enough. Tiny tubs of mayonnaise mixed with ketchup sit at the ready; Puerto Ricos favorite condiment tastes good on anything fried.

Ive been eating my way through Bostons Puerto Rican restaurants lately, trying to recapture a taste of San Juan. I spent a few days in the city earlier this month, as the power blinked back on after the Jan. 7 earthquake that devastated Ponce, in the south. On the other side of the island, life went on: cruise ships docking, super-stylish local teens taking Polaroid selfies beneath flowering trees, restaurants reopening. I was there for business, not pleasure, but pleasure was inevitable, because at some point I needed to eat.

There was an early breakfast at the historic La Bombonera, with its tiled floors, red leather booths, and a marble counter where I perched for caf con leche and a mallorca, a sweet, coiled bun buttered and pressed on the griddle, then showered in confectioners sugar. There was lunch at Kasalta Bakery, where it turned out Obama had eaten a medianoche during his 2011 visit (I had the Cubano). And then there was dinner.

Like chefs all over the country, those working in Puerto Rico have embraced the farm-to-table movement. On an island where, for complex reasons (see: colonialism, the sugar industry, industrialization, large-scale agribusiness . . . ), the majority of food is imported, there has been a resurgence in local agriculture. That has taken on new importance since Hurricane Maria, which wreaked havoc with food-supply chains. Maria made it evident that we need agricultural sovereignty, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yuln Cruz told the website Food Tank in 2018.

Jose Enrique, one of the islands most celebrated chefs, works with whatever local ingredients he can get his hands on. At his namesake restaurant in the Condado neighborhood, he weaves them into gorgeous soups, vibrant salads, and main dishes such as yellowtail with batata (white yam) mash and swordfish schnitzel.

At Cocina al Fondo in Santurce, each of chef Natalia Vallejos dishes from hen broth with mofongo balls to the tiny fish called cet, stewed in coconut and tomato was somehow better than the last. There are so many ways to put culture on the plate.

I spoke with Enrique this week, to find out how things are going. The power is still in and out in San Juan, he says, but life continues. Were just going to keep going forward. Im excited about whatever product is coming in tomorrow and what Im going to be cooking, and are there going to be waves to go surfing tomorrow.

Food feels particularly meaningful in extraordinary times. I think thats the reason I got into cooking, he says. "In life, if its a birthday, you go out to eat. When somebody dies and youre mourning, you go out to eat. When youre sick, you think of what to eat, or what not to eat. If youre sad, Im going to make you feel better through food.

If youre Puerto Rican, if I give you that rice and beans, something thats homey, it does a lot for you. Not just physically but mentally. It brings a smile to someone. Thats where food becomes important. . . . In times of need it does a lot.

People on the island are coming together, helping one another, he says: After all, who knows better what a community needs than the community itself? Families are heading out on weekends to offer assistance in the south, where people are still displaced from their homes and the earthquakes continue. There was a 5.0 magnitude quake on Jan. 25.

One local I talked to put it more cynically: After Maria, he said, people expected the government to help. This time around, they dont, so theyre helping themselves. (And this was before a warehouse full of unused emergency supplies was discovered in Ponce.) If were gonna die, were gonna die, he said with a shrug. Then he told me about his favorite restaurants.

Lucha Puertorriquea / Orgullo Borincano, as the sign in Plaza Betances says.

In 1998, the Boston Herald ran an editorial arguing viciously against Puerto Rican statehood, in words that dont bear repeating. It sparked protests and boycotts of the paper. On Monday, in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed, presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg came out in favor of statehood. Times change. Or do they? I wouldnt presume to argue this complex issue one way or the other, but I agree with at least one thing Bloomberg wrote: Puerto Ricans are American citizens. And on the mainland, we should see their challenges as our challenges.

Ive been eating my way through Bostons Puerto Rican restaurants not just because the food is delicious, but because I dont want us to forget about the island, no matter how unrelenting the news cycle. There are ways to help; the website Charity Navigator has a list of highly rated aid organizations working in Puerto Rico. And for dinner, there are plenty of restaurants serving up rice and beans, comfort and sustenance.

Vejigantes, 57 W. Dedham St., South End, Boston, 617-247-9249, http://www.vejigantesrestaurant.com. Man Escondido, 68 Aguadilla St., South End, Boston, 617-266-0900, http://www.manabostoncafe.com. Izzys Restaurant, 169 Harvard St., Cambridge, 617-661-3910, http://www.izzysrestaurantcambridge.com. La Lechonera, 342 Cummins Highway, Roslindale, 617-323-0311, http://www.lalechonerarestaurant.com.

Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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An island not to be forgotten - The Boston Globe

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