At Vejigantes in the South End, Puerto Rican culture is on the plate. The walls of the restaurant are painted to look like the bright and balconied buildings of Old San Juan. Colorful masks decorate the room, the namesake vejigantes, folkloric characters that are a staple of every festival. The kitchen turns out plates of crisp tidbits — alcapurrias, the fritters filled with beef or crab; empanada-esque pastelillos — along with towers of mofongo, mashed plantains complemented by various meats and stews. You can get grilled steak with tostones or maduros, plantains savory or sweet, and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). You can get brimming servings of seafood in piquant salsa criolla, the smell of tomatoes, peppers, and garlic goading the appetite. But the simplest offering might be the best of all: white rice with plump, velvety, lightly soupy beans. It’s pure comfort and sustenance.
Across the street from the restaurant is Plaza Betances, the center of housing complex Villa Victoria. Its landmark sign embraces both the Puerto Rican fight and Puerto Rican pride: “Lucha Puertorriqueña / ‘Orgullo Borincano,’” it reads. Villa Victoria exists because Puerto Rican activists fought the community’s displacement by the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the late ’60s.
Nearby on Aguadilla Street is the sweet and homey cafe Maná 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 Izzy’s Restaurant, serving Cambridge since the ’80s; stylish La Fábrica 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, lechón asado, if you don’t get there early enough. Tiny tubs of mayonnaise mixed with ketchup sit at the ready; Puerto Rico’s favorite condiment tastes good on anything fried.
I’ve been eating my way through Boston’s 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 café 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 Yulín Cruz told the website Food Tank in 2018.
Jose Enrique, one of the island’s 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 Vallejo’s dishes — from hen broth with mofongo balls to the tiny fish called cetí, 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. “We’re just going to keep going forward. I’m excited about whatever product is coming in tomorrow and what I’m going to be cooking, and are there going to be waves to go surfing tomorrow.”
Food feels particularly meaningful in extraordinary times. “I think that’s the reason I got into cooking,” he says. "In life, if it’s a birthday, you go out to eat. When somebody dies and you’re mourning, you go out to eat. When you’re sick, you think of what to eat, or what not to eat. If you’re sad, I’m going to make you feel better through food.
“If you’re Puerto Rican, if I give you that rice and beans, something that’s homey, it does a lot for you. Not just physically but mentally. It brings a smile to someone. That’s 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 don’t, so they’re helping themselves. (And this was before a warehouse full of unused emergency supplies was discovered in Ponce.) “If we’re gonna die, we’re gonna die,” he said with a shrug. Then he told me about his favorite restaurants.
“Lucha Puertorriqueña / ‘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 don’t 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 wouldn’t 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.”
I’ve been eating my way through Boston’s Puerto Rican restaurants not just because the food is delicious, but because I don’t 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, www.vejigantesrestaurant.com. Maná Escondido, 68 Aguadilla St., South End, Boston, 617-266-0900, www.manabostoncafe.com. Izzy’s Restaurant, 169 Harvard St., Cambridge, 617-661-3910, www.izzysrestaurantcambridge.com. La Fábrica Central, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 857-706-1125, www.lafabricacentral.com. La Lechonera, 342 Cummins Highway, Roslindale, 617-323-0311, www.lalechonerarestaurant.com.