MIAMI — About 4 million Puerto Ricans live in the continental U.S. these days. And we have them to thank for making some of my favorite foods — such as mofongo — easier to find.
Admittedly, I might be biased. I’m one of those 4 million and happen to think those mashed and fried green plantains are nearly as addictive as a good French fry or potato chip. But my prejudices aside, it’s hard to ignore the growing influence Puerto Rican foods and chefs are wielding on American cuisine.
Not to mention better availability of treats like mofongo.
“That influence has been here for the past decade and it just keeps growing,” says Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation. “I think they have become absorbed into the way many restaurants and chefs are cooking.”
There are no good counts of Puerto Rican chefs or restaurants on the mainland — most statistics only track larger categories, such as Mexican or Chinese — but most observers agree they are spreading. And fast.
Part of it is due to the growth of the overall Hispanic population, which mainstream America is only just now realizing can be segmented into many and varied subcultures. It also helps that Puerto Rican culture is particularly accessible.
“The great thing about the Puerto Rican food and culture is that they are bi-cultural,” says Elizabeth Johnson, a chef-instructor who specializes in Latin cuisines at The Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. “They flow through English and Spanish and are both American and Puerto Rican.”
It also helps that Puerto Ricans are fond of a particularly addictive flavor combination — sweet and salty. Many dishes have both elements, such as fried sweet plantains with pork. One good example is pastelon, which my grandmother makes often. It is meat with sweet plantains, layered like a lasagna, then baked.
Another favorite of mine is the mallorca (like a Danish, but larger) and my grandfather would make a grilled cheese with them on the stove. Some bakeries serve them with ham and cheese (salty) which tastes amazing with the sweetness of the mallorca (pronounced mah-YOUR-ka) that has powdered sugar on top.
Last year marked the first time the Beard Foundation included Puerto Rico in its restaurant and chef awards, and several chefs from the island have been featured chefs at dinners held at the foundation’s New York house.
In fact, Jose Andres restaurant on the island — Mi Casa — was named a semi-finalist of the group’s best new restaurant category, while Jose Enrique was a semi-finalist for best chef in the South. Meanwhile, the American Culinary Federation recently organized a seminar on the flavors of Puerto Rico.
“I think it’s awesome that we opened the door for the future,” says Enrique, who also was named a “Best New Chef” by Food and Wine magazine for 2013. “It’s an industry that has grown a lot and people are a lot more aware of the food now.”
That open door already has seen the ingredients and flavors from the Caribbean become common in cities like Miami, New York and Chicago.
“People come here expecting those types of ingredients and they are open to it,” says chef Jose Mendin, who was named “Best New Chef” on the Gulf Coast by Food and Wine. His Miami-based Asian-influenced gastropub, Pubbelly, has become a favorite among tourists and locals alike who savor the mofongo served with pork belly.
But mofongo and lechon (roast suckling pig) also have seen success in less likely parts of the U.S.
At his Seviche restaurant in Louisville, Ky., chef Anthony Lamas draws on his Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage. For three years running, his unique take on cooking in the South has made him a semi-finalist for the Beard’s regional best chef award.
“To be recognized for doing this type of food in the middle of the South is pretty cool,” Lamas said of being the only Latino in the area serving up Puerto Rican-style black beans and rice. “I was able to come here and introduce those flavors to people and give them a part of my heritage.”
For Wilo Benet, a celebrity chef in Puerto Rico who owns several restaurants including Pikayo, the attention couldn’t come soon enough.
“It came a little later than I had wished for, but it came,” says Benet, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America. “For those who are on the rise and are looking to make their mark, this is probably the right stimulus.”