The owners of Old San Juan, a new Puerto Rican restaurant in Atwater Village that opens its doors tonight, want you to put on your Salsa dancing shoes. Ramon L. Galindo and Puerto Rican-born executive chef Luis Castro hosted a special preview opening last week, although it was more like a fiesta. There was a Salsa band equipped with someone playing a cuatro, the national instrument of Puerto Rico. There was lots of food, lots of dancing and lots and lots of Puerto Ricans. “It was a beautiful sight,” said Castro, “it was like one big family.”
The venue is located in what they consider to be prime real estate in Atwater Village. “It is such a multi-cultural area which is really open to different types of food, especially Latin food,” says Castro. And this is especially important since Old San Juan touts themselves as being the “first Puerto Rican restaurant in the city of Los Angeles.” This has been a long time coming, and should in fact give many people a reason to celebrate. ¡Wepa!
The team is banking on Latino residents and nearby Silver Lake foodies to discover the new cuisine in their neighborhood and spread the word. Although it's already a classic case of if you build it they will come. Since word broke of the restaurant opening, people have been already showing up or calling the restaurant saying, “I'm on my way over!” Galinda has to stop them, “Wait! We're not open yet!” Not until Friday actually. He says, “People were getting mad, they wanted us to be open already.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are roughly 55,000 Puerto Ricans living in Los Angeles and the O.C., yet somehow Borinquens remain terribly under represented in the L.A. food world. So why aren't there more Puerto Rican restaurants in Los Angeles? Despite the isolated Mofongos up in the Valley and the notably distant Señor Big Ed in Cypress, (La Pluma Rosa has temporarily closed), there just aren't many others who come to mind when one thinks of “authentic” Puerto Rican food in L.A. Some would argue that a big problem stems from a lack of awareness about the cuisine. Although similar to Cuban food (though don't you dare call it the same!), the cuisine is a blend of culinary influences from Spain, Africa, the indigenous Taínos and also the United States.
This is Castro's first restaurant as owner and executive chef, though his culinary experience spans over 20 years in well-respected restaurants in Puerto Rico, New York and Los Angeles, where he cooked at Pinot Bistro, The Spanish Kitchen and, most recently, Loteria Grill. He even helped design the Puerto Rican side of the menu at JLo's shuttered Madre's in Pasadena.
Castro believes his culinary background and expertise, along with his desire to showcase the true flavors of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, will translate into an authentic taste of the island. “It's not just about making the food taste good, but it's about beautiful plating and presentation as well,” says Castro. Old San Juan will be an introduction to Puerto Rican cuisine for some and a taste of home for those of us missing those quintessential endemic island flavors.
Inside the roughly 91-seat restaurant, the space is cheery. Adorning the walls are pictures of famous Puerto Rican landmarks and, in a small corner, family photos are dedicated to Castro's island roots. “We wanted to have the colors of Old San Juan, the bright and pastel colors that you see in the city streets,” says Castro. “I had my brother, who lives in Puerto Rico, take pictures of the architecture around the city and send them to me to put up on the walls … It's such a beautiful city, every time I go to San Juan, I fall in love.”
The menu is a list of classic Puerto Rican staples: mofongo relleno con chicharron (mashed green plantains with fried pork belly), bacalaitos (fried codfish fritters) and arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon peas). Castro also wanted to provide vegetarian alternatives like providing a vegetable-filled option to the traditional pasteles (a Puerto Rican version of tamales) and croquetas de soyrizo, a specially-made croquette with soy sausage instead of the usual meat filling. Dishes will include arroz con pollo and arroz con calamari served in a traditional rice caldero portioned for two, and cuajito, a stewed hog maw in a spicy sauce.
And of course, no Puerto Rican meal would be complete without flan. A crème caramel custard-like dessert, Castro's menu will provide three different styles; a chocolate version, sweet potato and an addictive cheesecake hybrid that alone may be enough to lure Puerto Rican's out from their hiding places.
Old San Juan has a full beer and liquor license and plans to offer a lunch buffet — and eventually a whole pig roast on weekends. They will also have a small tiendíta consisting of hard-to-find Puerto Rican kitchen essentials like pilóns and calderos available for purchase.
Castro hopes that his restaurant will provide a place for the community to gather and celebrate Puerto Rican culture through food. “I don't think we (Puerto Ricans) have been properly represented in this city … and I think as a community we really have to come together and support each other. We are at a point where we really need this.”
Old San Juan opens Friday, Jan. 18. There will be a ribbon cutting ceremony at 11:00 a.m., which will be open to the public.
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