On She Goes

A Taste From the Island: Puerto Rican Food in NYC

Perfectly rich food that is more down-home Boricua than bougie.

Christine Kandic Torres
Christine Kandic Torres
November 17, 2017
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Outside of Puerto Rico, the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the world can be found in New York. They are the largest Latinx group in NYC, yet restaurants serving Puerto Rican cuisine are not as easily found as Dominican and Mexican (the second- and third-largest Latinx groups here). Some lounges that offer Puerto Rican food have cropped up over the years, but they always seem to place a heavier emphasis on dancing salsa rather than making it. So if you are jonesing to try the greasy crunch of chicharrones for the first time, or are desperate for an authentic guisado like Grandma used to make, warm your heart during this difficult time for the diaspora and head on over to these spots that promise to deliver rich food that is more down-home Boricua than bougie.

Pernil (roast pork shoulder), arroz con gandules, and habichuelas (rice with pigeon peas and stewed beans) at La Isla.
photo by Christine Kandic Torres

La Isla Cuchifrito
1439 Myrtle Ave

Underneath the elevated M train, two blocks from the Knickerbocker Avenue stop in Bushwick, this neighborhood staple has recently undergone a facelift. But judging by the largely local and Latinx crowd on a recent Wednesday afternoon, it hasn’t gone hipster. Stick to ordering what you can see behind the luncheonette-style seating: cuchifritos (fried appetizers or finger foods), whole roasted chickens, cauldrons of soups and sauces. Employees dance merengue as they machete roast pork shoulder on a wooden butcher block set against blue subway tile. You may need to wait a bit before a seat opens up, and it certainly helps if you speak Spanish. But plenty of locals come in and order takeout—in English and Spanish. The pollo guisado (chicken stew) is phenomenal and, honestly, better than my grandmother’s. The bacalaitos (fried cod fritters) are the biggest and fluffiest I’ve ever seen, and tasty. Open 24 hours, it’s a solid choice any time of day. It’s a steal for less than $10 for heaping portions that the staff is happy to wrap up for you to take home. A taste of pre-gentrified Brooklyn in what was once—and in some places still is—a heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood.

Casa Adela
66 Ave C

Casa Adela is a warm and inviting Puerto Rican restaurant on Avenue C in what was often called “Alphabet City,” but is now usually referred to as the Lower East Side (or “Loisaida” in Spanish). The neighborhood has a long history of fostering notable Nuyoricans (New York Puerto Ricans) and is still home to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a truly wonderful cultural institution with an unparalleled slam poetry program that packs the house every Friday night. Casa Adela provides a retreat from the bars in the area and serves good old-fashioned Boricua-style home cooking. The carne guisado (beef stew) is excellent. Their signature rotisserie chicken is even better: never dry, and a bit of their house-made vinegar-based hot sauce on its crispy skin sends this dish into the stratosphere. There are tons of Latin American chicken joints in this city, but for my money, this is the best rotisserie Manhattan has to offer.

La Fonda
169 E 106th St

Spanish Harlem has been the symbolic home of many Nuyoricans for decades. Many Puerto Ricans who came to New York during the “Great Migration” of the 1950s settled here first before some moved into other neighborhoods and boroughs. If you’re in the area visiting El Museo del Barrio (which you should!), it’s worth visiting La Fonda for lunch. Inside, the bistro-style restaurant has ample seating and local Puerto Rican artwork displayed on brick walls. Try their mofongo, or mashed fried plantains, stuffed with pork or shrimp. Known as mangú in the DR or fufu in Cuba, mofongo is Puerto Rico’s showier offering, often presented both visually and gastronomically as a volcano of flavors: a mountain of melt-in-your-mouth plantain, garlic, and bacon constructed around overflowing pork, chicken, or seafood. It is arguably the signature dish of Puerto Rico and you’re not going to get much better than at La Fonda.

Lechon asado with arroz con gandules, topped with crispy cuero (crackling or pork skin) from La Piraña.
photo by Christine Kandic Torres

Lechonera La Piraña
152nd St and Wales Ave

Game over. The best food I’ve had outside of Puerto Rico or my grandmother’s kitchen can be found inside this trailer parked at 152nd Street and Wales Avenue in the South Bronx across from the John Adams Houses. Each weekend, the appropriately named Angel serves classic Puerto Rican fare, and the star is his lechon asado (roast pork). Well-seasoned and smoky, the pig cooks for hours in a second tiny trailer down the block. He parades a new roast back to his salivating customers each hour, the aroma drawing neighbors out of their homes like the Pied Piper, and serves hunks of meat piping hot, skin crackling and juices dripping. He greets everyone like a friend, even if it’s your first time, and offers generous samples of his best dishes (we tried gandules soup and a perfectly fried alcapurria). La Piraña has been a neighborhood institution for 40 years, and that is evident in how comfortable locals feel popping in to grab a shrimp empanada (“pastelillo” in Puerto Rico) or to shoot the breeze on the small bench inside while chowing down on some octopus salad—try it with hot sauce, garlic mojo, and green olives, and you’ll taste how this is some of the best you’ll ever have in your life. It is a festive atmosphere in close quarters, and Angel’s warmth and friendliness are contagious. He manages to capture the true essence of Boricua hospitality from La Isla del Encanto to the boroughs of New York: come here prepared not only to eat, but to make new friends.

Lechonera La Piraña owner, Angel Jimenez, proudly displays his smoky and well-seasoned lechon asado (pork roast), fresh out of the oven.
photo by Christine Kandic Torres