As the herbal movement grows, Puerto Rican restaurants are vegetating their menus

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Casa Borinqueña has been feeding Oaklanders avid islanders since 2018. The pop-up and catering business has gained ardent fans with pernil, mofongo shrimp, chicharrón de cerdo and tostones con pollo. But last summer Chief Lulu (who asked to be assigned by first name) shocked, and in some cases angry, the small community when they vegetated their menu. Many have told the chef, who grew up in the archipelago and Brooklyn, that Puerto Rican meatless dishes, especially pork, could never be authentic.

“I started to question my own cooking skills: would I be able to really hit the flavor? Asked Chief Lulu. “I was also very sad because I felt abandoned by my own community. There was a feeling of mourning. And there was also fear. I became anxious. I wondered if this was a good business decision and, if not, if I could ever get over it.

The menu change was a risky decision to make, especially in the midst of a pandemic that has destabilized the food industry. But while the founder lost a few customers, she found enthusiastic support within a vegan community looking for plant-based dishes bursting with flavor. Casa Borinqueña’s rotating menu always features the classics: arroz con gandules, mofongo, maduros and pastelillos, to name a few. “People tell me all the time this is the best vegan food they’ve ever tasted,” says Chef Lulu. “I’m just staying in the tradition. “

In Puerto Rico, more and more kitchens are preparing meatless plates to meet the dietary needs of a growing vegan community. Across the archipelago, but especially in its capital San Juan, vegan restaurants offer locals and tourists signature dishes rich in island ingredients and pre-colonial techniques. In the contiguous United States, a similar movement is developing. Preserving Puerto Rican culture in a herbal movement that has been commercially whitewashed, these vegan restaurants, cuchifritos, food trucks, pop-ups, and catering services have sprung up in towns with large Puerto Rican populations, such as Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois and California.

Growing up in San Juan, Javier Muñiz delivered his grandmother’s fiambreras, packaged home-cooked dinners sold in the community long before meal preparation services became a trend. In 2015, nine years after emigrating to Orlando, he started cooking plant-based alternatives to Puerto Rican delicacies to impress his vegan girlfriend (and now his wife), Karina Munoz Cancel. It all started with candy, from creamy coconut quesitos to classic flan. Soon every recipe he made was plant-based.

The couple started selling Caribbean pastries at local farmers’ markets, and in 2016 they opened the Puerto Rican vegan bakery. Almendra’s. A year ago they launched the earthy cuisine next door, and brought Muñiz’s mother, 70, to ensure the sabor and the spirit of Borikén are mixed in pots and pans. The cuchifrito-style restaurant serves plant-based Puerto Rican soul food: savory frituras, deep-fried treats like empanadillas, alcapurria, and papa’s relleno that satisfy customers’ biggest home-thirsty customers.

“There are many Hispanic restaurants in central Florida, but none are completely plant-based,” says Muñiz. “We decided to open up this idea in the hopes of giving the vegan community a taste of our unique flavors of Puerto Rico.”

An order of sweet Philadelphia plantains Bombon Bar.

Photograph by Hannah Baker

Two months after Muñiz opened Earthy Kitchen, he was forced to close the dining room due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 36-year-old founder is eager to someday serve his guests plant-based versions of island delicacies, like Jack mofongo, a variation of the classic mofongo chicharron that replaces pork rinds with jackfruit, and sandwiches. tripleta, a popular criollo sandwich stacked with three meats, usually grilled steak, lechón pork, ham or chicken, which Muñiz vegetates with homemade jackfruit and seitan, on dishes rather than in take-out boxes .

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