Day 90: Puerto Rico
I’ve been saving Puerto Rico for a while, wanting to make sure that I was going on a day when I could be joined by my Puerto Rican step dad Jimmy, who grew up eating his mom’s wonderful cooking in Long Island. His mom is 97-years-old now and doesn’t cook so much anymore, so I was hoping we could help find him something to eat that would remind him of the stuff from his childhood. In New York, locating Puerto Rican food is easy. In Los Angeles? Not so much. As far as I can tell, the only decent Puerto Rican place is actually in Cypress, about thirty miles away at a place called Señor Big Ed’s.
Jimmy is a musician, which means he’s on the road a lot, and since having turned vegetarian a few decades ago, he’s had some some pretty difficult meals out on tour. His most recent trip, from which he returned just this morning, saw him trying to order meatless options in countries like China, Indonesia, Korea and Australia. So as we pack into the car and brave some heavy L.A. rush-hour traffic with my mom, sister and our family friend Bill, Jimmy tells stories of some of his more difficult food days from the latest trip. “Korea was really tough. I don’t recommend eating airplane bibimbap. We were also being taken care of by these locals who didn’t totally understand the vegetarian thing. They’d just order whatever, then say ‘This is rotten fish. Not good for Americans.’” Eventually, we arrive at the near-empty restaurant with a Puerto Rican flag out front and Nuyorican souveniers on display inside. Mom decides that we need a drink, but they don’t serve booze here, so Jimmy and Bill run to the liquor store while mom, my sister and I all take a look at the menu. Just as the men return with Red Stripe beer and red wine, we’re served some pastellios to get things started. Pastellios are fried dough pockets, similar to an Argentine empanada, but a lot lighter and crispier. We get half stuffed with cheese and the other half with ground beef. “Wow,” Jimmy says, “these taste exactly like my mom’s.”
Now Jimmy takes over ordering the entrées while I finish off the last bite of pastellios and wash it down with some beer. A few minutes later, the food arrives. Mom has pollo fricasé, a chicken dish sautéed in a tomato sauce, served with onions, cassava, and like every other dish on the menu, either fried sweet plantains, or tostones (toasted, crispy plantains). Once again, the similarities to the way Jimmy’s mom made it is uncanny. “Oh my God,” says my own mother, shaking her head, “this tastes exactly like what she would make me when I’d go up to visit her. I mean, exactly.” Since Puerto Rico isn’t the most vegetarian friendly cuisine in the world, Jimmy is sticking to rice, beans, plantains and pastellios. Bill digs into some pernil de cerdo, roasted pork leg, which is pretty moist, despite its gray coloration, but has a slightly flat flavor which doesn’t really hold up to everything else on the table. Jimmy has ordered me the bistec ensebollado, a thin strip of well seasoned steak topped with some very nice, tender onions that really bring the whole dish together.
“This is really typical, simple Puerto Rican food,” says Jimmy as we’re served the restaurant’s home made and very good flan de coco (coconut flan). “This is the kind of food you’d eat at somebody’s house in New York.” While Puerto Rican food may not be the best thing to fill your stomach with before sitting in a car for the half hour drive back home, the meal itself really was a lot of fun. But mostly, I’m just glad that Jimmy could join me tonight for some food that reminded all of us of his wonderful mother, who’s still going strong, living in Long Island in the home that Jimmy grew up in. So here’s to you, Virginia.
Señor Big Ed’s
5490 Lincoln Ave
Cypress, CA 90630
Food Breakdown: beer and wine (brought from outside), 8 pastellios, 1 extra side of rice and beans, 3 entrées
Distance From My House: 31.1 miles