Monday, August 13, 2012

Borinquen Soul: Street Food for the Homesick Boricua

By Luke Tsai
Mon, Aug 13, 2012 at 3:42 PM

Oakland’s Mexican food deserves all the praise it gets, but the Bay Area has a paucity of options for many of the other Latin American cuisines. Where do you go for good Dominican food? Or Colombian food? Or Puerto Rican food? (These are honest questions; feel free to enlighten me in the comments.)

In most instances, you’re lucky if there’s even a single local restaurant to carry the banner. Homesick natives have no choice, then, but to trek out to San Rafael or somewhere deep in the Mission for arepas or pasteles that may or may not bear a passing resemblance to what they ate growing up.

So Chris Caraballo and Eric Rivera, two Puerto Rican guys who moved to Oakland four years ago, decided to take things in their own hands. Two years ago, the pair of New York City transplants started a catering company called Borinquen Soul, serving up traditional Puerto Rican dishes like empanadillas (beef turnovers) and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). Three months ago, their operation went mobile, as the pair launched what they say is the first Puerto Rican food truck in Northern California.

Caraballo explained that back in his old neighborhood, in the Bronx, he’d see Puerto Rican flags hanging in people’s windows and Puerto Rican restaurants on every other street corner — everywhere he went, there were reminders of his cultural heritage.

Here in the Bay Area, not so much. According to Caraballo, that deficit isn’t because of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Puerto Ricans who do live here, or a lack of interest amongst other Latinos. There isn’t as big or as long-established a Puerto Rican population here, and that’s partly just a function of geography: The Caribbean islands are a lot closer to the East Coast.

Caraballo explained that their goal, then, isn’t just to serve Puerto Rican food; it’s to expose folks in the Bay Area to Puerto Rican culture as a whole. So the Borinquen Soul food truck is decked out in the colors of the Puerto Rican flag. And, thanks to a mixtape created by Rivera’s cousin, the New York City-based DJ King Shameek, the truck reps Puerto Rican music as well.

“If you hear our music from a distance, you know whose food truck that is,” Caraballo said — there’s no mistaking the mix of salsa, reggaeton, and Puerto Rican rap. (Volume II of the mixtape is in the works, Caraballo added.)

Both Caraballo, who is 34, and Rivera, 42, have experience in the hospitality and food-and-beverage industries — the former worked for years in the hotel business; the latter has managed various bars and lounges. But the dishes they serve on the Borinquen Soul truck are straight-up abuela food, the recipes passed down from Caraballo’s mother and grandmother.

Pollo Encebollado
  • Luke Tsai
  • Pollo Encebollado (with pigeon-pea rice and fried plantains)
During a recent visit, I snagged the day’s last order of pollo encebollado — traditionally a stewed chicken dish, but the version I had was grilled instead, with onions and garlic. The chicken was a shade drier than I would have liked, but was packed with flavor, thanks to a chile-heavy spice rub. This was served over a bed of yellow sofrito-based rice (sofrito being the blend of garlic, onions, cilantro, chiles, and other aromatics that forms the foundation of Puerto Rican cuisine) flecked with pigeon peas — interesting, chewy little legumes for those who haven’t had them. For dipping, there was a little container of “Borinquen Soul Sauce,” a garlicky ketchup-and-mayo based concoction that also packed a little bit of heat.

All in all, it was a satisfying homestyle meal, especially well suited for folks who like bold seasoning (and aren’t salt-phobic).

Other recurring menu items include Puerto Rican pasteles (a banana-leaf-enclosed dish that’s akin to tamales), alcapurrias (beef-filled fritters), the aforementioned empanadillas, and garlicky twice-fried tostones — made with slices of green, unripe plantain and totally different from the sweet maduros you’ll find at just about every Latin American restaurant.

Good tostones are especially hard to find in the Bay Area, so it’s no surprise that these sell out quickly.

“Make sure you’re at the front of that line!” Caraballo said, laughing.

To check out Borinquen Soul, look for the truck in front of Liege Spirits Lounge (481 9th St.) on Tuesdays starting at 6 p.m.; at The Den (1912 Telegraph Ave.) starting at 9 p.m. on Wednesdays; and at Penelope (555 12th St.) on Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. The truck also works the late night club crowd at AIR Lounge (492 9th St.) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, until as late as 2:30 or 3 a.m.

On weekends, the truck’s schedule is less rigid, as Caraballo and Rivera tend to work a lot of festivals and private events. That said, they usually end up somewhere near Lake Merritt at some point on Sunday afternoon — the exact time and location varies, so check Borinquen Soul’s Facebook page or Twitter feed for details.

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