I always listen carefully when someone gives me a tip about good grub — especially when that someone is Dan Maldonado (half of the dynamic duo behind Tacos Atoyac, an outstanding Oxacan street food restaurant). He recently told me to get to a new Puerto Rican spot, so of course, I obliged.
El New Yorican, opened since last July, is run by a happy, smooth-talking guy named Alberto Rivera, a bona fide New Yorican (meaning a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent). Later I learn that Rivera sold discounted brand name goods at a flea market, where he met his chef, Haydee Sanchez, who operated the booth next to his. He longed for Puerto Rican food; she said she could cook it, and bam! They opened a restaurant.
It isn’t easy to spot whizzing down the busy West Thomas Road just west of I-17. I call for directions and Rivera tells me “we’re next to the pawn shop, across the street from the QT.” I ask if he’s on the north side of Thomas and he yells to his sister, “hey, are we on the north side?” And then he laughs, apologizing for his befuddled sense of direction. No matter, it was worth the hunt.
I’m more familiar with Cuban than Puerto Rican food, even though the two share some similarities. For some assistance, I grab a girlfriend, an ex-New Yorker familiar with New York Puerto Rican food and we head west. We order as much as we can without keeling over, starting with tostones al mojo ($2). These twice-fried, smashed green plantains are starchy and greasy and good. The two dipping sauces are heavy on the garlic (hence the al mojo), a foreshadowing of what’s to follow.
To wash down the starch, we order an understated coconut-flavored soda called CoCo Rico ($2.50) and our server (Rivera’s sister) suggests we try the Malta India ($2.50). It’s slightly fizzy, dark brown and tastes of molasses. The strong flavor comes in handy, somewhat mitigating the garlicky fare.
Whereas the tostones are a starch delivery mechanism, the pastelilio ($2) is a glorious fat delivery vehicle. A fried, flaky pie crust encapsulates simmered ground beef, onions and peppers. This little meat pie left us giddy with fat-drenched lips. We could have eaten another — or three. A vinegary, garlicky, spicy dipping sauce adds an appropriate punch.
Pernil ($9.99) is a national Puerto Rican dish, often served at Christmastime. Pork shoulder marinated in white vinegar, lots of garlic, black pepper and oregano (the basis of the seasoning mix called adobo), it’s slow-roasted for hours. Textural differences of tender meat and crisp bark play off meaty, porky flavor. Other than the garlic, it’s subtly spiced. We chose yellow rice (although it seemed more orange, perhaps colored with annatto) dotted with pigeon peas over the plain white rice option.
Mofongo (fried, mashed plantains liberally seasoned with garlic) is another Puerto Rican specialty. El New Yorican presents mofongo chicharrones de pollo ($9.99) — fried chicken with mashed plantains — in an interesting way. You can see below that the starch dominates the plate, surrounded by chunks of fried chicken. There is no batter on the chicken, but it, too, is marinated in vinegar and subtle spices. And it is finger-licking good — big seal of approval from my pal, a fried chicken aficionado.
At this point, Rivera returns to our table from the kitchen and says his sister got carried away with the size of the mofongo mound. You don’t say?
After a serious attempt to knock it down, we decided the prudent thing to do was to ask for a to-go box so that we could still pretend to have room from the house-made flan. There was something about that flan — thick as thieves and totally delicious. There wasn’t a speck of it left, save the pool of unnecessary whipped cream we scraped off to the side.
Fortunately for Phoenicians needing a Puerto Rican food fix, there are options. Besides this West side gem, the East Valley boasts a Puerto Rican mainstay, the homey Millie’s Cafe. I’ve found that Millie’s cooking and plating is more home-style. It’s also slightly less expensive. Millie’s pernil is $6.50, and it comes in a styrofoam container with plastic ware — but it is equally delicious.