Cafe Reviews

At El New Yorican, You'll Taste the Island Riches of Puerto Rico

"Thank you for coming to my house."

If you have been fortunate enough to visit El New Yorican, these words, accompanied by a firm handshake, will be the last ones you hear upon leaving the restaurant.

They will have come after your serving of camarones en salsa criolla (plump pink shrimp lazily resting in a bowl of bright orange tomato broth flecked with onions and red and green peppers), after your first delicate nibble of tostones al mojo (crispy, golden plantain chips served with a dipping oil of crushed garlic and salt), and after your first furtive sip of the molasses-tasting soft drink called Malta, which is black as night, heavy, and sweet enough to make your knees quiver like a newborn fawn's.

The words will have come well after you've managed to even find El New Yorican, located on the corner of an aging strip mall in West Phoenix, where most of the stores — with the exception of this restaurant — advertise their wares in the form of sagging banners. You will see it if coming from the west. From the east, you'll need to look for the orange utility ladder out front sprouting a Puerto Rican flag.

And it is here, at El New Yorican, that one can embark on a casual adventure of Puerto Rican cuisine, or one that, for Puerto Ricans in the Valley, the familiar foods of home can be savored. In either case, you'll be dining in the home of new friends, ones who won't let you go away hungry and insist you tell them what you liked (or didn't) about the meal.

Credit the last part to Alberto Rivera, owner of El New Yorican and speaker of those parting words. In an unmistakable accent — Bronx mixed with Puerto Rican — Rivera greets regulars of this months-old eatery by name, in rapid-fire English or Spanish, asking whether their mothers will be joining them, introducing them to a local church pastor, or serving up plates of labor-intensive pasteles, the Puerto Rican version of the tamale — made with meat-stuffed masa wrapped in a banana leaf that some say, given their oily, gummy texture, are an acquired taste — to a boisterous group of friends. Newcomers are treated like regulars-in-waiting.

Rivera's background provides the explanation behind his restaurant's name, El New Yorican (pronounced yor-ee-can), which describes a Puerto Rican born in New York. With a lifestyle he compares to a Gypsy's, Rivera has lived in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Puerto Rico. He came to Phoenix three years ago with his fiancée. Always "hungry for money," Rivera's done everything from plastering and hawking used racetrack programs as a child to selling Puerto Rican music, flying pigeons, owning a club, and working with seniors.

What he hadn't done, until now, is run a restaurant. That idea came seven months ago after a poor customer service experience at another Puerto Rican restaurant.

"I thought . . . I can do it better," Rivera said. "There are Puerto Ricans everywhere, and I wanted to bring them together."

Rivera found his cook, Haydee Sanchez, at a Valley swap meet, where he was selling handbags. Working with a small menu of appetizers, main dishes (all priced under $11), and a couple of desserts, Sanchez makes what she knows from her former Puerto Rican home — what the locals call cocina criolla, or Creole cooking, a multi-ethnic blend from the indigenous Taino Indians (who used peppers, tropical fruit, and seafood), the Spanish settlers (who came with wheat, olives, garlic, pork, and beef), and their African slaves (who brought okra, plantains, and gandules, or pigeon peas, and introduced the deep-frying of food now so prevalent in this exotic fare.)

"These are typical Puerto Rican dishes," Rivera says. "I didn't want to have a crazy menu and [then have to] throw away food. I'd rather build as I go."

Rivera runs El New Yorican with members of his family, who will welcome you into the former taquería, with its high ceiling and brightly painted walls of orange, yellow, and green, and lead you to one of several dark wood tables under spotlights and amid the beats of Puerto Rican salsas.

If you are lucky, you will have enough time to peer through the prep area's window, where the unmistakable smell of garlic has made your nose twitch with curiosity. If you are luckier still, Rivera will tell you it is the classic dish mofongo and then take you around to see the fried green plantains being mashed together in a pilón (a wooden mortar and pestle) with broth, garlic, and olive oil. Available alone or alongside pork chops, fried chicken, or shrimp, the dish arrives as a moist, softball-size clump of sticky, starchy goodness, topped with strips of onion and enough garlic for your guests to insist conversation be had at a safe distance throughout the remainder of the evening.

There are other tantalizing aromas that, if you are unfamiliar with Puerto Rican fare, may be difficult to identify. Rivera will tell you they are adobo and sofrito, blends of herbs and spices that give El New Yorican's dishes their distinctive tastes.

"Puerto Ricans don't do spicy," said Rivera, "but you can add hot sauce if you want."

With one exception, appetizers at El New Yorican are fried and priced at $3 and under, making it easy to start with several and fill up fast. There are fried plantains, prepared as flattened chips or sliced, sweet, and glistening; the tamale-like pasteles; and cocoons of pastelillos, thin, bumpy pastry skins filled with steaming ground beef that I wished had a stronger presence of onion and garlic. Ditto for the alcappurria, in which the meat inhabits a long, fried fritter stick made with grated green bananas.

It is said that Puerto Ricans adore chicken, and this is evident in entrées of pollo frito and pollo guisado. The former is chicken fried without batter, generously rubbed with adobo, and lightly seasoned with onion, garlic, and salt. The latter is a stew thick with peppers, onions, and chicken meat still clinging to parts of the skeleton (Rivera says this is purposeful, done specifically for "bone suckers").

Skip the bistec encebollado (sautéed steak with onions) and opt instead for the aforementioned camarones en salsa criolla or the classic Puerto Rican pork roast called pernil, a value-size heap of tender, slow-roasted pork shoulder covered in onions (a Christmas tradition in the Rivera family, he says).

And don't miss out on the flavorful side of habichuela rojas (stewed red beans with chunks of potato and sofrito, the thick, herbed, and peppery vegetable sauce found in many of the dishes). Along with white rice or yellow rice with pigeon peas, it's a hearty meal in itself.

I asked Rivera, given his nomadic ways and penchant for experiencing the new and different, how long the Valley can expect to enjoy El New Yorican.

He laughs and says, "I'm not lettin' go. This is headquarters. This is home."