¿Qué tal, acho? If you’re anything like me, you may be wondering why are there so many awesome Puerto Rican restaurants (and people) in New York City. So here’s a quick history lesson because knowledge is cool: New York City has the largest population of Puertorriqueños (Nuyoricans or New York Puerto Ricans) in the United States. After World War II, during what was known as the Great Migration, a wave of Puerto Ricans looking for better economic opportunities made primarily East Harlem and the Lower East Side their home. East Harlem would later be known as Spanish Harlem (or El Barrio) and the Lower East Side/East Village as “Loisaida,” a Nuyorican pronunciation of Lower East Side.
They brought with them incredible cocina criolla dishes from the island (a mix of Indigenous, Spanish, and West African influences), along with their Boricua hospitality that all New Yorkers have the privilege and pleasure to enjoy. If you’re looking for all the tostones, mofongo, pernil, and chicharrón you could ever want, check out these seven great Puerto Rican restaurants across the city.
Casa Adela is pretty much synonymous with NYC Puerto Rican food (and endorsed by both Fat Joe and Rosario Dawson), and I ate here almost monthly when I lived in the East Village. The beloved neighborhood spot, founded in 1976 by the late Adela Vargas, is a great place to start for first-timers: get the mofongo (fried, crushed plantains mixed with garlic and pork crackling), tostones (smashed and twice-fried green plantains), and chicharrón de pollo (chicken crackling served with rice and beans). They’ve also added additional outdoor seating, which is pretty hard to miss with the Puerto Rican flag emblazoned corner to corner.
Spanish Harlem is one of the Puerto Rican epicenters of New York, and La Fonda Boricua has been one of its most recognizable restaurants for the past 25 years. Start with the tail-on shrimp mofongo, which comes with plátanos in garlicky salsa de ajo or salsa tomate. Their classics like pernil, ensalada de bacalao, and pollo guisado are safe bets, but make sure to try the new chuleta kan kan too, a unique cut of pork first created in Puerto Rico in 1957. It’s a bone-in loin chop, with a bit of the belly and the skin still attached, roasted and finished in a deep fryer to crisp the skin. Besides the great food, this place is also a destination for live Latin jazz bands and flamenco dancers. Note: La Fonda Boricua is currently involved in a legal case for failure to pay the required spread of hours pay, which you can learn more about here.
No, this isn’t a pet name for your significant other, unless you love deep-fried cubes of pork (or fried foods in general) as much as we do. This Fordham Heights institution on 116th (with a second location at 188th) is another icon. During the ’60s, owner Jose Coto Sr. came to New York City with his family from Cuba and opened the Puerto Rican restaurant in response to the demand from newly immigrated Puerto Ricans looking for home-cooked food. Even though I dabble in veganism at times, it’s places like Cuchifritos that keep me from fully committing with dishes savory pork ear stew, juicy pig’s stomach, and fried pork bell. In addition to the requisite mofongo and rice and beans, get the restaurant’s namesake plate, which comes equipped with pig ear, pork tongue, banana, and blood sausage.
Sofrito is a party restaurant in the Heights that feels a bit like stepping into a nightclub. That’s thanks to the rainbow lights, salsa music, and a super high ceiling with hanging colored fiberglass strings. It’s great for a buzzy birthday or boozy brunch, although you should know most entrees range from $25-$40. To fuel yourself for the inevitable dance session, load up on the alcapurrias (a beef-stuffed taro root fritter), empanadas, pernil, and churrasco. Definitely make a reservation and see if you can get a table with the incredible view of the George Washington Bridge.
Hit up the Langston Hughes House on 127th Street and then grab lunch at this friendly, tiny counter-service spot that’s been run by Rosa Flores and her husband Hector Quiroz for nearly 30 years. Beneath the neon sign that spells its name with an upside-down pig, you’ll spot a feast of roast pork, sausage, and cuchifrito hanging in the window. Inside, you’ll find all the straightforward Puerto Rican classics: stewed bacalao, rellenos de papa, pollo rostizado, pastelillos, and morcilla. The go-tos here are the crackly skin roasted lechón and the roast chicken, but don’t leave without trying some of Rosa’s flan either.
What started out as a Puerto Rican food truck is now a brick-and-mortar found between a laundromat and a pub in Astoria. Derick Lopez, the executive chef/founder, and his husband Victor Vargas say if you’re looking for your abuela’s pasteles (boiled plantains with pork and olives), then you should probably pay them a visit. These are in fact silkier than tamales and contain no corn - they’re super labor-intensive and not widely offered at other restaurants (but Cuchifritos does make some too). Add a plate of mofongo to the pasteles, followed by tembleque (a jiggly coconut pudding) and a coco rico soda. And if you feel like trying your hand at some Puerto Rican recipes, The Freaking Rican also sells homemade sofrito so you don’t have to try to replicate the all-important mix of herbs and spices at home.
Remember how “cuchifritos” means a slew of fried foods? That is also going to be part of your order at this pequeño restaurant in Williamsburg located underneath the elevated M train’s Flushing station. La Isla Cuchifritos has been around since 1960, and it’s a great stop for fried pork, ears, tongue, and bites of sweet plantain. But I can’t pass up the excellent rotisserie chicken, which I casually enjoy all by myself at the restaurant’s blue counter.