It’s all about discovery, about finding something new and wonderful. On November 19th 1493 Don Cristóbal Colón (AKA Columbus) landed on the northwest coast of Puerto Rico near Aguada on his second voyage to the New World. An island paradise with a warm and welcoming people with a strong tribal and family bond, and a tasty cuisine that blended the native Taino with Spanish and African flavors. Many generations later two people, steeped in the love of family, possessing a fine set of kitchen skills, came together to make their own discoveries: Juan C. Melendez-Rodriquez and Joan Carrasquillo found each other, and both of them saw an opportunity to pass on what they treasured in a place where it would be appreciated.
Joan had been a legal secretary for 18 years; Juan worked steadily in the food industry, trucking and under contract to FedEx– good careers for a long time, and yet, something was missing. When they found each other, part of that inner yearning was satisfied. When two loving and creative people, both part of large families, both with a deep passion for their native island and its flavorful cuisine, finally get together, it’s like a fire under a stew pot, turning simple water, herbs and meat into a splendid, fragrant dish that you just gotta share!
They ended up in Savannah, GA, and found that Latin cookery was pretty much confined to Americano versions of Mexican dishes. One Cuban restaurant was open downtown and that was pretty much it at a time when Savannah had yet to see Honduran, Peruvian, Colombian or any other exciting fare– those came trickling in later. Obviously the city was in desperate need of a strong infusion of something different– Latino food with its own unique style– and there were plenty of native island children here to welcome a place where alcappurias and pasteles could be ordered with a hearty cuppa of Puerto Rican coffee!
With admirable energy Juan and Joan decided that what this town needed was a dose of good Puerto Rican cooking, a lip-smacking sofrito to make ‘em smile, and Joan’s special gift with creating absolutely ravishing Flan. They tossed aside a lot of names and finally decided to stick with Puerto Rico Restaurant, so los gringos would understand that there were other Latin styles of cooking besides Mexican. In honor of their beloved island they held the grand Opening on November 19th, when a certain European explorer first discovered that green land of mountain peaks and rainforests, alive with the song of the coqui. The Puerto Rican flag and colorful art, some even contributed by local fans, make the little dining room cheerful and a line of delightful dancing frogs on the countertop catch your eye on the way to a pristine kitchen– so pristine that the owners can proudly claim a 100 health score for each of the four years they’ve been open!
I ask Juan and Joan what they like best about running their restaurant and their answer sounds so familiar it makes me smile– the same way I feel when I see a happy group of people at my own holiday table: “We really love to see people enjoying the food we make, the compliments we get, how so many will come back again and again. It’s not all Puerto Ricans either! Plenty of local folks get hooked on favorite dishes like mofongo (a delightful dish of mashed green plantains mixed with garlic, olive oil, cracklins and Juan’s “special secret ingredients”) or the chicken breasts wrapped in bacon and stuffed with plantains– a dish that may take a half hour to prepare, but is well worth the wait!”
Where do the recipes come from? “My mother, Guillermina, was cooking since age 9, everything always fresh, always delicious– she was well known for it! She could turn out a big pan of empanadas or pasteles so fast! Pat, pat, pat, stuff it, wrap it, and boom, it’s done! You want a chicken soup? She’d grab a chicken and with a quick twist (a vivid ‘squaaaaawk’! sound effect here), and bam, bam, bam, feathers picked, insides taken out, snip, snap! and into the pot with all the right herbs, onions, omigosh!– so fresh, smellin’ so wonderful! During holidays like Christmas her pasteles were turned out by the hundreds! My dad too had a great way in the kitchen– it’s a family thing! Joan’s family was the same. We both knew what really good food was from our early days!”
So, truly, you gotta love what you do. Sure, you may find other jobs bring in the money faster, but you gotta have your heart and soul involved to make it all truly satisfying, and Juan and Joan laid aside those “regular” jobs to, essentially, make people happy with delicious, well-prepared and nicely filling dishes that they loved and grew up with. One gentleman, whose father was in Hospice, became concerned because his daddy has lost his appetite due to cancer treatments– or maybe just some pretty awful hospital food– so the son drove 4 hours to pick up then deliver Juan and Joan’s mofongo and chicken stew to sooth his father’s need for something beloved and familiar. That’s a grand testament to the comfort of native food– I know there’s nothing quite like collard greens with smoked pork neckbone and a hunka cornbread to make me feel better.
If you have a craving for a creamy coconut flan or Joan’s special Coquito Flan, or nothing but a mound of Arroz con Gandules and a big bowl of beef stew will soothe those yearnings for home, if you’re a local guy with a taste for homemade sofrito and a huge & savory porkchop grilled just the way you like it, if you’ve got family coming over who want real Puerto Rican food or maybe a Latin dish that does not involve tortillas, well, just call up Juan and Joan and make your order, bring the family or spend a pleasant lunchtime with your best buds at the one and only Puerto Rico Restaurant!
Puerto Rico Restaurant
310 East Montgomery Cross Rd.
Savannah GA 31406
Monday - CLOSED
Tuesday to Friday 10:00 am to 6pm
Saturday 10:00 am - 8pm
Sunday 12pm - 6pm