Nelyson De Jesus is an imposing man with a goatee, a lip piercing, and a wide, infectious smile. About a decade ago, he left his childhood home on Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to join his father in South Florida. Tony Sanchez is an affable Dominican native with white hair, dark skin, and cheerful eyes. As a kid, he formed a love for salsa and Puerto Rican culture.
When De Jesus struck up a relationship with Sanchez's daughter, the two men also formed a fast friendship. They would discuss the cultural differences and foods of their homelands and fondly recall the warm island lives they left behind.
When Sanchez learned that the owners of a local Puerto Rican restaurant were looking to sell the business, he quickly negotiated a deal, and within a week, De Jesus and Sanchez were partners in the venture. It's been nine years since they took over.
La Cocina Puertorriqueña specializes in authentic homemade Puerto Rican food catered to natives of the island.
"This is like a little piece of Puerto Rico in the United States," De Jesus says. "Most Puerto Ricans come here and feel like they're home. It's like mom cooking or grandma cooking."
Mofongo is the island's signature dish. It's composed of fried green plantains mashed with garlic and spices (and in many cases pork cracklings) and topped with meat, broth, and sometimes sauce.
La Cocina serves several variations of the dish, ranging from the classic masitas fritas (pork chunks) to chicken and skirt steak to seafood, such as bacalao a la vizcaína (cod with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes) and camarones al ajillo (shrimp scampi).
Camarones en salsa (shrimp in red sauce) is the most popular seafood version. Succulent shrimp are cooked in a tangy tomato-based sauce made with onion, green peppers, garlic, oregano, and spices. It's piled atop the plantain mash and highly seasoned, garlicky broth. The savory dish is filling and piquant, with a nice textural bite.