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.
Plato boricua is another favorite at the restaurant. It's a large plate filled with baked, shredded pork topped with strips of lightly sautéed onion, rice, pigeon peas, and a pastel -- stewed shredded pork encased in adobo-and-cumin-seasoned plantain dough cooked in a banana leaf.
Although the dish is offered here every day of the year, it's customarily served only around Christmas and on special occasions.
"It's a traditional dish," De Jesus says. "We normally eat it from November through January and on birthdays. I eat it almost every day. People love it."
Somewhat similar to the pastel is the alcapurria. It's another classic dish of plantain dough stuffed with meat, but fried rather than boiled or steamed. The sweet, crisp exterior envelops juicy seasoned meat. Here, it's available with ground beef (alcapurria de res) or crabmeat (alcapurria de jueyes).
Be sure to request the hot sauce -- but only if you can handle spice. Neither De Jesus nor Sanchez will divulge the secret chili used, but the fruity flavor and slow-growing, fiery kick indicate most likely Scotch bonnets. It's a phenomenal accent to the alcapurria and the plato boricua's roast pork.
In addition to typical home-cooked fare, the restaurant offers guests a taste of Puerto Rican tunes. Sanchez is enthralled by the island's culture and music.
"It's my passion," Sanchez says as he proudly points to a wall with framed photos of performers and famous Puerto Rican artists who have visited the restaurant.
Every Friday night, customers fill the dance floor as they move to the sounds of a live salsa band, and once a month, Sanchez brings in Los Barrileros de Cangrejo, a local group specializing in bomba y plena, an Afro-Puerto Rican style that combines Spanish narratives with African rhythms and drums.
Even though the restaurant and entertainment are all about the culture and cuisine of the Isle of Enchantment, both Sanchez and De Jesus love to expose new customers to the fare and traditions.
"We get some tourists like Canadians looking to learn. And we get a lot of mixed Dominican and Puerto Rican couples and families like us," Sanchez says with a laugh. "If we can, we'll throw together a Dominican dish to make sure both of them are happy."
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.