Latino cooking is a story of tradition, of cakes that taste of roses, fritters bathed in syrup, a pot of beans simmering on the stove, and its perfumed notes of coriander, pumpkin, and garlic. It’s the din of conversation as plates, knives, and forks are set on a table, and a family congregates for news and the gossip of the day.
All of this happens in the most important room of the house — the kitchen. The Mexican author Laura Esquivel (who gave us Like Water for Chocolate) put it best. She said the kitchen is where the greatest ceremony of life takes place and where you go to find the balm that heals you.
In Miami, the restaurant 100 x 35 Cocina con Raices has become just that — a home away from home, a refuge, for Boricuas and others, in these difficult times.
Owned by three island-born Puerto Ricans — Chefs Emanuel Jimenez (two time Goya winner for Best Chef) and Luis Vazquez and business partner Carlos Rodriguez — Cocina con Raices opened its doors in the middle of the pandemic and, against all odds, succeeded in attracting Puerto Ricans and other Latinos and anyone who loves good Boricua food and is nostalgic for the smells and taste of the archipelago.
“This is a dream come true,” said Rodriguez in a press release. “My professional experience has taken me from working in marketing and promotions to owning a 500-employee insurance company.”
“This new project with two Puerto Rican chefs brings me back to my Puerto Rican roots (raices) and so the name of the restaurant,” he said in the release.
The restaurant is doing more than bringing upscale Puerto Rican cuisine to the general public; it’s serving our Boricua food with a full, open heart.
“Cooking with roots carries a lot of the story that is me,” Chef Jimenez said in a phone interview with Be Latina. Chef Vazquez was busy taking care of things in the kitchen for the hungry patrons waiting patiently at their tables.
“I am from the countryside (he was born in Aibonito) and I grew up cooking with my grandmother; she was one of the first ones that taught me how to make cod soup, she was one of the ones that taught me to make Guanimes (prepared food dating back to the pre-Colombian times in Puerto Rico,)” he said.
“So Cocina con Raices comes from my grandparents, the ones who taught me how to cook, to have a passion for it,” he said.
Chef Jimenez arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico after accepting a job at one of the Miami restaurants owned by Emilio Estefan. But it was his dream to open something of his own.
“What I wanted is to transmit to people what our roots are, what our food is — a mixture of African, Spanish, and Indian influences — and to show that our gastronomy is at the same level as the best in the world,” he said. And that with food, there are no limitations.
Friends and readers of Be Latina that ate at the restaurant call it “un pedacito de Puerto Rico” en Miami Beach (a piece of Puerto Rico in Miami Beach.)
Caveat: I have not been to the restaurant. We are, after all, in a pandemic, so traveling is a bit out of the question, but it is on the top of the list next time I am in Miami.
The restaurant’s name comes from the measurements of Puerto Rico — 100 miles (East to West) and 35 miles (North to South). It embraces the 500-year culinary traditions of the island — a kitchen with deep Caribbean roots and alive with native flavors.
The success of Cocina con Raices reflects the growth of the Puerto Rican population in South Florida and its economic impact. Almost 400,000 Puerto Ricans have made their home there in recent years, many fleeing a deep island recession, the destruction of hurricanes Irma and Maria, an imposed fiscal control board, never-ending earthquakes, corrupt local administrations, and a disastrous colonial legacy.
The owners wanted their place to look different from other Latino restaurants in the area and created an intimate and modern ambiance, seating 150 people, with artwork by Puerto Rican artist Susana Cacho. Here the main protagonist is not the decor — it’s the menu.
The fare is a mixture of traditional Puerto Rican dishes like Mofongo (fried and mashed plantains seasoned with salt, garlic, broth, and olive oil), Alcapurrias (a popular fritter dish), Bacalaitos (cod fritters), Sancocho (a traditional broth), and Guanimes con Bacalao (cod) with fusion dishes like the Egg Roll Boricua (a combination of churrasco and plantains in an egg roll wrap), and the Chicken Breast filled with Yuca Mofongo.
There is also Chillo Frito (snapper,) Chuletas Can-Can (a churrasco accompanied by stewed beans and rice), pasta made from malanga (purple taro root), and the Sancocho de la Abuela (a soup of greens and pigs feet.)
When possible — due to the pandemic safety measures — the restaurant features live music with Puerto Rican musicians such as cuatrista Tony Toyan, among others.
“It’s not simply to cook to get a plate out, just to get food out, it’s to put feeling into what one is doing,” he said.
Chef Jimenez started studying agribusiness at the University of Puerto Rico, but soon after decided to take a year off. In that year, he took a cooking course and started cooking for his friends, and has not left the kitchen since.
For the Puerto Rican Diaspora in Florida, Cocina con Raices has become a place to gather, eat good food, and trade news from home. A place to shed a bit of that nostalgia for home.
“This restaurant has become a gathering place for Boricuas,” Chef Jimenez said. “And you see them, you go to the tables, and you feel you are embraced by your homeland.”
“It’s very special,” he said.
So, next time you are in Miami, go and enjoy Chef Jimenez’s food and feel closer to that island we all love — that 100 x 35. You might just run into Nicky Jam or Gilberto Santa Rosa or be seated next to celebrity chefs Johana Clavel and Patty Zerpa — who come for the authentic Boricua food and stay for the atmosphere of home.