Island Kitchen

Island Kitchen

I f you’re looking for some of the most authentic Puerto Rican food on Grand Avenue, your best bet might be a place run by a Chinese couple. Owned and operated by the Chans—husband Tom “Chino” and wife Lin—El Coqui nonetheless dishes out deeply fluent fare.

Tom left his native China at the age of 15, searching for opportunity in the West. His travels initially took him to the Caribbean—not to Puerto Rico, but to Castro’s Cuba. While working at his uncle’s convenience store, he learned to speak Spanish and explored the ins and outs of Cuban cuisine from the seat of Havana’s Chinatown.

Tom eventually made the crossing to the US where, his relatives told him, there was more to be had. “More money, more freedom, more everything,” he says. He lived in New York for nearly 14 years before making the move to New Haven, where he became the fourth owner of the already decades-old El Coqui.

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Named after an inch-long frog common in Puerto Rico—the frog itself is named after its distinct and sonorous mating call—El Coqui’s food is humble and homey and, as Fair Haven tour guide and puertorriqueño Lee Cruz confirms, deeply authentic. All dishes come with rice, beans, plantains and choice of meats. Small dishes are $5 with one meat, $6.50 with two; medium options run $7 and $9. Large or “family size” takes a price leap—to $15 and $17, respectively—commensurate with a big portion jump. Local construction workers often order the large for a hefty lunch, Lin remarks.

Whatever the size, the rice is moist, the refried beans are creamy and the sweet plantains approach the consistency and taste of a tropical jam. But it’s the meat you choose that most distinguishes your meal from your neighbor’s. The pork shoulder, soft and succulent, is prepared fresh each morning and, according to Lin, is gone by day’s end. Another option is the fried pork, with an outer surface deep-fried to a crisp, forcing your teeth to do some work to crack through to the meat and fat beneath.

One of the best items I tried was the beef empanada. With a crimped edge halfway around, the orange-shelled half-moon was a pocket of potatoes and beef so tender it was difficult to tell where the meat stopped and the vegetable began. It also happens to be a favorite among local kids, Lin says, perhaps because there are no bones or skin to work through.

Another notable item is El Coqui’s Mofongo: a baseball-sized ball of mashed green plantains served in a bowl with gravy gleaned from separate beef and chicken dishes. Vegetarians thinking of ordering without gravy beware: the warm moon-like balls of plantain have nuggets of bacon within. Skimping on the gravy isn’t recommended anyway, because without it, the Mofongo would be too dense and dry. They’re meant to absorb the juices in which they’re placed, and that’s something they do quite well.

Besides the food, El Coqui has various brands of juices and colas people like to drink in the Caribbean. One of El Coqui’s more popular options, according to Lin, is the Kola Champagne. Made by Compañía Cervecera de Puerto Rico, it tastes uncannily like Dubble Bubble bubble gum. That isn’t as off-putting as it might sound, though the sugar content might be, with about 40% more than already sugary Coke.

Located in the heart of Fair Haven and staffed with six Spanish-speakers (not including the Chans), El Coqui is a flavorful portal into bread-and-butter Puerto Rican cuisine. Though Tom says he doesn’t return to the Caribbean anymore, island life has left its mark on him. During my visit, he reminisced about Caribbean weather with a customer from St. Croix. Though it was a gorgeous day in New Haven, the two agreed it wasn’t quite the same as in the islands. It lacked the sea breeze.

But while the breath of the bay doesn’t often reach that stretch of Grand Avenue, whiffs of island cooking are plentiful whenever the doors of El Coqui swing open.

El Coqui
286 Grand Ave, New Haven (map)
Daily 10:30am-8:30pm
(203) 562-1757

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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