To sum up what I've learned about Puerto Rican cuisine based on a couple of visits to nearly three-month-old Mi Viejo San Juan, it's all about the sofrito and mojito.
Sofrito acts as the base to the many Puerto Rican dishes, the foundational flavor, extracted in this case (recipes vary, but everyone has one) from red and green peppers, garlic, onion and recao, a potent cilantro cousin also known as culantro.
And MVSJ's mojito — a personalization of the more common mojo sauce, having nothing to do with the mint-based cocktail — blends garlic, onion, cilantro, black pepper and salt inside a lime-spiked white vinegar and olive oil mix. Puerto Ricans typically save the condiment for their tostones (fried ripe plantains), says MVSJ chef Maria Rios, but as she's witnessed, the rest of us prefer to gleefully dump it over everything on the menu.
And for good reason. It's incredible. Like, buy-a-bottle incredible. I requested three ramekins in my to-go box, lamenting the last drop over my leftovers. It's a little acidic and biting, but also light, fresh and capable of making an already good item great, similar to how a bright tomatillo salsa enlivens fish tacos or chicken enchiladas.
But backing up a bit, it should be noted that Maria is the wife of Ivan Rios, who has run the neighboring Mister Body Shop for the last nine years on this semi-industrial Platte Avenue side street. Ivan's father Ulises, who ran a restaurant for more than 30 years on the island, taught Maria how to prepare authentic cocina Puertorriqueña. And two of Maria's three children now work with her in this former El Nopal location, where the heaping plates pass under Mission-style exposed beams and arched doorways, settling on colorful Puerto Rico placemats.
Backing up even further, it helps to know that the Puerto Rican pantry, like those of many Caribbean territories, draws influence from Africa and Spain as well as indigenous Amerindians. Hence ingredients like yucca (super starchy in oily, onion-y garlic sauce, $4.99), caramelized plantains ($3.99 ripe/$4.99 green), pigeon peas (in the arroz con gandules, $3.99) and the most widely used item of all: pork.
Three of the five staple entrées on the tiny menu are pork leg, ribs (both $12.99) and chops ($11.99). Meanwhile, bacon and ham bits inhabit several other items, including the habichuelas (a pinto bean stew served with white rice, $3.50) and sauces such as a white wine-based one that adorned our pollo fricassé daily special ($9.99): huge chicken chunks with carrots, potatoes and raisins almost overpowered by the salty porkiness. (Picture ham hock influence on Southern vegetable dishes.)
Succulent rotisserie chicken anchors the other two regular entrée offerings ($9.99 quarter/$22.99 whole), and from there the specials lead. Seasoned pork and beef emapanadas ($5 for two) are satisfying inside a crispy, wonton-like dough. And tostones de rellenos de cuajo ($12.99) present soft pork stomach (called buche on Mexican food trucks) inside fried plantains pressed to resemble hollowed muffins. They're a little pungent on their own, which is where that mojito comes in.
Since the cuisine, at least as executed by MVSJ, isn't spicy, the acute sweetness of house-made tamarind drinks and virgin piña coladas ($1.69, bottomless) isn't necessary to buffer heat. But it'll be a treat when an expansive new patio area opens soon, which will be as close as any of us will get to colonial Old San Juan in this city.