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A Look at Union Square's Latin Flavor

This chapter from the Somerville Arts Council's new book, "Nibble," explores hispanic culinary traditions in Union Square.

Hispanic Heritage Month began on Sept. 15, and to celebrate, the Somerville Arts Council wanted to share a chapter from its new book, Nibble, which is all about food in and around Union Square.

Below is a chapter from the book that explores Union Square's latin flavors, restuarants and food personalities.

It's one of many chapters in the book that highlight the culinary diversity of Union Square.

If you want to learn more about the book, click here.

So, without further ado, here's the chapter (posted with permission):

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LATIN FLAVOR

Union Square’s Latino restaurant owners spice up the culinary landscape, share their native cultures—and fire up the local economy.

Text by Rachel Strutt | Photography by Caleb Cole

“¡Ponle más salsa güey, ándale! ¡Mi abuela es más rápida que tú!” This roughly translates to, “I need more salsa man, c’mon! My grandmother is faster than you!” It’s the sort of kitchen banter you might overhear in many Union Square restaurants.

Restaurant kitchens can be great places to practice a foreign language, whether it’s Spanish, Portuguese or Haitian Kreyol. You’ll pick up culinary lingo and some delicious slang as well. Throughout the country it is common to find immigrants, especially Latinos, working in kitchens as prep cooks, line cooks and dishwashers—the unsung heroes of the restaurant business. Union Square exemplifies this trend. Step into the heat of many Union Square kitchens—whether it’s La Cantina Mexicana, the Irish-owned Independent or the Korean restaurant Buk Kyung—and you’ll find yourself among Salvadorans, Mexicans, Brazilians and Peruvians, among others, slicing, sautéing and spinning plates toward hurried servers.

Yet the Latinos of Somerville’s culinary scene don’t just work tucked away in the kitchen. In the case of Union Square, they own restaurants—lots of them. Lima native Rosy Cerna owns two Peruvian restaurants; the Mexican-American Rendón family owns Cantina La Mexicana; and the Interiano family, originally from El Salvador, owns El Potro. There’s also Casa B, owned by husband-and-wife Alberto Cabré and Angelina Jockovich, who hail from Puerto Rico and Colombia, respectively. And lest we forget, Ebi Sushi is owned by Adolfo and José Garcia, who come from Guatemala and craft Tekka Maki rolls that would make a Tokyo sushi master proud. In addition, two South American natives have opened cafés recently: Cafe Tango, owned by Argentinean Vicky Magaletta, and Fortissimo, owned by Brazilian Vinny Soares.

At these eateries, the owners and their family members also work as chefs, head cooks and managers. They are hands-on, and their personalities imbue their businesses with warm Latino flavor. Step into La Cantina and Roberto Rendón might greet you with a boisterous “Hola, gringa!” followed by “Have you tried my jalepeño margaritas?” A few doors down at Casa B, Jockovich will chat with you unhurriedly at the door, while downstairs, head chef Cabré is likely dazzling patrons at the kitchen bar by constructing one of his artful desserts. At El Potro on weekend evenings, Elias Interiano might just saunter up to your table and serenade you with his mariachi band.

None of these restaurateurs went to business school, and with the exception of Cabré of Casa B, none went to culinary school, either. Most worked their way up the restaurant ranks. Take, for example, Rosy Cerna, owner of two Union Square restaurants: Machu Picchu Restaurante Túristico and Machu Picchu Charcoal Chicken and Grill. Cerna came to Somerville from Lima, Peru, in 1995, speaking little English. Her first job was at Pentimento, a Cambridge restaurant that is now closed.

“I started doing prep work, then I moved into the kitchen,” she explains. “Then I became cashier, then hostess, then waitress. I learned a lot. If there was something I didn’t know how to do, I’d ask. I never said no! I always said, ‘I can do this!’ Everything I did there, I did with passion. I feel so grateful to the owners of that restaurant; they gave me the opportunity to move from one position to another.”

Five years later, Cerna decided to buy Taco Loco in Union Square. Originally she planned to continue with the same name and menu. “At Taco Loco, I always wanted to do more,” she recalls. “ But because I’m not Mexican, I didn’t know how to make more dishes. So after a while, I decided to do Peruvian because that’s what I know. I was so afraid at first. I thought, people don’t know about Peruvian food! I was worried I would have an empty restaurant.” More than 10 years later, Cerna owns three restaurants in the city—including Mixtura on Beacon Street—and employs a total of 20 people.

El Potro owner Elias Interiano, who hails from Agua Caliente, El Salvador, worked his way up the ranks at various restaurants, first in Florida, then in Massachusetts. He opened El Potro in 2006. As he sees it, this path to restaurant ownership has big advantages. “If you get into the restaurant business and you don’t have the experience—you don’t know how to do everything yourself—you might as well not get into it,” says Interiano with irresistible swagger. “Here I work in the front of the house, and I can go back to the kitchen and cook and wash dishes. It’s the same. I can do it all.”

Of course, there are other entrepreneurs who have opened markets, restaurants and bars in Union Square. Many were born in this country, yet the vast majority were born abroad, coming from such countries as Ireland, Portugal, Thailand and India. Even some franchises in the square are owned by immigrants: Subway, for example, is owned by Binoj Pradhan, from Nepal.

Collectively, the square’s restaurateurs are fueling the local economy. “Diversity of choices in the food marketplace can contribute to the perception that a district is hot,” says Brad Rawson, senior planner for the city’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development. “That’s what’s happening in Union Square. What’s more, if you can’t get a table at one restaurant, you go somewhere else. Overall, you enjoy the culture and physical environment of the square; this may bring you back next week, to try some new exotic place. It helps everyone’s bottom line.”

Beyond generating food tourism, Union Square’s restaurant owners create jobs. Collectively, the square’s Latino-American restaurateurs employ about 60 people. Often, these owners employ relatives and Spanish-speaking people from cultures similar to their own, but not always. Casa B employs people from the United States, Mexico, Venezuela and Greece. José García of Ebi Sushi, who worked his way up the restaurant ladder at various Japanese establishments, employs a staff from Japan, China and Russia. “It’s nice to give other people a chance,” says García. “If my old boss did it for me, why wouldn’t I do it for someone else?”

The food industry has long been a path for immigrants to enter the American economy and community. As García sees it, immigrants—often Latinos—take low-level restaurant positions because others won’t.

“Why are there Latinos in the kitchen?” he asks rhetorically. “Because nobody else wants to do it. You have to work really hard. You have to work 60 to 70 hours a week. Some people work in kitchens because they don’t have a choice. They might not love it but they have to send money to their countries.”

Carolina Rendón, who owns Union Square’s Cantina La Mexicana with her husband, Roberto, exemplifies this work ethic well. A native of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Carolina emigrated to a small town near Brownsville, Texas, at age 17. There, she worked as a maid and met Roberto. The Rendóns settled in Somerville in 1988 and opened La Taqueria Mexicana in 1995. Carolina had worked for a few years at Boca Grande in Cambridge, but the couple had no experience running a restaurant of their own. It was a risk.

Yet immigrants, who have already risked leaving their homeland to start afresh in a new country, are familiar with risk. This is likely one reason—among many—why in every U.S. census since 1880, foreign-born Americans have been more likely to be self-employed than those born here.

Early on, Carolina recalls, it was tough. “We bought used clothes, we didn’t go out to dinner. We didn’t have a choice,” she says. “Because I’m from Mexico, you keep going, you don’t give up. I was nervous in the beginning. But my daughter had a friend at school whose family was from Portugal. They started a food business and were successful. I thought it was just us Latinos who did this, but I learned it was other people too. This made me feel more confident.”

By building successful restaurants, the Rendóns and the square’s other immigrant food entrepreneurs have immersed themselves in the American economic landscape. Yet through food, these restaurateurs are also preserving their cultural customs.

At Cantina La Mexicana, for example, you’ll find Enchiladas Potosinas, a specialty of San Luis Potosí, the state where Rosy Rendón grew up. You’ll also taste many dishes spiced with chili piquin, which grew in abundance around her childhood home.

Downstairs at Casa B, Alberto Cabré sits below a series of old family portraits—black-and-white photographs taken when he was a child in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. “These are all real photos! They are not fake families!” jokes Alberto, who creates food inspired by Spanish, Caribbean and Colombian cuisine. “My food is very rooted in culture,” he continues. “I like to reinterpret traditional dishes, so I’ll take street food, for example, and make it high-end.”

To illustrate his point, he talks about Casa B’s Bacalaitos Fritos: salted cod fritters served with brandade and cilantro aioli. “When I was a little kid, we often spent weekends in Loíza, on the northeast coast of the island. We’d go to a little street vendor who sold great salted cod fritters. So I took these and made them my own. I added more puff, with baking powder. Then I added a French brandade spread on top, plus a little cilantro aioli. It’s a high-end dish, but when people from Puerto Rico come here, they say, ‘Oh my God, these are just like the fritters in Loíza!’”

“Food is one of the longest-lasting cultural norms that an immigrant group will bring,” says Beth Forrest, a Somerville resident who teaches culinary history at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “You stop wearing the clothing, you stop speaking the language, but the last piece of culture to remain is foodways. Speaking for myself, I don’t know any Polish folk dances, I don’t speak Polish, but we still have pierogies at Thanksgiving.”

Machu Picchu’s Rosy Cerna supports this theory. “My American-born son says to me, ‘Mommy, don’t you get tired eating Peruvian food all the time?’ I tell him I was born with this. I can’t stop eating my food! Food is a strong connection. When I have my soup, Caldo de Gallina, made with eggs, chicken, pasta, and potato, I remember my mom making this soup back in Peru.”

It seems that soup has a powerful way of triggering memories. Cerna also mentions Aguadito de Pollo, a chicken soup seasoned with ají amarillo—Peru’s favorite pepper—and carbed up with potatoes and rice. Back in Peru, this hearty number is a popular hangover cure. “After too much drinking, this soup can revive the dead,” she says. “If a Peruvian comes in here and sees it on the menu, it reminds them of home.”

The food of immigrant restaurateurs entices not only their fellow expats, but gringos as well. Owners say that appealing to locals is crucial for success. Yet beyond the bottom line, Latino restaurant owners act as cultural ambassadors, some more intentionally than others.

For Cerna, the role of ambassador is one she takes seriously. At Machu Picchu Restaurante Turístico, diners can try dishes from throughout her native Peru, a country with diverse culinary influences, ranging from Japanese to Spanish. “I try to represent the main dishes from each of Peru’s 20 states,” she says. “On the menu, I explain where dishes come from. I love it when people come here and want to learn about a new culture. If somebody doesn’t have the chance to go to Peru, they can come here and taste Peru.”

Food is also entertwined with broader cultural traditions, like music. At restaurants in Peru, Mexico and El Salvador, you’ll often find bands playing—and many of the square’s restaurant owners bring this tradition to Somerville. Fridays at Machu Picchu, you’ll catch an Andean band. Most Friday and Saturday nights at El Potro, owner Elias Interiano dons a spectacular pair of mariachi pants, picks up his accordian, and performs with his band, Mariachi Estampa de America.

“Mariachi is from Mexico,” says Interiano, who started playing music in church as a young boy with his father. “But in Mexico and all of Central America, we all listen to the same kind of music. You can find a mariachi band in any corner of El Salvador. We are an authentic mariachi band, but we also mix in a little cumbia and bolero. I wanted to bring something to the square different from everyone else, something that represents our culture.”

On a recent Friday evening at El Potro, the crowd is mixed; you can discern this by a quick assessment of facial hair. Several young Salvadoran men sitting at the bar have impeccably manicured mustaches. In stark contrast, several thickly bearded hipsters sit in a booth swilling Coronas.

Interiano’s son, Jason, a remarkably poised 17-year-old who manages the restaurant, says this mix is the norm. “We have customers from all different cultures,” he explains. “Everyone is welcome. At around 5 o’clock, you might have more customers of European or Asian descent. But later, towards 9 or 10, that’s when the Hispanic population likes to go out. But there’s nearly always a mix.”

This mix of diners is typical throughout Union Square—and different from Davis Square, which draws a more affluent and homogenous dining crowd, and East Somerville, where you’re likely to find fewer gringos. The mix reflects Union Square’s broad range of food businesses coupled with a diverse yet increasingly gentrified residential landscape. But it’s not just locals grazing at the square’s eateries. Drawn by the promise of an “authentic” ethnic food experience—fueled hugely by Yelp, Chowhound and the foodie-crazed blogosphere—diners from the greater Boston area also are discovering Union Square.

Cerna says that her American customers, an estimated 50 percent of her clientele from throughout the Boston area, are not looking to play it safe. “Americans order anything, including anticuchos, which are beef hearts,” she says. “They love it! They even order guinea pig! We only have it occasionally, for Mother’s Day, for example, when it’s a Peruvian tradition. But Americans will come in here specifically asking for guinea pig! I am so surprised!”

Gastronomic diversity—including grilled guinea pig—is putting Union Square on the map. Hooray for food tourism! Yet this success comes with risks too. Might increased dining crowds and a growing number of upscale restaurants inadvertently threaten the neighborhood’s delicious diversity? As the area gentrifies, might the smaller ethnic eateries and markets get pushed out—along with a more diverse clientele?

Elias Interiano, for one, is not worried. He says, “It’s only going to get better. I feel we all should work together. Nobody takes anyone’s business. You have a beer at one place, then go next door and have an enchilada. No matter how many businesses come to the square, it’s actually good for all of us.”

Similarly, Casa B’s Alberto Cabré believes the current restaurants and markets complement each other. “I think we can coexist,” he says. “There are times to eat in a high-end restaurant and times not to eat in a high-end restaurant. Chefs, for example, don’t always want something fancy—I know I don’t. I like going to Machu Picchu on the corner and having some grilled chicken. As far as the markets go, when I run out of stuff I go to La Internacional to buy plantains and avocados. For me it’s a real benefit to have a Latino market around.”

Whether or not Union Square can maintain its diversity in the long run, one thing is clear. Again and again, the square’s Latino restaurant owners say that they feel welcome and supported here. 

“I love Guatemala, but this is where I want my kids to grow up,” says José García. “The American people are so nice. And the city has been very supportive.” He pauses, then adds, “There is so much happening in Union Square right now. We have everything—Japanese, American, Mexican, tapas, sushi. I feel proud to be here.”

Perhaps it’s because this immigrant business group feels welcome that they, in turn, are so welcoming towards others—regardless of ethnicity, class or facial hairstyle.

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