1925 Highway 6 South, between Westheimer and Briar Forest
Ever since I started getting into street food, lo these many sun-baked parking lots ago, I've been reading up on street food around the world and become fascinated with the subject. Certain countries are known for their street food cultures, Puerto Rico among them. A recent article by the site Budget Travel named Puerto Rico as one of 14 destinations worldwide for street food aficionados. I've wondered why we didn't have any Puerto Rican here, indeed why we have, for most of the last 30 years, had only one Puerto Rican restaurant (actually, that should be spelled Puertorrican I think). And then I not only discover this trailer but also another Puertorrican restaurant on the far west side which I'll be reporting on soon.
I headed out to try them out only to be frustrated a couple of times to find them closed so I called and found out the current hours (only 2pm to 10pm, Friday thru Sunday). I showed up about 2:30 on a Friday afternoon and there was no one in sight. Later is better, here; in fact, though you can't count on them to be open precisely by 2pm you'll often find them open past 10pm; the two times I've been I asked how late they'd been open the night before and the answers were 12 Midnight and 1am.
I talked to Chely himself, a wrecker driver during the week who is not as old as his graying hair and beard make him seem; he asked me my name on the phone and where I was from, which I thought was a little strange. Then, when I got there, he asked again (and recognized me from my call). But don't worry if you can't name some town on the island you hail from, you'll be welcome here, as I was. As another customer explained to me as we stood around chatting, Puerto Ricans are very outgoing and like to talk; I observed that's generally true of Texans, too, and we should get along famously.
On my first visit I tried the arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas, capers, stuffed olives, considered by some the national dish, with pernil. The rice was rich, flavorful, great, but the pernil was even better. I watched as she (I presume Chely's wife, who does most of the cooking inside the trailer) kept slicing pieces off the roast for my plate, even pulling out another knife at one point to cut through the crispy skin, and worried there might not be enough for the rest of the evening but then I realized it was not my problem. This was just sublime; I couldn't stop taking more bites of the pile of meat on the plate though it was obviously enough for two.
And of all the variations of rice and peas popular in Caribbean cuisine, I like the Puerto Rican version best I've decided after just one sample but this is one of the items prepared ahead of time and warmed up in a microwave so it wasn't as good as it could have been.
I saw the pinchos being cooked by Chely over mesquite charcoal on a grill; trust me, there's lots more meat on them than the picture on the trailer indicates. I also saw pinchos de pollo being consumed - they seem to be the most popular - and they looked great. Unfortunately no one was a sharer. I also saw fried pies - didn't get the name of them - a corn meal like batter with cheese filling that looked more like the cheese was incorporated into the dough rather than stuffed in a pocket.
I inquired about the cuajito, defined online as pork belly (buche) in a spicy sauce. Chely said pancha de puerco as he rubbed his considerable tummy and offered me a sample. I'd say the sauce is savory, not spicy, but there is hot sauce (Louisiana brand) on the table. I loved this; definitely better than beef tripe.
I've also tried the Mofongo y carne frita which Chely says is his best dish but I just don't get mofongo and I didn't care for the carne frita (fried pork cubes) nearly as much as the pernil.
When I had first approached the window on my first visit I had noticed a baseball bat across one of the cabinet tops inside and I wondered if things sometimes got a little rowdy later in the evening. As I was standing around chatting with another customer, Chely stuck his head out the window and called me over to witness the mashing of the plantains for the mofongo. Inside I saw a beautiful wooden mortar, about a foot tall with 1 inch thick sides, sitting on a chair. It was apparent the pestle that came with it was barely long enough to stick out the top and using it would result in seriously scuffed knuckles; hence the baseball bat, which allows for two-fisted pulverizing action as the fried slices of plantain are ladled into the mortar.
The trailer can be missed easily if you're hurrying along on Highway 6, partially obscured by trees in a mostly vacant shopping center parking lot, but when they're open there'll be a line of Puerto Rican flags staked out along the highway and you can't miss it. Later is better, for sure, given the heat these days. Both times I've been it was late afternoon and it was sweltering, even under the shade provided by some young trees. Take advantage of the late hours and go after it starts to cool off. This is not fast food; I've waited 25-35 minutes for my order. I have seen lots of people coming up to pick up to-go orders and more than one picking up something called in but eating on site.
BTW, I asked another customer about the Puertorrican community here and why there aren't more and he said, in essence, they're coming. Puerto Ricans have mostly emigrated to Miami, then, NYC, then Orlando, but now they're discovering Houston, drawn first by the Space Center, then the Medical Center and now the petro-chemical industry. This is just fine with me, so long as there are more cooks and restauranteurs in the mix, not just astronauts, doctors, scientists and engineers
El Mofongo Boricua on Facebook - there's not much on the page and the hours are wrong. The current hours, as of this post, are Friday-Saturday-Sunday, 2pm to 10pm, but as noted above they tend to run late.