A vacation to the Caribbean sounds good right about now. The constant cloud cover hovering over Cleveland well into spring can send even the most cheerful person into a downward spiral. Yet, when I step into one of the Puerto Rican bakeries and restaurants on the city’s Near West Side, I am immediately reminded of one of the many beach-side kiosks selling beer and bacalao (deep-fried cod fritter) on the island’s north shore. Perhaps it’s the warmth of the glow lamps in the heated display cases, but I could swear I’m swallowing a pill of sunshine with each savory bite of a pastelillo (meat turnover), alcapurria (stuffed meat fritter with a dough made with yucca or plantain), or papa rellena (stuffed potato).
Cleveland’s character, from its founding to today, exhibits contributions from a diverse mix of ethnicities. Just as neighborhoods such as Little Italy, Slavic Village, and AsiaTown have retained their cultural identities generation after generation, the Clark-Fulton neighborhood on the Near West Side is the heart and soul of the Hispanic community. It’s a melting pot of people from many Central and South American countries, but the vast majority of Cleveland’s Hispanic population—nearly 75%—hails from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Many came to Northeast Ohio through recruitment efforts by area steel and auto manufacturers during the post-World War II economic boom. First they settled on the east side, but by 1960, a large percentage had moved closer to the mills on the west side of the Cuyahoga River. Bodegas and restaurants opened to serve the community, and Little Puerto Rico was born. But, as the demographics of the community have changed with the influx of immigrants from Latin America, there has been a groundswell of support to adopt a more-inclusive name for the neighborhood.
La Villa Hispana is part of the rebranding and just one aspect of the efforts to revitalize Clark-Fulton, which has suffered economic decline following the closure of many steel mills. With the additional influx of climate refugees, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, and, more recently, the deadly earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico this year, the neighborhood needs some TLC. The Hispanic Business Center is on the front lines, raising millions of dollars in startup and growth capital and assisting the launch of small businesses, many of which are food related.
“People have been selling food out of their homes for years,” says Jenice Contreras, executive director. “It is technically illegal, but many of them are just trying to survive.”
Las Tiendaditas del Mercado, located at the corner of West 25th Street and Seymour Avenue, was conceived as a launching pad for some of these small businesses (read on for more). And now with the purchase of the H.J. Weber Building at 3140 W. 25th Street, the organization hopes to expand the concept into an expansive market with more than 20 food vendors, an anchor restaurant, commercial launch kitchen, retail storefronts, and a community programming space by 2021.
The neighborhood may be in flux, but exciting changes are on the way. In the meantime, the places on the following pages will give you inspiration for where to go and what to eat.
Where To Eat in La Villa Hispana
3038 Scranton Rd.
The artfully presented Ventana del Mar is a symbol of Puerto Rican pride, paying homage to Punta Ventana (“Window Point”), an iconic natural rock archway that collapsed into the Caribbean Sea after the island was shaken by numerous earthquakes in January. This edible version combines some of El Taino’s standard fare, including pork ribs, yellow rice, and mofongo (mashed plantains).
Half Moon Bakery
3460 W. 25th St.
These are not your everyday empanadas. Husband and wife team Gerson Velasquez and Lyz Otero have elevated Latin American street food to a whole new level with a fusion of flavors stuffed between a crisp half-moon shell. The glutenfree, vegan, and vegetarian options make this place one of the best options for people with food restrictions. Located across the street from MetroHealth, the eatery does a brisk takeout business of not only empanadas, but also hearty Cuban and Tripleta sandwiches, plus Otero’s sweet treats.
Tiendaditas del Mercado
2886 W. 25th St.
This incubator space, started by the Northeast Ohio Hispanic Business Center, helps nurture new Latino-owned businesses with coaching and free rent for six months. In addition to a print shop, the space is currently occupied by two food-related businesses: El Sabor de Ponce, a sandwich shop run by Jean Garcia, and Lara’s Cakes, the brainchild of baker Nydia Laracuente.
Gually’s Bakery & Restaurant
6201 Denison Ave.
This cafeteria-style restaurant, with both hot and cold food stations, has the nuts and bolts of homemade Puerto Rican cuisine covered. Here, you’ll find scratch vanilla cream-stuffed pastries alongside flaky pastelitos de guayaba (guava turnovers) and other authentic island specialties, plus donuts with sprinkles for the little ones.
El Caribe Bake Shop
2906 Fulton Rd.
The words “bake shop” in the name do not cover the full spectrum of food choices possible at this cafeteria-style takeout joint. Opened in 1969, the business quickly expanded its menu to include fall-off-the-bone pork, rice, habichuelas guisadas (stewed beans), and fried appetizers such as alcapurrias (stuffed green plantains), sorullitos (stuffed corn fritters), and papas rellenas (stuffed potato balls). Save room for one of the desserts, such as a slice of tres leches, a spongy cake liberally soaked with three types of milk and cream.
Where To Get Hard-to-Find Ingredients
2127 Fulton Rd. Every inch of this international grocery store is tightly packed with fresh produce, packaged foods and ingredients not just from Latin America but from around the globe. It’s the first place to check for hard-to-find ingredients and a hub for immigrants seeking a taste of home. La-Borincana-Foods-Cleveland.sites.Tablehero.com
3114 Clark Ave. This grocery and liquor store is a one-stop shop for staple items from Latin America. With fresh pineapple, coconuts, and Puerto Rican rum in the same place, are you thinking what I’m thinking? It’s pina colada time somewhere. TonyMarkets.com
Events To Watch For
La Placita: Look for this Latino-themed open-air summer market to pop up again in this summer. Dates have not been determined at press time. Facebook.com/LaPlacitaCleveland
Puerto Rican Day Parade: The annual event, now in its 52nd year, will take place on Sunday, August 2. It’s part of a day-long celebration of Latino culture that includes music, dancing, and a lot of food. PuertoRicanParade.org
Profile: Nydia Laracuente | Lara’s Cakes
Life is sweeter for Nydia Laracuente, now that she’s in the mainland United States. She’s also making life sweeter for others. The mother of three and owner of Lara’s Cakes lived in Puerto Rico through 2017, until Hurricane Maria battered her homeland with wind, flooding, loss of electricity, looting, and mosquitoes. “I had to take medication to sleep,” she said.
Even after she arrived in Cleveland, she was terrified by this year’s earthquake. Her children were visiting family on the island when it hit, and although she knew they were safe, she feared aftershocks. She flew there immediately to bring them home.
Now she’s back to baking at Las Tienditas, a cluster of startup businesses, sponsored by Cleveland’s Hispanic Business Center. It’s hard to believe she turns out everything from two small counters and a single oven, including dozens of prim-looking cupcakes. Tropical fruit flavor guava is the bestseller, along with her dairy-drenched tres leches desserts and Puerto Rican-styled birthday cakes, with their shimmering almond syrup. The flavoring ships directly from her homeland, along with her coffee beans.
Nydia wants to expand to a bigger space, not just for baking, but also for breakfast and meal plans. She’s aiming at vegan, gluten-free, and Keto diets, all with an overarching concept of vegetable-rich nutrition. She hopes to attract customers from the nearby MetroHealth hospital main campus.
“I know what it’s like to be a busy working mother,” she says. “That’s how the idea came to me. I don’t have time to cook for myself, but I’d like to eat in a healthy way.”
Profile: Javier Claudio | El Taino
I always say God brought me to El Taino restaurant. I was working as an assistant kitchen manager for Applewood treatment center on the West Side, when I heard this restaurant was returning to a menu of homemade food.
I came after work one day and talked to someone. Then I came back two weeks later, after they checked my references and saw that I ran U.S.- sponsored school food services in Puerto Rico. They wanted me here, but I had just been offered a permanent position at Applewood and wasn’t sure what to do. I had no money to invest. The owner and I laughed about it. A friend said, “If you don’t play, you don’t know if you’re gonna win or lose.’
That was a year ago, and now the clientele of El Taino is half Puerto Rican, half Clevelanders from Tremont. I just hired a new Puerto Rican chef from New York City. We plan to have the current menu at breakfast and lunch, and a fancier dinner service from 3pm to 9pm. There are new Puerto Rican restaurants in the neighborhood but none stay open that late. And I want my food to stand out. I’m aiming for a blend of Puerto Rican food,which has flavors and colors of the Caribbean, with American food.
I actually was studying to become a police officer when I saw a TV show about chefs on Discovery Channel. I thought I’d have the imagination for it. My mom laughed, but I took the risk and changed course. I ended up working in schools and top hotels in Puerto Rico.
More than serving food, I want El Taino to be part of the community. We helped organize a walk against violence, and a demonstration to bring more U.S. aid to Puerto Rico. I want to create a network of giving where many restaurants donate food to local organizations who help people in need.
Puerto Ricans, we are like family. When we have a disaster, we become very close. I want other Clevelanders to see that.
–As told to Debbi Snook
Profile: Jean Garcia | El Sabor
It’s so weird how I came to own El Sabor, since it happened last year when I was only 18. I’m 19 now. I was working at Texas Roadhouse for three years and just started training to be a kitchen manager. Then I heard El Sabor was for sale. I wanted my own business, and the owner said I had the talent for it. I made a business plan and used money I had saved plus some from my mother, and with help from the Hispanic Business Center. My mother runs a daycare center that won an award from HBC. She has 84 students. I helped her with money to start out and she helped me start this. The business center also helped me find investors.
I had to buy a lot of things, including a walk-in cooler, but business has been good, and we’re turning a profit. We have customers from the Puerto Rican community, even families from Lorain and Pennsylvania. We also have customers who are not Puerto Rican and are trying our food for the first time.
Our menu is mainly toasted sandwiches, plus breakfasts, salads, and stuffed baked potatoes. We make a lot of varieties, plus shredded pork or chicken seasoned with garlic and herbs and topped with your choice of onion, tomato, lettuce, and condiments. The style of seasoning is like you’d get in Ponce, a southern city in Puerto Rico, where I grew up. I have a seafood supplier in Lorain, so on Friday and Saturday we have sandwiches and salads with shrimp, conch, or octopus.
I’m working seven days a week now, hoping to own my own space someday. I’d like to own a house and go to school to become a chef. I’d like to combine Puerto Rican and American cuisine and have franchises in many states.
–As told to Debbi Snook