When Luis Roman thinks back on his childhood in a tight-knit “Nuyorican” (New York Puerto Rican) community in the Bronx, some of his fondest memories are of the cooking of his maternal grandmother, Maria.
She spent her weekends holed up in her tiny apartment, prepping traditional Puerto Rican food for the 500-strong congregation of her local neighborhood church, then serving it up for a modest per-plate fee in the church’s basement on Sundays.
“She was so efficient, man,” he says. “She was this little old lady in the kitchen with her big spoon and big pot, feeding hundreds of people. And she always fed herself last.”
One of the dishes Luis remembers most vividly from those days was Maria’s mofongo, a Puerto Rican culinary trademark consisting of fried green plantains mashed together with olive oil, garlic, chicharrón (pork rinds), and salt in a wooden bowl called a pilón.
The delicious, salty mounds “always fascinated me,” says Luis. “Not just the taste, but how it developed, where it came from, how it was modified over the years.” (Enslaved people from West Africa first brought the dish to Puerto Rico several centuries ago, adapting its central ingredients and seasonings according to what was available on the island.)
So, as Luis prepared to open The Campus Grille in downtown Berea in 2014, after years of working as a chef-for-hire at Northeast Ohio restaurants, he had no doubt what would become his menu’s star attraction.
First, though, he made a few small North Coast-style tweaks.
“ I mean, Cleveland is the land of pierogies, potatoes, and meat, right?” he says. “So, I adapted the dish a little to fit what I thought would be people’s tastes here.”
The changes included creating a mash that’s less dry and crumbly than more traditional versions—similar in consistency to American mashed potatoes, he says—and stuffing it with a range of filling options, some traditional, some not: pork, chicken, shrimp, a vegetarian mix of beans, peppers, and spinach.
Flash forward four years, and mofongo is one of Campus Grille’s top sellers. Customers unfamiliar with the dish are drawn to its tantalizing look: golden pilón-shaped heaps resting atop a bed of bright red tomatoes, crispy romaine lettuce, and shredded farmer’s cheese. Also making heads turn? Each order is topped with a tiny Puerto Rican flag.
The restaurant now flies through 500 pounds of plantains and 700 pounds of pork rinds every week. That’s a lot of mashing and pounding for the restaurant’s small staff, who make each dish to order.
“It’s gotten to the point where we’ll probably have to start a whole separate mofongo station to keep up with the demand,” he says.
Still, Luis isn’t finished perfecting his version of the dish. He’s planning a trip to Puerto Rico with his family this fall—his first visit to the island since he was a toddler.
“I’m gonna eat everything I can possibly find,” he says with a laugh. “It’s all part of staying inspired!”
Campus Grille is located at 10 Seminary St. in Berea and is open 11:30am–8:30pm Tuesday–Saturday. For more details, visit TheCampusGrille.com or call 440.243.4229.