Featured photo: Puerto Rican flavors mix with Latin familiarity at Greensboro’s Old San Juan (photo by Luis Garay)
On Sept.16, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck and delivered a deadly blow to parts of the Caribbean, including the islands of Dominica, Puerto Rico and St. Croix. The hurricane was reported by various news outlets as the worst recorded natural disaster for the area.
“[When] the hurricane hit the island, we were practically our own community,” says Andres Retamales. “There was no communication anywhere. If you wanted to hear any news stories or what was going on you had to hear it on the radio station in [your] car.”
Retamales is one of the creatives behind Old San Bar and Grill, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Greensboro. He shares how the area “was pretty disastrous” and it was eight months before many people had electricity or water. Five years later, according to Andres, there are still communities that have no electricity or no water.
In 2018, CNN estimated that 130,000 people, or almost 4 percent of the population, left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. A 2018 report published by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, CUNY used school enrollment data and change-of-address requests collected by FEMA to track the relocation of Puerto Ricans to mainland USA after Hurricane Maria. According to this report, most of the evacuees from Puerto Rico to North Carolina settled in the central and southeast parts of the state.
For Andres’ sister, Andrea Retamales, and her husband Wilfred Vazquez, it was the impact of Hurricane Maria that brought them to the Triad. They are two out of the four owners of Old San Bar and Grill, a Puerto Rican and Latin-fusion family-friendly restaurant located off Tate Street above China Wok. The space has undergone multiple changes in the last decade but has almost always been a Latin restaurant, most recently Pedro’s Tacos.
Retamales and Vazquez’s original goal was to open a food truck, and so they began searching for potential commissary kitchens to prepare the food.
“We were looking for owners of restaurants to see who could rent a kitchen to open the food truck because that was the main idea,” Vazquez says.
The search eventually brought them to a conversation with the former owner of Pedro’s Tacos who had closed the restaurant due to impact from the pandemic. Vazquez and Retamales were presented with the opportunity to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant instead. It was a step into a dream for Vazquez after the devastation of the hurricane.
Retamales arrived in the Triad in the weeks after Hurricane Maria along with members of her close family while Vazquez stayed behind for several months before relocating to the Triad. They both immediately began working at local Mexican-chain restaurant Mi Pueblo. Vazquez secured a management position using his five years of management experience from working at Retamales’ father’s restaurant back in Puerto Rico. He also learned the business aspects of running a kitchen and what it took to own a restaurant. However, the experience was different than when he started working at Mi Pueblo.
“When I came here, everything was brand new. I didn’t know how they worked in the restaurants here,” Vazquez shares. “[Working at Mi Pueblo] was an inspiration for me, [learning] how they work the bar and the kitchen. It was a dream for me and I thought, I wish I can get a restaurant someday.”
Old San Bar and Grill opened its doors with a soft launch in early April 2021. In the beginning, people curious about the new place would leave once they heard it was no longer a Mexican restaurant but a Puerto Rican restaurant instead.
“This used to be Pedro’s Tacos,” Retamales says. “They still thought it was Mexican food. When we would say it was Puerto Rican food, they used to leave. We needed people to stay.”
Seizing an opportunity, Vazquez, Retamales, and her brother Andres, the recipe developer, added a Puerto Rican and Mexican fusion section to their menu with dishes like tacos, quesadillas and arroz con pollo. Stepping outside of just Puerto Rican food to create Latin-fusion dishes allowed the restaurant to serve familiar dishes but with a unique Puerto Rican flavor.
Enter the bori-bowl, an idea born from Retamales herself. It’s constructed with a base of white rice layered with red or black beans and a choice of protein from fried chicken chunks to sauteed vegetables or chorizo. A red onion and cilantro aioli tops off the dish. In an age of Instagram-worthy, aesthetically pleasing bowls like smoothie bowls or grain bowls, the bori-bowl is both familiar in its design and new in its fusing of flavors.
“It is not a Puerto Rican dish, specifically,” Retamales says. “It has rice, beans, and meat. The cilantro, the aioli, and onion is not really our thing. But it is a really good seller and people really like it.”
Andres Retamales is what Vazquez calls, “the mastermind of the recipes.” He developed many of the first recipes and learned to adjust his cooking style for a bigger group of people.
“For the recipes I started, it was what my mother taught me,” Andres says. “That is what I tried to match. If it tasted like home, then I thought this could sell.”
The restaurant is a point of pride for the entire family. After the uncertainty brought by Hurricane Maria which upended their lives, they’ve been able to anchor themselves in Greensboro while continuing to champion their home country.
“I feel proud we are making something different,” Vazquez says. “I feel proud representing our island.”
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