The rapid rise of a Puerto Rican food truck

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Casiano and Tosca

by Eric Ginsburg

Things are moving quickly for chef Emmanuel Tosca. Very quickly.

Tosca and his wife, Maria Casiano, have only lived in Greensboro for five weeks. The couple, who are from Puerto Rico and spent five years in Arizona, temporarily landed in Oak Ridge before relocating to the Gate City. Tosca, a trained chef who made Cuban food in the Southwest and briefly worked at Printworks Bistro at the Proximity Hotel, has long dreamed of opening a restaurant, but the process of starting a food truck unfolded rapidly.

In the beginning, the big, red trailer they found didn’t have any signage — people had to seek it out or venture up to the window and ask for a menu. A few short weeks later, large, colorful stickers proclaim “Empanadas Borinquen” and depict the Puerto Rican-style menu items. And this week, Tosca’s mother flies up from Puerto Rico to lend her culinary talent to the burgeoning operation.

Other than its size and bright color, the trailer parked in a Citgo gas station near the intersection of Interstate 40 and South Elm-Eugene Street in south Greensboro was unassuming before Tosca and Casiano plastered any information on the sides. But people still found it as word spread quickly, especially in circles with an appreciation for Puerto Rican cuisine. A mailman sat in his truck munching on fried, flakey empanadas, almost like meat pastry-pockets. Another day, a Latino police officer ordered the mofongo, a fried green-plantains dish native to the island. Last week, Tosca said, people lined up to order lunch one day 30 minutes before Empanadas Borinquen opened.

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The tripleta

Tosca, the chef, is still rolling out changes to the menu for the food truck, which is named after its signature dish and the indigenous Taino name for Puerto Rico. He’ll add plantain sticks into the tripleta, an already fantastic sandwich with thin layers of roasted pork, ham and steak topped with lettuce, tomato and one of Tosca’s impressive sauces.

Tosca and Casiano, who helps him on the truck, are still figuring out their hours. Right now they pull up for lunch at the gas station five days a week, but Empanadas Borinquen has already expanded to several other occasional appearances, including at Cru Wine & Beers near the airport clear across the city. People find out about the truck’s hours and location through its Facebook, and Casiano said someone drove from Charlotte just to try it.

It makes sense. Puerto Rican food is basically impossible to find in this area. And Tosca knows what he’s doing. The food, including a Cubano sandwich and chicken empanadas, is remarkably tasty, especially the heavy tripleta sandwich. Casiano swears by Tosca’s cooking, even though she is basically vegan and has never tried either of the staple Puerto Rican sandwiches. Sometimes, on special occasions, he will make her a vegan mofongo. That and his other cooking she has tried are enough for Casiano to consider the food truck a smart gamble.

The menu at Empanadas Borinquen includes a daily special, but the options are all island favorites, like the Puerto Rican fritter plate that includes a mélange of fried food including thin, salted cod filets. And there’s rice with pigeon peas and pork, fried plantain sides like maduros and tostones, and also flan casero, an egg custard.

The Cubano
The Cubano

Even the mayo aioli that comes as a dipping sauce with several dishes is carefully prepared, handmade with cilantro, smashed garlic and more. Waiting for an order to be ready, it’s easy to see inside the truck and watch Tosca in action, pressing a Cubano or peering at pork roasting inside the oven.

It’s hard not to think of similar scenes in the recent hit indie film Chef, and like his on-screen counterpart, Tosca decided to try and make it on his own, hoping to work his way up from a Cubano-peddling food truck to a brick-and-mortar restaurant some day.

By the end of the lunch rush, around 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, Tosca and Casiano are tired. These few, quick weeks have been a trial by fire, but they’re just getting started and the feedback is encouraging, Tosca said.

A few minutes later as they stood in front of the closed-up truck — their tight, black kitchen hats still on — a blue Toyota Scion with long, gold flames licking the sides pulled into the lot, stopping next to the food trailer. A Puerto Rican flag dangled from the rear-view mirror, and as the man stepped out of the car, he lamented that Empanadas Borinquen had already finished for the day.

“Man, I’ve been hearing a lot about you guys,” he said, “and I’ve been meaning to get over here, but I finally made it and you’re closed!”

Find Empanadas Borinquen on Facebook for details or call 336.681.1610.