The Puerto Rican coqui (pronounced ko-kee) is a small green frog, native of the island. When the sun goes down at dusk, the coquis sing ko-kee all night until dawn. It’s a popular creature, known to bring the tropical forests there to life. The coqui has been a cultural symbol of Puerto Rican history for years and an icon for all that’s Puerto Rican, which is why El Coqui is the perfect name for an authentic Latin restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa.
Proprietors Jackie Roman and Tina Jackson opened the doors for business 10 years ago. Jackson runs the business side, and Roman, who’s been cooking traditional Puerto Rican food since childhood, helms the kitchen. El Coqui has been featured on “Check Please! Bay Area,” and local celebrity chef Guy Fieri has also dined there saying, “It’s like hangin’ out in Old San Juan.” And the proprietors were also guests on “Guy’s Grocery Games.” But what captured my attention was the number of people I’ve encountered in recent months who are regular patrons there and rave about the food, so I wanted to experience it for myself.
Alex and I arrive on a Thursday and in the spirit of the evening, we sit at the bar and begin with the red sangria, which is bright and refreshing, and a popular choice with their patrons. El coqui has a great island vibe that’s palpable the minute you step inside. Behind the bar, Puerto Rican flags are on display as well as a set of bongo drums. When I mention it to Jackson, she smiles. “The vibe runs us,” she says.
We begin with bacon-wrapped plantains, a small bite big on flavor, and a good choice for someone who’s never tried a plantain. Next we try the mofonga, a vegan, wheat-free fried, green plantain with fresh garlic. It’s Puerto Rican comfort food—savory and hearty with tons of garlic—and somewhat reminiscent of matzo ball soup. “Most people wouldn’t order it on their own, but in Puerto Rico, it’s a meal,” says Jackson. If you don’t like garlic, it’s not your dish, but if you do, this is a perfect plate of food for a cold winter day and probably medicinal to boot. (Alex was still raving about it weeks later.)
Next, we try the tostones montaditos de carne “rocky style” with avocados, tomatoes and onions, which are hearty and delicious. A great starter to share, but it’s the kind of dish you could order as a meal. We also sample the cubano, a favorite with El Coqui’s Cuban patrons, which is slow-roasted pork, marinated in sofrito (a concoction of bell peppers, onions and garlic), served with plantains.
For the entrée, we shared their signature dish that once won a gold medal at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, the pollo al horno, baked succulent chicken thighs, served with rice, beans, fried plantains and avocado salad. This is a spectacular plate of food and a hearty meal. “Mix the plantains with the rice and beans,” says Jackson. “It’s like the cranberry to the turkey at Thanksgiving.” Another gold medal winner is the canoa vegetarianan, a whole sweet plantain stuffed with beans and smothered with Monterey jack cheese. If you don’t think you like vegetarian food, think again.
The menu at El Coqui’s is authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, inspired by the recipes passed down from Roman’s grandmother and mother. “We keep it authentic and traditional, and I do it the old fashioned way,” says Roman. But what distinguishes Puerto Rican cuisine from all others is what matters most—the sofrito.
When Puerto Ricans want to express their nationality they say, “Soy de aquí como el coquí (I’m as Puerto Rican as a coquí.) If you’re looking for an authentic experience and great food, stop by El Coqui and enjoy the authentic flavors of Puerto Rico.
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