Though institutions such as El Bohio and La Marginal have traditionally commanded the attention of most local Puerto Rican food lovers, the marketplace has since opened up.
Now, fans of Boricua gastronomy can take their pick from two food trucks (Sofrito and Padilla's Puerto Rican Cuisine) and three restaurants (Gusto Criollo off Culebra, Luna Rosa and Sabor Latino Café in Converse).
The influx has not been lost on local groups such as the Puerto Rican Heritage Society. Migdia Figueroa, its vice president, has seen a bump in interest reflected on social media. At Luna Rosa, the island theme is spliced with Spanish influences, both in food and décor. Always one to match my assignment, I tried to fit the general vibe of an island-based restaurant with a bright sundress during my first visit. The space is tucked into an intricate strip center/maze that my dinner partner likened to a baby Rim Shopping Center with less corporate joints.
Once inside, Luna Rosa takes on a Rosario's meets hotel resort vibe, with bright fuchsia walls and an impeccably white bar, complete with tall bar stools and just about every Bacardi flavor imaginable. Overhead, I learned, one finds three vejigantes, spooky but vibrant head masks used during carnival time, alongside a pair of straw fedoras. But other than a handful of island seascapes framed around the space, not much else screams Puerto Rico.
Instead, the understated locale focuses on its cuisine, combining Spanish tapas and Puerto Rican favorites. We started the night with a helping of patatas bravas, smothered in red spicy sauce and garlicky mayoketchup, the Luna Rosa house sauce. Though the potatoes were a bit too limp for my linking, the sauces saved the dish from being a total wash.
Paellas, served on large trays, are available as a meal for two, but I leaned toward a pressed Cubanito during my first visit on a hot Saturday night in late August. After noshing on a small appetizer of sweet fried plantain strips with dill-laced dip, our server David offered the Cubanito as a suggestion for dinner.
Cuban bread cut diagonally and toasted to near golden brown perfection enveloped the expertly-seasoned roasted pork, ham, melted Swiss, delicate drizzle of yellow mustard and dill pickles. I would have happily taken half of it home intact, but David swooped in with the house sauce. I still took a quarter of it home, anyway — it's that big.
My dinner date, in this case my sister, raved about the Pilón, a portion of mofongo, fried and mashed plantains, served in an aluminum olla and topped with grilled shrimp. The dish was hearty, savory and surprisingly balanced.
Paired with a 32-ounce Caribbean libation, the Taina (named after a famous Puerto Rican actress and model), filled with all manners of sugary rums, liqueurs and pineapple juice. I'm not knocking it — the Taina would have definitely served as liquid courage had I stuck around for the night's DJ. (The Tainos were the island's original inhabitants who first encountered Spanish conquistadores in the late 15th century).
The early Saturday night crowd was mild compared to my lunch visit last Tuesday, mostly composed of Brooks Air Force Base's workforce. Though service was stellar during the weekend, the pair of servers staffing the dining room this particular day was not entirely enthused by the crowd. We lingered at the front of the restaurant for a few minutes before another lunch-goer instructed us to take a seat.
Service was downhill from then on as we waited far too long for our orders. While I could go on about the so-so social skills of the staff, I'll focus on the food. El Guavate, named after a region of Puerto Rico known for its ubiquitous lechoneras, tiny eateries that serve whole roasted hogs with fixins, is a must. It's easy to see why this is one of the best-selling items on the menu as thick slabs of tender pork are served up alongside thick tostones (more mayoketchup) and arroz con gandules (pigeon peas). The rice was passable and I could have gone for more gandules, but when mixed with the shredded pork, the dish came together as a whole.
My Boricua lunch pal, barkeep extraordinaire and Speed Rack Texas winner Zulcoralis Rodriguez, enjoyed the tripleta, basically a meat-lover's wrap stuffed with lechón, smoked ham and bistec. Wrapped in pan sabao, the tripleta was completed with caramelized onions, potatoes and Luna Rosa sauce. At $12, the sandwich wasn't cheap, but was essentially two meals. Though usually enjoyed after late-night partying, SA can enjoy this sando for lunch or dinner.
I would probably still risk the so-so service in favor of El Guavate and a mason jar filled with Bacardi ... but if great service is what you're after, I'd suggest giving Luna Rosa a minute to sort out staffing issues.
2603 SE Military Dr., Suite 107, (210) 314-3111 lunarosatapas.com
Skinny: Puerto Rican fare hits Brooks City Base with beachy drinks and plantains aplenty
Best Bets: Sandos, mofongo
Hours: 11am-9pm Tue-Thu; 11am-midnight Fri-Sat; 11am-8pm Sun
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.