The day I visit Boriqua Kitchen, Anthony Lamboy is working his food truck all by himself in a San Lorenzo parking lot. Puerto Ricans are often called Boricuas, a term that derives from the original Taino name for the island, Borinquen, “Land of the Valiant Lord.” Watching Lamboy both serve and finesse a long line of customers on his own is valiant. His hands are colossal, his stature is more boxer-esque than cook, his smile is gentle. But there’s no mistaking him for anything else than a Puerto Rican. He has la mancha de la platano, a phrase Puerto Ricans use when we spot other Puerto Ricans.
Lamboy’s parents, much like my own grandparents, were part of the 1950s migration wave to the mainland US. The Lamboys packed up and moved from Puerto Rico to New Jersey. This is where Lamboy was born in 1965. He credits some of his first food inspirations to his grandmother, Mercedes Mejias, whom he used to watch while she cooked the traditional foods of the madre patria. Like most of our grandparents, she used no measuring tools, using her senses and history to guide her until she deemed the dish worthy enough to serve. “It’s all in the taste,” she told Lamboy.
“When we walked into her house you could smell something good was cooking,” Lamboy recalls. “I never forgot the love and passion she had for making everyone excited to be there enjoying her food. She always said, ‘This is the easiest part of my life, cooking for you all.’ It was definitely not work to her.”
In 1992, Lamboy found himself in California just two years after joining the Navy. His passion for food never ceased, and finally he decided to enroll in the San Francisco branch of Le Cordon Bleu in 2015. After a brief stint with Borinquen Soul, a now-closed destination for Puerto Rican food in East Oakland, Lamboy opened up the Boriqua Kitchen food truck in 2017.
“I want people to experience the true ... flavors of Puerto Rican food, as if they were on the ‘Island of Enchantment’ for the first time,” Lamboy says. “I want to see [customers] smile after eating my cuisine. Like my grandmother said, ‘This is the easy part.’ Even though I do 99 percent of the work by myself.”
Boriqua Kitchen has the usual all-stars of Puerto Rican cuisine: mofongo, maduros, arroz con gandules, chicharron de pollo, and chuletas. If it’s not on the menu, “Just ask,” Lamboy says. “Sometimes people will come up to the window and say, ‘I wish you had bacalaitos,’ and then I’ll tell them to wait and make it for them.”
They also have canoas, an entire ripe plantain that’s sliced open, stuffed with picadillo (seasoned beef), topped with cheese and oven roasted, the result (hopefully) being a delicate dance between sweet and savory. The empanadas (or empanadillas or pastelillos, depending on whom you ask), have a crunchy shell encasing picadillo. Often times, cooks will remove a lot of the fat from the ground beef, resulting in a dry mixture, but Boriqua Kitchen’s is juicy and loaded with olive brine, lending that much-needed punch for a rich and fried dish.
The SF Bay Area has five Puerto Rican brick-and-mortar restaurants and a handful of pop-ups. But not all of them, as Lamboy does, serve the worshipped alcapurrias. Traditionally, you’d find these time consuming fritters while you get your chinchorro on, bouncing from eatery to eatery along the Puerto Rican coast. These salty and deep-fried eats are the perfect accompaniment to an ice cold Medalla, Puerto Rico’s local answer to Budweiser.
But not all alcapurrias are created equal, and figuring out how to deliver them where they retain their ideal characteristics is difficult. Somehow, Lamboy manages to work magic from this truck. He combines green banana, plantain — because no, they’re not the same thing, people — and yautia into a blender (an unorthodox move) with achiote, oil, and seasonings. It’s stuffed with picadillo that has chopped olives and sometimes capers. Before you even bite into it, the briny smell of the olives attaches itself to your nose hairs. It smells familiar. Formed into its classic cylindrical baton shape, the color is a deep cinnamon. It looks familiar. You bite into it, and the outside texture is like a hush puppy, giving way to a custardy center the color of amber. It tastes familiar.
Don’t let anyone, not even another Puerto Rican, attempt to convince you that this isn’t the best alcapurria in the Bay Area. Period.
Boriqua Kitchen is available on Wednesdays in San Lorenzo, CA; Saturdays in Richmond, CA; and Sundays at Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA.
Illyanna Maisonet is a Bay Area writer covering Puerto Rican food and community.