When Lourdes Marquez-Nau, the proprietor of the Oakland-based Puerto Rican catering business Casa Borinqueña, announced a little over a month ago that she would start serving only vegan dishes moving forward, the response from the local Puerto Rican community was mixed, to say the least.
“That’s not real Puerto Rican food” was one typical response, Marquez-Nau says. “How can you do it without the pernil?” was another.
This idea that vegan Puerto Rican food might be seen as controversial wasn’t exactly surprising to the chef. After all, the island’s cuisine is famously meat-centric, and pork — including pernil, the beloved roast pork shoulder preparation — plays an especially central role. Still, Marquez-Nau thought to herself, “I need to stay true to me, to stay true to my dishes.” And so she’s pressed forward with Casa Borinqueña’s new takeout menu of such Puerto Rican classics as shrimp mofongo, arroz con gandules, and pastellitos — all of them plant-based.
According to Marquez-Nau, Casa Borinqueña started two years ago, born out of the Puerto Rican native’s constant cravings for the flavors of her motherland after she moved to the Bay Area from Brooklyn, New York — with its much more vibrant Puerto Rican food scene — in 2008. She’d always been a good home cook, and once she launched Casa Borinqueña as an official business, she slowly but surely built up a following in the local Puerto Rican community through her pop-ups and catering gigs.
The turning point came earlier this year, when Marquez-Nau stopped eating meat herself, mainly out of health considerations. Both of her parents had had Alzheimer’s-related health problems, and she started thinking about making a diet and lifestyle change — one she eventually felt she had to apply to her business as well.
The good thing was that Marquez had plenty of experience cooking vegan food: Her son is Darren Preston, the proprietor of Oakland’s Malibu’s Burgers vegan burger joint, who has been vegan for many years. So Marquez had already spent years cooking two versions of every dish she made, a “regular” one and a vegan one — years figuring out how to make her Puerto Rican dishes still taste Puerto Rican without the meat.
Take Marquez-Nau’s mofongo, which was Casa Borinqueña’s most popular dish by far before the vegan pivot. Normally, that Puerto Rican classic — made by mashing fried green plantains — comes studded with bacon or pork cracklings. But Marquez-Nau says she’s able to achieve the same smoky flavor by using vegan bacon, either adding chopped pieces of it to the mashed plantains or just infusing the bacon flavor into the garlic plant-based butter that she uses to make the sauce. And whereas before, the chef served meaty versions of the dish — say, a surf-and-turf version with lobster and steak — now she just makes a version with vegan shrimp, which has to go through two different cooking processes, Marquez-Nau says, before it really tastes like shrimp. “It’s delicious,” she says.
Which isn’t to say that veganizing the menu hasn’t been a challenging process. So much of the difficulty lies is figuring out how to recreate certain textures, Marquez-Nau says. As a newcomer to veganism, she’s still experimenting — for instance, she recently discovered some vegan pork rinds that she’d like to try incorporating into her mofongo.
Perhaps the wildest, most visually striking dish she’s created so far is her mofongo burger — a collaboration with Malibu’s Burgers, her son’s business. It features two Malibu’s Impossible Foods patties, vegan American cheese, a cilantro-based “mama’s sauce,” and, most notably, a plantain “bun” that’s actually mofongo that’s been fried and mashed like normal, then molded into the shape of a bun. It’s especially popular with people who don’t eat gluten, Marquez-Nau says.
Despite the ingenuity of these vegan creations, Marquez-Nau admits it’s been an uphill battle convincing some of her Puerto Rican customers. People constantly question the food’s authenticity; they send her angry Instagram DMs saying, “You’re not going to be able to get those flavors.” But, as Marquez-Nau puts it, “I know I can.”
The irony, she says, is that there is a burgeoning vegan movement in Puerto Rico proper, and some of those folks have reached out to encourage her — to say, “Hey, it’s working here. Just keep doing it.” Meanwhile, she says the vegan community here has been “amazing and welcoming,” embracing Casa Borinqueña with open arms.
Like so many other small food businesses, Casa Borinqueña has been hit hard by the pandemic. Marquez-Nau had been making most of her money from catering, and, of course, all of that business has dried up completely. Now, she’s shifted to a purely Instagram-based model, allowing customers to pre-order for pickup — from her kitchen in Oakland’s Jack London District — one or two days a week.
This weekend, for instance, Marquez-Nau will be selling pastelillos — the little Puerto Rican meat pastries, except that her version is made with Impossible “beef.” Usually, Mondays are the pickup day for Casa Borinqueña’s full menu, with Marquez-Nau taking advantage of the fact that many of the vegan restaurants in the area are closed on that day. Eventually, she’d like to have her own food truck.
In the meantime, the best way to keep tabs of each week’s menu postings is to follow Casa Borinqueña on Instagram. See a sample menu below: