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Mofongo Stand Drives Manny's American Dream
By Kate Santich
June 24, 2002
Taking a stand.
Manny's Mofongo may not have the ring of Le Coq au Vin. It may not have the ambience of Wolfgang Puck's.
Heck, it may not have the ambience of Taco Bell.
But if you know mofongo like Manny knows mofongo, you'll get past the name and the setting. His converted travel trailer, parked behind a gas station at Curry Ford and Conway roads in Orlando, offers what the locals swear is the best deal going in Puerto Rican cuisine.
So the first thing you should know is that mofongo is not an embarrassing skin condition or a liaison you can't talk about in front of the kids. It's a Puerto Rican mainstay of fried, mashed plantains, seasoned and stuffed with meat or seafood. Mofongo with camarones al ajillo, for instance, is mofongo with shrimp and garlic.
Manny cooks it, sells it, eats it, feeds it to his wife and two boys. Manny loves mofongo, and he loves his little mofongo stand and the people who flock here.
"This place, it's like having a kid. You love your kid," Manny shouts over a passing firetruck. "It's the same love."
Manny is actually one Emanuel Rosado, a big-boned, baby-faced 24-year-old who already has a decade of experience in the restaurant business. He opened this place just two months ago after joining forces with his dad and buying this trailer -- once home to a taco stand that sported a paint job reminiscent of the Partridge Family bus.
They parked it at this very busy intersection behind a Marathon gas station where you can buy "Benny's Hot, Boiled P-Nuts!" What's more, there's a Checkers Drive-In across the street and a Papa John's Pizza on the opposite corner.
The competition does not daunt Manny. He has seen lean times and lived to tell about them.
Early last September, his contract to cook for a hospital cafeteria ended. Glamorous it wasn't. A paycheck it was. No problem, the newly unemployed Manny figured. He'd get another job. Then the 11th came -- and there were no more jobs.
His father, a forklift operator, was out of work, too. Between the dad, mom, siblings and Manny's own wife and two kids, there were eight mouths to feed -- and no income.
"I tried not to eat," Manny says, his face somber with the memory. "I tried to save everything for my kids."
He even turned to his church at one point for help. Then he had an idea.
His dad, 51-year-old Luis Rosado, did not embrace it -- at least initially.
"You will spend a lot of money," he said. "You don't know what will happen. You don't know anything about this."
"Yes," Manny answered, "but I know how to cook."
He had cooked since he was 14, managing a pizzeria across the street from his high school in Puerto Rico. After he graduated, he'd even enrolled in cooking school, but he quit when his wife became pregnant with their first child.
The entire Rosado clan moved to Orlando five years ago, back when the jobless rate was low and expectations high. And always tucked in a corner of Manny's mind was the sweet notion of his own place.
"I cook for a long time," he says, his English still a bit abrupt. "I see you can kill yourself cooking and no one appreciates it. I want to be my own boss."
So he and his dad bought the trailer for a song, and Luis Rosado replaced the floor, installed a grill and a gas line, and whitewashed over the Partridge-Family façade. Manny created a 34-item menu -- from $1.99 to about $10 -- set a boom box under the side window and sat two plastic patio chairs on the asphalt. They hung an American flag and painted in big bold letters on the trailer's side: Manny's Mofongo.
At first, the two of them ran the place by themselves, opening at 3 p.m. and not closing until 2 the next morning. They worked every day except Monday.
Business was steady, though not booming.
"I have to admit, the first few times I drove by I thought, 'I don't know if I should stop. It is a trailer,' " admits Ismael Otero, picking up an order of mofongo with fried pork on his way home from work. "But I took one bite and went, 'Wow!' He's got the best mofongo in town."
Denise d'Alessio and Donna Harvey, who live down the block, stroll up adventurously. D'Alessio is a mofongo virgin.
"I'm Italian and Vietnamese," she says, "but I just like to try everything. You can't discriminate against food."
Harvey, Puerto Rican and Irish by way of Long Island, studies the menu approvingly but wants more. "Hey, Manny, you got any potato balls?" she hollers in a thick New York accent. "I gotta have my potato balls!"
Maybe he will start making them, he says. Maybe in a few months. Already he is expanding to open at 8 a.m. and include breakfast and lunch and a deli menu. He's even hiring help. But there won't be mofongo until midafternoon, when Manny himself arrives.
He is, after all, just one man. He can make only so much mofongo.
"Maybe in two years, maybe less, I open a buffet," he says excitedly. "But right now, I am feeling happy. I am feeling alive."