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CONTRA COSTA TIMES
New Restaurant El Coqui Features Different Flavor
By Dan Laidman
26 October 2004
When Margo Lopez-Ruiz was little, she left Puerto Rico on a rickety plane bound for Miami. Next came a trek through middle America on a procession of Greyhound busses.
Seven-year-old Lopez-Ruiz and her relatives subsisted throughout their journey on a diet limited by their lexicon. At bus depot after bus depot they ordered what they knew how to say: "Ham sandwich. Coca-cola. Ice cream cone."
After more than a week of ramshackle travel fueled by monotonous meals, they arrived at their relatives' home in San Francisco.
They ascended the stairs in the middle of the night, drawn toward the aromas of a traditional Puerto Rican dinner. Soon they were feasting on steak, plantains, rice and beans.
"Every spoonful tasted like gold to me," Lopez-Ruiz said recently, remembering a night now a half century in the past.
Lopez-Ruiz is trying to share the splendor of that meal at El Coqui, her new restaurant in Antioch's rivertown district. It is not the first time Lopez-Ruiz has opened an eatery in the East Bay, but it is the first time she has devoted a business to the food of her native island.
Restaurants focused on Puerto Rican cuisine are a rarity in California, as most Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland United States have settled on the East Coast. A commonwealth of nearly 4 million people associated with the U.S. government, Puerto Rico is nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami.
Marisa Montes, a Walnut Creek-based author and native of Puerto Rico who promotes the culture through her books and a Web site, has lived in the East Bay since the 1970s. She cannot remember there ever being a local restaurant devoted to the island's cuisine.
Given the lack of a large Puerto Rican community locally, Montes expects that El Coqui may struggle to find customers, but she wishes Lopez-Ruiz success.
"My cousins who are married to Americans, the guys are all absolutely crazy about the food," Montes said. "If there's one way to introduce people to a culture, that's it."
Every day customers ask Lopez-Ruiz some variation of the question, "Is this like Mexican food?" With boundless patience she is likely to reply that "it's night and day."
"We might use rice and beans, but it's the way we prepare the rice and beans," she said.
A blend of Spanish, Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and indigenous styles gives Puerto Rican cuisine a dynamic flavor, Lopez-Ruiz said. The menu is heavy on seafood and steaks, made with distinctive marinades and seasonings and often served alongside a helping of mofongo, a dish in which fried plantains are mashed and mixed with olive oil and garlic.
Curtis Holzer, the president of the Antioch Rivertown Business Association, hopes that El Coqui's singular status as a regional outpost of Puerto Rican cooking can propel it to success. He acknowledges that restaurants have a tough time surviving in the downtown area when so many people are now drawn to strip malls and chain eateries.
"Your regular run-of-the-mill restaurant wouldn't succeed in the town unless it had something different," Holzer said. "And El Coqui does offer its uniqueness by being a Puerto Rican restaurant."
Lopez-Ruiz spent almost $100,000, some of it from savings and some borrowed, to open El Coqui several months ago. It is not yet making money, but business is steady enough to allow the restaurant to stay open while the customer base grows, she said.
Lopez-Ruiz is able to take a patient approach because she has the perspective of having run a business before. She owned La Palmera in Pittsburg in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Unlike El Coqui, it was primarily a Mexican restaurant.
"That was the in thing," she said. "Not too many people were exposed to our culture as they are now."
After closing the restaurant in the mid-80s, Lopez-Ruiz became a caterer and culinary instructor at Los Medanos College. Including traditional Puerto Rican dishes in her catering menus drew enthusiastic feedback, she said, and about three years ago she decided to open another restaurant.
And this time she wanted the business to be a showcase of her native island's culture.
"This would be like a typical restaurant in Puerto Rico," Lopez-Ruiz said as she walked a visitor through the dining room, which is adorned with portraits of prominent Puerto Ricans like Tito Puente, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Orlando Cepeda, the baseball hall of famer and Lopez-Ruiz's friend and customer, as well as paintings depicting island landscapes and San Juan street scenes.
Diners are also greeted by a visual tribute to a little animal with a big place in Puerto Rican lore: a tree frog named for its lyrical chirp, heard at dusk across the island and missed by many expatriates, that sounds in Spanish like "coqui, coqui."
COMPANY: El Coqui
ADDRESS: 509 W. 2nd St., Antioch
HOURS: Tuesday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday: 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday