A Taste of the Tropics
If you’ve ever wanted to visit the Caribbean, there is a place in Michiana where you can get a taste of what you might find there, made with locally sourced ingredients: Javier’s Bistro in South Bend, Indiana.
Chef Javier Mendez was raised in Chicago in a Puerto Rican family and has worked as a chef for 27 years, including six and a half years at Memorial Hospital in South Bend. He recently decided it was time to fulfill his dream of opening a Puerto Rican restaurant after helping other chefs bring theirs to life.
Mendez incorporates typical Puerto Rican flavors into nearly every dish he serves.
“It’s not a Puerto Rican restaurant per se,” he explains. “It’s a fusion of Puerto Rican culture into the American traditional cuisine.”
That fusion begins with a flavor blend of herbs, spices and vegetables called sofrito. Commonly found in the Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, sofrito gives the food a distinct taste and aroma. Mendez explains that it is one of the main ingredients of Puerto Rican cuisine. It enhances the flavors in every dish, giving his food a bold and intense flavor. Mendez started out with his mother’s sofrito recipe and added his own blend of flavors.
“It’s a variety of homegrown ingredients, which includes tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic. There’s cilantro, of course, cumino [cumin] and a couple different herbs, and it all gets puréed together.”
By incorporating sofrito into his food, he provides a taste of Puerto Rico in nearly every dish.
It is common for people to assume that Puerto Rican food is like Mexican food. This, Mendez says, is inaccurate, because the flavors of Puerto Rico are the flavors of the foods grown on the island—often Mexican food]—not spicy…just a robust taste.”
This distinction is evident in a classic Puerto Rican stew on the dinner menu (which Mendez will make for lunch by request) called sancocho. This type of dish is found in several Latin American countries, each reflecting their own distinct flavors. Puerto Rican versions typically begin with sofrito and use traditional Caribbean ingredients like plantains, potatoes and yuca (a starchy tuber).
According to Mendez, sancocho probably came about through the mingling of the Spaniards with the indigenous Taíno and African peoples brought to the islands as slaves.
Historically, the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands prepared a dish called pepperpot, in which a variety of foods, including meats, poultry or fi sh and local vegetables, were simmered over an open flame.
Michiana residents, Mendez says, also appreciate a rich and flavorful stew.
Sancocho is meaty and satisfying, perfect for a crisp fall or winter day. The sofrito gives it a robust flavor, while big chunks of beef and yuca, along with peas and corn, make it a hearty meal. It is served with rice, also flavored with sofrito.
When the weather begins to grow colder and you feel the urge to join the birds migrating south, leave your suitcase in the closet and head to Javier’s Bistro. Order a bowl of sancocho. No airport lines needed.