AVONDALE — A restaurant serving authentic Puerto Rican cuisine with a modern twist is coming to Avondale for takeout and delivery.
Eric Roldan and Hector LaPorte are opening a “ghost kitchen” called Marina’s Cafe on March 31 at 3517 N. Spaulding Ave.
The two are the latest Chicago entrepreneurs to hop on the “ghost kitchen” trend, which is booming during the coronavirus pandemic. The shared commercial kitchens run like a restaurant but don’t offer dine-in service. Many have gone the “ghost kitchen” route to get their restaurant projects off the ground despite coronavirus restrictions.
That’s the impetus behind Marina’s Cafe. Roldan and LaPorte said their goal is to open a dine-in restaurant down the road when coronavirus restrictions are relaxed, but first they want to share their Puerto Rican food with the neighborhood and build a customer base.
Roldan and LaPorte are Puerto Rican and grew up in the Humboldt Park area, Chicago’s Puerto Rican enclave. With Marina’s Cafe, the two are putting their own spin on traditional dishes they grew up eating, like tripleta sandwiches, croquettes and tostones.
“There’s not that many Puerto Rican restaurants,” LaPorte said. “When you think of restaurants, you think of Mexican restaurants, Chinese restaurants. Puerto Rican restaurants are not one of the first things that pop into your head. Personally, I would like to change that.”
Family is at the center of the restaurant in more ways than one. The duo named the spot after Roldan’s mother, Marina, who died of cancer when Roldan was 10 years old. Roldan said his mother and grandmother taught him how to cook traditional Puerto Rican food growing up. The same is true for LaPorte.
LaPorte is married to Roldan’s cousin. The two have spent the past decade dreaming of opening a restaurant together that combines their skill sets. LaPorte is a chef who has worked for restaurants and chains like Nando’s Peri Peri and Rivers Casino. Roldan has worked in customer service management at hotels in Puerto Rico and in Chicago for more than two decades.
In December, the pair landed on the idea of opening a “ghost kitchen” together that honors their families and their Puerto Rican heritage. They crafted a menu using recipes passed down over generations.
For example, they’re using family recipes to make sofrito, a Puerto Rican and Caribbean seasoning base for stews and other dishes. They’re also seasoning and preparing meat the way their grandmothers did.
“Our recipes are from the 1920s, from when our grandmothers were born,” Roldan said.
That’s not to say Marina’s Cafe is stuck in the past. Part of what LaPorte and Roldan want to do with the restaurant is expand people’s understanding of what Puerto Rican food is and can be.
Instead of traditional flan, they’re serving strawberry flan; their croquettes are stuffed with ham, cheese and mushrooms and served with a side of homemade sauce; and they’re making sure their veggie options are just as delicious as their non-veggie options by incorporating fresh components like a handmade mango vinaigrette.
“There’s a certain stereotype that Puerto Rican food is fattening, Puerto Rican is fried. We want to change people’s concept of what Puerto Rican food is. It’s not just your stereotype,” Roldan said.
The foundation of the restaurant is Puerto Rican food, but they also aim to serve dishes like tacos in the future — but with a Puerto Rican twist.
Marina’s Cafe is a new beginning for Roldan, whose life was upended by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Roldan was living with family on the east side of the island in a small town called Yabucoa when the devastating storm struck.
“I lost everything: my house, my job. It was a really tough time in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, so I decided to move back where my family was and start all over again,” he said.
Roldan and LaPorte said the “ghost kitchen” is only the beginning of what they hope will be a long and successful partnership. They aim to eventually open a dine-in restaurant and open more locations on the North Side, where Puerto Rican food is scarce.
“We’re using this to get our footing, get our name out there, and, hopefully, once the world goes back to normal, we’ll have a solid foundation,” LaPorte said.
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