Holiday Food and Drink: Spicing Up Holiday Dining

John Swan and Sandra Storey

Gazette Photo by John Swan

Nobel Garcia, owner of Oriental de Cuba, displays pernil roast, a popular dish in the Carribean.

Boston’s “Latin Quarter,” also known as Hyde/Jackson Square here in Jamaica Plain, has a host of tasty treats and traditions it shares with the neighborhood. Anyone who wants to spice up their holiday fare might have fun and make some delicious discoveries along this part of Centre Street—also called “Avenue Las Americas.”

A typical holiday Caribbean dish is a spiced, roasted pork shoulder called “pernil.” This dish is available at most Dominican, Cuban or Puerto Rican restaurants during the holiday season. The ingredients to make it at home are available in local stores.

According to Maria Gulino, who runs Tropical Cafeteria and Restaurant at 282 Centre St., “The traditional day for a Hispanic family dinner is Christmas Eve. The next day everyone gets dressed up in their best clothes to socialize and go to church.” The celebration continues until Jan. 6, Three Kings Day.

A few local restaurants that might offer pernil and other Latin American holiday dishes and appetizers include Alex’s Chimis, Cafeteria Tropical, El Oriental de Cuba, Estrella Bakery/Cafeteria, La Papusa Guanaca, Latino Restaurant, Miami Restaurant, Tacos el Charro and Yely’s Coffee Shop.

Rafael Benzan, also of Tropical Cafeteria and a long-time member of the Hyde/Jackson Square Business Association, last week described a typical holiday dinner in the Dominican Republic. “Traditionally we roast a whole pig on a spit. It’s called lechon asado. But that’s usually not possible here, so we have pernil.”

Other dishes on the holiday table, he said, may include rice and pigeon peas (arroz con gandules), a green salad, a potato and beets salad (ensalada rusa), ground plantain and green bananas wrapped in plantain leaves and then boiled (pastels en hoja) and a hard long-loaf bread called “pan telerra.” Often roast chicken is also served.

“Desserts are usually imported fruits like grapes, apples and pears, along with a variety of nuts,” Benzan said. “We also have a punch similar to eggnog that has rum in it.”

“We serve most of those dishes here,” Gulino said, “so someone could come in and sample a Caribbean holiday dinner if they wanted.” Her restaurant also serves rotisserie chicken, barbecued ribs and wings, fried pork skin (chicharron), traditional soups and many different side dishes and drinks.

“People are coming to this area now for home-cooked traditional food at very reasonable prices without going all the way to the Caribbean,” Benzan noted.

Eating in the “Latin Quarter,” a term coined by Hyde/Jackson Square Main Streets, last year, is popular with more than Latinos. “We’ve been open about six months and little by little we see more Anglos eating in our restaurant,” Benzan reported. “They come back and bring their friends next time.”

Then there’s the national/international set. “During the World Series many of the players from the Colorado Rockies came by. Other players from Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Texas come by when they’re in town and want a home-cooked meal, “ Benzan said.

Pernil is not just for holidays. Miami Restaurant at 381 Centre St., owned by native Cuban Juan Reyes for 11 years, serves pernil every Friday.

In addition to local residents, Reyes said, his customers include sports figures like Red Sox slugger David Ortiz; Mario Rivera and Tony Peña of the New York Yankees; Orlando “El Duque” Hernández of the Mets; Bartollo Colón of the Los Angeles Angels; and heavyweight boxing champ John Ruiz. Singer Gilberto Santa Rosa has also stopped in for a bite.

Nobel Garcia of El Oriental de Cuba at 416 Centre St. added some dishes to the holiday menu. In Cuba, the table features pernil with black beans and rice (congris), corn patties with meat (tamales) and apple cider (cidra), fruit, nuts and different dessert nougats, he said.

“Our clientele is from all over and includes a lot of Anglos,” Garcia said of his restaurant. “Really, the food is better here [in Hyde/Jackson Square] than in Miami. I think the draw of Hyde/Jackson Square is its diversity. You can try different things and never get bored. There are so many restaurants, and I say, the more the merrier.”

Reyes of Miami Restaurant said, “When I first moved here [in 1978] there were about three restaurants. Now there’s 25 to 30. I encourage people to come to Hyde/Jackson Square because it’s a safe place to enjoy a wide variety of Latino food.”

A list of restaurants provided by Amanda Williams of Hyde/Jackson Square Main Street shows a variety of eating establishments in the area in addition to the ones mentioned above: Bella Luna, Brendan Behan Pub, Brescia Pizzeria, Cappy’s Pizza, Captain Nemo’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Food Wall Chinese Restaurant, Jackson Square Fish Market, June Bug Café, Milky Way, Prince Street Catering, Rizzo’s Pizza, Sorella’s Restaurant, Young Kong Restaurant, Zon’s Restaurant and the recently opened Velouria Coffee Shop. Many of the restaurants in Hyde/Jackson Square have takeout and/or catering.

“The location close to the Jamaicaway helps,” Reyes said, “but, more than that, the Hyde/Jackson Square area is much more organized than before. The Hyde Square Task Force, [Hyde/Jackson Square] Main Street, the [Hyde/Jackson Square] business association, and especially [merchant and activist] Tony Barros, who has been an incredible leader that we follow, have all worked together to transform the neighborhood.”

Garcia agreed that getting together helps. “We talk about parking, lighting, anything that affects businesses and the neighborhood. Knowing other owners personally is very important.”
Making pernil

Making pernil at home can also be fun and easy. All the ingredients are available at food stores in the Latin Quarter, including Hi-Lo Foods at 407 Centre St. and many bodegas.

Although recipes vary from cook to cook (Search for “pernil” online to see a selection.), pernil always involves making a spicy paste or sauce and marinating a pork shoulder or hind leg cut in it before roasting it in the oven.

The paste is usually made with olive oil and spices, including garlic, salt, pepper, oregano and other Latin chilis. Some cooks like to add their own touches, including orange juice or wine. A mix of spices called “Adobo” is available at stores that can be used as a partial short-cut.

The cook cuts into the shoulder, making holes an inch or more deep and an inch wide. The paste is poured into the holes and basted onto the shoulder. After refrigerating the mix for anywhere from six hours to three days (depending on the recipe), the shoulder is roasted at about 350 degrees. The fatty outer layer can be removed before serving, or the shoulder can be cooked at a higher temperature for about 20 minutes at the end to make it crispy.

For more information about food and business in the Latin Quarter contact Hyde/Jackson Square Main Street for a brochure and map at 522-3694 or see

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