In the 80’s, the streets of Grand and Dean in Brooklyn was an industrial landscape of auto shops, factories and taxi depots. It was far from trendy, but the rent was cheap. My parents, immigrants from the countryside of the Dominican Republic, just needed a kitchen to cook their food, a small area for a steam table to hold the pans & a lunch counter. It is here, in 1986, that Puerto Viejo was born.
Amidst Studebaker Service Station and all the other repair shops, it was easy to miss the corner luncheonette with the steamed windows. However, the word spread fast amongst the neighborhood workers and my parents became known for their $3.75 lunch specials. Mechanics & cab drivers would flock over and line up outside at noon for their rice, beans, and protein. Doors closed at 6pm sharp, so to make sure that my parents would make it back home in time for dinner with the family.
As a child, the restaurant was my second home. My favorite part of being there was the jukebox that contained all the great, classic Latin albums. I would play my favorite salsa or merengue tunes while eating my favorite dish; Bistec Encebollado (pepper steak) with Tostones (fried green plantains). It was always a treat.
In 2011, a catastrophic fire happened and our restaurant which had become a staple in the community was gone. After a week of cleaning up all the debris, my Father was ready to patch up whatever he could to get the business back up, but my brother Eduardo, who at a very young age shadowed my father, resisted and called me to come and see his discovery. In the wake of the fire, he had uncovered beautiful ornate ceilings and beams, much higher than the sheet rock that had been covering the original architecture for so long. It was not an easy task to convince my parents that this remodeling was needed - now more than ever as the neighborhood was changing. My brother was convinced that if we didn't remodel, we would not survive gentrification. He knew that fate had sent us this fire as a clear message.
It was a tough year of construction and this project became my other full time job. The more involved I got, the less interest I had in my day job. This was personal, and the community was rooting for us and waited while we did the work. In 2012, we finally opened our new metal doors. Our locals were slightly intimidated by the better lighting and higher ceilings, but as soon as they saw the steam table and my parents behind the counter, they knew they were home.
It was difficult for my parents to adjust to the new dine-in operation and delivery service and so we united as a family and worked together to take the business even further. Still offering the same food, new faces were welcomed and our food was reaching other neighborhoods with its delivery service. It was incredible to see how much our food was valued, sought out, and well-regarded. It was then that the idea of Pisqueya was born. I wanted to celebrate our traditions, our story of resilience and dedication, and keep the legacy alive beyond our brick-and-mortar.
Puerto Viejo is still standing today and rated as the best Dominican restaurant in NYC. At times, you may catch my parents, Cristina and Eduardo, and if you do, please thank them for remaining a beacon of culture in Prospect Heights and beyond.