There's a tiny species of tree frog that sings a song familiar to anyone who knows Puerto Rico, anyone who has phoned a relative at night and heard its familiar chirp in the background, evoking memories of and homesickness for that small Caribbean island: coqui, coqui, coqui.
Named after the frog and its call, El Coqui is also Santa Rosa's only Puerto Rican restaurant, and since its opening last month, it seems to be working the same sort of magic as does the famed amphibian for which it is named. Those who know the frog—and everyone else—are flocking to the restaurant in droves. El Coqui has been averaging about 300 customers a day and has seen lines out the door and around the corner.
Sonoma County is not known for its large Puerto Rican community. But to the relative surprise of El Coqui's co-owners Christina Jackson and Jacqueline Roman, a Puerto Rican community has been thriving, albeit quietly, in the North Bay.
"Before we started this, I would have said that there weren't that many Puerto Ricans here," Jackson says. "But as a result of doing this, Puerto Ricans are coming out of the woodwork for us."
Leaning over the restaurant's bar one Monday night—a "slow night" that had every table full by 8pm—Jackson and Roman surveyed their new venture and the crowd of enthusiastic clientele. Around the room, customers worked away at large plates of garlicky fried plantains, tangy avocado salads and savory portions of meat. The mood was as lively as the salsa music that hummed softly from the stereo and the orange and green walls dotted with images of Celia Cruz, Ricky Martin, tropical beaches and a large Puerto Rican flag.
El Coqui serves up classic island dishes like simple plates of white rice with fried eggs, stewed black beans and Spanish olives; thin-cut pork chips and plantain in all its authentic island varieties: mofongo, refried green plantain mashed with garlic; tostones, fried green plantain patties; maduros, sweet ripe fried plantain; and canoas, whole sweet plantains fried, split down the middle and stuffed with seasoned beef and cheese. Puerto Rican food uniquely mixes the flavors of all the various cultures that have influenced the island: Taino and Arawak Amerindians, Spanish, African and North American.
Though not Puerto Rican herself, Jackson (who jokes that she's "Irishrican") points to a man seated at the head of a table of eight and remembers when she and Roman were first moving in and needed to rent a truck. When they told the man working the rental desk about the opening of El Coqui, he looked at them incredulously and responded, "Really? I'm Puerto Rican, too!"
The truck rental employee was not alone in excited identification with the new restaurant. When a local food blog reported their opening, Jackson and Roman received over 80 supportive posts on their MySpace page. Drivers honked by their Mendocino Avenue location while it was still under renovation, shouting, "Hurry up and open!" When they handed out fliers at the Santa Rosa farmers market, they had dozens of people come up to them enthralled at the prospects of a Puerto Rican restaurant in Santa Rosa, because finally they could have the kind of food they used to eat at their family homes in San Juan or Brooklyn.
For first-time restaurant owners Jackson and Roman, this was like music as sweet as the coqui's call itself.
"I want this place to be like going to your grandmother's house. It's not just a business," Roman says. "I want customers to feel like whatever they need, they can have."
At the very least, El Coqui's food will taste like it's from grandma's house, because almost all the recipes come from Roman's own grandmother. Roman, a Queens native (and still a Yankees fan; a team decal sticks to the restaurant's back wall) grew up immersed in her family's cultural traditions, spending summers with her grandmother in Puerto Rico. With her 16 brothers and sisters, she soaked up all the practical knowledge her grandmother had to offer—everything from how to use a machete for picking coffee beans to old-school tricks for achieving the perfect ratio of water to rice.
"I don't measure my food; I do everything by eye," Roman says. "It just comes naturally to me."
Roman moved from New York to work at San Diego's Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. She ordered food for seven mess halls, feeding around 8,000 troops a day. After Pendleton, she sold produce, owned a furniture store, worked as a linen wholesaler and found her way to Rohnert Park. Selling linens and produce, Roman was often in contact with Sonoma County restaurants. From closely watching how restaurants operated, she began to wonder about committing herself fully to something she had done naturally since the age of nine.
"I always said, 'Why is there not a Puerto Rican restaurant in Sonoma County?'" she remembers. "So something crawled up my back and said 'Why don't you do it?' I started talking to my mom about it and she kept saying, 'Do it. Do it. Do it.'"
Roman also talked to her longtime friend Jackson about the financial implications of opening up a restaurant. Jackson, a manager at Bank of America in Santa Rosa, knew all too well the harsh realities of the restaurant business.
"People will laugh at you if you walk into a bank saying you want to open a restaurant. You can't get a loan. There's a 98 percent failure rate," Jackson says. "In some aspects, it's really scary to do something in these times, but from another perspective, it provides an opportunity. We believed in the vision, and Jackie's cooking is fabulous and she's just a natural-born entertainer."
With commercial lease values dropping and failing restaurants selling off equipment for low prices, Roman and Jackson were able to afford all the initial startup costs without seeking additional investors. Suddenly, their vision seemed feasible.
However, it was not without challenges, least of which was the death of Roman's mother to cancer just prior to El Coqui's opening.
"She was supposed to be here with us, so it's been hard," she says.
Roman proudly explains that her mother, Carmen Rosa Medina, used to sing with the young Tito Puente at El Teatro Puertorriqueño and points to two smiling framed portraits of her on either side of the restaurant.
There were also the infinite logistical challenges and unexpected costs that come with opening any new restaurant. Roman and Jackson had no hint of the restaurant's overwhelming popularity. They had planned to do several soft openings with just family and friends, but Jackson says, "as soon as people saw the lights on, they were lining up outside." Unprepared for this onslaught, Roman and Jackson scrambled to get more staff and rework their own hours. It has been an exhausting endeavor, and Jackson still works full-time at the bank.
Furthermore, in trying to stay as authentically Puerto Rican as possible, El Coqui requires many difficult-to-find ingredients and spices. With the larger-than-anticipated customer flow in their opening weeks, Roman and Jackson faced some daunting situations. However, what they also could not have predicted was the incredible support of the local Puerto Rican community.
"We've had many Puerto Rican people who have stepped up to help us," Jackson says.
"Because they literally say, 'I want to see you succeed, how can we help, let us go to Oakland for you, let us go to Hayward for you. We'll go get the special this or special that.' Without the support of the people who really stepped up to help us, I don't know where we'd be."
Ismael Rivera, a Santa Rosa resident born in Puerto Rico, is one such community member. He makes the hot sauce for El Coqui while his wife makes their desserts. For Rivera, El Coqui has filled up a much longed-for absence: the flavors of his birthplace.
"We've been waiting for it for a long time," he says. "As soon as you walk in, you feel different, better."
As the Monday-night crowd wanes, Roman and Jackie wave at customers, turn up the music and instruct the waitstaff in the very precise way you should eat your plantain with meat. A group of young women by the bar tell the owners that they plan to make El Coqui a weekly tradition.
When Roman asks them how the food was, they respond, "Como siempre." As in: like always. Like they always eat plantains mashed with garlic, like they always enjoy meat cooked in a rich medley of spices, like just how grandma always used to make it in Miami, New York or San Juan.
El Coqui Puerto Rican Cuisine, 400 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Lunch and dinner daily. 707.542.8868.
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