When most folks hear the term "comfort food," their minds go straight to the American staples: steak and potatoes, burgers and fries, mac and cheese, fried chicken and biscuits, and so on. However, those staples never really gave me much comfort (except maybe the fried chicken and biscuits). Realistically, "comfort food" is whatever gives someone a sense of ease. The comfort food I prefer is still American food, but originated a little bit farther south, in Puerto Rico. Fortunately, I live right near a place that can throw down some good PR fare for a good price: La Olla Criolla.
Since 2017, La Olla Criolla has offered authentic Puerto Rican food at a decent price. When approaching from Culver, the restaurant's sign appears on the right like bright oasis. Just seeing the sign puts me at ease: "La Olla Criolla: Verdadero Sabor Puertoriqueño" ("The Creole Pot: True Puerto Rican Flavor"). They are not exaggerating; in its two years being open, there was never a time where I left feeling unsatisfied.
- PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
- La Olla Criolla's medium plate with rice, beans, and pork.
La Olla Criolla is a cafeteria-style venue, so you choose a base (rice or rice with beans), main entree (meat or vegetable) and a side (more vegetable), and pay. You have the choice of a small ($7), medium ($11), or large meal ($12), and extras usually range from $1 to $2.
I always start with the rice with pigeon peas (a nutty, grain-like legume), but you have the choice to omit the peas (why, though?), or choose just plain white rice (seriously, why?). Main choices vary from week to week, but there always a few styles of chicken, fish, beef, and pork available, and a few vegetable options.
The fried chicken is very succulent, as is the roast chicken. My favorite style of chicken is the Chicken Guisado, which is cooked in a stew of tomato, garlic, and spices, resulting in meat sitting in a deliciously peppery oil. One time I ordered a fish entree that arrived as a giant steak on top of my rice. It was cooked in such a way that the outside of it was dry and looked like a woodcut sculpture of food, but that was just a thin layer that gave way to a juicy whitefish that was somehow both light and hearty at the same time. I devoured it like it was nothing, but I was definitely full.
A few days ago, I just wanted a little meal, so I got a small order of rice, topped with several thick spears of yucca cooked to perfection (not too soggy, not too crunchy) with spices and red peppers. The good people of La Olla Criolla are not shy with their portions, either. Whether I get the small or the medium box, they pack it so much that I have trouble re-closing the lid. That is the type of problem I enjoy having. This is a family restaurant, and they cook and serve like you're at home for dinner.
- PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
- Owner Javier Gonzalez opened La Olla Criolla in what used to be a neighborhood bar, and did much of the renovating himself.
I always feel welcome at La Olla Criolla. The space is large, and the seating is mostly booths and large tables. I didn't even feel intimidated by the fact that I've heard nary a syllable of English from the customers or the employees each time I went there, though I did feel a little bit guilty that my Spanish is rusty...actually calling it "rusty" is generous. I know way less Spanish than anyone of Panamanian descent should, because I just HAD to try out German in high school.
My scholastic decisions aside, one of the best signs that Caribbean food is going to be good is when expatriates from said region are enthusiastically waiting to order, speaking to each other in their most comfortable tongue. This is the case at La Olla Criolla, where the parking lot is often packed, and the order line snakes through the restaurant. Though the place is spacious, it would be hard to accommodate everyone if they planned to dine in. But I would happily stand for my meal, because just the aroma of the food is worth it.
The fruition of La Olla Criolla was a saga for owner Javier Gonzalez. Originally from the Rochester area, he moved to Puerto Rico at age 16 to live with extended family and help with his uncle's transportation business. He moved back to the Rochester area in 2010, sold cars for a bit and then managed operations at a restaurant before opening his first restaurant, also called La Olla Criolla, on Hayward Avenue near Public Market.
- PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
- Outside La Olla Criolla at 1584 East Main.
After saving for a few more years, Gonzalez relocated to the East Main Street location and made extensive renovations to what used to be a neighborhood bar. It took him a few months to renovate, doing a lot of the work himself, including the custom-made glass and posts for the food counters' sneeze guards, and installation of the bars that house and display the food. Gonzalez and his family get to work every day at 4 a.m. to start cooking, and the quality of their effort shines with every bite.
Gonzalez says that his goal is to eventually have a few additional locations in the area and in some of the suburbs of Rochester, and perhaps a place where customers can also sit and have a drink a little bit stronger than the fresh juices and Coco Rico that La Olla currently offers. I would support his efforts. The outer areas of the city should have Puerto Rican comfort food as close to them as La Olla Criolla is to me.