When I pulled into the parking lot of El Pilon Criollo, I knew that it was a special place. Even if the food was bad (and it isn't), I was excited to write about the background of owner Zury Brown and the restaurant she and her family created. The free standing building that houses El Pilon Criollo on North Clinton Avenue, in the heart of the La Avenida neighborhood opened in 2013. It was the first new construction to happen in that area in 12 years. I was a bit taken aback when I heard that, but driving down North Clinton to get there it shouldn't have been such a surprise. It isn't an inspiring drive until you see this sharp building with large glass windows serving up Puerto Rican comfort food to the neighborhood.
El Pilon Criollo makes real deal comfort food that sticks to your ribs and fills you up. To me there aren't many more satisfying purchases than a container of yellow rice and beans topped with meat. What I went for here — as I do at most Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Jamaican purveyors — was to go with the small option ($5), which was plenty of food for one person.
El Pilon Criollo is by and large a takeout joint. That's not to say that you can't eat there — it does have a decent amount of tables — but the food is universally served in takeout containers. That doesn't take away from the people dishing out the food at the counter in any way, though; they were consistently engaging to deal with and helped with the groups of waiting people efficiently.
Out of the numerous meats that you can choose from, my wife and I sampled five of them during our two visits. We didn't have a chance to try the crowd favorite, roast pork, since they were sold out both times, but I was pleasantly impressed with the hog maw ($5 for half pound side) which turned out to be my favorite. For those that aren't familiar, hog maw is slices of pig stomach stewed in a peppered broth until tender. They were well-cleaned, leaving no trace of the funky smells and tastes that that can sometimes come from cuts of meat from that portion of the animal. In this case, the hog maw had a light livery taste but mostly took on the flavor of the stewing liquid.
Both the stewed and baked chicken options ($5 for a small) served the bird well. Both were fall off the bone tender and seasoned strongly. I preferred the stewed version with the chopped pieces of chicken (especially the dark meat). The stewing liquid imparted a rich, salty flavor through the dish and worked well with the yellow rice and beans. Fried chunks of pork shoulder ($5 for half pound side) had a decidedly salty exterior that was solidly browned and an interior that reminded me of good Mexican-style carnitas.
Speaking of which, I liked the yellow rice and beans here, although they weren't very subtle. The rice had a decent amount of depth and salt, but were a touch on the oily side. The pinto beans were cooked to a fall apart level and had a rounded sauce that helped make each combination of rice, beans, and meat a complete dish and not just individual components in a container. What also helped to bring these strong flavors together was the house-made hot sauce that was available. The medium spicy vinegar-based sauce is stored in glass bottles that show off the variety of hot peppers used to create its distinct profile. With the intense richness from most of the dishes, the cutting acidity and heat from the hot sauce is critical.
El Pilon also offers a selection of frituras ($2 each), fried snacks that include empanadas, alcapurrias, and potato balls. The empanada dough was fried to a crunchy but chewy consistency — and remained so even after transporting it home wrapped in foil — and both the beef and chicken options were worth trying. The best of the frituras, though, was the alcapurria that consisted of a cylinder of just slightly sweet mashed plantains filled with ground beef.
On the sweet side of things, both the passion fruit juice ($3) and the tres leches cake ($4) were intensely sugary. The juice had a pleasant floral front and dry finish along with the sweetness. The drink was tasty by itself, and was used as part a homemade cocktail with tequila, orange, and lime juices. The angel food style cake was topped with a thick whipped cream and soaked with evaporated and condensed milk, making for a very moist dessert. Hard to eat more than a few spoonfuls before the sugar rush hits you.
El Pilon Criollo is a great example of how a business that truly serves the community can succeed. Zury Brown started as a vendor at the Puerto Rican Festival, spent 5 years renting at a smaller location just up the street and now owns a beautiful restaurant that has been open for almost two years. When I talked to her on the phone she mentioned how proud she was to open a new building in the area, and I could understand why. I walked away with a satisfied stomach and impressed with what had been accomplished.
You can read more from Chris Lindstrom or listen to his podcast on his food blog, Foodabouttown.com. Share any dining tips with him on Twitter and Instagram @stromie.