On the side of the Spanglish food truck, printed against a background of whimsical drawings of fruits, vegetables and barnyard animals, is the truck’s motto: “Puerto Rican food with Southern Charm.”
A few weeks ago, I was able to confirm the accuracy of that motto by sampling across an offering ranging from pernil (slow-roasted pork, Puerto Rican style) to the Pork-u-Pineapple empanada – the pork in this case being Eastern North Carolina style.
The offering is unusually broad for a mobile vendor and can include as many as half a dozen variations on the empanada theme alone. When I was there, other fillings included traditional beef (seasoned with a house blend of Puerto Rican spices and lightly sweetened with bits of plantain), Buffalo chicken, and a colorful vegan medley of pink and black beans and potatoes, called Pinky and the Bean. All are scratch-made and deep-fried to a blistery turn.
But one empanada in particular piqued my curiosity. Abuela’s chicken empanada, filled with a homespun stew of chicken, carrots and potatoes, was named for somebody’s grandmother. I just had to know whose granny was the source of the recipe.
So, when I made my usual follow-up call a few weeks later, I asked. As it happens, Doel Gonzales answered the phone. Gonzales and his wife, Gretchen Grajales, own the truck in partnership with another husband-and-wife couple, Antonio Rodriguez and Elizabeth Gutierrez. All four grew up in Puerto Rico, but hadn’t met before moving to Raleigh. The seed of an idea for Spanglish was planted a few years ago, when Gonzales and Rodriguez met at N.C. State.
When I asked Gonzales whose granny gets the credit for the chicken empanada filling, he laughed.
“Actually, all the other partners jokingly call me Abuela,” he said, and explained that he does most of the cooking on the truck. He learned to cook from his mother and grandmother, whose chicken recipe he adapted for the truck.
Empanadas are by no means the only attraction. Pernil – marinated for two days in a blend of citrus juices, cumin, garlic, oregano and coriander before getting roasted low and slow into tender, juicy submission (12 to 15 hours), is an irresistible lure in its own right. The pernil platter gives you a generous portion with the side of your choice: plantain chips, tostones (savory mashed-and-fried plantains), or my favorite, sweet plantains.
Pernil is also featured in Spanglish’s take on a Cubano sandwich, where it plays a costarring role along with Rodriguez’s house-baked Puerto Rican bread. A little softer than the Cuban version, the bread gives the sandwich a subtle Puerto Rican twist. Once it’s filled with pernil and the traditional supporting cast of Swiss cheese, tavern ham, mustard and pickles, then grill-pressed and cut into the diagonal halves that are a hallmark of the classic sandwich, I’ll wager it would get an enthusiastic thumbs-up from a Cubano purist.
The sandwich comes with plantain chips, but go ahead and splurge on a side of yucas bravas, batons of deep-fried yucca with a mere dusting of seasoned breading. They’re homemade, as is the mayo-ketchup (a popular dipping sauce on the island) they’re served with – and pretty much everything on the menu, for that matter.
The Spanglish truck recently celebrated its first birthday so you might want to wish the owners a belated happy birthday when you catch up with it. Feel free to tell Abuela that she’s looking very young.
Prices: empanadas, Cuban sandwich $12, pernil entree with choice of side $11