Casa Borinqueña has been feeding Oakland locals hungry for island cuisine since 2018. The pop-up and catering business won devout fans with pernil, shrimp mofongo, chicharrón de cerdo, and tostones con pollo. But last summer, Chef Lulu (who asked to be attributed by her first name) shocked, and in some cases angered, the small community when she veganized her menu. Many told the chef, who was raised on the archipelago and in Brooklyn, that Puerto Rican dishes sans meat, particularly pork, could never be authentic.

“I started to question my own culinary skills: Would I be able to truly achieve the flavors?” chef Lulu asked herself. “I was also really sad because I felt abandoned by my own community. There was a sense of mourning. And there was also fear. I became anxious. I wondered if this was a good business move and, if it wasn’t, if I could ever recover from it.”

The menu shift was a risky decision to make, especially amid a pandemic that destabilized the food industry. But while the founder lost some patrons, she found enthusiastic support among a vegan community searching for plant-based dishes surging with flavors. Casa Borinqueña’s rotating menu still features the classics: arroz con gandules, mofongo, maduros, and pastelillos, to name a few. “People tell me all the time that it’s the best vegan food they’ve ever tasted,” Chef Lulu says. “I’m just keeping on with tradition.”

In Puerto Rico, more kitchens are preparing meat-free plates to meet the dietary demands of a growing vegan community. Across the archipelago, but especially in its capital of San Juan, vegan restaurants are offering locals and tourists signature meals rich in isle ingredients and precolonial techniques. In the contiguous U.S., a similar movement is growing. Preserving Puerto Rican culture in a plant-based movement that’s been commercially whitewashed, these vegan restaurants, cuchifritos, food trucks, pop-ups, and catering services have sprung up in cities that boast vast Puerto Rican populations, like Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois, and California.

Growing up in San Juan, Javier Muñiz delivered his grandmother’s fiambreras, packed home-cooked dinners sold in the community, long before meal-prep services became a trend. In 2015, nine years after migrating to Orlando, he began cooking plant-based alternatives to Puerto Rican delicacies to impress his vegan girlfriend (and now wife), Karina Munoz Cancel. It started with sweets, from creamy coconut quesitos to the classic flan. Soon, every recipe he prepared was plant-based.

The pair started vending the Caribbean pastries at local farmers markets, and in 2016, they opened the vegan Puerto Rican bakery Almendra’s. A year ago, they launched the Earthy Kitchen next door, and brought along Muñiz’s 70-year-old mom to ensure the sabor and spirit of Borikén are mixed into the pots and pans. The cuchifrito-style restaurant serves plant-based Puerto Rican soul food: savory frituras, deep-fried treats like empanadillas, alcapurria, and relleno de papa that satisfy patrons’ deepest hunger for home.

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