NEWS

El Abuelo Café: Caribbean cuisine on Destin’s shores

Savannah Chastain
El Abuelo Café’s friendly staff. Pictured are Owners Reinaldo and Pura Arroyo, their son Reydavid Arroyo, and Chef Tracey Brown.

Reinaldo and Pura Arroyo moved to Fort Walton Beach six years ago with a dream; to open their own Puerto Rican restaurant and bring their hometown Caribbean flavors to the Gulf Coast.

It took five years to open El Abuelo Café, and one more year for their business to make its way into Destin, and now business is booming for the little open-air restaurant.

“This was our dream, we always wanted to have a restaurant,” said Reinaldo. “We used to live in Orlando, and after church we always did cookouts and everyone loved our food and would say, ‘You should open a restaurant,’ but we never did it.”

After making the move to Northwest Florida, the couple found Puerto Rican food scarce, which inevitably fueled their decision to open El Abuelo Café.

“When we moved here we were missing the bread, we were missing everything,” said Pura. “It’s hard because not very many people know what Puerto Rican food is. Everybody here knows Mexican; it’s the favorite Hispanic cuisine around. They ask us, ‘Do you have tamales?’ and we say ‘No, no, we are not Mexican. Puerto Rican food is very similar to Cuban.’”

Reinaldo told The Log that the big difference in the two Latin cuisines is the core ingredients.

“We cook with a lot of fried pork, and we use a lot of plantains,” he said. “One of our specialties is called Mofongo which is deep fried plantains mixed with pork rinds and served with shrimp, chicken or pork in Caribbean sauce.”

Pura elaborated on that explaining that Puerto Rican cuisine is actually a collision of three different cultures.

“Our food is called ‘criollo’ which means a mixture of flavors from Spain, Africa and native Indians from Puerto Rico,” she said. “It combines all the flavors of the three cultures.”

When the restaurant first opened its doors in February, Reinaldo said that customers had many questions about the cuisine.

“At first it was a little bit curious, I would say; but surprisingly most of my customers are not Hispanic, and especially like the Cuban sandwich,” Reinaldo said.

“It’s something different,” said Pura. “We opened it so our cuisine could be known.”

Family owned and operated, El Abuelo Café features authentic recipes that have been passed down for generations.

“We just learned from mom,” said Pura referencing both herself and her husband. “When we first got married we would say, ‘I cook better than you, no I cook better than you.’”

Pura added that when they first opened she was nervous to introduce some of the more traditional foods such as el borincano- a three meat sandwich featuring a beef patty, pulled-pork, and ham along with other toppings and sauces.

“You find it everywhere in Puerto Rico,” said Pura. “We thought since it has so many bold flavors, we didn’t think it would be liked; but so far it has been one of the best items.”

Now with the popularity of the cuisine growing, Reinaldo said he hopes to expand to add a small bakery to the repertoire.

“We are going to start baking traditional things from the Caribbean,” he said. “Like tres leches and other cakes; we are doing more and more and more.”

Aside from delicious food the restaurant also serves Cuban coffee, wine, beer, and homemade sangria in flavors of strawberry and guava. The restaurant, located at 517 Hwy. 98, seats about 30 people with patios in the front and back side of the building. Grass umbrellas and bright chairs give a festive feel to the outdoor dining experience, and flags and photos of Puerto Rican folklore give the indoor space an authentic touch.

“We invite everyone who would like to try our Puerto Rican food to give us a chance to show how good the Caribbean cuisine is,” said Reinaldo.

For more information visit www.facebook.com/ElAbueloCafe or call 226-8048.