Does cooking make you happy? Making food for others is a long tradition in Latino culture –no matter where you are from. Food is our way of showing love for our children, our family, our friends and everyone else in between. Family and cultural traditions are passed from women to women at the kitchen table with typical aromas and flavors of our ancestors.
Little Lisa Cartagena knew that when her Abuela in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, made her feed the chicken in her backyard at 10 years old –chicken Abuela would then use to cook her delicious chicken soup–, she was preparing Lisa for the ride of her life: literally.
Because Lisa is the proud owner and chef at Lala’s Puerto Rican Kitchen, a food truck that is attracting lines of hungry New Jersey customers willing to try maduros, alcapurrias, pernil and so many other delicious specialties. Mouthwatering? Ni que hablar!
“Food was big in my house and so was discipline,” said Lisa to LIBizus. “Abuela was a perfectionist; at 8 years old, she taught me to make a bed with hospital corners. She taught me everything with the same discipline, a habit I carry into my cooking: best ingredients and unique dishes cooked the old school Puerto Rican style.”
However, Lisa’s passion was not clear at a younger age. She dreamed of being an artist and once she moved to The Bronx at 15 years old, she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts in New York City, obtaining an Associate Degree in Textile Design.
“In the city, music was always around me. My father was a famous record producer of musicians such as Johnny Ventura and the Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. I used to cook for my father, his friends and for the bands; I used to cook when I was depressed or nervous because cooking made me happy but I still couldn’t see the connection,” Lisa said.
She was 19 when she moved to Hell’s Kitchen, a famous Manhattan neighborhood, and met her husband, Frank Mojica, who happened to be a butcher. They moved together into a small studio apartment. Lisa continued cooking for friends and small family events, parties, anniversaries and reunions.
“I remember telling my husband I couldn’t find good ‘old school’ Puerto Rican food in Manhattan. Sounds funny, with all the Puerto Ricans living in the city, right? We starting fantasizing about opening a restaurant but we had no funds for the venture,” she remembers.
They came up with the idea of a food truck, a trailer they could move around or park at a certain place but the amount of money for permits to open a restaurant, health inspections, rent to operate on somebody’s property or permit to park on a public space were overwhelming in the city. “If the cost of a license to operate the food truck at a certain location was $8000 in Brooklyn, in Manhattan was $20,000,” Lisa explains.
Lisa and her husband looked then at other possibilities across the Hudson River. They researched areas heavily populated by Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, such as Old Bridge and Perth Amboy in New Jersey. “We prayed every day to find a spot for over a year,” she said.
In the meantime, Lisa started applying her creative juices to her food truck image. Day and night, with her inherited perfectionism, she would sketch ideas so the truck would also convey the “old school Puerto Rican cooking” brand she so much loved. After a few months, and once she was almost satisfied with the results, the sketching pad she was working on suddenly disappeared.
“It was around my birthday and I didn’t’ think much of it. We had been moving around and I thought the pad would show up eventually. The day of my birthday, my husband invited me to dine out to what he called ‘the best Puerto Rican food he could find.’ He blindfolded me and after driving for a while, he stopped the car, asked me to look and there it was: the most wonderful food truck imprinted with the beautiful sketches I had been working on. I got into tears, my dream was coming true,” she shares.
With half of the battle already conquered, Lisa and her husband now had to find a place to park and attract clientele. “Frank used to drive up and down Route 9 South in the Old Bridge area. He was fixated with a little white house on the side of the road. One day, he decided to knock at the door. The owner, a little old lady 90 years of age, living by herself in her old farm, opened the door, listened to what my husband had to say, and she agreed to sign a lease with us. I firmly believe God works in mysterious ways,” Lisa said with emotion.
Lala’s Puerto Rican Kitchen opened on March of 2014. Almost 70 people were waiting in line when the side window was finally lifted. Through social media promotion, and with active participation of friends and business acquaintances, Lala’s Kitchen has not had a bad day since.
“I realized that all my life came together in this project: my creative side from my father, my cooking and perfectionism from mi Abuela, and the happiness I share with my clients through the food I cook. Almost every day I hear words of gratitude or blessings from my customers. ‘Dios the bendiga, Lala,’ people say, and it sounds like I finally was able to build a little piece of Boricua heaven for all of them,” she concluded.
You can follow Lisa on Twitter @lisalalaloca and ask her questions about her business. You can also visit Lala’s Puerto Rican Kitchen’s website to know about her specials every day.
Watch this video of the Gran Combo de Puerto Rico and Johnny Venture.