by Carol Cain
While owning a restaurant has always been a dream for Chef Melanie Alvarez, she never imagined she would be serving the dishes of her culture so far away from her island home. Melanie was born in El Mangó, Juncos, Puerto Rico. Her older sister was the first to move to the Finger Lakes – Geneseo, NY to be specific, and immediately worked on convincing Melanie and the rest of the family to move. Her sister flooded them with stories of how the Finger Lakes is a great place to live and would provide an easier life than what they were experiencing on the island at the time. Shortly after she arrived, she started working on making her restaurant dream a reality. Using the experience she gained working on her family’s food truck in Puerto Rico, along with a small business grant won from Livingston County, she was able to open the doors to The Borikén Restaurant, which serves lunch and dinner in a tropical atmosphere reminiscent of the delights of Puerto Rico.
The name “Borikén” has indigenous roots. The term, used by the Taínos who first lived on the island, means “the great land of the valiant and noble Lord” and refers to the “cacique” or chief.
For Melanie, her love of connecting to people through food has always been a passion, long before she learned to cook. “I remember playing with my sisters and ‘selling’ them tacos made of mango tree leaves and dirt,” she recalls. “No matter what nationality you are or what language you speak, for me, food is like an international language that can be enjoyed by anyone. I always wanted to be that intermediate who connects the dots.”
One thing guests will notice upon visiting the restaurant is the many local Puerto Ricans who stop in to dine and or for pick up. And for Melanie, the presence of such a large Latinx community was a surprise to her. “At first I thought we were the only Puerto Rican people in the area. Pretty soon I learned how mistaken I was,” she said. “There are Puerto Ricans everywhere working in different places here in Upstate NY who came here for reasons similar or different to my own.”
While finding that sense of community has been nice, she has also found that the difference between cooking in a tropical environment to now doing so in an ever-changing and colder climate is a challenging one. Especially challenging has been finding some of the ingredients that serve as stables in Latinx cuisine. “Finding ripe plantains in winter is always a hard task and some of our traditional ingredients aren’t as easily accessible as in Puerto Rico,” she admitted. “But the good thing is that when you’re doing what you love you always find a way.”
Nevertheless, Melanie says she finds access to so many fresh and locally sourced vegetables, many of which are incorporated in her dishes, to be a blessing. Her local meat distributor, Butter Meat Co. in Perry, is one she highly recommends. She prioritizes supporting locals as much as possible, understanding how that support impacts other small businesses like hers. “Just as we’re working our way up with the restaurant, there are many families who are working their way up through the products they grow and sell.” She adds, “We see it as a way to connect with our neighbors, but also help the economy of the community by supporting each other.”
She is equally committed to her cultural heritage, which, she said, inspires the dishes at Borikén. Guests are treated to dishes that are very personal to her, as well as those that serve as a taste of her homeland. “I grew up with these dishes. I remember my mother sending me to the yard to grab “recao” (sawtooth coriander) for the beans or being woken up at 5 a.m. to the sounds and smells of the family preparing the lechón (roast pork) for Christmas or Three Kings Day,” she said. And while she admits that not everyone might get the connection, she sees Boriken as a teaching opportunity for anyone wanting to try something new. For fellow Latinx and Puerto Ricans, she just hopes that the dishes remind them of their roots, even while in their new home.
The Borikén Restaurant; 40 Main Street, Mount Morris NY 14510; (585) 658-3100; email@example.com
Carol Cain is happiest when on an adventure, whether close to home or farther away. She is a small business owner and travel writer. You can follow her at @GirlGoneTravel.