This Southern Puerto Rican Restaurant Is the Soul of a North Carolina Neighborhood

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A Puerto Rican-South restaurant in the heart of downtown Durham, NC. I stand on the sidelines as I watch the tables being dragged from the string-lit brick patio, the chairs stacked on top; the fryers are emptied, the counters wiped. And as always, Serena and Toriano Fredericks, the wife-husband team behind this food-truck-turned-restaurant, are there together.

“It’s James,” the cashier reminds Serena, who takes care of the front of the house while Toriano, or Tori, as he’s called, runs the kitchen. “Good,” she said. “I need to get his guardian’s number.” She backs up to the soda machine. James is a quiet little man in his sixties who appears to be struggling with dementia and comes to the store every day for a coke. He never has to ask (and never pays), and Serena always takes a moment to check in with him when he visits.

Their almost daily exchange exemplifies a kind of ethos that I found endemic to this southern city. Here, the word community is not just lip service; it hinges on doing whatever it takes to ensure the other’s survival. Boricua Soul, a unique intersection of Caribbean and Southern flavors and identity, has become a neighborhood restaurant that feels especially special in a world transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Serena and Tori weren’t expecting to open a restaurant. They met by chance in 2010 at Tori’s divorce party (yes, party), when they were based in Durham and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, respectively. Tori worked as a dynamic positioning operator for oil rigs, offshore for months at a time. The two fell in love hard and fast, and a few months later Tori moved to Durham, where her sister and grandmother lived. Neither were, as they say, “food people,” but when Tori wasn’t at sea, he published a prolific food blog and dreamed of opening a food truck.

But life threw curve balls at the couple. Serena had a difficult pregnancy before the birth of their son, Devin, followed by a pituitary tumor that required extensive treatment; it wasn’t until 2015 that they were finally able to start spending their days on their “Soul Patrol” truck. Tori left the sea for good three years later, and the family hit the road full time to launch hoecakes – cornmeal pancakes inspired by Tori’s Southern family – as well as dishes that spoke of the Serena’s Puerto Rican roots, such as alcapurrias (root vegetable fritters) and jibaritos (sandwiches with fried plantains as bread). The truck quickly gained popularity, leading to a pop-up that brought them to the American Tobacco Campus, where old tobacco warehouses were being repurposed. In November 2019, their physical restaurant, Boricua Soul, finally opened its doors.

Their new restaurant can accommodate 40 people and opens onto a covered patio that can accommodate more than 75 people. The lights are upside down. calderos, cooking pots commonly used in Puerto Rican cuisine, and a large mural by Victor Knight depicts the couple’s journey: Tori’s grandmother in Durham on the right, Serena’s Puerto Rican grandmother on the left and Devin banging on the drums in the center. The menu offers an evolution of the dishes they served on the truck: sweet potato cheesecake empanadas (recipe p. 99), macaroni and cheese topped with pernil (Puerto Rican pork shoulder) and Lawry’s seasoned green cabbage, which also happens to be vegan. Their dessert options include slices of strawberry crunch cake and hummingbirds from Tony’s Cake House, a company started by their former chef Tony Dunn. They proudly offer local beers, including beers from small breweries such as Spaceway, where Briana Brake (one of the country’s few black female brewers) brews the Afrofuturist-inspired Don Dada Cardamom Stout, which Tori uses to do chest jerk.

“People [who dine with us] often says, “It tastes like my grandma’s,” Tori says. ” May be abuela, could be grandmother. It always gets to me.”

When COVID-19 hit, like so many other hospitality businesses, Boricua Soul was hit hard as people self-quarantined. They stopped serving inside and used the patio, but the cold days were especially trying. Staffing also proved extremely difficult, and the couple ran the operation themselves with a small, scaled-down team, almost living in the restaurant for much of 2020.

During this time, I got to know their family. I was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the south, so I was thrilled to find a restaurant that spoke to my heritage. When the pandemic started, I consulted with Serena often and she shared their struggles: some weeks were good, some were terrible, and they were both working around the clock, exhausted and scared.

“Devin had a pillow and blanket in the back of the store because we didn’t know when we would get out of there,” Serena says.

Like many others, I stopped eating out during the early days of COVID-19, but made an exception for Boricua Soul. So have dozens of other loyal customers, restaurant colleagues, friends and family, who have energized the restaurant with their dollars, words of encouragement and patience. Isolation made me crave the taste of home, Puerto Rico and smoked pinchos, or marinated chicken skewers, I’d go roadside kiosks, or food stalls, near Piñones beach; collard greens and macaroni and cheese, a combination of flavors that for me epitomizes the South. I could taste the abuelita vibes in their food, which was always perfectly seasoned, balanced and comforting.

In the end, it’s easy to get behind Serena and Tori because they constantly get behind others. During the summer of 2020, the restaurant advocated for justice for George Floyd and supported Black Lives Matter protests across the state via social media. Every Sunday, they host live jazz with Bull City in the Basement, a collective supporting local musicians impacted by the pandemic – their sets draw lines in the register. During this time, children run in the yard; a young artist paints in the corner; a dancer improvises a few movements.

“When I met them, I thought, ‘This is a really cool way to contribute to culture, both through your cooking and by uplifting artists,’ says Adam Klein, the director of the American Tobacco Campus, which has known the couple since 2018 and helped secure their dining space, “I think people like Tori and Serena play a huge role in growing the city’s cultural scene.”

In addition to stimulating the arts and providing a place for the community, the couple also supports local farmers. They source their collard greens from Stanley Hughes, a third-generation black farmer who runs Pine Knot Farms in nearby Hurdle Mills. “At first we were buying one case, then three and four, and now six cases,” says Tori. “It means so much to be able to buy from local farmers and see them every week.”

In the midst of a particularly difficult year, the couple managed to not only survive, but to grow. In addition to the restaurant, they offer catering, and their food truck is still operating, although labor shortages have kept them from operating on a day-to-day basis. More recently, they opened a stand at the ballpark, where they serve Cuban sandwiches as well as other signature dishes.

There’s something about a neighborhood restaurant that’s truly special. The food is often simple, but delicious and hearty. You opt for a meal that tastes like home when you’re having a bad day, but you also bring people in from out of town because the food is great. It is the soul of Boricua Soul.

“We intentionally built our base and our roots here in Durham,” says Serena. “This is where we live, where we go to school. These are our people, our neighbors, aren’t they? And if we support this community, this community will always cheer us on.”

Tobacco companies based in Durham once produced more than 80% of the tobacco in the United States, and the state still produces most of the national crop. But by the 1980s, many of the companies that built the city had relocated, disproportionately impacting low-income workers. The tides changed in 1995 when the new Durham Bulls stadium opened and investors decided to renovate the nearby warehouse. This space became the American Tobacco Campus, which is now home to 85 businesses, including a new generation of restaurants like Boricua Soul.

“Our perfect weekend breakfast comes from True Flavors Diner. Toriano is a diner type type for breakfast; he almost always orders the country fried steak. I keep it simple with the buttermilk French toast. Cookies from their sister shop, At Debbie Lou’s, are what dreams are made of. The brown sugar glazed ham and blueberry chipotle cookies are fantastic. »

“Durham Central Park is our happy place. We’ve spent a lot of time there, from the free summer concert series, to the many rodeos and food truck events we’ve attended, to our son’s dance lessons and simple impromptu picnics.”

“We stayed at 21C, a really cool hotel in a renovated old bank building, with rotating art exhibits everywhere. It’s a great downtown location to walk to all the shops, bars and restaurants.”

“Kingfisher’s Sean Umstead makes some of the best drinks in Durham. I especially love their Hoodwink Spritz.”

“We love to support our local black farmers, and the black farmers market has some of the best farmers in the area. Perkins Orchard is another one of our favorites; we all love to visit that local orchard and take turns filling our $20 produce bag. Best deal in town. I get a little excited when I see pictures of their yellow watermelons on Instagram.”

“Tori is a sucker for a good steak, and NanaSteak’s prime rib holds a special place in her heart. At Alley Twenty Six, we start with a cheese platter and order the steak frites. We also really love the porchetta and baked potato gnocchi at Mothers and Sons.”

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