Williamsburg’s last Puerto Rican restaurant will soon be saying, “Adios!”
Vecino Pizza and Restaurant’s proprietor is calling it quits after serving the neighborhood’s best rice and beans on Bedford Avenue for over 20 years.
Two “For Rent” signs are prominently displayed in the store’s windows, as its owner, Brunilda De Morena, explained to customers that she is retiring and looking to sell.
The decision has shocked regulars who stop in from 7:30 in the morning for oatmeal and empanadas to 8 at night for roasted pork with rice and $2 Coronas.
“There’s nothing like it on the Southside,” said Rob Solano, a member of Community Board 1. “It’s amazing how long it survived. Out of all the times that it has been there, this is when it should be flourishing.”
Long before trendy restaurants and bars began popping up on S. Fourth Street, Vecino’s was dishing out home-cooked food for neighborhood residents. Soon, it became the neighborhood’s unofficial community center that served the cheapest beer in Williamsburg and authentic dishes for homesick Brooklyn immigrants who missed the flavors of San Juan.
Twenty years later, the prices have remained low and the portions large, but rental prices on Bedford Avenue have risen considerably, contributing to De Morena’s decision to close.
Luis Garden Acosta, founder of his own community center three blocks away, El Puente, said he was “shocked” by the news. Last year, he worked with De Morena to renegotiate her lease for an additional five years, but De Morena changed to mind and decided to retire. De Morena did not return calls for comment.
Acosta, who lives two blocks away, called Vecino’s is the “last grassroots restaurant that our community has,” and praised its menu as “home cooking par excellence.”
“Most of us in the Latino community don’t eat at restaurants. If we go to takeout or a restaurant, it has to feel like home,” said Acosta. “The average working class Latino will never step into the places on Bedford, which are owned largely by the white upper middle class community. Everything else is more high end.”
While the opposite may be unlikely, Williamsburg’s newer residents, hipsters and families alike, are drawn to the Caribbean cuisine.
Southside resident Frank Smith said that his first takeout order when he moved to the neighborhood five years ago was from Vecino’s.
His order? Pork with rice and beans.
“It was some of the most delicious pernil that I have ever tried and more food than I could eat for $6.50,” said Smith.
Plates of mofongo de camarones (mashed plantains with shrimp), pernil asado (roast pork) and pollo guisado (chicken stew) as well as more unusual items such as mondongo (tripe stew), chicharrones de cerdo (fried pork skin) and ensalada de pulpo (octopus salad) continue to attract a diverse crowd throughout the day.
The mofongo with shrimp in particular is a knockout, and may be the best in Brooklyn. Sure, Pies ’n’ Thighs offers delicious fried chicken while Traif and Fatty Cue serve creative pork entrees, but the roast chicken and pork dishes at Vecino’s stand up to its newer neighbors offerings at a considerably lesser cost.
Unfortunately, it won’t for much longer. De Morena is entertaining offers for the place and wants to move back to Puerto Rico as soon as she can sell it. Until then, regulars are placing orders for pork with rice and beans and sipping Coronas, hoping to enjoy one last summer on South Fourth and Bedford.
“What else do you expect?” said one customer. “Puerto Ricans. Rice and beans. Spanish Food. This is what it’s all about.”
Vecino Pizza and Restaurant [139 S. Fourth St. Williamsburg (718) 387-2675] 7:30 am-8 pm.