Empire of the Plantain: One Family's Mission to Make the New American Fast Food
When Liliana Velasquez opened the first Patacon Pisao (née "El Dugout") in 2005, her dreams were modest. She didn't realize that her little food cart serving Venezuelan sandwiches would be the first of a local chain, one that today is on the verge of going bi-costal.
After years of working and saving in the restaurant industry, Mrs. Velasquez wanted to be her own boss. And she yearned to bring the food of her birthplace, the coastal city of Maracaibo, Venezula, to New York. That meant the patacon, a sandwich in which twice-fried green plantains are smashed thin to take the place of bread. They're then stuffed with meat, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and sauce.
Her sandwiches are late night booze-sponge gold. The plantain, she realized, is the great equalizer across much of Latin America, enough so that her Dominican friends convinced Velasquez, who lives in Maspeth, to open her cart on 202nd Street in Washington Heights. There, they said, she could serve Dominican clubbers spilling out of the hottest nightclub in town.
Mrs. Velasquez never imagined her cart would be more than a modest neighborhood snack for late-night revelers. But her son Jonathan Hernandez did. "I want [the patacon] to be the next taco. When people leave the bar, I want them to think, 'do I want a taco, a gyro, a pizza, or a patacon?'" He knew it could be more than "just for Hispanic people."
He was just a freshman at the University of Buffalo when his mother started her business. Four years later, the truck was blowing up with write ups on blogs and from Dave Cook in the New York Times. After that review, Cook observed the patacon sweep other restaurants in the neighborhood.
"I only saw the big potential once we got the calls for interviews from bloggers and we got an addressed letter from the Vendy Awards. They wanted us to be part of this!" Hernandez said. He had ambitions to put his urban planning and geography degree to work for the Parks Department, but "I was ready, I was about to graduate, and I said, 'let me join this business.'"
"I wanted to get on it before someone else got the glory for something they didn't start. My mom didn't see what I could see: more than just the Heights, more than just Dominicans."
Getting her to buy into his vision for Patacon Pisao has been an uphill battle. Hernandez and his mother have fought over issues as small as napkins and as central as menu design. Another major sparring match: whether or not to open a brick and mortar restaurant.
For three years, Velasquez used a storefront on Grand Street in Elmhurst as her commissary kitchen. When the Times review came out, Hernandez finally convinced her to open it as a restaurant. "Once we opened it, everyone came."
Elmhurst, an ethnic melting pot even by Queens standards, draws immigrants from Thailand, China, Argentina, Nepal, and Poland. The restaurant became a proving ground for the patacon's broader appeal. The verdict? "Come in here on a Sunday and the place is packed with Chinese people. The demographic of people that come here is everybody," Hernandez said.
The family's next step is the Lower East Side, where their shop will open next month. Hernandez says they will open one more location in New York, but not in Brooklyn, where he says everything goes too fast and you don't get enough foot traffic for your money—they'll probably return to their roots in Morningside Heights.
And after that? California within the next five years.
Hernandez is coy about a specific city, but he's also looking beyond the US, considering offers to open in South America. But he still wants people to know where he came from. "I just want to be Patacon Pisao. I want people to be like, 'this started as a food truck and it's different from any other Venezuelan joint out there."
"I'm trying to change the way people see Latin food. The average person, when they think Latin food, they think Mexican food right away. But there's more to it than just that."
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.