At Casa Borinqueña, everything on the menu is vegan, including this classic plate of pastelillos, "chicken" and arroz con gandules. (Nicola Parisi)
When you step inside Lourdes Marquez-Nau’s new restaurant, Casa Borinqueña, you'll see Puerto Rican art hanging on its bright yellow walls, pilónes (indigenous wooden mortars) on the countertop and other cultural artifacts spread around the restaurant. You'll see photographs that the chef captured — street scenes and beach landscapes in El Viejo San Juan and her hometown of Camuy. Even the restaurant’s logo is a statement of Puerto Rican pride: It’s a mock-up of Marquez-Nau’s grandmother’s home on the island.
What you won’t find at Casa Borinqueña, however, is any meat on the menu.
Since 2018, Marquez-Nau, who also goes by Chef Lulu, has offered vegan options at her pop-ups, especially after she adopted a vegan diet herself during the pandemic. But, the chef’s new North Oakland location will be a 100% plant-based Puerto Rican restaurant — the first of its kind in the Bay Area.
In the classic image of a Puerto Rican meal, a hefty amount of juicy, marinated meat gets paired with rice and beans. Casa Borinqueña was no different when it first started out.
At her pop-ups and catering gigs around the Bay Area, Marquez-Nau’s popular dishes included her arroz mamposteao (a Puerto Rican fried rice made with smoked ham or bacon) and her pernil, the cuisine’s famous slow-roasted marinated pork. These classics were some of the chef’s own childhood favorites, after all.
During the pandemic, however, Marquez-Nau started reflecting on her health and the way her body was feeling. “I just said, ‘It’s time to start cutting things out of my diet,’” Marquez-Nau shares. “It was about my health and me not being able to [simply] go to the gym.” Fast forward to 2020, and the chef cut all animal products out of her diet. For a while she still served meat dishes at her pop-up, but in time the chef felt it was important to have her business honestly reflect who she was. She decided to make Casa Borinqueña completely vegan.
For Marquez-Nau, the process of veganizing traditionally Puerto Rican recipes hasn’t been as difficult as you might predict. She explains that the base of all Puerto Rican cuisine isn’t the meat itself but the sofrito — a mixture of herbs and vegetables combined with cooking oil to enhance the flavor of almost every dish.
“Meat doesn’t have a flavor. We introduce the flavor,” says Marquez-Nau. “The texture of the meat may be different, but the flavor is there. It's a matter of having the same approach [when cooking vegan food].”
The chef still infuses each dish with sofrito and sources 75% of her ingredients from Puerto Rico. The only difference is that Marquez-Nau now uses meat alternatives like the soy-based ones made by Impossible Foods.
“I wanted to stay traditional, so I treat vegan meat similar to how I would treat regular meat,” she shares. “Whatever [seasonings] I would use on my pork, I now use on my vegan pork.”
Now that she has a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Marquez-Nau will expand Casa Borinqueña’s menu with new items such as plant-based pastelón (a multi-layered dish akin to a Puerto Rican plantain lasagna), coffee sourced from the island and a kind of sweet, coiled pastry called pan de Mallorca. She’ll also serve the creamy coconut drink known as a coquito — an alcohol-free version until the restaurant receives its beer-and-wine license.
Part of Marquez-Nau’s motivation in opening the restaurant is how common health issues like diabetes and high cholesterol are within the Latin American community, much of which doesn’t have access to healthcare. Genetics contribute to this, but Marquez-Nau believes excessive meat consumption is also a big factor. That’s why she’s dedicated to making her plant-based food accessible to everyone, especially communities of color. After all, vegan food can cost a pretty penny. In hopes of helping to bridge that gap, the restaurant will implement a “Pay What You Can Tuesday” when it will serve dishes on a voluntary donation basis.
“There's a huge disparity between healthy eating and communities of color because they can’t have access to healthy food,” says Marquez-Nau. “Why shouldn't we give back as a vegan community?”
Although her transition to becoming a vegan chef has had a positive effect on Marquez-Nau’s well-being, she has often felt unsupported by her community. The responses she received from Puerto Ricans ranged from “how dare you do this to Puerto Rican cuisine” to "your business isn’t going to be successful.” At times, she felt as though she had been rejected from her own culture.
“It was just so negative. This was a difficult time in my life when I was going through a transition, and that feedback was really bad for me,” Marquez-Nau shares. “It had me questioning everything I was doing.”
Still, the chef stayed devoted to her plant-based brainchild, and, as a silver lining, she found that she had been embraced by a new group of people: vegans. “I got away from that and moved forward,” the chef says. “Whoever respects me and welcomes me are my kind of people.”
For now, Marquez-Nau says, Casa Borinqueña is only being held back by the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health, which has kept the restaurant in limbo for the past six months. She’s hopeful, however, that she’ll be able to welcome the community into the space by the end of this year.
In the meantime, starting on Nov. 3, Casa Borinqueña will serve dinner three nights a week out of Planted Table, a plant-based meal delivery company based in Oakland’s Jack London neighborhood.
When the restaurant is finally able to hold its grand opening, Marquez-Nau plans to invite locals to celebrate not just Puerto Rican flavors but also the culture’s overall essence. There will be live bomba, drum circles and, of course, plenty of delicious vegan food.
“I want people to come and think this place feels like a home.”
Casa Borinqueña will open at 6211 Shattuck Ave. in Oakland in late 2022. Starting on Nov. 3, Marquez-Nau will offer both dine-in and pick-up service Thursday through Saturday, 5 p.m.–10 p.m., at Planted Table (550 2nd St., Oakland).
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