Kristine M Kierzek
Back in 1994, Manuel Perez opened Playa Cafe, 1330 S. Chavez Drive, specializing in the Puerto Rican foods he knew and loved. Back in San Juan, her mother ran a bakery, and he learned from her both his work ethic and recipes from her.
For more than two decades, his family-run restaurant near South 16th Street and Greenfield Avenue has been a stop for carry-out favorites, including the Tripleta, a sandwich with pastrami, ham and steak. The pastrami is a favorite of Perez’s.
He spends hours prepping his meats and brining before cooking anything for a customer. The menu also features Puerto Rican favorites including alcapurrias (plantain with meat), sorullos with cheese and guava paste, pastelillos (handheld pastry with fillings), tostones (fried plantains), and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). The Playa Special is a sandwich loaded with turkey, pastrami, salami, ham and pork or chicken. Whole chickens are prepared and sold on Fridays and Saturdays only.
The restaurant is open from 9 am to 7 pm Monday through Saturday, with food prepared as you order. Perez takes pride in the quick turnaround for orders made fresh while you wait.
Last year, I added the Playa Cafe food truck. Outfitted in a former tool truck that was gutted and customized, it is a mobile kitchen outfitted with everything Perez needs to provide his entire menu. Most days, the truck featuring images of the Puerto Rican flag operates from 11 am to 9 pm and is parked in the area of South 34th and West Burnham streets.
Perez’s first language is Spanish, and he spoke with us with interpretation help from his son, Jose Massas-Caraballo, a South Division alumnus who spent hours in the restaurant while growing up down the block. Massas-Caraballo handles marketing for the restaurant in addition to running his own DJ business and working for an emergency services company in Rock County.
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His restaurant roots
Twenty-eight years ago my family and I decided to open Playa Cafe. I have always been passionate about cooking and serving. We like to work hard, and we do, but we love this restaurant and our community.
Where he learned to cook
I learned from my mother. She had a bakery in Puerto Rico, in San Juan. I absolutely learned to work hard from her. I started as a mop boy, and there is no doubt I gained my work ethic from her.
What he could eat every day
I love the pastrami sandwich. We do our own pastrami here. I could never give that up.
Most popular menu item
The Playa sandwich, the special. It has a total of seven meats, and people like the flavor. The Tripleta is also quite popular, and that is ham, steak and pastrami. and the steak sandwich. Those are the top three.
What sets their flavors apart
We make our own sofrito here, and that is from the family recipe. It is a base for a lot of Puerto Rican dishes. We also have a family recipe for mojito, a garlic sauce, and we use that in all the sandwiches as an ingredient. That garlic base makes things stand out.
Expanding their reach
The food truck we started this past year. We have had the truck for two years, but officially started this year with the truck. It took a lot of work to get it how it is now, with the inside set up so we can do everything. … The menu at the truck is the same as the restaurant. We had a larger menu, but now we have condensed it to fit both locations.
What defines their approach
Puerto Rican food is flavorful, it tastes good. The rice is super flavorful, and the pernil and steak, the meat choices are exquisite. You can choose between chicken, pork, steak and it flows with the rice, the flavors. You’ll never leave hungry.
all about rice
We always have arroz con gandules, a typical rice from Puerto Rico. It is made with pigeon peas. That is one thing people look for when they go to a Puerto Rican restaurant. We always have that, and lots of people come just for that.
Sweet and savory snacks
We have the alcapurrias, the pastelillos. One that is always popular is the sorullo with guavas. It is like a sweet corn (dough) with cheese and guava inside. The pastelillos and alcapurrias have meat inside, and they are definitely fried.
If he could only eat one thing
The pastrami, I could not give that up, and our steak sandwich.
Worth the work
Thesteak. I start with a big bowl of steak. That cures in a vinegar and oil mix, and some condiments. It is three hours of preparation just to cure it. That is a process, but it is worth the time. You can taste the difference in every bite.
Music and meals
We definitely have the music going. We want people to feel like they are in Puerto Rico, with the culture, the salsa. There is always music here. If you can’t travel to Puerto Rico, you feel it here.
What he wants to be known for
Small but delicious, that’s us. Any person who comes here we hope really enjoys the food. We have a good amount of regulars. That’s from a combination of good food and customer service. This is all family run and we are proud of that.
The philosophy of pa’lante
We’ve been here 28 years, and we always get back up. Forward, as they say in Puerto Rico. We have to just keep moving forward. That’s what we do.
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