In front of me, along a wall of racks of giant pots, is a small, discreet statue of the Virgin Mother above a fishing boat standing next to a municipally-mandated food allergy poster that I’m almost certain is tolerated only because the yellow matches the hue of the Hickory 6.5, the magical rotisserie that pumps out Casa Adela’s mania-inducing chicken. I am here on a mini-tour, conducted during a somewhat quiet hour of a scorching Tuesday morning. At this point in the day, Adela Fargas has been here for several hours. She is in every day at 5 a.m. to cook the pernil, a gorgeous hunk of pork shoulder that is lovingly massaged and therefore bears the very special toque, that touch that brings hordes of adoring fans to Casa Adela seven days a week from near and very far. This tour, both culinary and historical begins as most good Puerto Rican food does, with a sofrito. On the back left burner of a gas range sits a heavy iron pot with no handles, a stainless mixing bowl nestled on top. When removed it reveals what is left of the day’s sofrito; red and thick, as full of life force, purpose and very specific DNA as the blood running through our veins, it is the only secret Adela will admit to. She doesn’t have to mention the million others, which are not as tangible, identifiable or specific, but just as palpable and real.
She is telling me the story of coming here. To New York City. To the Lower East Side. To Loisaida. When Adela came here in the 1970s at 37 years old, she already had a family in a city in the north of Puerto Rico along the Atlantic Ocean. I follow her from sofrito to salon, where the tables are adorned with plexiglassed-in placemats illustrated with colorful Puerto Rican history, sayings and maps. On the largest of the six tables in the restaurant, which could seat at the most 8, is a map of Puerto Rico, it’s plantains, avocados, palm trees and coquis.
The top of the map says “Mi Cocina.” This could be interpreted as the cocina of a people, Puerto Rico, or a person who is showing me that town right now, a place called Carolina not far from San Juan. As she bent over, studying the map from behind her smart black-framed glasses she explained that she came here to work in a factory, leaving her family temporarily behind. Her plan was that they would join her, which they did. What she never, in her wildest dreams had planned, was to have a restaurant oddered her that would welcome more family, mostly adopted for better or for worse over the years by the Fargas/Rivera family.
She had always cooked. Her mother showed her everything from the aforementioned sofrito to an array of classic Boricua dishes, like soulful oxtail sancocho, traditional Christmastime pasteles and perfect rice and beans. When she came to the Avenue C area there was already a strong and growing network of Puerto Ricans, many from Carolina and San Juan. While this Nuyorican community didn’t inspire a Broadway musical a la “West Side Story,” the Lower East Side story has been told many times over by poets and artists. Casa Adela’s walls are covered with photos by photographer Marlis Momber, showing the neighborhood over the years, including one of a younger Adela, ruling over a giant pot of rice in Casa Adela’s first incarnation two blocks away.
At about that time the neighborhood had been hit harder than most New York City neighborhoods with crime, poverty and derelict buildings. Most of the city was decidedly dangerous. Through all of it, through blackouts and burning cars, Adela opened a small restaurant and made the dishes that she always had. And people who, like her, were new to this city and without family were welcomed with a cafecito or a freshly fried chuleta.
Many of the same people still come. They may have since moved to New Jersey, Brooklyn, London, but they come back. I saw this as people passed through, hugging and joking with Luis Rivera, Adela’s son and default general manager, or greeting the wait staff and counter people whom they have known for years and who never end up working anywhere else after they start at Adela. This seems to be what might happen to Gadriel Rivera, Fargas’ nineteen year-old grandson, who many nights is the smiling face behind the counter. He explains that he wants to go to culinary school and keep cooking the food he learned from his grandmother, growing up beneath the aforementioned rotisserie that calls from inside the great glass windows that both brighten the block and illuminate the inside with their elegant script, “Casa Adela, Cafe Restaurant, Authentic Puerto Rican Cuisine.”
These days, you’re maybe more likely to find a wine bar than a bodega and hear as much German and Japanese on Avenue C as you are the particular brand of Borinquen Spanglish that as of 1992 inspired the newly-official name of Avenue C, “Loisaida Avenue,” thanks to a poem by Nuyorican Poets’ Society legend Bimbo Rivas. However, here she is. Every day. Even during her tenth, twelfth, thirteenth hour at the restaurant, when she is no longer looking after the breakfast, lunch and dinner customers along with her army of devoted staff. She is there, seated beneath a television blaring Don Francisco or Casa Cerrado, or some of her other favorite telenovelas. She might be griping or gossiping with long-time friends and neighbors or quietly scratching off lottery tickets with the same skill and intention as she squeezes oranges for one of the most delicious Morir Soñando in the city. When asked what she might do with the money if she won the lottery, Gadriel guesses that she would probably do the same thing she does every day. And that is to wake up at 4 a.m. to arrive at her Cocina—her Casa, and everyone’s