On the street: Latin Flava serving up tastes of Puerto Rico

Hector Aponte is in good position to put the yuca relleno on the local fast track -- in foot-traffic heaven near bus stops in the heart of the Cultural District.

The 4-by-10-foot food trailer he owns and operates with partner Barbara Balcita offers Pittsburgh a rare commodity -- the taste of Puerto Rico -- from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, across from Katz Plaza on Penn Avenue.

As opposed to food trucks, which are regulated by the city to stay a prescribed distance from permanent restaurants and relocate every 30 minutes, the food cart scene is a more-or-less permanent sidewalk affair, determined by lottery and a growing Downtown.

"This is our spot until we give it up," said Mr. Aponte, a Brooklyn native of Puerto Rican parents. "This site was on the list [as available] in January." Another Downtown vendor told him that "if I can get it I should grab it," he said. "This is a hot spot."

The yuca relleno, a deep-fried patty made with the mashed root vegetable cassava, known in Latin America as yuca, is a regular item at Aponte's Latin Flava, as are chicken and beef empanadas. Every day there is also a rotating special. A special of beans and rice with steak and onion in red sauce sold out the other day by 12:30 p.m., he said.

Mr. Aponte's trailer is one of 265 food trucks and trailers that operate under permit by the Allegheny County Health Department. That number is up from 2011, when 220 mobile vendor permits were issued, said Guillermo Cole, health department spokesman.

In 2012, the number jumped to 243 and this year to 265, he said. Among this number, 77 are inside Heinz Field, PNC Park, Consol Energy Center and Peterson Events Center.

He said he could not break down the numbers to indicate where the growth is greatest, "but anecdotally, Downtown" is the growth area.

When mobile vendors are in the city, they are additionally regulated by the Bureau of Building Inspection, but trailers, or food carts, go through the vetting process of the Department of Public Works to locate on sidewalks, said Mary Fleming, assistant chief of the bureau.

When a vendor leaves a site, it may come up for grabs in the annual lottery. This is how Mr. Aponte got the spot he holds, and he can hold it indefinitely. It costs $25 to get into the lottery and the annual operating fee is $711.

Mr. Aponte has been in the food business most of his adult life as the proprietor of restaurants in Florida and Pennsylvania. He operated the Latrobe restaurant in New York City, where he had 32 employees, before taking to the food cart.

A cart is easier to control with less overhead, he said.

"It's a one- or two-person show and you can make sure things are done the way you want them done," he said.

Regular customers include students from the Vet-Tech Institute on Seventh Avenue and U.S. Army recruiters from a nearby office, he said. One recent lunch hour, John Hancock of McCandless, a first-timer, stopped and ordered $10 worth of takeout, some to share with Downtown office mates.

"What can I get for you?" Mr. Aponte asked.

"I'll have one of each -- the papa relleno and yucca relleno," Mr. Hancock said. "And a chicken empanada."

He said he walked up the street to the food cart after seeing that the Istanbul Grille was closed. "I've never had Puerto Rican food before, but I'm adventurous."

"Oh, you'll like it," Mr. Aponte told him.

One day this summer, Juanita Torres, a Puerto Rican-born former translator for Mellon Bank, looked out her apartment window in the Century Building, "and I thought I was seeing things," she said. "There was a cart with a Puerto Rican flag on it. I said to my sister, 'I have to check this out.' I could almost taste empanadas just thinking about it."

She went out to the cart, said good morning in Spanish to Mr. Aponte, "and I haven't cooked since," she said, laughing. "I look out in the morning and if he's here I bring him a Thermos of Spanish coffee."

She related conversations she has had with customers who misunderstand the differences among Latin American food.

Puerto Rican food "is not spicy or salty," she said. "People stop here asking for tacos, thinking it's the same as Mexican and it's nothing like Mexican," she said. "People have even asked for hot dogs! Do they see hot dogs on that menu?"

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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