Rico and Evelyn Martinez are two of a kind. The gregarious owners of El Coqui, the charming little tortilleria/mofongeria, are as jovial a pair you'll ever meet, welcoming you as one of their own the moment you walk into the small, spotlessly clean dining room, then ushering you toward the wall-ensconced menu listing a modest selection of Puerto Rican and Mexican fare.
The odd pairing of cuisines is a reflection of Rico and Evelyn's odd pairing, and I mean that in the nicest way. He's from Mexico, she's Boricua, and that culture clash clearly parlays nicely in the kitchen. And though neither have any formal training, both are more than adept in the culinary arts; in fact, the couple established their cred hawking Puerto Rican and Mexican fare at the Downtown Farmers Market for the last four years, and with much success. Opening their own restaurant just seemed an eventuality ' a little green eventuality, as it turned out.
Evelyn's frog fixation lent to the café's green facade, as well as the colorful artwork depicting el coqui, a wee Puerto Rican tree frog so named for its high-pitched croak. A choice of three meats (none amphibian) is offered as a topping for Puerto Rico's national dish, mofongo. I can't say the dish of mashed green plantains has ever been a favorite of mine, but Evelyn's rendition ($8) was, by far, the best I've ever sampled. Not dry in the least, the dish sent forth a torrent of zesty bursts, twanging with the addition of capers and sliced green olives.
The saffron-hued chicken was properly moist and came lathered with a crunch of cabbage, carrot slivers, red peppers and onions. Preface the dish with a starter of bacalaítos ($5), puffy cod fritters that are wonderfully crisp and not fishy in the least, and you've got a representative sampling of a San Juan meal.
Not to be outdone, Rico exhibits a little mastery of the Mexican kind, and while the sopes ($4.50) lace the tongue in a blaze of chile chipotle chicken, the flavors of sautéed onions, queso and Rico's guacamole atop the handmade corn tortilla held their own. Best of all, the tortilla stayed crisp and didn't disintegrate under the hefty weight of the toppings. The guacamole, by the way, only served to fuel the blaze.
Guarache ($12), a protein-lover's tortilla manwich, could've very well been the meal of choice for builders of the temple at Tulum. With beefsteak, refried beans and two fried eggs layered between two tomatillo-sauced corn tortillas, it's a dish worthy of the hungriest of Mayans.
Patrons with a thirst for an alcoholic beverage won't find any here, though you're free to bring your own beer or bottle of wine, which they'll gladly uncork and possibly share with you. Don't be surprised if both Rico and Evelyn join you at your table and turn your meal into a fete of amusing yarns and familial conversation. It's just a part of their remarkably hospitable and ebullient nature, a nature they reveal in and out of the kitchen. The pair seems to challenge, support and feed off each other, all the while fostering a mood of mirth and merriment. Such exploits pay great dividends for diners at El Coqui.