El Nuevo Frutilandia is figuring out what it means to be "nuevo" again, changing ownership after over 30 years on 24th Street. Long ago an ice cream and shake shop, Frutilandia now serves up an array of Puerto Rican and Cuban specialties -- something of a rarity in San Francisco. A slew of seasonal shakes and juices are still on the menu, made from a variety of fresh fruits including Puerto Rican guanabana (kind of apricot-like, and fun to say) and mamey (a nuttier fruit with a denser consistency).
Though neither the previous owners nor the new proprietors, Rafael and Tyrisha Frias, hail from the Caribbean isles, Frutilandia remains an outpost of Caribbean cuisine. The chef, Gary Millar, who had done some cooking for Frutilandia before but has now come on full time, is from northern Puerto Rico. Millar grew up cooking with his mother, and suffuses the menu with the comfort of good home cooking.
A simple, chicken soup with large pieces of carrot and zucchini simmered in a flavorful broth was delicious -- inspiring something of a Proustian moment for the chicken soup your grandmother used to make. If your grandmother had been Puerto Rican and not just heating up bowls of Campbell's.
The rest of our meal at El Nuevo Frutilandia on their opening day this Wednesday, while not quite as poetic, was certainly satisfying. Frias waited attentively on tables, eager to elaborate on the menu, reference her experience in Cuba when she traveled there with a dance group. She hand blended our shakes, momentarily drowning out the lively salsa that played in the background.
Plantains and yucca are the center pieces of Caribbean cuisine. They made their way onto the menu fried into savory or sweet fritters, mashed and stuffed with meat for an alcapurria or ground into the masa for a puertorriqueño, something of a Puerto Rican-style tamale.
The fried sweet plantains, a typical snack both Cuba in Puerto Rico, were our favorite. The sweet emulsion of banana, oil, and a crisped exterior had us licking our fingers. The Cuban sandwich was also delicious. The roasted pork, however, didn't stand alone as well as it did smothered in mustard and pressed between pickles, swiss cheese, and ham. The roasted pork on the entree platter, outshone by the beans and rice that accompanied it, tasted slightly salty rather than of the pineapple and Caribbean marinade the menu promised.
In its transition, El Nuevo Frutilandia hopes to appeal to a younger crowd, using promotions like Yelp deals
. Though the new Frutilandia team has some fine-tuning to do, they certainly have the enthusiasm as they serve up Caribbean cuisine with the simple goal of "getting the word out that its delicious."