Seattle >El Pilon
Great Puerto Rican Cuisine Arrives in Seattle.
El Pilon Restaurant in Columbia City (5303 Rainier Ave S) is a sweet little eatery dedicated to the cuisine of Puerto Rico. Now, Puerto Rican cuisine is a weakness of mine because it’s a family tradition, but for whatever reason, outside of Puerto Rico or some Puerto Rican mother’s kitchen, it’s virtually impossible to acquire.
Real Puerto Rican cuisine is simple but savory and clearly a product of a sun-drenched, music and dance-filled island. Unlike other Latin cuisines, the seasoning is pronounced but not overpowering, complementing the base ingredients perfectly and allowing their flavors to shine through. And at its foundation reside two key components, the biggest challenge to get right, rice and beans. Ideally the rice is boiled, not steamed, with enough oil added that each grain is firm, separate and slightly nutty in taste. The beans may be one of several varieties but should be tender, yet whole, and long-simmered in a sauce flavored with onion, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, cilantro and perhaps a few other secret ingredients.
All that said, El Pilon has hit the nail on the head in a way that a couple other Seattle restaurants have attempted but failed at, usually because of the wrong ingredients, sticky Chinese-restaurant style rice or insistence on rolling in other Caribbean influences (e.g. Jamaican) that just don’t mix right, tho delicious in their own right.
El Pilon is run by long-time Seattleite Luis Vega, a Puerto Rican transplant and is staffed by family members. His mother Marta is executive chef and does most of the cooking along with his daughter—like I said, real Puerto Rican food only comes out of a mom’s kitchen.
The menu is small but has a great variety of classic dishes, all accompanied by rice and beans (arroz con habichuelas) that only years of practice and tradition could have perfected.
We tried four dishes, all of which were delicious and genuine: bacalao guisado (salt cod, stewed with vegetables in a rich sauce), pollo guisado (chicken, stewed like the bacalao, bistec encebollado (steak fried with onions) and pollo asado (roasted, marinated chicken), all accompanied by tostones, green plantains, pressed and fried, the Puerto Rican version of French fries.
The décor is simple with the walls decorated with artwork from Puerto Rico, including ceremonial masks made of calabash gourd shells—for sale. Puerto Rican music plays on the sound system. If you’ve ever been to the island, you’ve dined in a restaurant just like this one, but with perhaps a few palm trees outside.
We look forward to our next dinner courtesy of the Vega family. I am overjoyed that a restaurant in Seattle has finally arrived to put great Puerto Rican cuisine at the forefront of its efforts, without trying to be trendy or hip. Just plain, honest comfort food that makes you wish you’d discovered it sooner.
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