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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    A taste of Puerto Rico at Ocean Beach Park

    Annettte Maldonado and her husband, Hector, of Newington eat empanadas from the El Bori food truck while others wait in line during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    People wait in long lines to place orders at the food trucks during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Lucrecia Sosa gets customers orders ready in the El Pinto Del Sabor food truck during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Tyrisha Strong, center, and her daughter, Talia Hill, 13, right, and her friend, Olivia Curry, 14, left, all of New London, eat birria tacos and tostones during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Don Silva, co-owner of Bebo’s BBQ, a Spanish-style BBQ, takes pincho kabobs, a marinated smoked chicken, out of the smoker during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    People wait to pickup or wait to place their orders at the El Bori food truck during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Fried plantain, top left, and fried pork, from El Punto Del Labor, during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Family members and a friend, center, share a bowl of Toast Crunch caramel ice cream waffle bowl from Sweet Ness Bites food truck during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    People wait in line or look at the menu for the El Bori food truck during the Borikén Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Ocean Beach Park in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London ― The smells of salt air and suntan lotion floating in from Ocean Beach Park faced stiff competition Saturday afternoon from the scents of seasoned pork, fried plantains and simmered beans wafting from a line of food trucks specializing in Puerto Rican fare.

    The third annual Borikén Festival – it's second at the park – featured jibaro, or mountain, music played on the cuarto guitar, along with bomba stylings created by West African slaves 400 years ago on the island’s coastal sugar plantations.

    But it was the food that was the biggest draw of the day, with lines of patrons 20-deep queuing up for containers of empanadas, chicken kebabs and potato balls.

    From the counter of his El Bori food truck, Hartford resident Henry Ocasio passed over orders of bori bread, puffed dough topped with chicken or pork and slathered with a layer with aioli or barbecue sauce.

    “There’re not many places that serve traditional Puerto Rican food,” said Ocasio, who learned his way around a kitchen at the feet of his grandmother and aunts, all native to Puerto Rico. “Whenever I’m stuck on a recipe, I’ll call one of them up and ask what I forgot.”

    Over at the El Punto Del Sabor truck, where glass bottles of raspberry soda shared space with merengue versions, Luis Barrero and his wife, Migdalia Pinto, carried away cartons of plantains and chicken skewers.

    The couple, both originally from Puerto Rico and now living in Springfield, Mass., saw a flyer for Saturday’s festival and drove the 90 minutes to New London.

    “There’s not a lot of events like this, places where you can take part in the culture, the music and the food,” Barrero said. “And if you can find a pop-up place selling Puerto Rican food, it won’t stay around too long.”

    For Pinto, the day was an opportunity to indulge in some nostalgia.

    “It’s like a taste of the island right here,” she said.

    Willie Quiñones, whose organization Borikén United of Eastern Connecticut hosted the festival, said the Puerto Rican culture puts a premium on its food.

    “It goes hand in hand with everything, like our music,” he said, polishing off a paper plate piled with white rice, beans and pork shoulder. “It’s how our mothers showed their love, through cooking.”

    Quiñones said arranging the right caterers for the event, expected to draw more than 6,000 guests, was no easy task, as the demand for authentic Puerto Rican food is high. He noted the park’s concession area jumped in to show support by offering several special dishes with a Puerto Rican flair.

    As musicians tuned up and Puerto Rican pageant queens from across the state adjusted sashes, Vanessa Santiago was doing a brisk business at her admittedly non-Latin dessert truck, Sweetness Bites.

    Santiago, a New Haven resident originally from Puerto Rico, said she came up with the idea of a mini-Dutch pancake truck while suffering pregnancy cravings four years ago.

    “It’s pretty European, but I saw no one was offering this kind of food,” she said in front of a menu listing toppings ranging from marshmallow sauce and hot fudge to candy pieces and fresh fruit. “The best thing about this event is seeing all the people enjoying themselves. It’s got a vibe like back home.”

    j.penney@theday.com

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