El Pilon Criollo
973 North Clinton Avenue
Rochester, NY 14621
There are many reasons to go to El Pilon: a chance to get authentic food in large portions, its pretty cheap, and its clean, as well as a nicely lit take out spot, definitely. However the biggest reason has to do with tasting the culture of 30,000 of our Rochester community. And then there are the pasteles…
So, in SF, I had a unique kind of tamale for Christmas from Guatemala, filled with chicken but cooked inside a banana leaf instead of a corn husk. Available only during Christmas in Guatemala, it was the one time that they would chop up a chicken, bones and all, to make these tamales. The rest of the year, beans and rice were the staples for the majority.
Imagine my surprise then when walking into El Pilon Criollo, a Puerto Rican restaurant, to discover what appeared to be Guatemalan tamales, and in Rochester, where I am pressed to find passable tacos. I was quickly and lovingly corrected: these were pasteles: made with pork and green banana masa, and boiled rather than steamed.
But that was far from the only thing at this smorgasbord: a counter filled with aromas and bright colored foods, I happily also ordered the stewed chicken in the small container to go with my pasteles. That remains my recommendation here, in general, get the stewed! I have since had the baked chicken and the roast pork. Skip them, there are better versions elsewhere. The sides include yellow rice, green beans, fried plantains, cassava or mangu (mashed plantains similar to mashed potatoes).
There are 3 sizes, small ($5), medium ($7) and the I can eat for a few meals large ($9). I usually skip the larger sizes, because besides already getting pasteles, the medium comes with salad. I don’t want salad at El Pilon. I do not come to have lettuce and tomato with some sort of dressing. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get the large and just gorge on the extra.
If you go on a Saturday, you can also have Mofongo, fried green plantains mashed in a pilón; hence the name, El Pilon Criolli or the Spanish Mortar. This differs from the mangu which is much plainer by adding garlic, broth, meat, and sauce. They also carry fritters filled with a variety of sweet and savory items as well as sandwiches.
Go to El Pilon, not only because it can fill your belly for the same cost as Nick Tahou’s but with less heartburn and more complex flavor, but also, taste Rochester’s most important living legacy: its inhabitants. Puerto Ricans are a large almost invisible part of this community except when the festival happens. Then, traditionally, anything bad that happens at the Puerto Rican festival is blamed on the Puerto Rican community, but anything bad at the St. Patrick’s Parade is just a few bad apples, not the Irish population. To know people, begin by experiencing their culture and history. You will taste not only food, but the possibility of what Rochester is and can be. Integration does not threaten what we have but expands what we can be. Eating is a pretty lovely way to humanize a divided city that is poorer for the lines between the people living here.