Puerto Viejo found a supportive community after it reopened. Photo courtesy of Puerto Viejo

On weekend nights, Puerto Viejo is often packed with a mixed crowd. Many stay for hours, sipping sangría or a traditional Dominican drink like morir soñando (a milk and orange juice sweet drink), while chatting with friends or longtime restaurant staff.  

Heaps of sancocho, a stew of meat and root vegetables, and other popular dishes — rice and beans, yucca with chicharrones (fried pork rind), or steak sauteed with wine and onions — steam at wooden tables. 

The family-owned restaurant in Prospect Heights has been a community staple for almost four decades. It didn’t always have such a diverse customer base or one that lingered this long. But despite a fire destroying its dining room in 2011 and gentrification changing the neighborhood, the Abreu family, which founded the restaurant in 1986, has remained resilient. They adapted the business’ interiors and menus to invite more people to learn about the cuisine of their Dominican homeland. 

“To have such a long-standing restaurant still serving authentic food in this community that has gone through many changes, it’s a big sign of [perseverance],” says 44-year-old Maritza Abreu, the daughter of founders Cristina and Eduardo Abreu, now in charge of marketing and events for the family business. 

Yucca with chicharrones (fried pork rind) is one of the most popular dishes at Puerto Viejo. Photo courtesy of Puerto Viejo

The Abreu business origin story

Cristina Abreu worked in kitchens alongside her mother since they immigrated to New York City in 1976. Her husband, Eduardo Abreu, was a teacher and ran a lottery business in the Dominican Republic. 

The couple’s first venture was a small cuchifritos (fried food) eatery on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick. The neighborhood at that time was alive with Latin American mom-and-pop shops and street vendors. They were there for two years, but wanted a larger space, so they moved to their current location on Grand Avenue and Dean Street in Prospect Heights. They named the restaurant El Caribe. The area couldn’t be more different. Whereas their old store faced a school, the new place was surrounded by factories, auto shops, and taxi depots, but rent was cheap.

“When my father opened up the restaurant, that same day, he also opened up his first life insurance policy, because it was a very dodgy area,” Maritza says. “It was very industrial, and after 6 p.m., you didn’t want to be in the neighborhood.”

El Caribe initially only served takeout food to mostly blue-collar Latino customers. Orlando Cruz, a plumber who has been coming to their restaurant for over 30 years, says when he found out the menu wasn’t fixed, he started coming every time he did his work rounds.

“Being able to find the flavors I enjoy in this Dominican spot was a great find,” Cruz says. Cruz, who is Puerto Rican, likens the sazón here to the taste of his mother’s seasoning. 

“This used to be a hole in the wall,” he says. 

Orlando Cruz has been coming to Puerto Viejo for over 30 years. Credit: Ambar Castillo / Epicenter NYC

Back then, there wasn’t much inside: a jukebox and a smaller area to sit and wait for your order. Maritza remembers listening to some of her favorite songs from Marc Anthony’s first album play on that jukebox after school. It only cost a quarter to play a song, but it was another revenue stream for the Abreus. 

Their oldest son, Eduardo Abreu Jr., who works the front-of-house, started helping his dad behind the counter in his elementary years. While Maritza wasn’t encouraged to work in the restaurant as a kid, she found little ways to leave her mark on the business. One year in high school, she decorated the walls with pictures of their summer trips to the Dominican Republic. 

The Abreu family. Photo courtesy of Puerto Viejo

Forging ahead with a new Puerto Viejo

In 2011, El Caribe caught fire. The Abreus were forced to rebuild. Once cleaned, the debris from disturbed sheetrock gave way to a higher ceiling and beams. 

The younger Eduardo saw a clear message: it was time for a facelift. The neighborhood had already changed. There were fewer mechanics coming in to grab lunch. The community was now filled with condos, coffee shops and cafés. To survive amid the new, mostly white neighbors, Puerto Viejo had to adapt.  

He insisted his parents remodel the space to make it a sit-down restaurant. The beloved jukebox had to go to make room for tables. The bare-bones interior was replaced with wooden walls, eclectic furniture, and suitcases that evoked the spirit of Quisqueya, a Taíno Indian name for what is now the Dominican Republic. 

The business was remodeled after the fire. The interior design was informed by Quisqueya (Dominican) history. Photo courtesy of Puerto Viejo

Eduardo, Jr. hired a renowned architect from Costa Rica, Esteban Salazar, who happened to be visiting New York. The Abreus couldn’t afford to pay him what he typically charged, but the architect connected with the family’s story and took the project on. 

Over eight months, Salazar learned about the history of the Dominican Republic and its importance as a longtime port. The interior design includes details like the wheel of a ship, old empty bottles, a globe, and a collection of plants.  

New and old faces 

In 2012, the business reopened to a supportive community with a new name:Puerto Viejo, which means “old port.” 

Customers were welcomed to a space with soft lighting, candlelit tables, and a mix of salsa, merengue, and bachata music. 

“There was this one powerful moment when we reopened our doors after this fire and saw a full house,” Maritza says. “That moment to me was an awakening of the power of food and how it unites us all.”

To accommodate a new customer base of locals who lacked knowledge of Dominican cuisine, the Abreus built education into the business.

“People coming into the neighborhood weren’t familiar with Latin Caribbean flavors, or they expected it to be Mexican,” Maritza says. “They were coming in thinking they were gonna find nachos and margaritas.” 

So the Abreus wrote more descriptive menus. They paired certain dishes as they’re meant to be consumed. For instance, many newcomers didn’t know concón — the crust of crispy rice at the bottom of the pot — was supposed to be eaten with beans or bean broth. They would order it, listed as a side dish, and eat it by itself. The Abreus changed the menu listing so that concón would automatically come with beans. 

A side of rice accompanies the sancocho, a stew of meat and root vegetables. Credit: Ambar Castillo / Epicenter NYC

Maritza led the vision for the new menu. In addition to Dominican staples like traditional stewed chicken, the Abreus offered variations like chicken cutlets to make sure anyone who walked into the restaurant got what they needed.

They also recently added The Dominican Kitchen cookbook to the top of a stack of Whetstone magazines in the corner of the counter. 

The Dominican Kitchen cookbook sits atop the counter corner. Credit: Ambar Castillo / Epicenter NYC

Customers who like their food spicy ask for the family hot sauce, Pisqueya “Smoky Hot,” made with Caribbean-grown scotch bonnet pepper. In 2018, Maritza bottled up the family recipe and started her own hot sauces and seasonings company, Pisqueya. She now regularly supplies the family restaurant with Pisqueya products. Maritza attributes her own entrepreneurial spirit to her parents. 

Some of Maritza Abreu’s Pisqueya products. Credit: Ambar Castillo / Epicenter NYC

Eduardo Sr. retired from the business a few years ago but his wife, Cristina, continues to work. She and Eduardo Jr. are there six days a week managing the restaurant. Cristina loves what she does, even though working with people isn’t always easy, she says. But she doesn’t feel like anyone else will look after her patrons the way she does. That passion for customers is shared by the entire family. 

“I love putting smiles on faces and showcasing our culture,” says Eduardo Jr. 

Cristina Abreu (shown here) and her son Eduardo, Jr. (not shown here) work behind the counter every day. Credit: Ambar Castillo / Epicenter NYC

Longtime customers are still coming to Puerto Viejo. Eri Lajara, who lives in Long Island, has been a fan since before the fire. “The reason I come is because they cook homemade — the best mondongo,” he says, referring to a Dominican tripe stew. “And they’re so family oriented.” 

Cristina says she sometimes gets visits from people she knew as children; they’ll ask for a Half & Half drink the business used to sell in its early days. Families will stop by to reminisce. 

“It’s an example of what tenacity, dedication, and hard work can become,” Maritza said. “Before it was just a place for sustenance for both my family and the people that would come to the restaurant. Now it’s a place of celebration and family legacy and also a showcase of deep cultural roots in the heart of New York City.” 

Puerto Viejo

564 Grand Ave, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238

Phone: (718) 398-3758

Menu: puertoviejony.com

Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

(Closed Sundays)

This post has been updated.

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