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By Edwin Goei
Photo by Jessica CalkinsThe autographed pictures dotting Señor Big Ed's kitchen wall qualify the Cypress eatery as a Puerto Rican Hall of Fame. Anaheim Angels catcher Bengie Molina? He's there. So are boxer Felix Trinidad, golfer Chi Chi Rodríguez, even actor Jimmy Smits. They smile from their frames, thanking Señor Big Ed for its many borinquen dishes and fostering an ambience that represents, as Smits' inscription states, "the best of our island in Southern California."
A taste of Señor Big Ed's food, a listen to the chatter and a look around the dining room confirm Smits' claim. Across the walls hang paintings, photographs and other random doodads from Old San Juan, the section of Puerto Rico's capital where owner Rafael Rodríguez was born. Old San Juan occupies the same spot in the Latin American heart that Paris once did for lovelorn Americans–until we got war-drunk, that is–and mournful boleros float through Señor Big Ed's stiff air, bouncing off the colonial-style tiles and delicate curtains. Ignore bustling Lincoln Avenue outside, and you can almost imagine the island transplanted to this pedacitoof Orange County's industrial-park northwest.
Señor Big Ed has been open for about 22 years, but at first served only Mexican food. Rodríguez, the good culinary capitalist that he is, added a Puerto Rican section to the restaurant's menu about nine years ago after taking too many futile requests from fellow commonwealth expats aching for their native cuisine, rare in Southern California. Rodríguez's expansion proved deliciously successful, and now his countrymen experience the patriathrough familiar but intrinsically peculiar plates.
Puerto Rican cuisine owes more to Southern soul than Latin America–hearty, heavy dishes exhibiting a wisp of the tropics, the soul of Africa and a tasty, solid plainness that recalls the best German grub. Ask for some hot sauce and the puzzled waitresses–the waitstaff are all women–present a bottle of Tapatío with the advice that Puerto Rican food is best untouched by spices; leave the heat for the Mexican menu.
Many of the entrées Señor Big Ed prepares owe nothing to the island's Hispanic traditions. What Latin America calls tamales Puerto Rico deems pasteles, and the dry, starchy affairs made of plantain or yucca masa here seem better suited for a Delta dinner. The mofongo relleno is an oily cylindrical mush of plantains and chicken, pork, or beef squished so fine that all that's left of the meat are hair-like strands; it recalls the lumpy Western African delight fufu. And Señor Big Ed's plato de resistance, the canoa de plátano maduro, is a banana bloated with so much ground beef and melted Cheddar cheese that it looks like a quesadilla for Horatio Sanz.
A better way to experience Señor Big Ed is to follow the Puerto Rican obsession of creating a dinner out of several appetizers. One platter, for instance, matches a relleno de papa–a mashed potato ball deep-fried around a ground beef ball so that the outer shell achieves a crispy brown crust–with a pastelillo, a severely flaky turnover stuffed with shredded beef and a coating of molten cheese hugging the crust. Or you can take the pastelillo and accompany it with an alcapurria, Puerto Rico's most vibrant contribution to the world after boogaloo. A banana fritter crammed with minty ground beef, the alcapurria is unobtrusive–fried and milky sweet. Ordering only appetizers ensures a relatively light, cheap meal with various tastes as added bonus. A side order of gandules (Spanish rice pickled with pigeon peas) or bland habichuela beans accompanies the appetizer plates; better to request some smoked tostones instead.
Señor Big Ed morphs into old Puerto Rico on Friday nights. The old and young play dominoes, badger the house band for long-forgotten tunes and eat at all times with the drive of Tito Puente. Eventually, someone requests "En Mi Viejo San Juan," a bolero that makes any true borinquen bawl. "One afternoon I left/to that strange country [the U.S.]/Well, destiny wanted it," the room will cry in unison. "But my heart/stayed next to the sea/In my Old San Juan." Rodríguez makes sure to sop up the tears with a bite.Señor Big Ed, located at 5490 Lincoln Ave., Cypress, (714) 821-1290, is open Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $12-$24, excluding drinks. Beer, wine. All major credit cards accepted.