Twenty percent of the world’s countries are represented among the people of Blackstone Valley, and the area’s restaurants reflect that cornucopia of cultures, says James Toomey, director of marketing for Blackstone Valley Tourism. “Our restaurants tell the story of the people who are here, and that story has evolved over hundreds of years,” he says.
The area’s diversity is largely due to northern Rhode Island being the “birthplace of the Industrial Revolution,” and as the movement gathered speed, factories outgrew the local workforce and people seeking employment began to immigrate to the area, which includes Central Falls, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, East Providence, and other towns along the Blackstone River Watershed. “Those new to the country wanted some comfort,” says Toomey. “They looked for a way to maintain their heritage and be with their people.” And because nothing provides an opportunity to gather quite like a good meal, they opened restaurants.
“There are a lot of Mexican, Guatemalan, and Portuguese restaurants in Central Falls. Stanley’s was started by a Polish immigrant,” says Toomey of the popular hamburger joint founded in 1932. “Woonsocket restaurants are influenced by the French Canadian immigrants. There’s a huge Portuguese population in East Providence with restaurants so authentic that the Azorean president dined there.” These restaurants are small, comfortable, affordable, and generous. “I once ordered lunch at El Paisa,” Toomey continues. “They brought my meal and I thought, ‘Wow. That’s a lot of food.’ And then they brought over another plate!”
Toomey says that the area restaurants serve anything but watered-down, Americanized versions of traditional recipes. “It’s easy to lump cuisines together,” says Toomey. “You might think Mexican food is Mexican food, right? But the owners of Taqueria Lupita come from a different region of Mexico than the owners of Tuxpan Taqueria, and you can taste the regional difference.” Toomey challenges anyone who thinks they know guacamole to stop at La Casona and sample the Colombian version.
“Central Falls, in particular, is this cool, walkable area, and on Dexter Street you can find a different restaurant on every block,” says Toomey. “For the people who live and work here, it’s not just about owning a restaurant or making a lot of money – it’s about sharing their culture and feeding their community.”
Relatively new to the neighborhood is Bubble Waffle Cafe on 874 Dexter Street. The husband-and-wife owners always stopped scrolling when images of bubble waffle cones – overflowing with ice cream and topped with piles of whipped cream and fruit – appeared on their social media feed. The look of the Instagram-worthy treat drew them in, and they wondered if it would have the same effect on their neighbors. They began experimenting with batter recipes and hunting for the perfect location to open their own cafe – pausing briefly to also welcome their new baby. “We’re happy that when we started, we didn’t know how much work it would all be,” says Stephanie Munoz, who now is delighted with the success of her family business. “People in the neighborhood know us. We always see familiar faces, but every day there are new people.”
The cafe, which opened in September 2021, serves a variety of bubble waffle cones with pre-selected toppings, as well as build-your-own cones, crepes, milkshakes, and bubble tea. Munoz has seasonal favorites and says that although the crepes are a perfect cool-weather treat, the bubble waffle cones are summer show stoppers.
Other restaurants have been deeply ingrained in the fabric of Central Falls for decades. In 1976, Cesar Zuleta’s father took his family and fled to Central Falls to escape the violent cartels in Colombia. He took a job, but realized quickly that his entrepreneurial spirit wouldn’t allow him to work for anyone, so he bought a restaurant with a friend. That friend left the business, but El Paisa, on 598 Dexter Street, continued to grow under family ownership, eventually taking over an entire building and claiming its place as the first Colombian restaurant in Central Falls. Zuleta now co-owns the restaurant with his sister, Diana Rivera, who learned to cook from her father, while Zuleta did every chore imaginable in the restaurant growing up. “I got so sick of it,” he says. “I wanted to be a pilot.” But the family business pulled him back and today he proudly serves platters of delicious Colombian cuisine.
Zuleta says their Bandeja Colombian is a must-try menu item. It comes with a choice of meat, accompanied by salad, beans, rice, yucca, potatoes, bacon, bread, and sweet fried bananas. “We’re big eaters in Colombia,” Zuleta says with a laugh.
Bertina Ramos emigrated from Mexico to New York when she was just 16, nine years after her mother made the same journey. She married at 17, and she and her husband eventually made their way to Rhode Island, where they opened Taqueria Lupita on 765 Dexter Street in Central Falls. On the sign above their door is the picture of their now-grown daughter Lupita – one of four children – at nine months old. “She was already walking!” says Ramos with pride.
Ramos does all the cooking for their five-table restaurant, and her husband does all the chopping. Ramos’ recipes come from her grandmother’s kitchen, and she says diners can expect authentic food made with fresh, healthy ingredients. Her recipes are simple by design. “I cook for my restaurant what I’d cook for my family,” she says. And although the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, diners are welcome to bring their own. Check the restaurant’s Facebook page for updated hours – when Ramos finds an inexpensive flight, she and her husband never hesitate to take impromptu vacations. “I can do that because I’m retired!” she says and heads back into the kitchen to prepare for the dinner rush.
Not far away, on 1420 Broad Street in Pawtucket, Shark’s Peruvian Cuisine is one of the few Rhode Island restaurants where you can eat al fresco along the Blackstone River, and the restaurant’s paved double-decker patio offers beautiful views. Carlos Valverde’s parents opened one of the state’s first Peruvian restaurants, El Tiburon – the Spanish word for shark. When his parents retired and closed the restaurant, Valverde opened Shark’s Lounge in Pawtucket, then expanded into his current location during the pandemic lockdowns. Because of COVID-related delayed shipping, it took him a while to get started. “All my plates, forks, and knives come from Peru, and they got stuck in shipping containers at the ports,” he says. Even some of his cooking equipment comes from Peru, including a coal-operated rotisserie oven.
“My parents’ restaurant attracted a lot of families from all over, and I want to carry on that legacy,” says Valverde. “I have a lot of Peruvian customers, but the thing that brings me the most joy is serving people of other nationalities. I like being able to share my culture.”
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