EVANS MILLS — I got stuck behind a horse-drawn carriage in my search for authentic Puerto Rican food. But the carriage wasn’t the expected part of my recent trip to Evans Mills; it was Pan de Vida Café.
Located on Noble Street, across from the Stewart’s in the village, Pan de Vida is easy to miss. After all, the only sign at the restaurant so far is a banner hanging on the front patio railing, calling passers-by to “experience Puerto Rico without a plane ticket.”
As someone who has spent New Year’s Day in both hot San Juan and snowy Watertown, I can firmly attest to the fact that the two locales are quite different. Long story short, you still might want that plane ticket.
But in the meantime, Pan de Vida is there. On this particularly sunny weekday afternoon, I chose to sit outside on the front patio. There are only a few wrought iron tables out front, but my waitress said they plan on expanding to the sprawling side patio on the right side of the restaurant.
The restaurant had a soft opening of sorts a few months ago and began opening full-time only in April. In fact, when I chose to sit outside that afternoon, I was told I was the first customer to take advantage of the new outside seating. I like to think of myself as a trendsetter of sorts.
The menu is largely sandwiches and pastries, as the name (Pan de Vida translates to Bread of Life) would imply. There are also soups, appetizers, sides and a range of other desserts.
Looking to try a bit of everything, I went for one of the combo meals. The Triple S ($8.50) comes with a half sandwich, cup of chicken soup and choice of mac and cheese, fries or a small empanada. For those who want dessert, the Triple SD combo ($9.50) also comes with choice of cheese flan, a guava fruit-filled turnover or budin, similar to bread pudding.
Because I am one of those people who want dessert, I went for the big combo.
The components come out separately, making the meal feel like a fancy four-course lunch at a much more reasonable price. I went for the empanada, which is offered in different varieties such as beef, pork, pizza and my choice, corned beef and plantain.
Admittedly, I had no idea that corned beef was a staple of Latin food. But the corned beef used is not the brisket that comes vacuum-packed that you see in stores around St. Patrick’s Day. Rather, it’s a canned product that looks like Spam coming out of the can but once cooked, becomes a fine puree.
It may not be the corned beef I’m used to having in March, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less tasty. In fact, the salty beef paired well with the sweet plantain. Plantains looks like bananas, but peel back the skin and take a bite and I assure you that you’ll never get the two mixed up again. Plantain has a similar flavor, but is much starchier and has to be cooked.
I once had a deep-fried banana split at a county fair, with scoops of quickly melting vanilla ice cream perched on top of a split, deep-fried banana, all topped with chocolate syrup. It was a great experience.
Though this was certainly on the savory end of things, the hot, crisp crunch of the empanada shell, the familiar banana/plantain/long yellow fruit flavor and the meaty punch of the beef was a hit.
Next came the soup. It’s billed as “Puerto Rican Style” chicken soup and it was certainly not from a red and white can. The broth had a reddish tinge of spice, and the irregularly cut vegetables served as a pleasant reminder that the soup is homemade.
The noodles are spaghetti, which is sometimes a tough game to play to keep them from being overcooked. Overcooked pasta is not a fun game to play. But they played it well: The pasta was nicely cooked, retaining much of its firmness.
Along with the usual chicken soup cast of characters — onion, celery and carrots — there was some sliced green olive and tender chicken as well. The chicken was all white breast meat, which can sometimes turn to rubber when cooked too long, but here, it was just right. A solid second course.
Next came my sandwich. Aside from the A Caballo sandwich, which combines a corned beef patty (see what I said about the corned beef?) with sweet plantains, mayonnaise and American cheese and is available only as a whole sandwich, all the other sandwiches are included in the Triple SD combo deal.
Again, going back to my theory that combining meats is rarely a bad thing, I went for the pork and ham combination on the Cuban sandwich — or as it’s listed here, the “Cubano Despeinado”
Sometimes a Cuban pairs sliced roasted pork loin with the ham, but the pulled pork shoulder served up at Pan de Vida is a welcome change. Along with the thickly sliced ham, there’s dill pickle, Swiss cheese and a mayonnaise spread with mustard and paprika.
I do enjoy my Cubans, and this one is up at the top. I was worried that the mayo-mustard mix might not be sharp enough to stand out in the sandwich, but that fear was unwarranted. When I make myself a Cuban, I put on ungodly amounts of cheese, which is delicious, by the way. The normal amount of cheese on this sandwich was delicious, too, though.
I probably could have gone for another half, but I was quickly reminded that I had dessert on the way. Ever since my trips to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, I’ve really liked guava, so I went with the flaky pastry filled with a sweet but tart guava paste.
(On a side note, I used to think I didn’t like guava because of the slimy dark seeds in the middle, and I spurned them for the longest time — until I realized I was confusing guava with papaya. For the record, I’ll eat papaya, but the seeds still weird me out a little bit.)
From what I was told by my waitress, people either love guava or hate it. I, for one, have never felt strong hatred toward a type of fruit, and with guava’s tart flavor — a mix between a pear and a kiwi — I’m not about to start now.
All and all, the food was great. I even bought a different guava-filled pastry for the road, though that one was larger and filled with both the guava and a sweet cream filling better than any Boston crème doughnut.
But what really stood out was the friendly service and great environment. I was the only customer there at the time, but even if I wasn’t, I feel like my waitress and the owner of the restaurant still would have found the time to come over for a quick chat. When my waitress asked how each course was, it seemed like a genuine question rather than rehearsed routine.
For those wishing to brush up on their knowledge of Puerto Rico, each inside table is issued the name of a Puerto Rican city, with a history of the city and the country as a whole printed out, waiting for eager eyes — or hungry eyes — anxious for the food to arrive. There wasn’t a history sheet on my outdoor table, so I felt like I missed out a bit on the unexpected history lesson, but I’ll manage.
Pan de Vida is a partner with Watertown’s own Puerto Rican restaurant, A Lo Boricua, which won the Golden Taste award at this year’s Taste of the Town. A great pedigree indeed.
I’d recommend one of the combo meals, as it’s a good price and gives you a taste of everything. All the sandwiches looked great, and if it’s a sandwich on your mind, I’d pick half of one type of sandwich and half of another. Pan de Vida is one of the few restaurants I’ve been to where a half portion is actually half the price, which is great for the indecisive eaters like me, who can’t pick just one.
Rating: 4 spoons, for great food and even better service in an unexpected locale.
Pan de Vida Café
8727 Noble St.
11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday