Sampling Central Falls with the Mayor
A Big Edible Adventure in Rhode Island’s Smallest City
It takes some patience when exploring the streets of Central Falls with James Diossa. You have to be ready for frequent stops as city residents of all ages seek to engage him in conversation.
“Is there anyone who doesn’t know you in Central Falls?” I ask him.
“I’m sure there are some people,” says the self-effacing Diossa, the city’s second-term mayor, who just turned 30 in August.
The mayor has kindly offered to introduce me to some his city’s culinary wonders and his favorite food haunts. We’ve got a packed itinerary that includes eating at five of the city’s Latino restaurants—two on one day and three on another. Shortly after noon, the mayor; Blake Collins, the city’s business outreach coordinator, who served as our driver; and I leave City Hall to begin the first day of our adventures. I’m just hoping I’ve got room for all the good food to come.
“I prefer to keep my dining dollars here in Central Falls,” Diossa says, noting how both delicious and relatively inexpensive the food can be in Rhode Island’s smallest city. Although Central Falls has an array of dining options—including burgers and bar food, Chinese and Italian—we agreed to restrict ourselves to Mexican and South American options, in a nod to Diossa’s Colombian heritage and the city’s large Latino population.
With more than 60% of Central Falls’ 19,000 residents identifying as Latino, Central Falls is a bilingual city, one where the City Hall’s signs and notices are in English and Spanish. The state’s youngest mayor manages an annual city budget of slightly more than $18 million.
Central to America’s Industrial Revolution, the city used to be a manufacturing hub for textiles and even chocolate. According to the mayor, “Central Falls has no large industry anymore; it’s mostly ‘mom and pop’ stores. Our unemployment rate is about 11%, compared to an overall statewide unemployment rate of a little under 6%.”
Despite its economic challenges, Central Falls is an ideal destination for those who relish tasty and modestly priced Mexican and South American cuisine. The Blackstone River and an adjacent bike path, which run through this one-square-mile town, also offer verdant space for canoeists, kayakers, bicyclists and joggers.
Born in Central Falls to Colombian immigrants, Diossa was a high school soccer star before attending Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he majored in criminal justice. Eager to contribute to his community, Diossa returned home to work for The College Crusade of Rhode Island, a college-readiness and scholarship program for students in low-income urban school districts.
In 2009, at age 24, Diossa became the city’s youngest City Council member; after serving two terms he ran a successful mayoral campaign and was sworn into office in January 2013. With economic development a key issue, Mayor Diossa led Central Falls during its recovery from bankruptcy.
Although both Diossa’s parents prepared traditional Colombian meals when he was growing up, he never learned how to cook; to this day, he stays out of the kitchen. At home, he’ll make a wrap or a salad and call it a day. His favorite Colombian meal is a typical dish of rice, plantains, beans, potatoes and beef.
We begin our food tour at Taqueria Lupita, a small Mexican restaurant that has been serving tamales, enchiladas and other traditional dishes for 13 years.
The dining area, which shields customers from the kitchen’s bustle with colorful serapes, is adorned with sombreros and statues of baby Jesus and the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe. Owners Eladio and Bertina Ramos often have help from their adult children, Guadalupe and Emmanuel.
Tacos, burritos, chile rellenos and chicken mole are among customers’ favorites, says Guadalupe, and vegan and vegetarian dishes are also available.
Guadalupe, whose favorite dish is her mother’s mole (pronounced MO-lay), says, “In Mexico, mole—traditionally made with turkey—is for special events. Here, it’s more of an everyday food, and [my mother] makes it with chicken.”
A squeeze of lime and crunchy red radish were ideal accompaniments to the tacos de carne ensaladas, open-faced, grilled corn tortillas, which were loaded with diced beef and onion and sprinkled with cilantro. As we consume the small, yet filling, tacos, Diossa says, “I’ve converted many of my Taco Bell–eating friends to eating here, where the tacos are cheaper, fresher and better.”
Diossa, who sometimes holds lunch meetings here, says, “I grew up one street over; this was my ward when I was on the City Council.”
What should people know about the restaurant that Jairo Echeverry and his sister-in-law, Kelly Echeverry, launched three summers ago?
“The food is awesome,” Jairo laughs, “[and] we love food and take care of everyone … like family.”
Although Jairo is Colombian, the restaurant—with a map and flag of Venezuela—serves Venezuelan food. With an expansive menu written above the open kitchen, people can place their order and watch the cooks, while jazzy Latin music plays. Other than plantains, arepitas and yucca fries, most of their food is grilled.
Customers are encouraged to get creative by customizing menu items; we wolf down our cachapa, one that Diossa created: The grilled sweet corn pancake is layered with shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains and cheese. Although Jairo consistently encourages the mayor to try different dishes, he’s been unsuccessful—until this visit—when he also serves an arepita, with pulled pork, tomato, avocado and cheese.
Diossa is pleased to learn that Budare Grille now delivers (for online orders only and within a two-mile radius—reaching “almost to Blackstone Boulevard in Providence”). As we return to City Hall, the mayor agrees with my decision to forego dinner and maybe even the next day’s breakfast, given how much we’ve consumed.
Our next adventure begins at Lleras (pronounced JAY-ras) Grille, which promises “authentic Spanish flavor.” Owned by business partners Gustavo Deossa and Sandra Cano since June 2014 and tucked into a tiny strip mall, the restaurant serves traditional Colombian food, including one of the mayor’s favorites, the Lleras Platter, which comes with shrimp, chicken or beef.
“I love cooking and watching people enjoy my food,” says Deossa, whose aunt, Mary Diosa, also waits tables.
We begin with a huge platter of four different marranitas: Fried plantains, coleslaw, potato chips and a red sauce (salsa rosada) were layered on corn pancakes. Different proteins— shredded chicken, beef strips, bacon and Columbian sausage—topped off the marranitas. Who knew that potato chips are added to Colombian snacks and entrees? (I didn’t!) The combination of saltiness, sweetness and crunchiness is surprisingly tasty.
The mayor offers me a taste of his meal— chicken with salsa rosada and pineapple sauce, which is unexpectedly sweet, accompanied by fried plantains and a hardboiled quail egg.
Large wood-framed mirrors make the redwalled restaurant seem larger, and customers can choose high-backed booths, cocktail tables or traditional four-top tables. The ubiquitous wall-mounted TV airs Spanishlanguage shows, and the open grill is hidden behind a back booth.
We are already full but also determined, so we proceed onward.
In April 2015, brothers Eduardo and Samuel Lones, of El Salvador, bought the restaurant, lively with vivid orange and yellow booths. High ceilings and artificial brick walls are decorated with sombreros, the Salvadoran flag and original art works.
Customers eat at booths or simple tables covered with yellow tablecloths and red placemats.
Restaurante Montecristo offers traditional Mexican favorites—chile relleños and enchiladas— as well as less familiar items—fried yucca and pork and paisa beans (frijoles paisa). The ordering is delegated to me so I choose a platter of fried pork, fried plantains, a fried egg, rice and red beans. Piping hot tortillas also accompany the carbohydrate- rich meal.
Here again, we fail to clean our plates, given the “super-sized” helpings. Hating to waste food, I ask to take home the leftovers.
Open for breakfast, Restaurante Montecristo also serves hamburgers, chicken wings and chicken fingers for those who prefer American fare.
Too full to eat another entrée, I suggest a bakery as the final stop on our culinary tour.
LA SORPRESA BAKERY
More than a bakery, La Sorpresa Bakery offers Colombian fast food for breakfast, lunch, dinner and handmade Colombian pastries. With no printed menus, what you see is what you get: Desserts are displayed in glass cases, as are the entrées, which are kept warm under heat lamps.
Adriana Moncada and her husband, Hernan Florez, have owned the restaurant/bakery for 19 years, though not always in this location. With generic built-in booths and fixed seating and an expansive parking lot, it’s clear this was once a fast-food franchise. Ceramic roosters, Spanish-language TV and a diverse array of packaged ethnic sweets, snacks and bottled drinks add local color.
As Diossa chats with Florez, I quiz Moncada’s daughter, Natalie Muñoz, about their offerings. Chicken and beef empanadas and the chicharrón (pork) are popular savory items, as is the hot sauce (aji) that the family makes from scratch and sells in individual containers.
Cheese bread (pan de queso), a sweet corn cake and a turnover (encarcelado) filled with caramel, guava and cheese all were tempting but I choose only one. The encarcelado turned out to be delicious, with all the rich, buttery flakiness of a croissant and a blend of sweet flavors inside. The fillings kept it fresh and appetizing, even a day later, when I could finally eat again.
As we prepare to return to City Hall, I express my thanks to Mayor Diossa, who took time away from his regular mayoral duties for our dining adventures, and Collins, whose heartfelt desire to strengthen and support the people and businesses of Central Falls was clear. The restaurant owners represent the best of American entrepreneurship, and I will long remember their warm welcomes to us … and their delicious food.
Sampling Central Falls
716 Dexter St.
723 Broad St.
1252 Broad St.
804 Broad St.
765 Dexter St.
Many of these restaurants offer beer and/or wine and some deliver. All accept cash and credit cards. For more information about other Latin American restaurants in Central Falls and around the state, visit RILatinoArts.org/Restaurants.